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ankit shukla

merchant navy | Posted on |

The Ugly Side of Life on Ship – True Story


Let’s face it! Working on ship is not only tough physically but mentally as well. Dealing continuously with conflicting opinions, racing nerves, and altering egos, a mariner fortunately or unfortunately falls prey to a system, wherein molding according to a situation becomes imperative. Unlike in other fields, professional politics on ship can sometimes take a form too ugly to fathom.

Vikram Dileepan, a 4th engineer working with a reputed shipping company, narrates an incident which changed his point of view not only on certain aspects of the shipping world but also on the complexity of life we live.

The Ugly Side of Life on Ship – True Story

Note: Any reference or description relating to anyone living or dead is a coincidence only. The names of those involved have been changed to protect their actual identity.

For a Few Kind Words…

He seemed a good kid when I recruited him. He was sharp, young and oblivious to the way in which life is beheld in the merchant navy. He wanted to be a deck cadet. Let me call him Raj, for the sake of our convenience.

Raj was an ambitious kid from my point of view. “I want to be a Captain, sir”, he told me the moment he entered the interview hall. He was wearing a black tie with a blue shirt which seemed to complement his deep set green eyes and tall lanky frame. For a kid whose mother had passed away at 10 and had to help raise two little sisters all on his own, he had done a pretty good job. He wanted to head to sea to educate his sisters and help his father out. I vividly remember his presence which seemed far beyond his years and an intelligence coupled with maturity that could have been easily mistaken for overconfidence.

Two years later, on a cold winter morning, my Blackberry buzzed to life at 3 A.M.

“Sir, I am sending back the cadet. He has had some…..problems onboard and we cannot afford to have him here, lest risk commercial pressures of getting the ship arrested”, my captain called me from the vessel. As I proceeded deeper into an annoying conversation, I shook off my disbelief when I heard the words, “Sir, the kid tried to kill himself …….in US waters. We had to inform the port, his parents and you. The Chief Officer has reported his mental instability. He is being accompanied by a US Marine till he is in safe hands.”

I dazed off just a moment to remember Raj and wondered myself if the sea could really change a person to that extent. Wearily, I breathed soft reassurances to Raj’s troubled father over the phone and headed off to the airport to receive the kid.

Three hours later, I saw a glimpse of the sad green eyes that were once jubilant with enthusiasm. Accompanying him was a seven foot tall US Marine who sat as grim as he appeared when he had arrived. When I went on to thank him for his service. He greeted me with a surprisingly pleasant smile and assured me that he was just doing his duty and there was no need to go about thanking him. Just when I was about to leave, he wanted to have a word with me, “ Sir, I have escorted madmen ranging from psychosis patients to schizophrenics in my career and I guarantee you that the kid is mentally very stable but if you insist he is not, then he must be the most pleasant madman I have ever come across.”

As I handed over Raj to his father and headed home, I could not shake off the Marine’s words and how it coincided with so much of my own opinion about Raj’s mental condition. I had left him bundled in his father’s arms, tinged with a feeling of guilt. On the drive back home, I gazed out on to the dew covered prairies and tried to let go of the missing pieces in the story that my mind was battling with.” What happens on the ship stays on the ship”, I told myself.

Today, I am older by a year, not any wiser. A year since I forgot all about the day when I last saw Raj sobbing away only to drench his father’s shirt at the airport. I ran across him at the same airport at the same terminal. Fate or Irony! I’d dare not guess.

He fell to my toes asking for my blessings the moment he saw me. Embarrassed and pinched by a sharp sense of guilt, I went on to ask him how he was doing and how his father was. He tried unsuccessfully to withhold a sad smile and told me, “Sir, he died six hours after you left me at the airport a year ago. He could not take the shock that I was mentally unstable, especially when I was not. Sir, I was framed by the Chief Officer who had certain concerns about me. He ran after me onto the deck to hit me and trying to evade him, I fell overboard into the water. Saving himself, he reported a suicide attempt. That is all there is to it. ”

When I tried to process those words, I could not. I was too dazed to react to him. I bid him goodbye as he boarded his flight. I sat there for another hour at an isolated area of the terminal, long after collecting my bags, trying to absolve my self-doubt. But no matter how many times I told myself, “There was nothing you could have done”, my thoughts travelled to the orphaned sisters who were still in school and the green eyed brother who went out to sea to educate them.

A few kind words, those were all that he needed, be it sea or be it shore.

A few kind words, those that could have changed his life.