INTERVIEW WITH VICE ADMIRAL (RETD) MANOHAR AWATI
Vice Admiral Manohar Awati retired from the Indian Navy in 1983. He was last the Commander-in-Chief of the Western Naval Command, the sword arm of the Indian Navy. He is the main architect of Sagar Parikrama, having imagined the project, kept it alive and seen it through. Now 87 years old, he is an inspiration to talk to. He was kind enough to grant an interview for this blog.
You kept the idea of Sagar Parikrama alive through decades in service and several years in retirement. What are your thoughts from that journey?
I kept plodding and trying to elicit some interest in the voyage I had in mind for so long, with the navy and the corporate world. No one seemed to be interested in sailing. Many said that I was being too ambitious for India, that we as Indians were neither too happy nor too felicitous with the sea. Many quoted historical reasons for this attitude towards the sea. The risks were too high, almost incomprehensible for a nation where the young had shunned making a career at sea for so long, a thousand years to be precise. It is not as if Indians were afraid of the sea. They could not have been that. Look at the thriving fishing industry and so many poor littoral people like the Kharvas of the Gujarat coast finding employment with international shipping companies as Khalasis. Almost as many Konkan Musalmans served as firemen in the engine rooms of these ships. They were all competent seamen, much sought after by the companies for their competence and loyalty. But turn to the Indian middle class – it was zilch; an amazing paradox.
I am not a sociologist but I am a history buff, aware therefore of the ban imposed on embarking upon the sea about a thousand years back by a zealous religious leader on pain of losing caste. Now in those days one protected one’s caste with one’s life, if need be. There could be no compromise in a society which held caste dearer than life itself. You may remember Bal Gangadhar Tilak subjected himself to rigorous ritual cleansing after his return from the Round Table Conference in London in the early twentieth century because of the pollution his person had suffered crossing the ocean! I have a niggling feeling that many upper caste Hindus in India have not quite rid themselves of the stigma of going afloat. Parental permission is still residual in many families to boys, and increasingly girls now, from taking up a career at sea. We do not take part in any numbers, in recreation upon the waters of our ocean even as throngs go off sailing during weekends in the west, especially in Western Europe and America. The sea has been a part of their lives for centuries even as we Indians distanced ourselves from it.
The sea was very much a part of Indian awareness in the ancient days of Meluha, the country of the Indus Delta, the civilisations of Mohen-jo-Daro, of Dholavira, as also of the east coast later during pre-Ashokan times. That awareness continued through Buddhist India, its association of the Sangha, the trade guilds which came up to advance maritime trade through ship and cargo insurance and the myriad activities that go with trading across the oceans, the Blue, not just along the Brown water coasts. The Buddhist Jatakas are full of great voyages, of shipwrecks through storms, of pirates and pillage at sea and much else, including the riches which were the result of that trade despite the vicissitudes. The sea carried India’s very considerable and very rich trade.
We have almost forgotten that centuries back this country enriched itself from trade across the seas carried by ships built along our coast – especially the west coast – from shipbuilding teak which grew in the forests backing the coast. Today the descendants of the great Mesthries (shipwrights) of the past seek employment with the Sheikhs of Araby because the government cannot find any use for their once applauded art. Shameful! In the Middle Ages our seamanship and ship management had atrophied so low through disuse that several coastal principalities had to employ Arabs as the Shah Bandars ( port officers ) of their harbours and ports to keep trade flowing. Any wonder then that the Arabs had a monopoly of trade with India? It was the Muslim Arab who the Christian Portuguese wished to remove as an impediment. That prompted them to their adventures by sea, the discovery of the Cape route to the riches of Inde.
As late as 1850, twenty seven per cent of world trade was India’s share. What is it today? Less than one per cent! How and why did this slide happen? The European colonisers had their share in this collapse, no doubt. But the main cause was India distancing herself from the sea which surrounds it on three sides, as a result of some religious belief to do with caste and such other nonsense in a caste ridden society, which by then, as a result of a long bout of slavery, had quite possibly turned on itself, like some desperate, depressed individual. Distancing herself from the sea was an act of near suicide for the nation. We have not yet recovered from that act.
