Songs of the Ocean
A maiden voyage for any new sailor is an unforgettable experience. In my case, I remember getting much more than I had bargained for. My husband’s merchant navy vessel- a seventy thousand ton oil tanker named M.T Jewel- was berthed off the coast of Spain, I was informed shortly after getting married, and I was to join him there. I was ecstatic. It did not matter that I was going to make the long journey half way across the globe all on my own, that I did not have the haziest idea where the small sea-side port of Malaga was situated or that very few people in Spain spoke English. All that mattered to me, as a new bride, was that I was joining my husband of four months and was set to sail for the very first time in my life. Nothing could cloud my enthusiasm. After an uneventful journey from Bombay to Zurich, from Zurich to Madrid and then on to Malaga, I stood with my baggage in the cosy little airport of Malaga wondering how to proceed. To assuage my sudden nervousness, I played a little game as I watched Spaniards with their distinctive features and colouring milling around me. There goes Asterix, there goes Obelix and surely that lady is related to Impedimenta, I muttered to myself likening the strangers to much-loved familiar comic characters. A cadet from the ship arrived shortly to my intense relief, and herded me into a taxi. Soon we were off and I was being escorted on a four-hour drive to the port where our ship was berthed. I leaned back in excited anticipation and watched the view from my window which comprised mainly of lime-washed villas in candy colours scattered all over rocky terrain.
Nothing can quite prepare you for the first sight of a big oil tanker. The majestic metal structure nearly five floors high stood gleaming in the sun with the bright blue waves of the ocean lapping softly against her sides. Why, it’s almost as big as a residential colony, I thought, deeply excited about the fact that this ship was going to be my home for the next six months. I was going to be the only woman on board, the all male crew was going to be very busy with work and so I had better learn to amuse myself, my husband informed me pragmatically on my arrival. His colleagues were more effusive. They showed me around the bridge with its panoramic aerial view of the sea, walked me down the catwalk that ran the entire length of the ship, from funnel to bow, led me to the decks situated outside on every floor of the residential quarters and coerced me into visiting the hot noisy engine-room situated in the bowels of the ship.
“Your husband will be busy in the engine-room most of the time. Please feel free to use the swimming-pool, the library and the smoke room. Explore the ship…..only, don’t go to the bow area after dark” said the kindly Chief Officer.
The stewards were equally enthusiastic.
“Sit on the deck and watch the sea- we’ll set chairs for you. You can often see dolphins at play and on a lucky day, you might even sight a whale. Take a walk on the deck in the evenings but…please don’t go to near the bow after dark, Ma’am.”
Every body had some nice bit of advice to give me but it all ended with the same caveat: don’t go to the bow after dark. My curiosity was stirred. Why was I being encouraged to explore the entire ship but warned against going to the bow? And particularly, after sunset…? I cornered the elderly Captain with my query. He looked extremely uncomfortable and said something evasive about the small triangular tip of the ship lacking railings and it being very easy for a newcomer to fall off the bow and into the sea if the ship heaved really hard. Satisfied with the answer, I turned my mind to other things.
The weeks that followed were idyllic. I found myself reading, sleeping, enjoying the bracing sea breeze and taking on multiple roles as I morphed into a friend, guide, philosopher, agony aunt, counselor and ghost writer rolled into one. I listened sympathetically to the personal problems of the crew members, gave rousing pep talks to those suffering from a flagging morale and assisted young sailors in shopping for clothes for their girlfriends whenever the ship touched ports. I drew on my innate love for writing and penned imaginative love-letters to wives/ girlfriends, on behalf of lovelorn cadets.
Almost as if to intimidate the novice sailor, in the very first month of joining the ship the elements put up a crackling performance for my benefit. Nothing can be as frightening as an electric storm at sea, I soon learned. Lightning flashed around the ship from all directions while rolls of thunder rumbled deafeningly. The ship rolled and pitched sickeningly and crockery crashed to the floor. Shivering little birds gathered at my cabin porthole hoping to find shelter but they were swept away by the strong winds. Plumes of sea spray rose to terrifying heights. As I watched the deck being ravaged by rain and sea from my porthole, I spotted the silhouette of a figure appearing with every flash of lightning- a tall, hunched figure crouched at the entrance of a small shed situated on the bow. I was overcome by concern and pity. Who had given this tired looking man deck duties in this kind of dangerous weather?
The storm subsided sometime late in the night and the next day dawned bright, clear and sunny. I walked out onto the deck. The sea was calm and glassy, a couple of dolphins frisked merrily in the waters and seagulls glided lazily across the sky. The delicious smell of curry cooking rose from the galley. Dead birds, battered by last night’s storm lay all over the deck.
“I saw someone in the bow area during last night’s storm- a tall bent man. I hope he is alright…?” I asked the steward who had arrived with my mid-day lemonade.
The young Filipino steward (already the father of three kids) nearly dropped his tray at my query.
“You saw the hunchback? Oh Madam, you are doomed!”
