By Hanish Rahane
Dedicated to the Mission to Seafarers and Seamen’s Club Tilbury
Back in the year 2011, I was 22 years old — a ‘soldier’. It was December when the following events transpired. At the age when boys struggle to find their place in the world, a time when all thoughts and opinions are either black or white, my ‘soldier’ had decided to leave his surroundings and venture out to the sea. I was a panch sahab (5th engineer) on the majestic ship- MV Red Fin.
The crew was of mixed nationality. Our Chief was from Bangladesh. The other engineers from China, the Captain was from Russia, and the crew, from the Philippines. The voyage was from Mumbai to London over the Arabian sea and through the scenic Suez Canal. It was a day in the month of December when we were calling at the port of Tilbury docks near London. It was the last port of our voyage. Tilbury, at the time was a small, shoddy town whose only claim to fame was the newly built port. Also, ours was the very first ship to enter this new port and, as most of it was still under construction, the area around it still seemed like a muddy wasteland.
Now, any young seafarer will tell you that the moment the ship touches the jetty there are certain frequencies of sounds and vibrations that completely disappear on account of being ‘damped’ by the solid bulk of land. There are numerous such unconscious sensory observations that get registered in the seafarers mind continuously — awake or asleep, in dreams or in reality. I call it the sailor’s sixth sense. The fuel transfer pump stopping to draw suction due to a choked strainer, the auxiliary blowers cutting in as the speed was reduced during manoeuvring, the sound of the telegraph bell ringing or the customary series of a hundred alarms as soon as you turn the engines off — sounds like muffled air horns– these were events that were automatically registered in my mind while I was in a state of deep sleep. And, hence, what happened might seem strange to a normal person. But I woke up knowing that we had berthed, although I had not seen it happen.
An excited panch sahab rushed towards the gangway ladder, scribbled his name on the gangway register, hurriedly snatched the nearest walkie-talkie, informed the Captain of his departure, and was soon out and about, walking along the muddy road, in this strange new land which he had only dreamt of visiting. But the story is neither about me nor the ship nor the landscape. The story is about one person in particular. As I walked into The Seaman’s Club that evening, a small tavern littered with the obscene commentary of crass sailors and drunken blue collared port workers and crane operators, a peculiar looking gentleman caught my eye. It was just a matter of time before he came over and introduced himself as Herman.
Herman, the German, was not a very good-looking man. He was short, stalky and spoke with a very strange accent which was neither German nor English. Herman was born in Munich a few years after the war had ended. His mother was Sudanese and his father, a Roman Catholic German. Let’s call him Senior Herman. Not much of Senior Herman was disclosed to me during our interaction but from what I gathered, he worked with the Catholic Church in a big capacity and was sort of a public figure back in his hometown.
Herman grew up idealising his father as any young and impressionable boy would. Senior was, after all, a charismatic man. The whole town loved him. He was the boy’s role model. Sadly, he passed away when Herman was a child and left him alone with his mother.
Herman put himself through years of preparation and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social service. He was now of age and ready to step into his father’s shoes. It was just a question of when the church would have him. And one day, it had happened! When he was 20 years old, about the same age as me when I met him, he had been accepted. His Gods had heard his prayer. Herman was finally ready to be ordained as a priest.
But fate had something else in mind. It was at this precise time that Herman’s grandmother in Sudan passed away. With no one to look after a very sick grandfather, Herman’s mother was left with no option but to move to Sudan and take the boy along with her. And hence it so happened that the German and his mother severed all ties with their homeland and left for the African continent. But it didn’t matter to him. Herman had become a priest.
From the moment he told me that he was a priest, I had only one thought in mind — what was a priest doing in a godforsaken place like this?
He would later answer this question just as calmly as he had answered the rest of my questions. But we will come to that eventually. Within a few hours of conversation, I had begun to think of him as a very interesting person — perhaps the only one I could talk to in this sad little bar.
Now, the reason I enjoyed talking to Herman was the fact that he had an extremely affable manner — a trait that is well observed among travellers. Also, he was the kind of person anyone could easily open up to — a trait that is well observed among priests. The conversation had begun two hours ago as we were watching a cricket match with India playing Pakistan, her biggest rival. It was Herman who had struck up the conversation. As we spoke about cricket, I was surprised to find out that he knew a lot about the sport and the Indian cricket team. From there we went on to talk about politics and once again Herman’s knowledge surprised me. He knew more about Indian politics than me! I found this both add and amusing. But soon forgot all about it.
