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Reflections on a voyage

There is a great variety of entertainment shows, but, for the vast majority of people, the greatest entertainment seems to be the plentiful free food

Manish Nandy | New Delhi |

A bright yellow cap suddenly blew by in the air and I instinctively put out a hand to catch it. It twirled around my index finger in the strong breeze, before I firmly grasped it and brought it in.
“Thank you so much,” said a grateful young woman, who had given up on her cap, until a stranger – me – retrieved it from the gust of wind.
The phenomenon of a wayward cap is perfectly intelligible when you realize it occurred on the sunny, windy top deck of a large sea liner. I am in a ship, a massive ship with twenty decks, holding nine thousand people. It is virtually a city on the water.
I am more used to a plane than a ship, especially a ship dedicated to entertainment. I have scant use for the huge casino or the ostensible bargain sale of jewelry and clothes. Not being James Bond, I am not itching to make a pile of money with cards, nor lusting for gems or garbs like one of his many paramours. There are a bunch of shows, some musical and some athletic, and I attend a few as my mood dictates. I rather like the abundance of bistros and restaurants sprinkled at different levels, where I can eat or drink any time I want, just as I do at home. Not yoked to office hours any longer, I consume the way a free man should: when I feel the need to do so.
I used to know a ship’s captain who joked, “A cruise is a cross I bear when I have to.” His point was that all kinds of people save up money for a cruise and enter on it with extravagant expectations; as a captain, he had to struggle to meet their unrealistic dreams and flimsy complaints. He cited an elderly teacher with false teeth who grumbled about overdone steak to a young temptress who entertained at a time too many beaus, who in turn started a noisy fight. Remembering him I am grateful enough for a beautiful, quiet room with peaceable neighbors.
When I wake up, I pull the curtains and see the reassuring sight of the blue Caribbean Sea, glistening in the morning light. I open the glass door and step onto a small terrace, where they have thoughtfully placed a table and two chairs. It is a great place to sit and write. Or just to dream and dawdle, and watch the modest waves created by the boat I am riding. Amazingly, the behemoth creates very little noise – I haven’t even heard a roar or a whistle that I associate with steamers – and I hear only a mild hum. The water is a beautiful cobalt blue, with white foam and occasionally some yellow algae.
There is a great variety of entertainment shows, but, for the vast majority of people, the greatest entertainment seems to be the plentiful free food. Young and old, I found everybody eating all the time, exactly the opposite of what doctors would recommend for a visibly obesity-tilted crowd. The open decks were crowded with distinctly underdressed men and women, the latter clearly in bigger numbers, soaking in the immoderate sun, again in utter defiance of what doctors recommend. I have no such love of the midday sun and feel content to get some exposure only when I walk at home in the morning and at dusk.
If not the food or the sun, or even the plebeian entertainment, what then does help me pass the time? I only have to pose that question to feel embarrassed by it. Why should I need, like a child, to be fed entertainment by the spoonful? A child left to herself finds a thousand ways to amuse herself. An adult, with a modicum of education and experience, has an enormous fund of resources to find a diversion. The whole world around him is waiting to flood him with engrossing material. Some pre-packaged entertainment material, like a film or a play, may be pleasantly engaging, but it is a pathetic being who must be constantly fed such stuff to be amused or feel engaged with the universe.
Severed from my familiar world of friends, neighbors, acquaintances and even my home or familiar surroundings, I seem to have developed a closer relationship with my very temporary cabin in the ship. Because of my nomadic life, I have stayed in hundreds of hotels, but never have I struck such a close rapport with my tiny desk, my minuscule shower or my pint-sized terrace. I lie on a deck chair and watch the wide blue sky and rediscover the reconfiguring clouds that I don’t remember having noticed since I was in school. Given a few more days, I might find mysteries in the carpet on my floor that nobody has noticed. There is something to be said for the presence of leisure and total absence of distractions like the phone and internet.
At the end of a week, an unbelievably uneventful serene seven-day stretch, I am walking down the gangplank and emerging from the large ship, when I notice again the bright yellow cap and underneath a luminous smile of acknowledgment. She recognizes me. What better reward than that silent recognition of my brief legerdemain!