He crossed himself and stood shaking uncontrollably. Little by little I got the story out of the terrified steward. It was said that many years ago, a hunchbacked boson had sailed on this ship. A difficult taciturn man, he had problems getting along with the stern Captain and friction between the two men erupted on a regular basis. Things reached fever pitch and the last vicious quarrel had occurred on a dark stormy night at sea after which the boson mysteriously disappeared. Search operations were conducted on a major scale but the boson was never found. Ultimately he was given up as dead; it was presumed that he had been swept off to sea in the storm. There were those who believed that there had been foul play on the night of the storm but chose to keep quiet about their suspicions. Strange accidents started occurring on board the M.T Venus soon after- the Captain was crushed under falling machinery, inexplicable accidents, deaths, bad blood on board and serious quarrels among the crew tarnished the ship’s record over the years. A tall bent figure was often sighted, prowling around the deck on stormy nights; the sightings invariably followed by some accident or disaster. The sighting of the hunchback, since then, was considered an ill omen. After repeated pleas to me to be extremely careful the shaken steward retreated and though slightly uneasy, I decided to laugh off the story.
On the last week before my departure, I decided that I would photograph the ship extensively. I would surprise my husband by taking aesthetic shots of every part of the ship and create an album that would be an ode to our first voyage together. I went around taking pictures of the cabins, the glass-encased bridge with its radar, helm and other nautical paraphernalia, the vast dining-room where the ship’s officers ate, the bright orange lifeboats suspended against blue skies and the kitchen stores which displayed enormous amounts of raw food. The best part was capturing the ocean in its myriad moods. The ocean could be sparkling and frisky one day and dark and brooding the next. My climax shot, I decided, would be one which I would take in the rosy light of sunset, aiming my camera from the bow end and capturing the entire length of the ship. I found myself all alone on deck one evening; the deck officers and crew were inside, settling down to their dinner I presumed. My husband would be heading up from the engine-room shortly and I would have to hurry. I walked down the catwalk and inched my way to the bow. I would have to curb my enthusiasm and watch my step as there were no railings to this tiny area and light was fading fast. I took slow backward steps trying to get a nice wide angle when suddenly I felt my heel gripped by cold metal. Stumbling awkwardly, I fell flat on my back. My first thought was for my expensive camera but was relieved to find it resting on my stomach, apparently undamaged. I seemed to have twisted my ankle badly though and I lay on the floor of the bow waiting for the pain to subside.
And then I heard it. Slow shuffling steps were coming out of the shed. I froze. Memories of the steward’s crazy story came rushing to greet me. A cold wind suddenly rose and shrieked across the waters of the ocean and engulfed the bow area. The slow dragging footsteps were getting closer- somebody was coming. Whoever or whatever the thing was that had haunted the bow for years was now approaching me from the back, I thought in terror. If it harbored evil intentions as I’m sure it did, there could not be an easier victim than me with my ankle twisted painfully and the rest of my body supine and inches away from the edge of the ship’s hull. There was a strange stench in the air, the smell of death and decay. A palpable feeling of malevolence rose around me, and I could sense hatred, rage and despair being directed towards me. I started shivering violently. I did not know how to pray, having been an agnostic all my life, I did even know the Hanuman Chalisa. But now was undoubtedly the time to begin. Mother Mary, Jesus, Allah, help me, I pleaded desperately, opting for a multi-religious approach in my moment of crisis. All at once, the jewel-adorned deity of Tirupathi rose before my eyes and I shut my eyes tight. Balaji, I mumbled, Balaji, Balaji, save me, save me, please…get me out of this mess alive….send this creature, this entity, whatever that this thing behind me is, send it to whichever plane of existence it should be inhabiting, give it peace, give it release, give it eternal rest….send it away….send it away…please, Balaji…. I lay sobbing and muttering incoherently for a long while till I sensed that the sudden chilly winds had died down. I opened my eyes fearfully. The moon was rising over the ocean, a giant golden orb. The sky was deep lavender and the first star of the evening blazed close to the horizon. A school of graceful flying fish rose and fell into the waters soundlessly. The evening air was calm, fragrant with sea scents and very normal. There were no sounds of footsteps approaching and no repugnant stench. I got up shakily and inched my way down from the bow. I stood a while on deck trying to gather my wits together. A shooting star blazed across the sky moving from horizon to sky. Strange, I thought, they generally fall the other way, in the downward direction; someone must be departing from the ocean towards the skies. At a distance, the dining-room portholes glowed invitingly with warm yellow light and I hobbled thankfully towards them. I refrained from glancing backwards.
I never told the story to anybody. Many years later I ran into the jovial Chief Officer and we sat and reminisced nostalgically about our voyage. A little before we parted he told me that astonishingly, all accidents on board the M.T Venus had ceased after my departure. You must have charmed the ship’s ghost with your clever talks, Ma’am, he chuckled delightedly. I smiled noncommittally and nudged the conversation towards safer channels.
Kankana Basu is a Mumbai based writer and the author of Vinegar Sunday, Cappuccino Dusk and the newly released Lamplight: Paranormal stories from the Hinterlands. For more information visit www.kankanabasu.com