“I mean… if he could talk to me about this!” I thought to myself, “who knows what all this person knows!”
From there we went to speak of engineering and technology, and once again, the man showed shocking knowledge about something he was not trained to know. “You see, Engineering iz in Ze German blood,” he said to me, and I agreed. It was only after that that the conversation took a different direction.
It happened the moment began to speak of the Church. It was closing time but neither Herman nor I were in a hurry. He said “Don’t worry, I’ll drop you back, lez have another beer.” I looked around and noticed that the two of us were the only ones left in the bar. As I washed down my pork crunchings with a gulp of dark Irish ale, I looked around and realised that the owner of the bar was nowhere to be seen. Momentarily, I was struck by the realisation that Herman wasn’t just a customer, he owned this bar.
I agreed to have another drink with him. As we walked out to the patio I saw a sign that read ‘Prayer Room’. Through the half open door, I peeked to see a small church-like setup and an area that was designated for prayer. Tom the bartender hurriedly closed it, then continued to move about completing the last of his chores for the day, set a table for us outside the bar, on the pavement, with several cold pints on it and locked the door behind us.
Herman pulled up a large earthen flowerpot that served as an ashtray during such occasions and laid it besides us. “Avar ashtray,” Herman declared.
“Well, it is the right size,” I replied.
We shared a hearty laugh. Tom started walking away and soon disappeared into the night.
“Most of ze young boys who come in here don’t realizzat ‘is place is run by a priest.”
We were now a couple of hours into the outdoor conversation. “Some of zem have even walked in and asked me where zey could find a proztitute. But you are different, I can tell.”
I felt flattered. “Oh, that must feel terribly offensive.” I replied, “but in all honesty, I am truly surprised to be drinking beer with a priest.” I confessed, “How cool is that!! It’s surprising because I cannot imagine having this sort of a conversation back in my country — with an Indian priest. Does your religion allow you to drink alcohol?”
Herman laughed. “Sure it does. And I’m an old man now. It doesn’t matter what I’m supposed to do. People, zey hold us to very high standards and get disappointed when we don’t live upto them. After all, we are human beings too. Sadly, most of our real work goes unnoticed. But zhat doesn’t bother me either. It doez not matter to me. We continue to do so much to reduce ze suffering of ze people.”
“My whole life I’ve spent in Sudan and Kenya helping people, arranging ze food… ze medicines… I have a master’s degree in social work. I know quite a bit about eastern religions too. Are you a Hindew or a muzlim?”.
I saw this as an opportune moment to be blunt with the man and voiced my opinion. “I was born in a Hindu family but I don’t believe in religion,” my 22 year old soldier blurted out. “I think religion has done us more harm than good. All you have to do is look a hundred years in the past and at any religion in the world. I’ve read the Bible, the Koran, the Ramayan, the Bhagavada Geeta. All these stories are full of such violence — it’s enough anarchy and destruction to make anyone’s skin crawl. All in the name of God. All over story books that aren’t even good and hold lesser literary value than a moral one — barbaric rituals that have no standing in a modern society… It’s just not my thing man…”
“So, you don’t believe in God?” a confused Herman enquired.
I wanted to say I did, But I took this as an opportunity to argue my favourite idea from the Brothers’ Karamazov by saying, “So, what if I don’t believe in God, either of these two things could happen. If he exists, I look like an idiot for not believing in his invisible presence — I am okay with that. I have been an idiot my whole life. But if he doesn’t exist — that means all you learned people who believe in him are wrong!”
Herman was not as offended as I had expected him to be.
Now, it’s only when you are 22 years old that you can get away with taking such a direct (black-or-white) stand, so obviously, my story comes from the perspective of a rebellious man-child who had started thinking of Herman as a missionary — or as somewhat of a threat to one’s religious identity.
Thankfully, I had no religious identity. So any conversation about God or Jesus Christ would be pointless with me. It was at this point that Herman changed the topic. And so did I… After all, I did feel some guilt. I felt like I had struck a deep blow to his religious beliefs. So, we left it at that and went on to speak of something else.
