Most heroes are accidental. It is the establishment that decides who should be celebrated and who must be relegated to obscurity. Survival in extreme circumstances boils down to sheer luck, as well as the difficulty in giving up the habit of living. As per anthropologists, the duty of human beings is to survive, thrive and multiply, everything else being glorified baloney. Anyone who bears the tedium of routine life and ekes out an existence is a hero in his own right.
We are focussed here on the story of a Colombian sailor who had fallen overboard and disappeared from the destroyer Caldas, along with seven other mates, during a storm in the Caribbean Sea. The ship was travelling from Mobile, Alabama, where it had docked for repairs, to the Colombian port of Cartagena. Official search was given up after four days. A week later, however, one of them turned up half-dead on a deserted beach in northern Colombia, having survived ten days without food or water on a drifting life-raft.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez sat on his desk at the El Espectador on a fine day in 1955, when in walked the surviving sailor, Luis Alejandro Velasco, and demanded that the story of his survival at sea be properly heard and written down. Velasco had by then become the toast of Columbia, a national hero, a rage across newspapers and a huge draw as an endorser of products. What more did he have to say on the saga that he had already not said or sold a hundred times over?
The editor initially turned down Velasco, then for some reason, changed his mind and commissioned Marquez to pen down the whole story. The survivor and the reporter sat together for ten days, six hours a day, and the whole account, discussed threadbare down to the last detail, was published in fourteen columns in the subsequent days. The account was in the first person, duly signed by Luis Velasco. It was not until 1970 that Marquez lent his name to these writings, when it was finally published in the form of a book. Today it is considered as one of the finest books that the Nobel laureate of 1982 ever wrote.
It would be a travesty to call this adventure as ‘heroic’. Even the sailor admitted that he had survived because ‘dying was not a choice’. You cannot just give up living, and hope that death shall embrace you. The latter doesn’t follow the former. In other words, after a point in time, carrying on the life-raft without food and water for ten days felt easier than quitting! But what Luis Velasco did further was really audacious by mortal standards.
He confessed through the columns that there was no great storm, and that their naval destroyer was carrying contraband cargo and the whole accident, in which eight of his mates lost their lives, occurred due to cargo overloading. The ship had tossed violently by the wind in the heavy seas, had spilled its ill-secured cargo and the eight sailors overboard. This turned the Colombia government against Marquez, who was forced to leave the country and work as a foreign correspondent. Reprisals against the newspaper followed, which forced its shutdown after some months. Valesco had to leave the Navy, and disappeared into quiet, ordinary life, shorn of the heroism imposed upon him by unusual circumstances.
The novella is remembered for its beautiful descriptions by the sailor of the first night and the first dawn at sea, after he had found himself alone in the vastness. He had found a raft, but did not feel secure inside it for the bottom remained underwater. He looked at Ursa Minor to keep company. “It is impossible to describe a night on a life raft, when nothing happens and you’re scared of unseen creatures and you’ve got a watch with a glowing dial that you can’t stop checking even for a minute.” He did not sleep, didn’t want to, and longed to spot ship lights, so that he could yell and draw attention.
“Dawn did not break slowly, as it does on land. The sky turned pale, and the first stars disappeared, and I went on looking, first at my watch and then at the horizon. The contours of the sea began to appear. When dawn came, nothing else mattered. I thought neither of water nor of food. I hadn’t slept a wink, but it felt at that moment that I had just awakened. When I stretched out in the raft my bones ached and my skin burned. But the day was brilliant and warm, and the murmur of the wind picking up gave me a new strength to continue waiting. And I felt profoundly composed in the life raft. For the first time in my twenty years of life, I was perfectly happy.”
The sailor talks about imagined friends and horrors of solitude, hunger and heat, shark fins and sea gulls, shoes and shores, turtles and business cards, struggle and survival, and yet his final triumph culminating into the survival carries a lot of poignancy. Given up as dead and left to fend for himself, he had tasted freedom in the truest sense in the middle of the sea. But once he reached the shore, he was pulled back into servitude and attempts were made to chain him, and even present him as a prized monkey in the circus of national life. How the ship-wrecked sailor attempted to break these chains, and managed to vanish into the freedom of obscurity makes for an inspiring story, which must be savoured.
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