Shambhobi Ghosh is a recent graduate from King’s College London, UK, where she studied for a Master’s degree in English: 1850 to Present. Her creative works have found places in a number of national and international journals for poetry, such as Muse India, Ariadne’s Thread, UK, Reach Poetry, UK, and anthologies such as Inspired by Tagore and Inspired by My Museum (published by British Council and Sampad, UK). Her first collection of poetry titled A Stranger’s Conversation was self-published in 2014 from Authorspress, India. Her translations have previously appeared in the anthology Bharatiya Engreji Kobita, (Abhijan Publishers, Kolkata) and the Tinpahar e-journal. In 2016, she was awarded the Sera Bangali: Kalker Sera Ajke Award by the ABP Media Group in West Bengal. She is currently assistant-editor at Stree-Samya Books, Kolkata.
“Fuck ‘em all,” grumbled the chief engineer over a can of impossibly strong beer. He was sweating like a horse even in the pleasantly air-conditioned smoke-room of the Saleela, just then halted at the port of Bombay for the fifth-year general surveys. The fifth-year surveys were always a great fuss; it meant that a lot of the machinery had to be unassembled, old parts had to be repaired or replaced; everything had to be sparkling before the dreaded surveyors in with their bloodhound instincts. The huge vessel contained scores of running machines and millions of parts. It was a hard time for the fitters and engineers who went around scouring the tiered metal space with tool workshops, finding leaks, rusts, and creaks from the bridge to the storage vaults.
The chief was complaining about the new recruits, which was a typical sign for him being in the best of moods; nothing uplifted him more than insulting people.
“Every time we get these bastards it’s like we’re building up the world from the scratch. As if being stuck here in the middle of hell-fire for a fucking survey isn’t bad enough,” he continued in a monotonous drone, oblivious of everyone around him, “I suppose the pirate-days were better. At least you knew you were sailing with criminals and morons with two hundred and five percent guaranteed death! Haw, haw!”
Nobody else in the room responded to his mirth. Although the rest of the officers were stung by the comment (since all of them were newly recruited themselves, all except the fifth engineer), no one was willing to disturb the general serenity of the lounge. It was a blazing summer evening outside. It had been a long, hard day with the surveyors infesting the ship, breathing down their necks, raising eyebrows at every drop of oil stain and missing bolt. The junior engineers had to sweat it in the engine room for hours, since the chief, being the perfect professional that he was, didn’t have a clue about the functions of a single lever or button. Thank god for the previously recruited fifth engineer though, he was rather a savvy guy.
Normally the senior officers would have been uninterested in the man. But they had seen him work throughout the week with unconcealed amazement. The fifth was simply everywhere; he helped the third with the bearings of the main propulsion engine and the boiler parts while the chief was ‘indisposable’, which meant he had passed out drunk in his cabin; he stood in defence armed with every possible backup information while the second was being grilled by the surveyor; he assisted the deck officer in the pressure test for the holds; he ran up and down the ten-storied engine’s metal ladder a hundred times a day to run errands; he unassembled every piece of machinery with the fitter with the ease of shelling peas; he seemed to know the ship like the back of his hands. Now, when the ordeal was finally over for the day, he was nowhere to be seen.
The recruits had appreciated his hard work. They might even have had his back against the chief or the captain if need arose. But this was not a likeable fellow. The fifth was a tall, dark, skeletally thin man with a perpetually brooding face, and eyes that always seemed distant; as if he wasn’t really paying attention. People wondered how he got so many things done with that dramatic angry-young-poet air about him. He kept to himself, didn’t drink, rarely smoked, and didn’t like to talk about anything other than work. People took him to be uptight, and left him to fend for himself.
Perhaps the chief’s thoughts had also drifted towards the fifth engineer, while ruminating about the day’s proceedings. He remembered instructing him to check the cofferdam in the engine-room for the next day. That was one space he couldn’t enter even if he tried, not with his ever-increasing beer belly and consequent breathing troubles.
“Anyone seen the fifth around?” asked the chief aloud, shaken out of his booze-induced sang-froid. People in the room exchanged vague, confused looks.
“What the fuck is wrong with this ship?” the chief complained in that same dead-pan drawl, only louder this time, “how come people just disappear and go about the way they want to and nobody knows any goddamn thing about anything?”
