When I give up the helm,
I know that the time has come for thee to take it,
What there is to do will be instantly done
Vain is this struggle” –
– Rabindranath Tagore
As first impressions go, his were never great. He looked more like a castaway than the captain of a ship.
He seemed to be in his early 60’s. He had shaggy salt and pepper hair ending at his shoulders. A patch of yellow around his lips faded into a discolored white beard, slowly encroaching it’s way down his collar, into his chest bush.The top two buttons of his uniform were always undone. Well almost always. And he carried a pair of sun glasses with him. One always on his eyes, the other in his breast pocket.
The trainees, young Floridians fresh out of the academy, the Chief engineer Ivanov, second officer Frank or even the cook never expected an Indian to be in-charge of the Maersk Edith. His appearance did not reciprocate to them at a professional or, quite frankly, at a personal level either. There was a certain way about him, an enigma if you will. The way he addressed his juniors was, to say the least, peculiar.
“Fellow engineers, sit with your machines for a moment, touch them, feel their curves, palm their frames, stick your ears on the bed plate and ask them- what ails you my friend?
If you listen, really listen, they’ll tell you, like they tell me. You all want to know what they say?”
“That you’re batshit crazy” one of the trainees murmured.
Captain Roy never retorted to his juniors. He was one of the few people in the seafarer’s fraternity to have qualified as a captain and a chief engineer. He could, infact, predict the arrival of a bad wind by tasting the air from the bridge or decipher the exact location of a broken seal or lubricator leakage just by feeling the vibration of the machines.
“I know the seas better than Haddock and the machines….well..better than Tesla, I think” he boasted.
“Is he really any good sir?” the trainees asked Frank, ” Cause he looks like one of the over-ambitious philosophy geeks tripping on acid”
“I’ve heard his grand-daughter drowned in one of his voyages….man-overboard apparently, in the Bay of Biscay. Been like this since then.” Chief Ivanov replied.
You guys don’t worry ’bout him alright, he knows his shit. I suggest you dial it down, cause I assure you he can school you any day of the week” said Frank, an innate sternness in his tone.
“With all due respect sir, we all know why he’s really here; the other captains are way too rich for a job through the triangle!” the Floridian said.
“We are here for the money, but this brownie’s here cause he’s nuttier than a Snickers bar!” the other trainee added.
“It’s almost like he has a death wish”
Captain Roy, even though unknown, but not unaware of the back biting was never too concerned about it. He knew that it took time to warm up to him. Two weeks into the voyage, the crew started loving the man. He handled every setback with uncanny smoothness. And everytime they would come out of it just fine.
Even the dreaded port inspectors were utterly impressed by his administration. The trainees were glad that they did dial it down. They understood that loss is not a static concept. Captain’s loss was his own. And nobody could bear it for him.
To break the monotony Captain Roy would often arrange feasts. With their choice of poison in hand, the crew would gather in the common room, and enjoy each other’s company. Most evenings would while away with Captain’s recitation of Tagore’s poetry, with Chief Ivanov’s reading of Dostoyevsky, Frank’s country songs accompanied by rustic guitar chords, and the Floridians’ racist jokes. Most of the times the booze would get the better of them and they would, rather unprofessionally, start dancing before eventually passing out. Frank would be the only sober one.
“Early in the day it was whispered that we should sail in a boat,
Only thou and I, and never a soul in the universe would know of this,
Our pilgrimage to no country and to no end!”
A beer can in his grip, Officer Frank said, “The poetry is amazing sir. It really hits the right spots”
“Would you believe me if I told you that I used to hate poetry” he said, sipping on his fifth glass of scotch.
“No I can’t”
“Yeah……I started for her, my Asha”
Captain Roy gulped the entire drink and poured a new one. “She would read her poetry and I would recite mine. Her’s were so silly! Written in crayon. About potatoes and cats and her best friend. And mine were about the road not taken, a psalm of life and oneness with cosmos. It’s so strange how she could never appreciate my Psalms and I couldn’t understand her potatoes, and yet we loved listening to each other – her, the most beautiful teacher and I, the most obedient student”
“Once we reach San Juan tomorrow you’ll be back with little Asha and reciting poems in no time”
All of a sudden, Captain banged the glass on the side table. He pulled out the last two cigarettes out of his pocket and lit them up.
He took a long hard drag on the cigarettes. The air became warm.
Frank realised his stupidity.
“Everything alright sir? Should I help you to the cabin?”
“You know Frank, they said she didn’t suffer”
“Sir I think you need to rest…”
Captain took another drag. It got warmer.
“Hypothermia takes what…..15 odd minutes to kill a child”
“Sir you should really……..”
The air became hot.
