Short Story – amitava chakrabarty

ALL three of us were sent to sea. After the first semester exams, the day of the result was like ice-cream dipped in chilli sauce. Cold and hot, in tandem. Some of us did so badly that our training officer shouted his lungs out for half an hour each on every individual candidate, announcing that dark clouds hovered in the sky of our career. Some who just managed to scrape through had their bit too and none of us did particularly well. Three of us who just managed to make it were ordered to join the pilot vessel for our sea training.
   Released from the heat of his volley of fire, we emerged and headed straight for the New Empire Talkies to cool our nerves. Hollywood movies acted as good boosters those days.  Demi Moore revived the souls of six sulking trainees in the cool ambience of the hall.
   Binu, Kishan and I were the new apprentices that the chief officer got to run the show. Binu was a lanky fellow from the suburbs. His oily hair had distinct curls, as if reflecting the complexities within his skull. A few white strands on his pate were indicative of the problems in his tummy. Involuntarily, he produced an occasional jerk of his left shoulder — a mania, you can say — when he became serious. Krishna, on the other hand, was a village lad who had his rustic ways – both in his behaviour and his speech. He could never pronounce “S” and would, instead, say “Ch”. So all his ships would become chips, all his sirs would become chirs and all his buses would become buches. He was jet black, bright-eyed and erect, and walked with a steady gait, almost like a soldier. All his life he dreamed of joining the Army, which he would say “depench (defence), but as luck would have it he landed up as an apprentice in this mundane marine world.
   The day of sailing finally arrived. We knew that on board we were to keep the ship spick and span. We also had to do bridge duty at the wheelhouse for four hours a day so that we could gather the abc of ship handling. Just as the ship cleared the lock gate and proceeded downriver, we were assigned to paint the wooden lifeboat. It was an old antique piece with older wooden strakes. Life within it during a storm would have been deadlier than floating with a life jacket outside.
   “Probably Vasco da Gama brought this antique with him,” gushed Binu, thumping a generous amount of paint that the bosun (boatswain) gave us, onto the wooden body. The spray of bubbles that recoiled from the rough surface made a blobby print on Krishna&’s Face.
   “Can’t you chee, you idiot!” he shouted, wiping his face on the sleeves of his boiler suit.
   “Oh! I am cho chorry, Krichna,” Binu quipped.
   This added fuel to his fire. Insecurity was lurking within Krishna since he joined us. This was coupled to the fact that he was compelled to sail along with some “urban brats”. Impulsively, he dipped his brush into his tub and swung it in air, directing it towards Binu. The spray of paint cut him diagonally, his new boiler suit dashed with heavy dotted lines. I was too stunned to react.
   Suddenly the chief officer appeared from nowhere and stood on the deck. “Holi is far off, son!” he said sternly. “And the ship is no place for your romance with colours. Both of you will do an extra hour of painting today. After you finish with the boat you two will carry your bucket and brush to the forecastle and report to the Serang. He will tell you where to paint,” He left.
   “Damn it!” yelled Krishna. “All this happened because of you – you dirty bugger.”
   Binu produced a bundle of bidis from one of the numerous pockets of his boiler suit and lit one with a cheap plastic lighter that one can buy in trains, buses or paan shops.
   Cigarettes were a luxury for us in those days as our stipend was paltry. Smoking in front of seniors was a crime. So we had to search for suitable corners to light our fags. Krishna had a regular supply of cash from home, his father being a teacher and owner of a sizable amount of cultivable land on the fringes of the town towards the border. So there was no dearth of hard cash in his family. Binu and I were from the struggling middle class of the early ’90s – both our fathers were on the verge of retirement and without proper savings to boot. So we had to fend for ourselves.
   Krishna could afford an occasional Gold Flake and we had to “muska-lagao” him for a counter. After this incident, Binu and Krishna were not on speaking terms. Binu might not be willing to break the ice but his urge for an occasional counter compelled him to strike up a conversation with Krishna. But the latter was adamant. He wouldn’t budge from his stance of keeping a safe distance from the both of us – his urban urchins.
   Within two days, Binu&’s urge to have a cigarette got better of his moral ethos. On that day, when Krishna was on the bridge, Binu started plundering Krishna&’s baggage. When he found the packet of Gold Flake, he jumped with joy. Within minutes, rings of smoke were spiralling out of the porthole of our cabin. Satisfaction multiplies manifold if it is obtained for free. Nicotine works wonders on the brain when it doesn’t hurt the pockets.
   Binu&’s occasional jerk of the shoulder became more frequent. Gratification might have some links with mania, I thought.
   “Who has lifted my Gold Flake? I kept six of them and now I see only five. Binu must be the culprit – that bloody stinking break dancer!” Krishna shouted. His dark face wore a violet aura.
   He had the habit of occasionally looking at himself in the round-shaped mirror tucked away in some deep corner of his kit bag. He would brush his hair with all sincerity and rub his face with both hands before taking a final peek in the round-shaped reflector. Only when he was satisfied with his image would he step out of the cabin. Binu thus gave him a bizarre name – “Commando Facial”. Facial, because this unnatural affinity towards his face, and Commando because of his inner instinct to join the depench service.
   “He will pay for it. And you!” he pointed at me.
   “If I see you with my Gold Flake I will throw your books out of the porthole,” he warned me before slamming the door on his way out, without caring to look in his mirror.
   I thought there would be a catfight that evening. Instead, there was a complete lull. The silence was killing. I tried to concentrate on my books but had to abort the idea as strange brainwaves were crisscrossing the room. Silence couldn’t have been louder.
   The smoke of bidis and cigarettes filled the air. I felt suffocated and left the room to sit in the poop deck behind. Darkness gloved the entire expanse. Stars filled the black sky. The horizon was invisible but it must have been where the stars ended in the distance. The light  of a ship, which was in anchorage, washed the waves near the hull. A cool breeze laden with the smell of moisture and salt worked wonders on my jittery nerves. Never had I thought of such an ambience while in training. Suddenly home was far, far away.
   That night when we went to the dining room we heard that we would recede to a nearby harbor as a storm had formed in the bay. My heart leaped with joy. We would walk on solid ground and enjoy some hours of shore leave.
Krishna had night duty on the bridge. The next morning he came down to the cabin with a smile on his tired face. “Captain gave me two days of shore leave. I will visit my home. He will give you leave too but on the next voyage.” Euphoria was spilling from his voice.
I was to report to the bridge within a few minutes, but my steps were too heavy to take me up the accommodation ladder. The rustic lad somehow made the best use of his feigned innocence and hoodwinked the master. Binu was oblivious of the entire episode as he was snoring profusely when I left our room. I was sure that he would lament not being the first to propose shore leave to the captain. The way up to the bridge was the most tiresome in my entire training.
That evening Krishna left when our vessel anchored safely in the harbor. The steward came to the cabin with a flask of tea and his mandatory count of two cream cracker biscuits for each. Binu took the flask and left the biscuits intact.
“Why, chote saab? This is the only variety the company supplies,” the steward said.
“Listen! Go and give this to your grandfather, your Captain. I don’t have blood sugar.”
The steward didn’t waste a second more in our room. Binu, on the other hand, started exploring his bag in search of his ration of snacks, a packet of bhujia. With the zeal of an explorer, he probed every corner, but the bhujia was gone.
   “Have you seen my snacks?” he asked.
“How on earth would I know about it? Go and ask the same of your friend Krishna,” I replied angrily.
Binu dropped like a paralytic patient on his bed. The bugger had taken his revenge.
Miles away, “Commando Facial” must have been savouring the bhujia, seated comfortably in the “buch” on his way home.
The tea was getting cold in the flask.