Short Story: The Captain’s Beard by Hanish Rahane
MV Red Fin was a very small ship. She was also a very old ship. As soon as the wave swell hit medium, she would start to make ungodly sounds — as if she were breaking. More often than not she had taken her crew to the brink of disaster. She was a problem child, but that’s what made her so special. Like any difficult ship, she was very close to her crew’s hearts. The crew took pleasure in the feeling of being the only ones who could resist her every whim… who could understand her mind. It was an unwilling compromise. They tried to keep her happy; she tried to keep them safe. The crew comprised of twenty men with Captain Mohandass in command.
Captain Mohandass was quite different from Mohan the man. Behind a façade of a long, magnificent, philosopher-like, snow white beard lay a supremely bigoted mind. He had never liked visiting Pakistan and was rather unshakable in his ‘hindutvavadi’ (Hindu supremist) beliefs. But he tried to contain his resentment…to keep his nerves calm. However, as time passed that day, Mohan was starting to get grouchy. ‘They better not harm my ship or my crew.’ Mohan thought, ‘Or ill teach them a lesson.’ The last thing he wanted was ‘an incident’. Not at this port. Not in the ‘enemy territory’. All operations had to be meticulously executed. It was his responsibility to ensure that.
I was the junior most officer among the crew. My friend was deck cadet Sidhu. It was a time when we had, for the first time, left our names back at home. Here, onboard, he was ‘cadet’, or simply called ‘boy’ and I was called ‘junior’ or ‘panchu’ (a hindi slang for 5th engineer).
Sidhu lived in New Delhi, but his family hailed from Pakistan. As soon as we had berthed along the Bin Quasim harbour, he and I shared a cigarette. Looking at the dusty, barren shore, he recollected the conversation he had had with his father the night before we sailed. Sidhu had said to me, “Sir I told dad yesterday that I’d try to go out…that we’d be near Karachi by morning. We used to have a house here. I’d love nothing more than to see it once.”
Sidhu was not given permission to go ashore that day. Very few Indians visit Pakistan during their lifetime, and very few Pakistanis ever visit India; though only a few decades earlier, we had for generations been free to live in and travel across each other’s lands. None of us were allowed to leave the ship in Karachi.
We had berthed along the Bin Quasim dock by evening that day. My first impression of the dock was that it looked exactly like Mumbai. No person of Indian origin would feel out of place here. Old rusty trucks whose body had been warped by several major collisions and had not been repaired because, like in India, the thinking was, why fix it when it’s going to bend and break again? The stench of rotting garbage floated from the sea… and the flies… But all of this was very familiar to our Indian sensibilities. I felt like I was back home. The only difference was the people driving those trucks dressed differently. They looked like Indians but dressed different…
“The only difference between the two countries,” I remember thinking to myself, “is that we dress differently.”
Three things were required to complete the Bin Qasimian ensemble — the traditional pathani kurta; the second, a piece of cloth that is usually dirty from all the accumulated dust in the air (this does not form a part of the regular attire, but is carried as a convenient handkerchief around the neck) and lastly the customary wad of tobacco stuffed in the left cheek.
Imran, the ‘truck-guy’ from ashore, had just boarded the ship. While Sidhu and I were making plans to go ashore, the pumping of sludge into black, oily trucks parked along the jetty had already begun. “Full night lagega (we will need the whole night),” Imran had declared. “Go have dinner sahaab, we take care here, everything we will see,” Imran knew what he was doing.
In exchange for the ship’s sludge, it was a practice among the port workers to give something back to the crew. It was their way of saying ‘thank you’. As there were no legal terms of exchange, Imran had brought with him a bucket of Pakistani Mutton Biryani for the crew. “Pakistan ka biryani is ekdum best ( Pakitan’s biriyani is absolutely the best.) Try it. Tell me afterwards if you like,” Imran insisted. The man was sweating in the scorching heat and dust now clung to every inch of his ‘handkerchief-scarf’. Sidhu brought him a can of cold soda and we barged in to try the ‘special biryani’.
One deck above Imran and the crew, inside the mess room, sat a fat and sulking Captain. “Aree cadet… panchu… listen… don’t eat that biryani those people sent haa, ” Mohan ordered as soon as we entered the mess room, “who knows what all they have put in it! That Imran fellow is ekdum (absolutely) shady, I’m telling you. I have a bad feeling about him. Have chief cook kaa biryani naa (have chief cook’s biryani). I know what all goes inside it, coz he makes it right in front of me.”
A frown had become permanently etched on his forehead. It seemed it would go only after we left Pakistan and he was breathing the air of the open sea once again. We agreed. But the charade lasted only for a while. As soon as he left, Sidhu and I heaped a giant portion of the Pakistani biryani on each of our plates. To this day, it is the best biryani I have ever eaten.
With our bellies stuffed with delicious kebabs and biryani, Sidhu and I headed back on deck expecting to find the sludge-pumping operation on with Imran in charge. But it had stopped!
Something had happened. An accident perhaps…
On the jetty a crowd had gathered. A panic-stricken chief officer was standing on the lowest rung of the gangway, only a step away from the jetty. But he had not stepped on the jetty. He was not allowed to. None of us were allowed to set foot on the jetty. Sidhu rushed down the rusty gangway and I ran down a deck to see my friend Imran, hoping I would get a first-hand account of what had happened.
