December 16, 2010

Chaos Theory

The phone rang a couple of years ago at six in the evening. “Captain, this is Chaotic Shipmanagement,” a voice told me. “We are sorry that we have had to prepone...”

“Is that an actual word, prepone?” I wanted to know.

“We apologise,” the voice went on, ignoring the sailor as usual, “but you will have to join tomorrow instead of next week since we have royally screwed up as usual. Therefore, we have booked your flight from home to Mumbai so early tomorrow morning it is actually tonight. Your flight out of India is in the afternoon, after your medicals that you can go do directly after landing in Mumbai, and other formalities, ticketing and videoconferencing with the Superintendent that have to be done before 1PM his time so he can have a martini with his lunch.”

“What?? No way. Please find somebody else, since I am too old to rock and roll and too young to die after being run ragged like this.”

“Please oblige us this time, Captain, because the owners, they...” I tuned out the rest of the spiel, almost decided that I would not join. It had happened too often.

But a sailor and a dog never learn.

In Mumbai next day, I dumped my gear at the office and went for my medicals in that well known hole in the wall place where I was sampled, x-rayed, blood, HIV tested and subjected to other unmentionable things within minutes. I also found out, once again, what a high speed strip dancer’s life must be like, only my performance was in three different rooms seemingly simultaneously (I had to appear all elegantly dressed between the rooms to boot). Non-seamen should really try this sometime. Excellent for blood circulation and raising one’s heart rate appropriately, though it can be argued that the same effect can be had more easily by munching on potato chips while watching a Monica Bellucci movie.

Next, return to Alcatraz- the office-for videoconferencing. The Mumbai honcho of Chaotic came in and sat down off camera as a technician got everything ready. The honcho wasn’t part of the movie, but he combed his hair anyway.

I took out a small scribbling pad I always carry in my top shirt pocket just in case the Superintendent has something useful to say.

“No, no!” the honcho told me, holding out what looked like a full ream of A4 size photocopying paper, alarmed that I wasn’t taking the proceedings seriously enough. “Take this.” I politely declined, and wondered to myself if I could have a rum and coke instead to get me going.

The Superintendent appeared on the big screen. “Captain, I have here the signing off Master’s handover notes that I want to read to you point by point....”

“Can’t you email them to the office instead?” I asked him, “I can read them on the flight instead of wasting your time now.” And mine too, I muttered under my breath.

“Great!” the greatly relieved man said, with the look of somebody who has saved fifteen minutes of time that seemed to be hitherto running out. “I will leave you in the able hands of Chaotic Mumbai then. The ship is arriving in Aden in three days.”

End of conference and round two to me. Or so I thought, until I found out that Chaotic had booked me on a round the world trip to Aden, where I would arrive concurrently with the ship. (Mumbai-Delhi-Singapore-Sana’a-Aden, with twelve hour halts for allegedly connecting flights everywhere including at Delhi). Very nice of Chaotic. Join the navy and see the world.

There should be a law against this.

There should also be a law against useless pre-joining briefing of Masters, done mostly to tick those nice boxes in some checklist. Frankly, those briefings are an ordeal, like those dodgy company seminars that mariners are uniquely inflicted with. I would rather go through a TSA body cavity search at a major US airport. Twice.

Chaotic used to love those conferences too, and could not understand why I refused to attend, especially after they had bent over backwards and got all their other seafarers to contribute 500 Rupees per head for dinner. I told them it was the principle of the thing, but they were not happy at all, and rewarded me with a few junk ships over the years. (To work on, not as presents).

I was caught for a seminar once, though, and flew to Chennai in peak summer to attend that critically important meeting. Or at least I thought it was important, because it had a theme and all, much like a hoity toity wedding in Delhi.

Chennai, as you know, is unbearably hot and sticky in summer. So there I was, bags dropped at a cheapish hotel they had booked me into after the flight even though I was paying, standing sweating in the lobby of another (much better) hotel after a long, dusty, hot and humid auto rickshaw ride. Soon, a Chaotic minor functionary (the same one who had called me at 6pm a year ago) with a frown on his face stepped up to me.

"Captain, you are not wearing a necktie!!”

How observant these people are, I thought. No wonder they are going places.
“Err, no, I am not,” I told him. “I fear I might asphyxiate while I am dehydrating.”

He ignored me as usual. “Here, take mine,” he said, whipping off his glaringly psychedelic tie and putting it around my neck, like a coy Hindu bride garlanding her husband-to-be at their wedding.

I hoped, as I walked into the conference room, that everybody had sunglasses on. That tie was a killer.

To add to my misery, they served us- can you imagine, in that land of delicious South Indian coffee- they served us some lukewarm and insipid instant. The only thing missing was the three-in-one sachet.

Never mind, I told myself, taking an aisle seat towards the back of the hall in case I had to make a quick getaway, beggars can’t be choosers. Most of the other seagoing officers seemed to settle down around me. One can always recognise sailors at these dos- they are the ones looking the most uncomfortable in their formal clothes and jackets and too tight collars. I bet they go home and jump straight into overalls just to feel comfortable once again. But I digress.

Soon a man I had never seen in my life got up on stage and told me that all of us were part of one big Chaotic family. Soon another man I had never seen in my life told us that we were his best assets, and that he would stand by me no matter what. All very heady stuff, although I much prefer such declarations to come from my wife.

Sitting comfortably for the first time in five hours since I had left home to take the flight to Chennai, sweat evaporating in the air-conditioning, collar button surreptitiously undone, amongst declared family and with compliments washing over me like gentle ripples on Marina beach, I felt really good. I had just leaned back and closed my eyes when something growled in the aisle in front of me.

Alarmed, I snapped my eyes open, just in time to see a Chief Engineer elbowing a Master next to him and whispering aggressively in his ear.

“Boss,” the Chief said. “Sleep if you must, but at least don’t snore!”


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