To Run Aground

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Last month, while on my way to 7 Bungalows, a neighbourhood in Bombay’s northern suburb of Andheri, I stuck my head out of the rickshaw as we were momentarily caught up in traffic at Juhu Beach. Just a week earlier, on June 12th, a large merchant ship, charmingly named MV Wisdom, had run aground. A faint drizzle nimbly animated the monsoon skies and I wiped my glasses clean on my T-Shirt to look out at the enormous ship and the several people gathered on the beach. They ate chaat and ice creams and gawked at the derelict, wretched old vessel, none the wiser to its impending fate. The unmanned giant was being tugged from Colombo to a ship-breaking yard on the coast of Gujarat. Its demise was imminent.

News reports mentioned that the vessel had inadvertently broken free from its grim escort, and as it set adrift in the then perturbed waters and inclement weather, it narrowly missed colliding into the Bandra-Worli Sea Link bridge – Bombay’s latest showpiece. It however remained fortuitously adrift enough to not rudely bump into the city’s latest public display of inept governance and poor planning, but instead lumbered on to the iconic Juhu Chowpatty, with what one can imagine to be, ponderous fatigue corroded over many seafaring years, and a groan like none other.

These were the scenes to be seen:

As the traffic eased and I suggested to the rickshaw driver that we move on, he commented in response: “bechara, kho gaya, dard hota hain usko dekh key” (poor fellow, he’s lost, painful to see him). Did he too share, along with the many poets, writers, and artists, perhaps even some of the ice cream slurping tourists, the peculiar melancholia associated to such a visually arresting sight? Did he too feel somewhat sad for the accidental littoral tenant, the big lug who got lost at sea, much like the feeble minded, disoriented granddad who has once again wandered into the town square in his pajamas, drawstring dangling? Did he too sense that the presence of death is never too far away?

James Elroy Flecker concludes The Old Ships with these elegiac lines…

It was so old a ship – who knows, who knows?

– And yet so beautiful, I watched in vain

To see the mast burst open with a rose,

And the whole deck put on its leaves again.

As the clouds darkened further and the rickshawallah enclosed the passenger seat with canvas wraps, my mind recalled a book that evoked dark mystery and a very unsettling sense of foreboding. It had been many years since I had last read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and it was as I recalled the mysterious Russian schooner, bereft of crew save for the lone dead man ‘lashed to the helm’, which had run aground at Whitby in North Yorkshire, that the literary notions of disquiet, lurking danger and unkind waters (particularly in maritime prose & poetry) swam about in my mind with whimsy and imprecision. In Dracula, the lead up and the onset of the tempest predisposes the reader to great unease.

A little after midnight came a strange sound from over the sea, and high overhead the air began to carry a strange, faint hollow booming.

Then without warming the tempest broke. With a rapidity which, at the time, seemed incredible, and even afterwards is impossible to realize, the whole aspect of nature at once became convulsed…It was found necessary to clear the entire piers from the mass of onlookers, or else the fatalities of the night would have been increased manifold.

Land and Sea. The psychological narratives that both separate the two and link them are rife with all manner of symbolic meaning. From the very notion of the journey, leaving the shores, the vessel, the misleading calm waters, the pleasant skies, the uneasy crew, and the passage itself – they all provide rich metaphor.

What then did the unsure passengers of the first ship Lalla Rukha, of indentured migrant workers, (Thomas Moore’s ‘Oriental Romance’ frame tale of 1817, and Auranzeb’s daughter’s name is Lalla Rookh) which reached Paramaribo in the then Dutch Guiana on 5th June 1873, make of their impending passage? More than twenty percent of the first emigrants in the following two years perished both during voyage and on the plantations. The manner in which several unknowing people were hoarded together at the Garden Reach Depot in Calcutta, and other sub Depots in other cities/towns across India, is poignantly and elegantly recorded in the personal memories of Alice Bhagwandy Sital Persaud (1892 – 1958).

The Story goes that Papa with his brother, his aunt and other relatives were on their way to a pilgrimage, when they got separated in the large crowd. Mai, Papa and two other members of the family were together. They soon found “kind”? people to help them to find their lost relatives! Well the four of them found themselves after days, at the emigration depot at Calcutta. There they were promised a life of milk and honey in a new land. Well there was nothing for them to do but accept the proposal. On board Mai asked for her two other relatives, she was told that they were in another ship, Of course they were going somewhere else.

In a wonderful essay, Beyond the Dead White Whales: Literature of the Sea and Maritime History (International Journal of Maritime History, XXII, No. 1, June 2010, 205-228), the author Lincoln Paine brings up Auden’s work The Enchafed Flood, in a discussion of representational transition from the classical to the romantic, wherein, Auden in turn, refers to Shakespearean ‘negative’ ideas of the sea. Fraught with danger, the sea is unwelcome and journeying is but with reluctance: “…the putting to sea, the wandering is never voluntarily entered upon as a pleasure”. The Iberian view, particularly with regard to their century old seafaring zeal (by the 1700s), Paine continues to discuss while critiquing Auden, was somewhat different:

Vasco da Gama’s voyage is not a sacrifice but a destiny for the “triumphant” Portuguese. Nor does Camões share Auden’s binary view of the sea, “that state of barbaric vagueness and disorder out of which civilization has emerged,” and the land, the place of “the City or the Garden… where people want and ought to be.” In Camões’s view, both elements are suspect:

On the sea, such storms and perils
That death, many times, seemed imminent;
On the land, such battle and intrigue
Such dire, inevitable hardships!
Where may frail humanity shelter
Briefly, in some secure port,
Where the bright heavens cease to vent their rage
On such insects on so small a stage

To run aground symbolises a failure of completion, an incomplete journey. The metaphoric passage, one perhaps ‘of cleansing’, is interrupted. It suggests then feebleness, a failure of courage, character and fortitude. It suggests disease and resignation. A successful completion – yeh aag ka dariya hain, hamein doob key jaana hai (a common trope in Bhakti/Syncretic Sufism: this is a sea of fire, we must swim through it)– represents many layers of success, from the taming of inner demons to a spiritual victory. The sea, the water, with its dangerous currents and cunning undertows, the fogs and mists that rise from the fierce waves, its alluring froth, must necessarily be crossed. Symbolic drowning, like in Hippolyte Bayard’s Le Noyé, represents exactly that – a critical passage on to self-realisation. An awakening, a rebirth. A baptism.

Auden’s own words, eerily prophetic at times (September 1st 1939here’s a reading by Dylan Thomas), also explore these darker associations, alluding in particular to human folly. Oftentimes, we run ourselves aground. Rather than sudden storms or raging currents, it is instead our own foolhardy choices that lead us astray. We fail to steer judiciously; we instead do exactly the opposite. We steer our way to collision, to conflict and war with ‘Ships of Fools’ (here’s that Erasure song). These words are found in Auden’s Atlantis:

If later, you run aground
Among the headlands of Thrace,
Where with torches all night long
A naked barbaric race
Leaps frenziedly to the sound
Of conch and dissonant gong;
On that stony savage shore
Strip off your clothes and dance, for
Unless you are capable
Of forgetting completely
About Atlantis, you will
Never finish your journey.

The mysterious schooner on which Count Dracula travels to England, the Demeter, tossed about by great waves and “with all sails set” rushed to the harbour with great speed and “pitched herself on that accumulation of sand and gravel washed by many tides and many storms…”

What would it have sounded like, over the ‘roar of the tempest’, as it rushed in and settled on the sandy beach at Whitby?

There was of course a considerable concussion as the vessel drove up on the sand-heap.

Here is a great video of MV Swan (a fabulous name for a large hulk of a merchant ship) that ran aground at Midani Beach in Balochistan a couple of years ago.

The Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s great work too faces dire hardship brought on by his reckless slaying of the albatross. Bearing its corpse around his neck, the Mariner ponders his guilt:

Ah! Well a-day! What evil looks,

Had I from old and young!

Instead of the cross, the albatross

About my neck was hung.

They then encounter a ghost ship with Death on board. The Mariner, forced into a deadly game of dice, loses the lives of his crew.

The ghost ship is yet another fascinating device. From high literature, folk tales, to popular cinema, its presence is seldom met with indifference.

Aside from legendary Chinese junks, The Flying Dutchman, The HMS Euridyce, there is also The Palatine (or the Princess Augusta), said to be a Dutch ship carrying migrants from Germany that ran aground off Block Island, near the coast of Rhode Island. Mutinous crew, crazed captains, possessed women passengers – many myths have evolved to explain sightings of the burning ship. The Saturday between Christmas and New Year’s apparently, is the date this ghost ship is generally sighted. In John Greenleaf Whitier’s poem The Palatine, these lines appear:

Do the elements subtle reflections give?

Do pictures of all the ages live

On Nature's infinite negative,

Which, half in sport, in malice half,

She shows at times, with shudder or laugh,

Phantom and shadow in photograph?

In the aforementioned essay on maritime literature, Lincoln Paine also mentions early examples of maritime writing in the Jatakas, which date back to the 3rd Century BCE. In one, the Samkha-Jataka, Samkha, a generous philanthropist decides to journey to Suvarnabhumi to earn more once his wealth is exhausted. En route though, the ship runs into troubled waters:

After a week at sea, the ship began to leak, but while “the multitude trembling for the fear of death, invoked each his own god and created a great noise,” Samkha prepares himself and his servant for the loss of the ship. After seven days, the two are saved by the goddess of the sea, Manimekalai, who provides a ship filled with seven kinds of precious stones in which the bodhisattva and his servant return to Molini with the goddess herself as pilot.

Alluding also to the Mahajana-Jataka, the writer points out to an interesting commonality in the shipwreck narratives – how the bodhisattvas prepare to survive the sinking vessels. Mahajanaka, for instance,

…never wept nor lamented nor invoked any deities, but knowing that the vessel was doomed he rubbed some sugar and ghee [clarified butter], and, having eaten his belly full, he smeared his two clean garments with oil and put them tightly around him and stood leaning against the mast. When the vessel sank the mast stood upright. The crowd on board became food for the fishes and tortoises, and the water all around assumed the colour of blood.

The sea is the ultimate test. Some survive, others don’t. Bahut kathin hai dagar panghat ki (the crossing is very difficult).

Over the last one year, from mid 2010 till a few months back, I lost several friends. Spread over different parts of the world, a few here in Bombay, each bit of sad news came with strange missives and uneasy undercurrents. Two friends, young and talented, most certainly ran themselves aground. One’s life was cut short tragically and mysteriously. Similarly one other, in another country – the circumstances of whose passing are bare. And yet another, a mentor, passed away peacefully in her home after a rich life of generosity, friendship, and professional accomplishments.

On my way back from my meeting, as I again looked at the tourists and the forlorn vagrant at Juhu beach, my thoughts went to those who had passed on.

I end here with this peculiar, somewhat disconcerting video (particularly at 2 mins)