“Or maybe she drowned. Doesn’t take more than a few seconds right? “
“Who am I kidding? The fall alone must have broke her neck”
Everything was blurry, with alcohol vapours and burnt cigarettes. Intoxicated veins surged furiously through his eyes. It’s popping red screamed through the momentous transparency of his sunglasses. But the glasses darkened against the glare of the moonlight, and a cold stare faced Frank.
“I was a religious man, Frank. Not now. Not anymore! Trust me son, He’ll only disappoint you!”
As the calm of the ocean glistened in moonlit radiance, a timid storm inside him spawned a ravaging tempest. A drop trickled down from below the deadness of the glasses and fell on his nicotine smeared moustache. And even with the entirety of the ocean around him, that single tear drop had in its brackish sphere the saddest of stories.
“When I give up the helm,
I know that the time has come for thee to take it,
What there is to do will be instantly done
Vain is this struggle” –
Frank collected all the cigarette butts and waited for him to pass out. He carried him to his cabin, tucked him in and left quitely.
The shrill of the Bordeaux glass breaking on the floor woke him up. Startled, he somehow stood upright while the whole room whirled around his peripheral range. The ship was rolling tremendously. Staggering his way through to the bridge he saw Frank standing there, terrified out of his wits.
“What the hell is happening Frank!?”
“It’s the triangle sir! We’ve checked everything in the chart…. Nothing’s working!”
“What! You’re a second officer Frank….bloody act like one”
“The engines have stopped, the generators have shut down and we are six feet above the Plimsoll line!”
Roy found most of deck crew already equipped with their life jackets. There was, in fact, an arhythmic movement of the ship which he had never experienced before. Everyone, including Ivanov, was convinced that the ship was going to sink. They started lowering the lifeboats and he had no other choice but to call it. But beige that he blasted the alarm.
The whole crew came running on the upper deck, wearing life jackets.
The ship reached the zenith of its pitch, while the bow slowly began to plunge into the water.
The lifeboats hit the water and the first team escaped.
Blast! Blast! Blast!
The frightened ones jumped off the deck and swam away from the birthing vortex as fast as possible. Frank cried out to Captain Roy. But he had phased out. He gave the jacket on the bridge to Frank and ordered him to leave immediately.
Something very familiar was unfurling before his eyes. He put his mouth near the mic and called it,
“Abandon! Abandon! Abandon!”
Something, indeed, was very familiar about that call.
Everyone escaped from the ship. But he could not. Or perhaps he would not.There was no time.
He stood there, still, as a gradual vortex was pushed into motion. In just a few moments, it would engulf the ship, and him with it.
Roy never thought that this would be the way to go. As the vortex intensified, he believed to have seen a vengeful rage in the sea.
Probably this was, afterall, his way. Nature’s irony was in itself poetic. And what better way for a poet to go, if not by a poetic death.
When the ship and him were about to go down, all he tried to think about, in the briefest moment of his life, was the road not taken, the pslam of life and oneness with cosmos.
When the sea hit him, and salt water breached every crevice of his being, all he thought about was potatoes and cats.
And best friends.
Like resting on his mother’s breasts, he gently pushed his face on the softness of the sand. Warm and fuzzy, it caved in under his still body, protecting him within a wistful embrace. Red ants marched in harmony along his spine while a pair of hermit crabs retired in the sanctuary of his clumsy beard.
The Captain was now a castaway.
The muffled mum of the gills stood out to his ears. Transparent neurons rushed in his sight as he opened his eyes. Anguished eyes exchanged dry glances with each other. It was one of the many fishes which had been washed ashore.
A strong weakness had left him immobile. His eyes felt sore and skin flaky.He laid there wandering about his crew. He rolled over on his back to feel the sun on his face. Sea water gurgled between his toes and the foam cleansed his foot. It was relaxing. Probably why quite some time had passed before he noticed the two men standing above him, observing him intently.
One of them had a coat on over a blue turtleneck; he had frizzy beard and wore a black peak cap with gold braiding.
“Thundering typhoons! We’ve been looking all over for you…”
“Is this San Juan?” Roy asked.
“I’m afraid it’s Nikola” the other man said. He was much more polished; a gentleman. He had a neatly trimmed moustache and back brushed mid-parted hair, clad in a grey suit over a cream shirt.
“And this is my friend Haddock. Pardon his tone, he’s just angry. Apparently you claimed to be better than him.”
“That’s CAPTAIN Haddock! And no one is better than me!”
“Let the man induldge Haddock…….he’s not here to fight you”
Captain Roy, extremely confused, was thinking the same thing. What was this place? And why was he there? Was he dead or lying on some hospital bed dreaming about Captain Haddock and Sir Nikola Tesla?
