The news that the Directorate General of Shipping offices have moved out of their office-‘Jahaz Bhavan’ at Ballard Pier - to Kanjurmarg in Mumbai leaves me with mixed feelings. Yeah yeah, I know the move is supposed to be temporary; that in a couple of years, once the old and unsafe Jahaz Bhavan is razed and rebuilt, the DGS will move back. Temporary events in India have a history of becoming permanent, however. I hope that doesn’t happen here.
Even though I was living in Bombay in the seventies (having studied, in fact, at two colleges each just a couple of kilometers away from Jahaz Bhavan) I had never heard of it. Like so many of us, I first entered that building for the combined interview for the DMET engineering and Rajendra (ex Dufferin) Deck Cadets pre sea training courses. I was all of seventeen years old.
It was during that Jahaz Bhavan interview that I opted to join the deck side of the profession, even though I had selected engineering before the written test. (Why? Because a sailing officer I never knew earlier, and whom I met by accident on the road in Colaba, told me that the engine room was very hot, and I hate the heat. Such are the vagaries of life and the ease with which humungous decisions are made).
Anyway. My decision was met with some typical Indian middle class disappointment by my parents, who were convinced engineering was a respectable pursuit but navigation was not. And, after the letter arrived telling me I had been selected for the Training Ship Dufferin/Rajendra, the home situation was not helped by my sister shouting gleefully to all and sundry that the “Duffer” (me, obviously) was “in.”
My next visit to Jahaz Bhavan was for my Second Mate’s oral examinations with the well-known Capt. Gill, who immediately started proceedings by locking me up in a room with a paper and pen after telling me to jot down the titles of all the hundreds (thousands?) of Merchant Shipping Notices I knew of. Then he went away. As time passed, I wondered if he would ever return; I had visions of my body being found days later in Jahaz Bhavan, dehydrated and starved, with urine and crap all over the floor and deep gouges that my nails had made in the walls.
I remained rattled even later, which resulted in my inadvertently unscrewing the vernier drum right off Capt Gill’s sextant- he had asked me to take the horizontal angle between two cranes (one of them moving!) in the docks that Jahaz Bhavan overlooks even today. Capt Gill eventually passed me after two days, probably out of pity more than anything else.
I was meant to spend much more time at Jahaz Bhavan, something that became clear when I appeared at my Master’s exams some years later. My orals were taken by Capt Prasad, who was the Principal Officer then, I think. He was also without any doubt the principal terror as far as the orals were concerned; he had a terrible reputation of failing everybody, especially first attempt candidates like me.
I still remember the look of pity I would get from all at the MMD and DGS offices every time he called me in for the exams, which was twice every single day for twenty two days straight, including Sundays. (In the mornings come to MMD, in the afternoon- Jahaz Bhavan, he announced on day one, in a tone jailors undoubtedly use even today when they inform prisoners about scheduled body cavity searches).
I lived half my life at Jahaz Bhavan for those three weeks; I knew that building better than my own house. A quarter of a century later, I still remember it all vividly. I still consider passing my Master’s orals from Capt Prasad one of the highlights of my professional life; I still get satisfaction from that.
Thousands of us have made the rounds of the MMD and DGS offices before, during and after our exams. We have spent hours sitting and waiting for Godot on those wooden benches. We have paced up and down, cursed like sailors and leapt with joy in those corridors. We have seen both the depths of despair and the exhilaration of victory within those walls. Irreplaceable memories reside there.
And so it does not matter to me that Jahaz Bhavan is going to be rebuilt. My real problem, I think, is that it is going to be razed at all. That those walls and corridors are going to be at all demolished seems to be the mini tragedy here. It is almost as if part of my history is going to be erased.