Herman now proceeded to tell me the history of this bar and how he had come to run it. He said that the ‘The Seaman’s Clubs’ all over the world were run by donations from a fund called ‘The Mission to Seafarers’ which is a Christian Welfare Charity. That’s when I started to make sense of many of the events that had happened earlier in the evening. I thought about the free taxi ride from the jetty up to the club that I had taken — all the while aware how expensive transport was in this part of the world.
Then I thought of the book I had started reading in the library. While returning it to the shelf I had been told I could take it along with me. “Return it on your next visit to Tilbury,” a smiling old man had said. I suddenly that someone else had been paying some money for me to be there. “Does this money come from the Church’s fund?” I wondered. But Herman had already moved on to another topic. This time, it was a story. About a young sailor.
“I know iz nowt a very gut life,” Herman continued. “You live away from your family n everything. For such a long time that too. There was a boy here last week… Filipino boy… sailing on ship with all Ukranianz. They brought him outside because he said to Cap-I-tan he waz sick. So, he was waiting here for ze bus to arrive and I started talking to ze boy. He said to me no one on zat ship spoke to him. No one could understand hiz language. Ze Ukrainianz speak very different English than ze Filipinoz. For nine months zis boy had not spoken to a single person, can you believe zis! Obviously, you become sick when you don’t speak to a single person for nine months. As we were sitting and talking I saw hiz eyez moizten. But he was okay after zat. Doctor said he waz perfectly fine. Went back to ze ship smiling… It must be so lonely out zere… out at sea.” I felt sorry for this boy.
“Do you have a wife? Aren’t Catholic priests supposed to be celibate?” I asked him at some later point in the conversation, to which he replied, “No I don’t. But not all of us are celibate. I could have a family if a wanted to. But what woman would have me… hahahaha… look at me…hahahaha… look at zis big red face… hahahaha…”
By this time, I had stopped noticing Herman’s lack of good looks. His soothing presence and mellow voice had overshadowed everything else. He had an ‘almost baritone’ voice and spoke like he loved listening to himself.
But hell, look at the damn time — more unholy words before a holy man– “I forgot to check the watch. It’s 1 O clock. My shore leave expires at one. How fast can you drop me back man?” I asked Herman.
“Lez go, don’t worry… I can’t go very fast, it’z a very old car. But I think I can get you to ze jetty in 10 minutes.”
Herman was already up and heading towards the car. I followed him.
Momentarily I had assumed this strange man to be a part of my story– of my future travelogues — that I would tell people about my encounter with him… But I realised soon that, sometimes, one plays a bigger part in someone else’s story. The realisation came surprisingly soon.
MV Red Fin looked very calm in the moonlight. Herman had left. I was climbing the rusty gangway. It rattled and croaked incessantly but I was used to this balancing act. I looked up to see what was happening. The ship was fully loaded.
The anchor wash was on. There were two orange boiler suits in the fo’c’sle and a chattering of walkie-talkies could be heard in the distance. I knew what all this meant. It was time to leave. My sixth sense, as I called it, had become astute.
“Maybe it’s not even a sixth sense. Just a combination of all the other senses,” I thought. You know, when you can’t speak to people you learn to read them by their actions and their body language. The Chinese third engineer… the Russian Boss… The Filipino crew… Most of the communication with them was non-verbal. And I was the only Indian person onboard.
I thought about the story of the young seafarer.
For one last time, I thought about this strange man who had stayed up till one o clock at night talking to me when I had only spoken of his religion with such contempt — it had been an interesting conversation though… well… had it really? For me — maybe not for him —
I had not asked him to talk to me though. All I had done was avoid any possible human interaction throughout the evening. Then why had he walked up to me? And why had he spoken to me for so long?
My thoughts began to wonder… And how did he know so much about my country? I had stopped thinking about this odd fact. Why had I stopped thinking about it? How did he know about cricket — my favourite sport, about Indian politics and Indian religions?
“Surely someone must have told him,” I thought. “It must have been someone talkative… like me.” And then the most troubling thought came in my mind.
The gangway croaked under me. As I looked up, the bright bridge lights shone down on me, illuminating my entire body. “Had he just spoken to me because he felt I was lonely? Like the Filipino boy in his story?”
A chill ran down my spine…
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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