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Sunday, May 31, 2020

How does the mind change when subjected to extreme solitude?

A naval officer on contemplating life and finding an ally in forgetfulness when he sailed around the world alone

Written by Abhilash Tomy | Updated: May 3, 2020 2:43:38 pm
solitude, naval officer Source: getty images

When the nationwide lockdown was announced to contain the spread of COVID-19, I was aware that even if the logistics of providing for 1.3 billion people in their homes could be managed, there would still remain the problem of mental health — many were wading into unfamiliar territory. Not so for me, nor for my colleagues in the Indian Navy, who are regularly sequestered in metal ships and submarines for weeks. Perhaps, there are lessons to be learnt in how we deal with isolation.

In February 2010, I landed on an island of 20 sq km, with a population of two, no roads and topography so ravaged by winds that trees refused to take root. A signboard announced its name in red — Bleaker Island — making me wonder if it had anything to do with the isolation suffered by its inhabitants. A year later, I was to spend 25 days in a sailboat, cloistered with another soul as we made our way from Rio de Janeiro to Cape Town. I had a firsthand experience of the peculiar loneliness that one feels in the company of another, that comes from running out of things to talk about.

Commander Abhilash Tomy in his boat. (Source: Golden Globe Race)

At Cape Town, I dropped off my crew, made a pilgrimage to Robbeneiland, where Nelson Mandela had been incarcerated for 18 years. As winter approached in the southern hemisphere, I set sail for Goa, alone in my little boat. An easterly breeze helped us at the outset but when the Cape of Good Hope was rounded, it freshened into a gale trying to push us back into the Atlantic. The air was made bleaker by its dampness, but what exacerbated my condition were the problems that beset us. The gale shredded a sail and a batten cut loose and made its way into the sea. The generator and autopilot, too, went on strike.

The days got bleaker and I struggled between my duties as lookout, cook, navigator, sail trimmer and a quartermaster rendered sleepless without a functional autopilot. It did not help either that I was afflicted with nausea, with my stomach trying to cope with the problem of seasickness by retching. Those four days broke me mentally and I wasn’t sure if I could carry on for another 30 days and make it to India. Everything was going wrong and I was angry and desperate because a lot hinged on the outcome of this voyage.

39-year-old Cdr Tomy’s boat, the Thuriya, is a replica of Sir Knox-Johnston’s original winner, Suhaili.

Something had to be done. It was important that I set my own house in order first so that I could perceive things as they were. I set about chanting dispassionate sounds over the next two days, till the mind slowed and stopped reacting to outside cues. I could decide what to feel, and I decided to feel peaceful. As if on cue, the storm outside stopped being stormy and despair was replaced by a stoic resolve that comes after a glimpse of the profound. It had become simpler to be where I was, which was the present, and continue to remain there until I reached where I had to be. This transition from loneliness to solitude was a seminal experience, that I built upon until it was time for the big voyage of 2012.

A sailor and his boat: Abhilash Tomy’s love affair with the sea that brought him to race

On November 1 that year, my life turned a chapter. The Indian Navy was about to help me realise my childhood dream of sailing around the world. I was casting off to be more alone than any other Indian had ever been and for even longer than one’s imagination would permit. I was to be so alone that it was akin to draining this country of all its people, land, roads, buildings, rivers, forests and everything conceivable and to stand in its geographic centre, dealing with a biweekly ration of cyclones. It would be bleaker than Bleaker, and even more remote. But unlike many alone under the lockdown today, I had not only volunteered but was also looking forward to it. I let go of the lines that tied my boat to the shore with profound relief and sailed out into a cyclone that waited outside the harbour. I was better prepared this time.

In the next five months, I sailed around the world alone on the Mhadei. The voyage was well documented in blogs and media. People noticed the equatorial heat, the certainty of trade winds and the magnificent Great Capes of the Southern Hemisphere. The vicious gales of the Southern Ocean reminded them of the age-old adage that there were no rules south of the forties, no laws south of the fifties and no gods south of the sixties. They saw how the boat and I were battered by storms and calmed by lulls, how we were chased by whales, dolphins and albatross, how in the tropics flying fish would kill themselves by flying into the boat, and how I survived on rainwater after diesel mixed with my drinking water. What they did not see, though, was the mind that emerged after being subject to such solitude.

Pointers of what was to become of me at the end of the isolation emerged within a month. The first week was spent in forgetting land — both its trappings and the exhaustion one carries from having to ready a boat — as you realise that you have become a little self-sustaining planet. I had also lost the sense of time because there no longer existed a need to synchronise mundane chores to the convenience of others. By the third week, I realised that I wasn’t dressing to conform to an image, or to an occasion, but to what was necessitated by convenience and that made clothing optional. It took me four weeks to see the freedom that came from not having to form opinions or having to worry about the opinions of others and of the constant necessity to impress someone else or outthink and out-manoeuvre them. I was more alone than any man could be, so alone that even if I had to call for help it would take weeks for anyone to lend a helping hand. In contrast, the loneliness of this lockdown is a much watered-down version.

The storms began as soon as we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn. The first storm, which seemed like the gale at the Cape of Good Hope, shook me. Powerful winds heaped mountains of water but it was not the force of the storm that made me afraid but the memory of the previous one. I got used to this, because once you understand that fear is a projection of your mind, it can be controlled and experienced in the manner you want. Even without that understanding, it is the faculty of human mind that it can endure what it can’t change.

The mind, in a world devoid of stimulations, where everything was the same every day, learnt that forgetfulness was a powerful and natural ally. I could no longer remember what yesterday was like, or the day before or any other day right until the first day of the voyage. Whatever memories I had were fragmented without time stamps or had to be recalled from a written journal. I, for one, existed only at that moment. The mind that was unstimulated by the outside environment turned inwards and became reflective.

Life’s philosophical questions that need long periods of contemplation are best engaged in such uninterrupted solitude. In the absence of society, products of belief systems broke down. In the absence of transaction, money lost its meaning. In the absence of society, hierarchy broke down. There was no way of determining one’s position in the order of things and, therefore, death, which in a way of speaking is a cessation of relationships, became non-existent. Without death, the conventional idea of god necessitated a replacement. When one hasn’t spoken at all, one has stopped lying and, by extension, one becomes sinless in solitude because there hasn’t been anyone to sin against. Without sin there was no guilt, and without guilt and conversation, I started to see things as they were because my highest and only moral obligation was to be truthful to myself. In those five months, without the burden of memory or expectations, I was free.

We celebrated two New Year’s Eves as we crossed the International Date Line, rounded Cape Horn on 26th of January 2013, crossed the Prime Meridian on Valentine’s Day, rounded the Cape of Good Hope in a storm, dodged a cyclone off Madagascar, sailed past Mauritius, ran out of water before Seychelles, recrossed the Equator on the day of March equinox and were back in Mumbai on Easter Sunday. There was a tremendous reception at the Gateway of India as thousands gathered and the President of India flew down to mark the end of the voyage. It was interesting to be thrown among people. Was it a coincidence that I re-read Moby Dick about that time and my attention was drawn to these lines? “Here was a man some twenty thousand miles from home, by the way of Cape Horn, that is — which was the only way he could get there — thrown among people as strange to him as though he were in the planet Jupiter; and yet he seemed entirely at his ease; preserving the utmost serenity; content with his own companionship; always equal to himself. Surely his was a touch of fine philosophy; though no doubt he had never heard there was such a thing as that.”

Cdr Tomy is a naval reconnaissance pilot and the first Indian to complete a single-handed, non-stop circumnavigation of the earth in 2012.

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