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A tight ship

In 1969, 12 of us medical students decided to set sail to Malaysia on a ship called the State of Madras. Our parents were a little apprehensive at first, as cruises were not as sophisticated as they are now and the dangers of sea travel were well known.

But the exuberance of youth and the excitement of a maiden voyage on a ship prevented us from looking at logistics, reality and the possibility of accidents. Somehow, we convinced our parents to pay for our deck tickets, the cheapest, and our Malaysian friends were only too happy to host us in their homes.

The deck, the most rugged part of the ship, was to be our hallowed abode for the next eight days. Fortunately, we got to experience a calm sea for the first three days, but on the fourth day, we were tossed around by the choppy waters, plunging many of us into severe sea sickness.

To make matters worse, the ship stopped at a port and traders got in with barrels and barrels of onions of all shapes and sizes. The overpowering smell of the merchandise aggravated our already tortured stomachs and made us retch even more. But nothing could curb the innate curiosity and enthusiasm to enjoy the wonders of the sea. We were back to our jolly selves in a couple of hours.

Deck beds

At night, we slept on the open deck after a tussle with the traders over the sleeping space. But a truce was reached when some of us picked up their native lingo and gave them free medical consultations. When we lay on our backs late in the evenings chatting and laughing, the deck seemed to bring a strange sense of camaraderie. It was just us, with the stars above, the onion smell and the glistening ocean throwing up an occasional dolphin or a flying fish. We marvelled at the contrasting nature of the gigantic ocean — fragile yet threatening, vulnerable yet dominating, flawlessly turquoise yet brimming with colourful marine life. I realised that only the deck could have taught me so many cosmic secrets that I would cherish for years to come.

Food was nothing to write home about, though we ate whatever was given to us without fuss. The same smell of sambar, rice, vegetables and chapatis cooking in the kitchen space pierced our nostrils. We had to stand in a line with plates and cups during meal times. One of our more fortunate friends managed to get a first-class cabin. He used to sneak food from his delicious spread and throw an occasional apple or orange at us from the upper deck. We would all make a dash to catch the prized possession and share it among us in a dramatic, frenzied pace.

The common bathroom that we had to share was a gymnast’s dream. The stubborn door refused to shut completely, but had to be held in place with a leg while manipulating the erratic shower with the other limbs. If the leg slipped, the door would blast open and reveal you taking a bath to your deck mates.

After a week of this spartan life, I wandered into the engine room and met the captain. By a strange coincidence, he was a friend of my cousin, a veteran naval officer. He was empathetic towards a group of naïve medical students and bumped up the status of our tickets. We got some decent lodgings, good bathrooms and better food at a nominal price.

Now, whenever we catch up, my friends and I can never stop reminiscing about the life on the deck — the joie de vivre, the intense card playing sessions, the whistling and the singing, the quiet moments that humbled us in front of the majestic sea and the glorious sunsets that quietened our raucous laughter. The life on the deck taught us the greatest lesson in life — the purest form of joy comes from the most basic form of living.

sreelatharadhakrishnan53@gmail.com

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 11:13:03 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/a-tight-ship/article33948205.ece

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