Imran had a nonchalant expression. “Sahaab… that Mohommad from your ship ran out. What an idiot! He tried to run back but he stepped on something. Chipp sahaab(chief officer) ran down but shore-walla people picked him up and took him. I told chipp sahaab it’s okay. They will take him to hospital.”
“But Mohommad who?” I asked. There was no one by that name on board.
“I donno sahaab, I heard Port people shout Mohommad, big fat guy, bery (very) long safed (white) beard. Bhite (White) beard sahaab.” Immediately I realized what had happened. The Captain had stepped outside, injured himself and had been taken away. It only took a few minutes for Sidhu to rush back up and confirm Imran’s story. We were in enemy territory and the captain was missing.
All uniforms rushed up to the bridge. An Indian man had been taken away in Pakistan. International rules had already been broken. If there was a time to panic, it was now!
But no one except Imran had seen anything happen, so no one knew what to make of this story. Had the captain really been injured? So badly that he could not walk up to the ship? All shipboard operations were suspended and all effort was redirected towards finding out the Captain’s whereabouts. What that meant for the crew was- ‘do nothing and await further instructions’. In every possible corner, the crew members huddled up in groups of threes and fours — everyone with their own account of what they thought had happened, of what they had heard.
“Don’t worry Sirji. Wo Mohommad (Sir, that Mohammad) will be alright.” Imran jumped into our conversation.
“Aree Imran, he is not a crew member yaar (friend), he is the Captain.” I informed him. “Ohoho… Captain Sahaab tha kya(was it the captain)? Acha (Alright) still…no problems. Anyway sahaab, our time is up. Sludge walla truck( the truck with sludge) is leaving now. Call us again when you are ready to pump.”
“Ok Imran, Ill see you tomorrow.”
Imran was the only person who had the slightest idea of what had happened, and he too had to leave. It was going to be a waiting game from here on…
It was late in the night when they brought him back. All the crew had received phone calls in their cabins that informed them of the Captain’s safe return to the ship. Captain Mohan sat in his room with his right leg stretched out on a stool; a glass of whisky on his left and a glad chief officer on his right.
Muthu, the Sri-Lankan chief, was a happy-go-lucky man, but he panicked just as easily under pressure. We had all seen a glimpse of this panic when he had been standing on the bottom rung of the gangway…helpless. He was saying, “I have sorted out most of this stuff Sir. I’ll take your leave now. Get some rest. Truck-guy will be coming early morning tomorrow. We are expecting cargo completion by 6 am. I will give engine notice at 4 o clock.”
“Thanks chief,” Mohan replied. “Please wake me up if I oversleep.”
“Right Sir.” A relieved Muthu finally went to bed.
Mohan gulped down a sip of warm whiskey. It did nothing to reduce the pain. His eyes burned and his head ached as he tried to piece together the events that had occurred.
He looked at the bandage on his outstretched toe and could almost see the hole in his foot. That was the wound from where the nail had jutted out. For a moment he had experienced pain like never before.
His eyes had moistened instantly and he had seen a bearded man run towards him. He remembered muffled cries of “Bhaijaan(brother)”, “Akh kholiye janaab…aapka naam kya hai janaab(open your eyes, what’s your name)”.
“Moh…a…mo, ” he had tried to speak.
“Mohommad bhai ka pav pakdo (Hold brother Mohommad’s leg), ”a second voice had cut him off.
A third person had rushed to the scene. He was the first to address him as Hajji Mohommad. (Hajji is an honorific Islamic title given to one who completes the journey to Mecca and back). Immediately the wooden plank that bore the nail had been cut from the ground, and Mohan had been rushed to the hospital with a nail and a plank jutting out of his right toe.
He couldn’t stop thinking about it. He stroked his long beard as he was accustomed to, while in deep thought and realized what had happened. It was the Hajji Mohommad’s beard had made these men think he was a fellow Muslim, not just any Muslim, but a devoutly religious one upon whom the title of ‘Hajji’ was conferred. Not only had his enemy mistaken him to be one of them, but had also conferred upon him a title which they held in highest regard. Mohan was shaking with disbelief.
Mohan thought about his beard; of how it had helped him meet his wife; when they first met in a land where common people did not grow such long beards; of how he had argued with her that it was for him more of a social symbol, than a religious requirement — it stood for his undying conviction and commitment, to everything that he held dear. How she had been impressed by his ideas! His magnificent white beard… he had never thought one day it would benefit him in ways he had never imagined — that it would help him realise that all humans are the same. He had been carried by his enemies on their shoulders and taken to a hospital… all this in their country, where he was legally not allowed to enter.
Mohan continued to stroke the silky strands of white hair on his face. Maybe it was time to give up on his rigid beliefs.
He remembered Imran ‘the truck-guy’ but this time, as the sweet boy who had shared his home-cooked meal with the crew, the bearded men who had carried him to the hospital and called him a brother. He remembered how every other person onboard except him had failed to see these people as enemies or threats, not because they had put any kind of conscious thought into liking or disliking them but because it was a simple matter of necessity. They just needed to get along. All they had seen were colleagues who did the same kind of work. They saw them, most importantly, as people who shared mutual trust. Had they not trusted each other, their lives would be miserable. The job they were collectively responsible for would not have been completed.
Mohan’s wound was deep and his pain acute. But the frown on his forehead disappeared and he went to bed feeling relieved and happy. His crew had done a good job.
Hanish Rahane is a marine engineer by profession. He enjoys reading and writing short stories and wishes to write his first novel soon.
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