Ahoy! Call of the sea

Ahoy! Call of the sea


There is a sea of difference between an airconditioned aircraft-carrier like Viky the Vikramaditya and a floating workshop like Ranjit, the destroyer I served in the 1970s.

 Our galley (kitchen), feeding 290 tummies plus Billo the cat, was smaller than Viky’s chapati-making machine. The ships India bought from the UK in those days were designed by some Royal Navy blokes who regarded the seaman’s comforts as floccinaucinihilipilification.

We were speeding down the Malacca Straits when Ranjit had a glitch in the engine room. Mohna Singh Pareshan, the Fresh Water Tanky (and our poet laureate) pronto clamped a water curfew. Everyday we had to queue, all soaped up, for a two-minute shower. The bathrooms echoed with anti-Pareshan slogans. However, by the time we dropped anchor in Penang harbour, the crisis was over and Pareshan had pinned his new sher (couplet) on the noticeboard....Pareshan Kyon Hoo Mein?
 (Why do I look harassed)/ Poochte Hain Daddy & Mummy Mujhse (Dad & Mom ask me)/ Aur Mein Kehta Hoon Unse (And I tell them)/ Aiye, Ranjit Par Kuchh Din Bitaiye (Come and spend a few days on Ranjit)/ Khud Hi Pata Lag Jayega (And it shall be revealed). 

“Sedition!” Master-at-Arms Penny, the destroyer’s cop, would have pronounced and handcuffed Pareshan had he understood the poetry. Penny was a heavyweight terror; whenever his footfall was heard, sailors changed their course. Despite his gluttony, the Captain tolerated Penny because since his arrival on board the crew’s misdemeanours had dropped. But the sailors murmured that the kaleji (liver) content in the mutton curry had disappeared, and that Penny’s baggy shorts had carry-bags, not pockets. 

Back in Bombay, one evening, the Captain told a few sailors to hop into his barge. Eager to show off his agility, Penny hurried down the ladder, tripped and landed on all fours in the barge, to the delight of many sailors. When he straightened himself up, Penny’s shorts and stockings’ colour had changed from white to yellow. The yolk of the smashed eggs in his pockets was all over him. “Master-at-Arms,” the Captain thundered, “report to me in the morning.”

However, instead of Penny, a signal arrived from the naval hospital next day informing that the Master-at-Arms had been admitted for a tummy check.Now to Lama, the boatswain’s mate. He was the ship’s piper who wore a Boatswain’s Pipe around his neck 24 hours. The pipe is an eight-inch naval whistle, its cheeps resemble those of the Boatswain’s — a tropic bird. In the olden days, the Boatswain’s Pipe was used to pass commands to the crew over the roar of the sea. Lama started our day with a lively twitter on his pipe, followed by his gruff “hands call”. It made everyone jump off the bunk. Another tweet for “hands to tea” and mess-decks resonated with the chuskies-of-the-chai while Lama-the-DJ played his favourite record; Mukesh’s Suno Ji Suno, Hamari Bhi Suno...

Let me not forget Billo. Until she arrived on board, god knows in which port, the rat-Raj had prevailed on board. Billo declared war on the rascals. First of all she took over the cat-walk and blocked their forays into the ration stores astern. But the decisive battle was fought in the wine cellar; the coots had smashed a bottle of madeira, got roaring drunk, and were rock ‘n’ rolling on the deck when Billo pounced on them. And the crew honoured Billo with a red collar, and officers bestowed on her the rank of the ship’s mascot.