19 Aug 2018 18:58 IST

When the spirit takes over

You don’t need to dream the impossible dream, you just make it happen

The recent instance of 12 young boys and their football coach trapped inside a cave in Thailand for 18 days, and their subsequent rescue is a parable for our times. We all know the story. The boys and their coach, Ekaphol Chantawong, belonging to a local football club called Wild Boars (or Moo Pa in Thai), had entered the Tham Luang caves to explore, but couldn’t exit because heavy rain flooded the passageway. It took an international team 18 days to strategise and implement the rescue: every single one of them emerged safe and smiling. The boys were aged between 11 and 16; the coach, at 25, was only just that little bit older.

Apparently the first thing the boys said as they heard rescue divers approach the ledge on which they had taken refuge was that they were hungry. And with reason: they had only had a little potable water to survive on. You could say they were lucky that Ekaphol was the kind of person he was, having internalised his experience as a Buddhist monk and as his grandmother’s caregiver. He is believed to have kept his young wards safe by getting them to meditate, and ensuring they didn’t move around too much so as to conserve energy. Meditation helped them stay focused and not give in to panic.

Acts of kindness

Surely, this was good leadership of the highest order; the kind that addresses and engages the spirit because we know that once the spirit is lost, everything is lost. He motivated his team, and himself, to believe that they would soon be out of the cave, even though, after a time, they had no idea how long they’d been trapped. Sharing water, sharing space, dealing with bodily functions, feeling homesick, getting scared… even thinking about homework not done and fearing the wrath of the teacher. Close your eyes and imagine all this. Follow your thoughts where they go and you will get a small sense of the magnitude of the achievement.

When rescuers were eventually able to enter the cave, they had to pump out the water. Some of that flooded about 5,500 acres of rice plantation in neighbouring Myanmar, just down the border from the mountain in Thailand’s Mae Sai district. Taking responsibility for the farmers’ losses, the Thai government announced financial compensation, but many farmers respectfully turned down the offer saying it was more important that the children be saved than their crops.

There was another fallout. Moo Pa FC had to stay out of various matches for the duration of their team-mates’ rescue — that’s 18 days — and the time needed for their recovery because their under-13, under-16 and under-19 squads were all missing members. It would have been interesting to eavesdrop on the Wild Boars’ locker room conversations during and in the aftermath of the rescue operations.

After a short stay in hospital, all 12 and Ekaphol were given a clean bill of health. This is clearly a testimonial for the good effects of keeping physically fit, in this instance, of playing an outdoor sport, apart from the advantages of remaining emotionally and mentally on an even keel. After the roller-coaster drama, whole families signed up to clean the cave complex, nearly 4,000 people, including little children, and once everything was restored to reasonable normalcy, prayers of thanks were offered. Remarkably, the families of those trapped inside had remained calm, only praying fervently and believing that their children would be home safe.

Sharing stories

Many years ago, I was in Galle, Sri Lanka, sharing a book written in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami that hit many countries and took many lives, including in India and Sri Lanka. It is a children’s book and the audience comprised 10 to 12-year-olds from a couple of upper-end schools. Nasreen (name changed) did not go to either of these schools. She was about eight, and was there because she had told her father she wanted to be there. She was a shy child, the youngest in her family. The only person she knew was myself, and we had only just met briefly once, the day before.

Anyway, I read from the book, and children shared different experiences, mostly what they had heard or read about. They were excited and articulate. Little Nasreen sat quietly, listening. Then she tentatively put up her hand. “Yes, Nasreen,” I said. “Would you like to say something?”

She nodded her head. I invited her to stand beside me up front. She did. The other children watched her, curiously, some of them still chattering. Then, softly, hesitantly but determinedly, she told the story of her family: they were gem exporters, they owned horses, they lived in a large house by the sea. Then the tsunami came and the wall of water crushed everything, the sea took everything. She and her sister had been away at their grandparents’ in Colombo. Her parents and brothers were drawn into the water. Somehow they survived. When the waters receded, her brother and father found themselves on the tops of trees. When Nasreen and her sister returned from Colombo, they were taken to another house which, they were told, was now home. Their ‘real’ home was gone.

All this Nasreen shared and every single child in the room listened. It was clear they were moved in ways that words cannot describe. Later, when I told Nasreen’s father what had happened in the workshop, he was stunned. “She’s never spoken of this to any of us,” he said. “She’s by nature a quiet child, she hardly speaks. She’s the silent one.” That day, her silence was compelling in its eloquence.

Power to will

Now, as rain pounds away at Kerala, it’s the spirit in the face of nature’s fury that keeps people going, those affected and those attempting to lend a hand, assuage the pain. At any time, anywhere in the world, the flesh may be weak but the spirit will always be willing.

After all, didn’t Dashrath Manjhi cut away at a mountain with hammer and chisel for nearly 22 years so that his village could have access to a hospital? Didn’t Arunima Sinha, who lost a leg in a train incident in 2011, climb Mount Everest in 2013?