August 28, 2009

Call of the Wild

I used to think it happened only to me when on ‘leave’ between ships. I assumed that the slightly sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever the office called was unique to my metabolism, which asked, “Are they calling me back already!?’. Later on, I was relieved to hear from other mariners that this was normal and so was I, or as normal as a seaman can be anyway.

By the way, ‘leave’ is actually a euphemistic term for unemployment, don’t you think, given that I am not paid when I do not sail? (Begging your pardon, and please ignore this aside, potential employers. My sense of semantics is not appreciated by most anyway.)

Say what you will, but you cannot really blame the poor seaman for getting as jittery as a virgin bride gets as the day of reckoning approaches. With one difference: In his case, experience has reinforced his apprehension; ever since he was a trainee or a junior, a phone call has invariably preceded sudden and overwhelming bedlam.

From a mariner’s point of view, a typical pre joining scenario goes something like this:

1. Telephone call from company, (hereinafter called the call of the wild). You are required to be in the Mumbai office ‘immediately’. Seaman tries to flim flam and buys as much time as possible.
2. Hullabaloo at home. Wife upset. Kids confused. Seaman trying to simultaneously get his act together to go to work, lend emotional support to the family, handle his own conflicting feelings and complete the inevitable last minute stuff that needs to be done before departure. (Actually, we know that the turmoil is not helped by prolonging the inevitable; that only seems to make things worse. However, we never really learn. I much prefer sudden departures to prolonged ones, as I would a sudden death to one that lingers.)
3. Check in to Mumbai flight. End of Stage One. Switch to business mode even as one tries to come to grips with the wrench of leaving home. Are they safe? Do they have family and friend support if something goes wrong? Will the dog still be alive when I return? You know, stuff like that.
4. Arrival Mumbai. Rush to office or hotel to dump bags. Eventually rush to office anyway.
5. Assembly line process starts. Pre joining briefing (which is usually as scanty as your briefs and half as useful), go for medicals. Auto rickshaw to alleged doctor.
6. Everything from your heartbeat to your faecal matter is tested in fifteen minutes of controlled, impersonal and crudely systematic assembly line mayhem. This is how cattle must feel at the abattoir, one thinks. No seaman is alarmed by all this, though. He has done this before, and often, and survived. In fact, some of us even manage to pull up our zippers between the urine sample and the ECG.
7. Auto rickshaw back to office. Quick stop for a cold drink somewhere, mouth is too dry. Could be dehydration or distaste.
8. Assembly line almost complete. Ticket, Agents details, Ships name (Please ensure it is the one you had been briefed about). Result: one number mariner processed and ejected.
9. International flight. Time to start thinking about the ship one is joining and start gearing up for taking over. Provided one is not stopping en route for further briefings with the Owners, of course, which often adds to fatigue without adding to useful information.

In the last many years, my reluctance to sail, and therefore a honed instinct that tries its best to delay the inevitable, has created much friction at home. The shortage of officers has not helped: calls from manning agents (or Ship management Companies, as they like to be called) within a week after signing off from one ship have the potential to ruin one’s weekend for sure. So much so that I once started avoiding taking such calls. This is when the friction started at home, with a typical conversation with the wife going something like this:

Wife to me, “Capt. Persistent from ‘Run of the Mill Ship management’ Mumbai is on the phone”
Me to wife, “Tell him I am in the bathroom with diarrhoea.”
Wife: “I do not lie; you should know that by now. You talk to him or I will just tell him that you don’t want to talk to him.”

Me: “Gandhi was a great and honest man, but his wife must have had a tough time with all his experiments with truth.”

Wife: “Hmpff!”

This behaviour of mine is unprofessional; I am the first to admit. After all, a Master cannot hide in the toilet forever. However, I maintain that my conduct, unbecoming as it unfortunately is, is nonetheless more becoming than that of a Chief Engineer friend of mine, who simply disappears whenever he is expecting the call of the wild from his employers.

This gives rise to many bewildered managers. I recall one incident that happened many years ago, when the manning guy called me up from Bombay (I was in another city) to enquire about this Chief’s whereabouts.

Manning head, post pleasantries: “Where the @#$% is Tripathi?” (Name changed in case Tripathi is still doing this somewhere else)
Me: “How do I know? Ask his wife in Bombay”.
MH, annoyed: “I did. She says he left by train for your city yesterday to meet you.”
Me, genuinely bemused now: “Well, he may have reached this city, but he sure as hell hasn’t reached me.”
MH: (unprintable) hangs up.

A month or so later, I joined a ship and there was Tripathi, the Chiefest of all the Engineers, down at the gangway come to say hello.
“What happened, Chief?” I asked him later. “You sparked off a major inter city manhunt.”
“Yeah, they asked me a week later where I had been, after I resurfaced” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. “I told them that I had disembarked en route at yet another city to meet some friends.”