Sandeep Bhatnagar

Tide Water

One leg astride the guardrail, the other firmly on deck, Raghuvir Singh scanned the horizon. The sky was always overcast at this time of the year and the wind was liable to freshen without any warning. The sea, which only a moment ago had sported waves with foam crests, was now relatively calm. It had only just stopped raining, so the breeze still had a cool touch to it. Singh removed his helmet and took a deep breath as he shifted his gaze towards the setting sun. In the fading light, less than quarter of a mile away, he could see another vessel—one he had served on—aground . Grounding was fairly common in this river port and in most cases the ship would re-float with the next tide, none the worse for its misadventure. Still, no one liked to be associated with a grounding.

On the other vessel, men were busy pulling bedraggled tarpaulin sheets across the hatch covers. It was quite a job shutting these antiquated hatches. Singh smiled as he remembered how, years ago as a trainee seaman, he used to curse vehemently each time he was called upon to perform this task. First, the portable hatch covers had to be lifted and refitted with the help of a shore crane. It had to be done just so. Next came the mucky part, as the tarpaulin covers, heavy with deposits of caked mud and iron ore, were physically dragged across the hatch. Long flat bars that held down the tarpaulin were then put in place and lashed to the coaming . Finally, the cleats and wedges, which ensured that the hatches remained watertight, were fitted. After that, one was left with an ore- and sweat-smeared boiler suit and barely enough energy to light a bidi or prepare a plug of chewing tobacco—though of late, young seafarers were opting for gutka as a means of stress relief.

Singh had operated these hatches so many times that he found himself cursing what he could make out to be a straggler. Like most people with athletic physiques and energetic dispositions, he was openly contemptuous of even the mildest hint of sluggishness. Instinctively, he lashed out with, “Barrat mein aya he, kya?” But there was no one around to hear him. The second officer, who led the aft watch, was busy speaking to the cook, a genial Nepali, earnestly peering over his spectacles as he poked his head through the galley porthole. The other seaman from the aft watch was the sukhani-cum-bosun , who was on his way to the wheelhouse to take the wheel, for none but he was allowed to steer the vessel in the channel.

Singh’s present ship had winch-driven Macgregor hatch covers, whose operations were a cakewalk compared to those on the older vessels of the company. The worst part was that these were really not so very old vessels, as they had been built in the early ’90s, whereas “pontoon-type” hatch covers had probably been phased out in the ’20s. At least that’s what he’d heard from the second officer.

As his gaze fell back on the ship aground, Singh stared ruefully at the hull and superstructure. Everything was as rusted as it had been two years ago when he had served on the vessel as bosun. It would probably go to the scrap yard in Alang in the same condition. Nothing ever changes. That was not really true, for things did change, he corrected himself. In the mid- and late-90s, these ships used to sparkle but the crew served on par with the casual shore laborers. Not only were they expected to clean and scrub the entire accommodation, including the toilets, and attend fore- and aft-stations along with the other duties that were their lot, but they rarely received their pay on time. Money was a bad word with the company. “At least you are getting food to eat,” one of the mangers used to infamously remark, until the crew approached the United Port Union. A rather militant outfit, it had gained a large following among the seamen who manned the home trade ships plying the Indian coast, though it had lost out in its homeport, Calcutta.

Things were certainly much better now, sighed Singh, as he waved a greeting to the skipper or masterji of a passing tug, who waved back as he recognized his old drinking companion. It was the diminutive Tug 1. Tiny and toy-like, it was miniscule compared to its ocean-going brethren, which were plentiful in these waters. They were mainly used to push dumb barges from the inner- to outer-anchorages during lighterage operations. One of these giants could be seen puffing away against the stern of an ore-laden barge casting off from a nearby berth.

It was very rare indeed that one found Singh in a pensive mood. For he seemed to find hope and joy in almost every situation. Whether it was with the help of his liberal packet of bidis, or his abilities as a good listener, Singh was sure to make friends, even -- or rather especially -- where others were sure to find enemies. Today, however, was different. Something was worrying him. The only thing that could depress him now that he had got over the disappointment of not making the officer grade (it had taken him almost nine years to do this) was his one and only son.

No one could say that his son Akaash was a bad sort, much less a juvenile delinquent. Rather, it was a misplaced sense of what constitutes masculinity that led him to do what he did. Akaash drew his entire inspiration form Hindi movies. The swashbuckling, muscle flexing, deep-voiced, villain-bashing, women-courting screen idols were his lodestars. You wouldn’t find Akaash and his friends empathizing with the kisan heroes of yesteryear; but give them a shirt-remover or an oath-taker and they would take up his cause in the manner of the most fervent of crusaders. Death and glory, guts and gore, and so on and so forth: all the catchphrases of the strutting macho types were gospel truths for these small-town teenagers.

Strangely enough, what was considered admirable on the screen and the cause of much adulation translated into misdemeanors when emulated in real life. The authorities tended not to see eye-to-eye with the denizens of the Hindi-speaking belt in matters concerning izzat, zaban dena and mardangi , which roughly translates into “masculinity’ of the most trenchant variety. Matters came to a head when Akaash led his group of aspiring toughs in what probably started off as a friendly feud or rivalry, the kind boys in the North of India delight in. However, with the disappearance of a member of the opposing party, things had become much more serious. Before the police had actually begun their investigations, the youngster turned up. He had apparently made a trip to Bombay with a friend, whose brother had been called for a job interview. Star-studded Bombay, after all, was at the other end of the rainbow, something no red-blooded teenager would readily miss out on.

So everything was peaceful for now; but Singh was taking no chances.

“You’re going to take up a trade,” he had remonstrated sternly over his mobile. “You will join a polytechnic and become a fitter. No question of going to college for louts like you.”

At first, his son was happy, for he was not interested in the long drawn-out process associated with graduation. Time was money, he said, and the more one made of it, the better. Temperamental by nature, the present mood lasted only a few days and Akaash was soon advocating the benefits of a higher education. College, as every film-watching boy knows, is fun. Akaash had conveyed this change in preferences to his father through his doting, though somewhat bewildered, mother. It was this sudden spark of rebellion that was causing Singh so much concern. His mobile rang and he answered it almost absent-mindedly.

“Yes? Nice to hear your voice. What! Tell him not to touch it. It’s obviously stolen property. Wait! Get him on the line. Yes right now. What!”

Singh’s tense features broke into a smile. “ Well, if that’s the case, it’s all right.” He disconnected the line and replaced the phone in the pocket of his boiler suit.

“My son wanted to pick up a camera-mobile going cheap for Rs 2000,” he explained to the second officer, who had just come up to him. “I told him not to touch it, since it was obviously stolen property. I said I didn’t want the police coming home. I had never allowed the police to come to my house when I was his age and I expected the same restraint from him. And do you know what his reply was?”

The second officer looked at him expectantly.

“He said: Tell my father that his son is not like that. Tell my father that his son is not like that!” Singh smiled broadly and settled down on the non-functional capstan, next to the neatly coiled hawsers, to smoke a bidi and to meditate on the vicissitudes of life as he waited for the departure stations to begin. The second officer, in the meantime, tapped his walkie-talkie and tentatively adjusted the squelch control, so as to be ready to receive any orders transmitted from the captain on the bridge .


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