Drama at sea

Print edition : January 10, 2014

Adrift: A True Story of Survival at Sea, By V. Sudarshan, Hachette India, Pages: 173, Price: Rs.399.

View of the beach at Port Blair, a favourite destination for foreign tourists. Photo: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

In a sense the book is a metaphor: to survive is the only meaningful action possible when man confronts the ferocity of nature.

AWAY from the sea, on the mainland, in the bustling, frenetic urban existence particularly, the word adrift connotes a sense of alienation, a life bereft of any meaning, lived without any purpose. In V. Sudarshan’s book Adrift though, a motley band of six people, from different cultures, are drifting rudderless in the sea in a dinghy, but their minds are focussed sharply on surviving long enough for their luck to turn, for someone to discover and rescue them. In this sense, Adrift is a metaphor: to live, to survive, is the only meaningful action possible for man as he confronts the ferocity of nature.

Nature, obviously, is not always ferocious, as it is not in the opening pages of Adrift. Camille Pascal and Bruno Beauregard, two foreign tourists vacationing in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, are taken out in a dinghy by its owner, Commander Avtar Singh Baath, a former Indian Navy officer, for scuba diving off Port Blair. Aboard are three others—Rama Rao Sr, who is the helmsman; his relative and helper, Rama Rao Jr; and Himanshu Malik, who was not scheduled to be on the diving trip but decided to join them at the last minute. They sail early in the morning and meander their way to Sir Hugh Rose Island, where the tourists dive and shoot photographs underwater.

In the afternoon, a sunny, warm day segues into an overcast sky: thick dark clouds roll in, thundering and unleashing a storm. In the rapidly deteriorating light the dinghy is set on the course to Port Blair. But misfortune throws its bait through a school of whales that surfaces to spout. Eager to photograph them, Bruno has the helmsman take the dinghy as close to the whales as possible. Soon they are going in circles chasing the whales, leaving them disoriented about the direction to Port Blair. A prickly debate later, a course is chosen again. As the beam from the lighthouse at Port Blair is not sighted even after the dinghy cuts through the sea in ferment for four or five hours, they realise they are lost.

They remain lost for the next seven days and nights, without food and with very little water, and when they run out of diesel, they are compelled to erect a makeshift sail. They have no clue where the wind is taking them, certain though they are that it is away from India. Forty-eight hours later, the elements have vented their fury: the sun comes out, the sea is calm, even serene, and they drift, at times imperceptibly, at times not at all. Through the ordeal their hopes wax and wane, and hunger and thirst begin to alter relationships and threaten to shatter the hierarchy of power which had existed at the beginning of the trip.

Indeed, it is this human drama that is the most charming aspect of Adrift. In the dinghy, tensions between classes and cultures play out. Often culture and class overlap. Baath, the two Rama Raos, and Himanshu are Indian, as against the two foreigners. Yet class divides the Indians: Baath and the foreigners not only share middle-class sensibilities, but they talk in English, a language the remaining three, belonging to the subaltern group, cannot understand. The social arrangement, underlying which is the unequal distribution of power, is not allowed to collapse even as the six lurch from one crisis to another. There is also an echo of that perennial debate: should we trust the supposed superiority of technology over knowledge gained from experience?

The extreme trust in technology is the reason that, to begin with, the dinghy veers away from its course. With the visibility extremely poor and no land mass to guide him, Rama Rao Sr depends on his experience of the sea to decide on the route to take. But Bruno has a compass; he believes technology cannot fail. The compass tells him Port Blair lies in another direction. A debate ensues between them. Commander Baath decides in favour of the compass, which had not been recalibrated and tested for a while. Why did Baath, despite his doubts, decide to go by the compass? Was it because of his faith in the superiority of technology? Or was it because he was apprehensive that Bruno might be proved right and his helmsman wrong? This would have been embarrassing for a man whose services the foreign tourists had hired. In the narrative there is no convincing answer provided: human motives constructed in hindsight can rarely ever provide convincing answers. But this is precisely where the book’s charm lies. Belonging to the genre of writing popularly known as dramatised non-fiction, which combines the journalist’s penchant for details with the imagination of the novelist, Adrift leaves it to the reader to decide.

The author does not even allude to class or cultural tensions in the dinghy, or interpret them. These tensions are there as subtext. For instance, in the initial hours of the ordeal both Bruno and Camille remain aloof from the others. They do not even offer them a banana though hunger begins to bite them all and instead choose to share it between themselves. Is it because of the attribute of selfishness often assigned to Western culture in our imagining of it? Nevertheless, their bonding breaks down as Bruno’s compass is found to have malfunctioned. It is only then Baath is spoken to directly by Camille who, until then, had conveyed her feelings and thoughts through Bruno.

Bruno seems to have an intuitive understanding of how the class system operates in India. As the water supply on the dinghy is depleted, Baath decides to filter and collect rainwater in the six diving tanks after letting out oxygen from them. Bruno wants only three to be filled. Why? Bruno is frank: “Where we are headed there are a lot of pirates. We have diving equipment on board…. If we should encounter them then the three of us can go underwater—you, me and Camille.” To Baath’s question what about the other three, Bruno shrugs his shoulders. “That’s unfair,” says Baath, promptly ordering the opening up of all six tanks.

It is honourable of Baath to have turned down Bruno’s proposal. Yet, as Camille draws closer to Baath—and away from Bruno—their class affinity too gets knitted into the relationship. This becomes evident on the night Rama Rao Jr catches a bird that happens to perch on the dinghy’s frame and wants to roast and eat it. Camille tells Baath, “There is no way we are going to kill this poor bird.”

It sounds like an order from a person certain about her status and perhaps habituated to others obeying her. Baath intercedes on her behalf and dissuades Rao from killing the bird. His ostensible scientific argument—a morsel of meat will make him hungrier even further—does not convince Rao, who, in his desperation, accuses Baath of spinning a yarn at Camille’s behest. The commander, quite cynically, exploits Rao’s belief in superstition. “The bird is a sign of good luck,” Baath says, succeeding in having the bird set free.

Rescue mission

Again, on the eighth day, as the dinghy is spotted and a rescue mission is mounted, the notion of class privileges comes into play. As the chopper hovers over the dinghy and the harness is lowered, it is assumed that the first three to be evacuated will be Camille, Bruno and Baath. You can fathom the first two choices—they are foreign tourists and consequently guests of India. But you would have thought Baath, as the dinghy’s skipper, would have sent one of the three other Indians on the flight.

This is not to say that Baath is insensitive and indifferent to his Indian comrades. His is a tough task—he has to ensure fights do not break out on the dinghy, think of ingenious ways to keep all alive, and ensure they work as a team to draw the attention of a passing ship or plane. Adrift has the edginess of adventure stories, sharp enough to make you want to return to the unfolding drama on the sea in those few chapters in which the author moves away to the mainland to dig into the past of his characters to explain why they are who they are and how their fates became weaved together. Their fight for survival is yet another proof of the profound truth that Ernest Hemingway alludes to in his classic The Old Man and the Sea: “Man can be destroyed but never defeated.”

The author is a Delhi-based journalist. Email: ashrafajaz3@gmail.com

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