As a blacklisted ship sails from Hong Kong across the stormy South China Sea, its motley crew held hostage by a cruel, unrelenting ocean, Aiwa Maru begins as a promising existentialist, monsoon read. Penned by a seaman, Anant Samant, this Marathi cult novel of the 70s has been translated into English by another sailor, Prashant Pethe.
Tricked into sailing aboard the MT Aiwa Maru, a vessel deemed unfit to be at sea, its characters are trapped as the craft sails into the eye of a storm. We watch people and events unravel through the eyes of the young Second Mate (and the author’s namesake). When Samant chances upon his old colleague, Deepak Upasani, on the same ship, he looks forward to familiar company. However, the arrival of Upasani’s new bride Ujjwala heralds a different kind of storm, and emotional turmoil, in the lives of all on board.
The dangers of the sea are coupled with a distortion of reality, with everyone in thrall of this derelict vessel that lacks proper lifeboats and crucial equipment. As it travels deeper into the sea, the ship reveals hitherto unknown facts about its occupants. Sex, abuse, death and destruction are part of this dystopian voyage. A lone, vulnerable woman at the mercy of a sadistic husband and in the midst of an all-male multiracial crew, Ujjwala soon undergoes a dark and manic transformation. The death of innocence — whether real or metaphorical — is a leitmotif on the ill-fated ship whose crew remains suspended in a sinister, watery limbo.
Samant’s characters are varied: from the hesitant young cadet Sengupta and the determined Captain Ross, to Second Engineer Upasani for whom his wife is a sexual object, and the experienced old hand Bosun for whom the presence of Ujjwala — or for that matter, any woman — on board, is an ill omen. While the focus of the human drama is the threesome of Upasani, Ujjwala and the narrator, it is the ship that emerges as a central character. Those on board are simultaneously awed and repulsed by it, just as Samant is by Ujjwala.
There is much that is metaphorical in the novel and most of it has to do with women. If Ujjwala is symbolic of the dangerous ocean, then the storm ‘Ana’ is Samant’s Filipino love interest’s namesake; neither woman can ever become completely his. The men aboard Aiwa Maru try in vain to tame the wild, uncontrollable ship, just as they do their women. While the narrator is among the more conscientious of these men, even heroic at times, he too is eventually as fallible as the others.
The idea of Aiwa Maru is greater than the book itself — that of the mental make-up of the sailor setting out on an uncertain sea. While the first half of the novel is gripping, the second half pulls it down. Dialogues, at times, come across as stilted and melodramatic while the women characters are dated stereotypes. The novel was written in the 70s and Ujjwala transforms from a meek, saree-clad woman to a tempestuous, Westernised, bikini-clad vamp/temptress, reminiscent of the female stereotypes of Indian cinema of that era. Meanwhile, the fiercely independent ‘foreign’ woman, Ana Basilino, exercises her freedom of choice, whether to lose her virginity or to have a child out of wedlock.
The ship too is a woman, described by Captain Ross as “still in her prime” and capable of being transformed into the “beautiful new bride” that she once was. The word ‘slut’ is used freely to describe Ujjwala — shown as a victim of circumstance whose life is steered (even if unsuccessfully) by her men — but the idea of a woman expressing her sexuality is no longer the taboo it once was. Then, again, these are the ingredients that make Aiwa Maru a popular, cult novel and its shades of grey are what lend to its appeal.
Janhavi Acharekar is a
freelance writer based in Mumbai.
She is the author of the novel, Wanderers, besides several