08 July 2011

Gitanjali Dang: Goodbye to the ship called Wisdom

In her wake, the cargo vessel leaves a lesson for Mumbai on the power of mass susceptibility

Torn bedsheets masquerading as picnic mats were spread out on what was once sand, all across the beach there were great mountains of refuse; fried food and Milton thermoses emerged from tatty bags, evening tea was poured into flimsy plastic cups.

Like a post-apocalyptic retelling of Édouard Manet’s famed 1863 painting "The Luncheon on the Grass" (Le déjeuner sur l'herbe), this is a scene from under the hypnotic shadow of MV Wisdom on Mumbai’s Juhu Beach.

Wisdom, a decommissioned cargo vessel hailing from Singapore, was being towed from Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, to the shipbreaking yard in Alang-Bhavnagar, Gujarat when the cable connecting it to the tug vessel snapped and the ship got stranded off Juhu Beach.

Who can think of amusement in such chaos?

Starting June 11, over a period of 20 days, thousands marched in purposefully from all over to see the 145- meter-long beast weighing 9,000 tonnes. While some stood before her for several minutes and appeared transfixed by her stillness, others sidled up to her by swimming to her and touching her.

How can you explain this in normal terms?

On this point, the city itself was largely divided in two.

One section could not resist asserting themselves by making smug "wisdom" puns and suchlike at every given opportunity. While the other faction went completely lemming over the ship.

A giant ship has arrived. This mysterious creature from the sea has come from the far-out oceans.

This is not the first time a ship has drifted uninvited into the Mumbai littoral; we have an erratically documented history of beachings and shipwrecks.

One of the earliest wrecks around these parts dates back to 6th century AD; archaeologist S R Rao has written about the wreckage of a Roman vessel in the waters off Elephanta Island.

Mumbai is a harbor city, but its citizenry rarely gets to see anything that would match the scale of the Wisdom up-close. There are two reasons for this.

First, by the mid-1960s air travel rendered interminable voyages by ship passé. When the occasional cruise liner visited Mumbai, she docked at Ballard Pier.

But following the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the walls went up around Ballard Pier and sealed off the entire waterfront.

So it wasn’t as though the common man had enjoyed unlimited access to Mumbai Port Trust land even if its presence meant that there was shipping traffic.

In 1992, when an endlessly growing city occasioned the establishment of the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust in Nhava Sheva, Navi Mumbai, even this concealed traffic was lost to the north.

Still, it is, as yet, hard to believe, that a stranded ship could have elicited such high levels of curiosity in an inordinately fast and busy city such as ours where distractions such as television, Bollywood and cricket abound.

As this rather confounding drama unfolded throughout June, Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr’s masterful film "Werckmeister Harmonies" (2000) -- an allegory of facism -- kept coming back to me.

In the film, a travelling circus visits a beat-up, derelict and bitterly cold Hungarian town and the stuffed carcass of a whale is their headlining act.

In the shadows lurks a disfigured Prince, forever unseen. A sinister rabble-rouser, Prince is committed to terror, ruin and massacre.

As the crowds wait impatiently for a glimpse of the whale, tensions grow and the Prince’s destructive visions find fulfilment when the mob becomes unhinged and ravishes the town. 

The parallels between the whale and ship, both creatures of the sea, were waiting to be drawn.

We had our ship, just as the anonymous Hungarian town had its whale. Our ominous Prince was absent though.

The sheeple syndrome, however, was alarmingly evident.

With our political track record of wily, rabble-rousing crackpots, it would not have been entirely unforeseeable to have a white-clothed Baba of one variety or another stand up on the beach claiming he was the son of the seas and that the ship was his to have.

The Wisdom episode is one in a line of many. Incidents that clearly show how the masses continue to be seduced and hectored by, among other things, the vapid prolixity of media, the lethal parochialism of right-wing politics and the inane novelty of bigness and shininess and rhetoric.

If anomie -- a lack of standards for group social behavior -- spreads faster than the rust of Wisdom we have much to worry about.

After two failed attempts Wisdom was finally hauled out to sea on July 2.

Note: All italicised text has been appropriated from the English subtitles of "Werckmeister Harmonies," released by Artificial Eye.

Source: By Gitanjali Dang. 7 July 2011

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