There has to be; there must be – a revival if we are ever to grasp the nettle of a great nation. We have to revive ourselves at sea by an effort to be friends with that great, all encompassing, yet fickle medium which governs life on this planet. Let people remember – no sea, no climate and therefore no life as we know it.
You structured the project such that the first Indian to sail solo around the world would do so in a boat built in India. In an era when many people question the need to reinvent the wheel what made you insist on building the boat here?
It is not really a question of reinventing the wheel.
No two circumnavigator boats are the same, from Robin’s wooden Suhaili, to the trimarans, to all things fibreglass and now carbon fibre, all the way to my Mhadei. Every boat built has own character; its handling peculiarities, its survivability in extreme weather conditions. I wanted the boat to be built in India because at one go I would demonstrate an Indian’s ability to go round the world solo and bring to the notice of the world the abilities of the Indian boat carpenter whose reputation around our ocean and beyond was so very enviable for so long. He was invited abroad for advice and supervision of ships built of timber. The watertight- ` Wadhera Joint’ for joining wooden planks, was invented in India. It needed no caulking. It is difficult to fashion; therefore not cost effective. Sagar Parikrama is remarkable because aside from the Dutch design it was an Indian enterprise. The high value instrumentation was of course, imported from Europe.
What next for Sagar Parikrama?
I now look forward to the first Indian woman circumnavigator, in my life time. At 87 that may appear to be a little unlikely. I am optimistic. We have taken the first steps. There are volunteers from among the women officers of the navy. There are Dilip and Abhilash who will carry my ambition to fruition. There are several in the business of directing the Service, especially in the navy’s HRD, who think as I do. I am therefore, hopeful.
After that I want an Indian to circumnavigate Antarctica, solo.
What is your advice to those planning adventure activities?
I say: plan a real whammy activity, not some common or garden stuff. It is how you tackle the danger therein that is the core value of real adventure. Adventure must offer a challenge to your character, the character of those who participate in it, whether it is a solo or a group affair. It becomes training in leadership where leadership stands for example and willingness to take calculated risks which demand decision on the spur of the moment.
Are there values in expedition planning and execution, which civilians can learn from the armed forces? If so, in your observation and seeing the state of affairs in the civilian realm, what would be the most important traits for a civilian expedition to copy?
The most important trait for civilians to copy from the military is surely and above everything else, discipline.
Staying power is next, once you have decided what the purpose and aim of your expedition is.
An adventure expedition needs to have an aim. It should not be some purposeless ramble.
Of course a ramble has its own value in getting out in the country, observe nature or just breathe in the ozone and get a feeling of wellness. But a serious adventure MUST have a purpose and it must involve serious challenge. Otherwise it becomes an empty adventure, adventure in name only. An adventure activity must help to build or bolster character, character which matters in civic life and in nation building. We in India are seriously devoid of people who have character. Character means willingness to shoulder responsibility, ability to make decisions and lead by personal example. Regrettably, apart from a few, I cannot name anyone in India with these qualities. Among those who are under fifty, I cannot think of a single person.
In a manner of speaking, Sagar Parikrama is a good example of civil-military interface. It delivered. But then I was fortunate in both the military man, Dilip and the civilian, Ratnakar. It just happened. Coincidence ? May be. I do not believe in coincidences. If you plan and push with a purpose, then usually the right people come in. Once, Ratnakar’s mother told me, “ Admiral I was not sure of this mad project of yours, that it would ever come off or happen. But when I saw three mad people come together, I started thinking otherwise.’’ Wise and observant words from a worldly wise lady! There are huge possibilities in defence for civil-military symbiotic relationship for the good of the nation. It is waiting to be fully exploited. A small beginning has been made. It must be widened, exploited to advantage. Whoever takes the lead in doing this – it has to be done from the highest level in government and in corporate bodies – will have to tread on many toes and old corns, disregard the nay-sayers.
By all means let us begin with adventure activities, real adventure, if we dare.
(PLEASE READ PART FIVE OF THIS SERIES FOR THE AUTHOR’S NOTE ON SAGAR PARIKRAMA)
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This interview was done by email.)