The Old Man and the Sea of Subjectivity

One. Me being able to complete this book after about a dozen attempts spread across three and a half years. In my defense, the book although new (unread), had a smell of decay, neglect and flattened jasmine which added to the feels, my lord!

Two. Me being obtuse during the literature classes some ten years back and having to memorize pages by rote and being able to clear the exams with decent marks. In my defense, I had to get good marks in literature written in my colonizer’s tongue in order to prove my worth as a student of science, my lord!

Resolution. I grew from an decent student to a semi-decent not-a-student-anymore with a deep resentment towards pieces of work which did not have a lot of plot progression and dialogues. It is not that I did not try but I stopped after getting repeated flashbacks of my teachers pulling out metaphors after metaphors by the ear, from a single sentence like rabbits from a magician’s hat only to be taken out by a wave and sent crashing into the sea of subjectivity with a tiny book for a skiff. The Old Man and the Sea.

I, for starters, have an unhealthy amount of non-confirmation bias. Although I had bought the book in 2017 due to a genuine curiosity about Hemingway, by the time I finally started reading it in 2020, I had already reminded myself multiple times about how this tiny book has fetched two major awards.

I have always had this itch about awards.

On one hand it serves as a guiding light to the whole body of work of an artist but on the other, it serves as a grim reminder about how art is a race. Was it this bias that I found Parasite underwhelming, considering that it had been deemed better than all of the movies made in Hollywood in one whole year? Thankfully, Oscars proved me wrong by publishing a new set of eligibility criteria for the category and I was finally convinced.

The intention behind awards is perhaps not to promote a body of work or one specific art and its nuances but a grand gesture in making a statement. These might be important steps for the world but they contribute little to nothing to the art they felicitate.

I feel the same about Dylan winning the Nobel.
I have given it a thought if I would have had similar feelings had Leonard been awarded instead, only to realize that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t take away anything from their work. They were both very different people with drastically divergent ideas about art but shared the same compassion for each other’s work. While Dylan would perform Leonard’s songs way before Leonard had made a place for himself in the mainstream, Leonard was not one to mince words when it came to the impact Dylan had.

I’ve always felt that my work was more eccentric and that if it touched the mainstream from time to time, I would be lucky. But I never saw it as dominating a field as Dylan did.

— Leonard Cohen, CBC ‘Authors’ with Patrick Watson, 1980.

Funnily enough, we find painful attempts at justifying awards as something to do with the absolute quality of the art or the artist which only they and the award committees seem to grasp.

I liked Through the Olive Trees or Close-Up better than Taste of Cherry which won the Palme d’Or (bias?) but that does not invalidate the feelings of people who think otherwise. I get the passion people feel towards a piece. It’s just that it is plain stupid to use it as a stick to beat others who do not share the same amount of passion.

It is like me being able to taste the sea in salmon while you are only being treated to the taste of betrayal for the money you spent on it.

Subjectivity is the other itch.

I am all for divergent interpretations that drive pieces of art into the hearts of the uninitiated like that of Hallelujah first getting rejected by the recording company and then lying dormant in the grooves for more than a decade before Jeff comes out with his interpretation which catapults it into the cultural icon that it has become. Another noteworthy mention that hits closer to home is how Upal and Sayatya have breathed life into the same piece penned by Joyjit, resulting in two very different but equally gorgeous songs.

However, for this book, after a few pages, I was well past the itches.

It absolutely did not matter to me what every turn of the page is a metaphor for. I followed the relationships. The man and the kid. The man and the shack. The man and the sea. There were moments of stillness in the book where I came to terms with the lapses. I could almost smell the sea in the occasionally damp pages from untimely Calcutta monsoons.

I have this wistful image of the sea in my head from a very young age. This started with Robinson Crusoe and soon found its way through Life of Pi and A Theatre for Dreamers among many others. It has stayed even after coming close to drowning at the age of eleven. I still look forward to walking as close to the sea as possible, along the beaches lined with casuarina as if flirting with the hit-man who botched my murder. Perhaps I get fascinated by things I fear. Does that make me religious?

I got fascinated by Santiago and the way he gets deeper and deeper into the sea, risking his life, battling the fatigue and the wounds with the hope for a grand catch.

However, I can never be a Santiago. I will run out of my supply of hubris well before food.

Although the language was easy, I would occasionally stumble upon creatures with odd names like Portuguese man-of-war. This meant that I had to google from time to time and almost without fail, I would end up on pages where each of the creatures had been reduced to one or more metaphors. I ignored them (no-brainer).

The more I surfed the waves of the written words, I wondered about the arrangements the wild seas have in them. The relationships between the different species in the way they hunt and survive. When I notice the father sparrow perched higher on my window and looking over his baby girls fighting over food, do I find a human father in him? Are we all that different?

There were moments when the lines between Santiago and non-Santiagos were blurred by similar circumstances and at times by similar pronouns -

Just then he saw a man-of-war bird with his long black wings circling in the sky ahead of him. He made a quick drop, slanting down on his back-swept wings, and then circled again.

“He’s got something,” the old man said aloud. “He’s not just looking.”

The brilliant episode in Our Planet made me re-think about my idea of Santiago as just another migratory creature in the sea. Fishing for survival seems like a natural way of hunting which is way more realistic and less cruel when compared to how the dolphins or the whales push their preys into dust or bubble traps before striking. Is morality the force with which we are pulling ourselves away from nature instead of pushing towards it? Or, is the natural order actually not infallible?

I have been half expecting the final outcome from the very moment Santiago got hold of his catch. He reminded me of the plans that never saw the light of the day.

I have been guiding a marlin of dreams all along the voyage only to be gnawed at by the shovel-heads of self-deprecation masquerading as practicality.

It is only the idea of an impending death or the moment right before we give up that gives us the clarity we need. We often need to set ourselves free of the few fishing lines pulling dead weight that cut deep into our shoulders, in order to survive. Santiago did.

The question that stayed with me was what I found in his suffering or in my attempts at understanding the cogs of the social machinery that seem to free us with hopes on one hand and then tie us with restraint on the other.

After most long and tiring days, sailing in the sea of homeward-bound heroes, some lost, some defeated, when I finally reach my bed in the dead of the night, I question the design, much like how Santiago did.

Is it -

The value of coexisting with our inner demons,
The value of coming back to a home,
The value of the Manolins in our lives who refuse to give up on us or
The Santiagos with their battle scars ?

What keeps us going?

The wind is our friend, anyway, he thought. Then he added, sometimes. And the great sea with our friends and our enemies. And bed, he thought. Bed is my friend. Just bed, he thought. Bed will be a great thing. It is easy when you are beaten, he thought. I never knew how easy it was.

And what beat you, he thought.

“Nothing,” he said aloud. “I went out too far.”



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