Navy Nagar Parade Ground Sea Wall,
Colaba, Mumbai, India
Wednesday 26th November, 2008 (19.00hrs)
Sunsets are beautiful, long drawn out affairs in India. The Almighty may have overlooked giving us mineral wealth, but sunsets over the sea? Boy, has he been more than generous with them. This evening outdid other evenings in sheer splendour. A red and orange glow set the western horizon on fire.
The Japanese container ship I had been following was barely visible now against the afterglow of the sunset. The Amaretsu Maru. I had read the name off the hull with my Oberwerk Ultra. The Oberwerk is mid-range stuff, still way above anything you might find off the shelf at Walmart. It is crystal clear at 5000 meters and the Back Bay is only 3.5 kms wide. The night vision is a bit grainy but still good if you know what you are looking for.
I couldn’t afford a Kowa. I used to pack one though, when I was Lt Commander on the Sindhudhanush. The Kowa could grab star light and enhance the image resolution, making the it seem like you were viewing something that was sitting right next to you in broad daylight. For my current hobby though, which happens to be ship gazing, the Oberwerk was doing just fine.
Twenty minutes prior, the Amaretsu had passed within ten cables of the sea wall on which I was perched (a cable is a nautical unit of distance and roughly equivalent to 185 meters). As I zoomed in on the vessel, I discerned around five or six tiny figures, crew members, leaning against the rail, amidships, dwarfed by the mountain of neatly stacked, multi-colored containers behind them. P&O NedLloyd, Hapag Lloyd, Maersk, COSCO; the containers were a jumble of brand names garishly painted over their rust-colored bases.
I wondered what the seamen were doing, standing there idly. In the Navy where I had been, there was no such thing as an idle seaman. Perhaps they were just taking a breather, after the extreme exhaustion of setting sail. Or perhaps they were catching the last sight of land for the next several months.
I know how that feels, the melancholy that sweeps through you when you watch people scurrying like tiny ants, around the wharf. You cling on till the very last minute, before the coastline disappears completely. The Dhanush’s range was virtually infinite. A nuclear powered sub is limited only by the periodic need for provisioning (food supplies, etc). Leaving shore in a sub is like severing an umbilical cord.
Maybe the guys at the rail were watching me and saying to each other,’ Will you just look at that lucky bastard now?’ But then, maybe they were just standing there and taking a long pee. I used to do that when I was on watch as a sub-lieutenant on the Nilgiri. Standing precariously over the raised parapet on which the stern rail was mounted, I would let loose and watch the stream disappear into the churning wake, turning the sea infinitesimally more acidic. Leonardo di Caprio would have done the pretty much the same thing at the bow rail, had Kate Winslet jumped before he arrived, I thought with a chuckle.
Amaretsu literally means ‘of the heavens’, an interesting name for an ocean-going vessel to have, I thought to myself, as I leaned back on my splayed palms on the concrete seawall. I was sitting facing the surf, my legs dangling over those oddly bulging star-shaped concrete blocks that were haphazardly placed in the sand, to break up the waves. The Colaba seawall was where I came and sat after I had my jog. I would sit there catching my breath, dripping sweat all over the concrete, letting the cool sea breeze hit me like a shock wave. Till six months back, I had company. Shanta. She came along most days, when she felt a bit better.
I ran while Shanta walked. Reaching way ahead of her, I would be sitting on the sea wall parapet long before she came trudging slowly up. We would sit on the concrete parapet and pass the Oberwerk back and forth between us. When it was my turn, I watched the ships and when she had the binoculars, she followed the gulls and the fishing skiffs. When we got bored looking, Shanta would take out some chutney sandwiches and we munched quietly, our arms round each other, like lovers on Marine Drive.
Sometimes, Shanta wanted to play ‘what’s the good word’. We would sit there thinking up words that only we recognized. We played the final game two days before Shanta went into Jaslok for the last time. It had been her turn to think of a word and she thought of ‘heaven’. I lost that turn, even after she kept bombarding me with a rush of clues, over and beyond the maximum three permitted. The last one had been an exasperated, ” Okay, you old mutt, it’s a place we’ll both go live in and have a ball, at some point in time. “
The Amaretsu Maru was a very large vessel. I figured it probably shoved aside a hundred thousand tons of the Arabian Sea as it battered and bludgeoned its way forward. And now it was gone, blended in with the dusk, swallowed up like Shanta, over the edge.
Off to the south-east, across the Back Bay, the Nhava Sheva Terminal of the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, was ablaze with lights now, looking like some alien space port from a Ridley Scott sci-fi picture.
There used to be a time when the lights were a very welcome sight.
(to be continued…)