Before he could fully register what ever was happening, Haddock and Tesla picked him up and asked him to look towards the sea.
“She is waiting Captain”
Beneath the thud of crashing waves and clamouring seagulls he heard a faint call.
He squinched his eyes to see a hand waving at him.
In that moment, everything, somehow became irrelevant and the maddening chaos in his heart found an aprupt order.
“Is that…is that..” Captain Roy stammered as his larynx choked trying to devour this unfathomable feeling.
“It is..” Tesla said.
“The sea takes more than it gives. I should know, I’ve faced it’s wrath the same as you. But today it is giving you something…. Take it!” Haddock said, patting his shoulders.
“I can’t….. I can’t look in her eyes”
“If all that self hate could turn into electricity, it would light up the whole planet Captain”
“Now go! Don’t make her wait anymore”
As he began to cripple towards her, an all encompassing silence settled down. The collective gasps of gills and befalling waves, the noiseless words of Haddock and Tesla and the wordless noise of the seagulls- nothing could osmote through the impermeance of his eardrums. He could only hear the beating of her heart, or perhaps, his own. Pumping. Pounding. Racing to liberate his constricted capillaries. Reducing the numbness that possessed in him all that is physical.There was not a single word he could think of to describe the sudden weightlessness of his chest. It could only be felt.
And it felt right.
His survival felt right. His existence felt right. Haddock and Tesla felt right. Potatoes, cats and best friends felt right. And everything living and loving on the face of the earth,
When he reached her after what seemed to be ages, he had taken her. He held her arms with tender firmness and pulled her to his chest. His breath grew strong and heavy as her pigtails brushed against his cheeks.
That moment had brought with it a healing touch and reassuring giggles, letting him know that everything, after everything, was alright.
That moment which broke down the dam whose stream eroded his insides.
That moment which was impossible yet inevitable.
That moment belonged to eternity.
“I’m here now….I’m here. Dadu won’t let anything happen to you!”
She giggled and kissed his Dadu’s nose. She pulled on his beard and gave out a mischievous smile. Captain Roy broke into tears. Partly of joy. Partly of relief.
“I’m sorry….I’m sorry. Forgive me!”
She didn’t say anything. She only giggled and played with his beard. Her soft palms wiped his tears and she kept on smiling.
“I will never leave you beta”
She remained silent, but only nodded sideways. As if expressing her disapproval of that idea. She just wrapped her thin arms around his neck and hugged him. He, healing, held her tighter.
Captain Roy, the religious atheist, prayed to every God he believed to not exist. Unfortunately for him, the Gods answered.
As he looked up at the sky he felt the wind invading his face. He prayed again. He prayed to the heavens and the sun. But almighty was not fascinated by his devotion, for they knew that they were Gods, creator of men. And no one could defy them. So they ordered the wind to blow harder. Then came a time when the ocean created a monster; one that drowned everyone in its path and trampled everything in its cruel grace.
When he stared into her innocent eyes he could feel his grip getting loose. The current of the wind was proving to be stronger than him. He fumbled within the waves to hold onto her arms. He was weak. Too weak. Desperately splashing and sprawling he tried to catch her as she slowly inched away. Time slipped away like sand from his palms. He knew that with every passing moment he was losing her, bit by bit.
Haddock and Tesla were beside him now.
“Stop her!” Captain screamed.
As he saw little Asha move away, a huge wave mounted in front of them, feeding off everything around it, growing bigger and bigger. It was hungry for them.
Just above this enormity, the clouds roared as they consumed the sun. Bolts of electricity slithered through its veins, preparing for a thunderous lightning.
Little Asha, at the edge of a one-way path, turned back, waved her hands, and smiled. Her short teethed gums peeped out of her upper lips. It was the most soulful smile.
She kept waving and smiling. And Captain Roy kept screaming.
The waving arms, the smile and the scream faded as the wave toppled over its base, ready to collapse. The clouds, heavy on their weight, growled angrily, signalling their attack.
Bowing his head down, Captain Roy knelt before the forces. Like a wounded elephant, he gave into it- his limbs tied in icy shackles.
“It’s not your time Captain, not yet!” Haddock said.
“The lightning will be kind to you…”
A thudding sound entered his ears. Captain Roy was lying alone in a lifeboat. There was nothing around him, except of the sea. Calm and quiet. Dawn had just set in. A beautiful sun emerged with the promise of life.
A better life.
He bent over to inspect the sound. It was an unlabelled whisky bottle. He picked it up to find a paper scroll inside it.
He took it out. It was surprisingly dry. He unrolled the script to find a small note.
It was written in crayon.
“Your helm is in need,
For it’s Captain to show the way,
So now you struggle, but to thrive and thrive only,
And you shall never be lost again”