Just then, however, the metal door at the far corner of the room swung open and the engineer came in. He looked like he had just showered, and was wearing his usual pair of white kurta-pyjamas. The chief eyed him with contempt. He hated the junior-most for being so young and so efficient. The man never left any room for abuses, and that infuriated him to no end.
“Ah, to think of the devil,” He barked, “where the fuck have you been all this while? Did you ever get around to inspecting the cofferdam or not?”
When Arjun was asked to inspect the cofferdam for the chief, he had actually felt relieved. He knew that it was absolute suicide for the chief to go in there; not that he cared, but nobody wants horrid deaths on board, certainly not of the chief engineer with a bunch of newbie hanging around trying to get used to things.
The cofferdam was a long, dark void space built around the oil and ballast tanks below the main engine. It was supposed to prevent the liquid from seeping into the machinery in case of accidental leakage. This was a giant Panamax bulk carrier, with a 50,000 tonnes DWT capacity. Nothing in this ship was small for her human boarders, and neither was the cofferdam. Still, it could be worse. That’s what Arjun told himself as he stood at the edge of the black hole which led to the dark, claustrophobia-inducing passage around the lube oil tank.
“Thank God for not being on a bloody oil tanker with that stupid arse,” he muttered, trying not to let his assistant the fitter hear him.
The fitter was a small, insignificant-looking man in his forties, highly offended by paanch saab’s summons to help him out. He stood grumpily behind Arjun, holding up an electric lamp and wearing a quintessential ‘oh-get-the-fucking-on-with-it-already’ expression. Arjun tested his flashlight twice, shoved around a little, sighed, and finally entered the narrow opening and began climbing down the tunnel into the bowels of the ship. It wasn’t pleasant. More importantly, it wasn’t safe. But people on a cargo ship in the 70’s simply didn’t do the safety rules thing. And nobody ever cares, for that matter, until the time you figure it’s your turn to be stranded. That’s what Arjun realised in that fraction of a moment when, while going along the tunnel at a steady pace checking for signs of damp, with the beat of his next footstep and the next blink of his eyes, his flashlight went out.
It was sheer darkness that enfolded him, nothing but pure and complete blackness. It was so solid that he was sure he could bang his head against it. He felt suddenly suspended like a still pendulum in the middle of nowhere. His heart had made a giant leap in the moment, generating a spasm all over his body. The flashlight slipped from his hands and hit the floor with a clang; Arjun heard it roll away slowly into an indeterminable distance. He realised he had come a long way into the cofferdam, because he couldn’t see any chink of light coming through from above. He gave several hollers which were loud and desperate enough to bring back the dead. An eternity of moments went by in silent suspense: no response from above. He wondered if his assistant couldn’t hear him, or had simply left. Then the situation slowly seeped into his understanding, like the surrounding darkness. He was trapped inside a dark metal tube, and not a soul up above was aware of that, except for some half-wit who had probably forgotten all about it by now. He felt his hands tremble manically, as if they had been made free from the rest of his body. The air around him had already started coagulating, because of his sweat and heated breath, maybe even the physical state of his fear, and now he had another rush of cold sweat as he finally comprehended the enormity of the situation. If he did not get out of there soon, he was going to suffocate, and fall unconscious within a few hours. If no one remembered him by tomorrow (which was very likely, unless there was some other menial work to be done), he was going to be in very bad shape. And what if – the thought sent a sharp, stinging chill down his spine – what if somebody came and shut the manhole thinking it to be a mistake, and what if the fitter came back later to find the coffer closed, and thought that he had finished his job and gone back already?
Actually, there was no what if about it. If that happened, he was going to die.
Arjun’s legs crumpled, his body sinking onto the floor like a rag doll, and he felt himself slowly melting away with the darkness that sat like a megalith on his heart, crushing out his breath. Was this what death was like? His whole life began to flash past his eyes as he sat propped up against the wall for a while, feeling absolutely nothing.
He remembered the time when he wanted to go to art school and paint pictures. He remembered the time when he still thought anyone could become what they wanted with the right amount of will-power and hard work. He remembered his unemployed father who was always between jobs anyway, lying on his rickety bed and staring at the ceiling, passing the verdict that going to art-school was lunacy; besides, how did he think he was going to afford even a single piece of canvas? He remembered the day when he had to leave college for not being able to pay his fees. The days of his apprenticeship at the shipping workshop. His father’s death, much to everybody’s relief. He was the youngest of the family, and now the sole breadwinner. Six sisters were lined up before him waiting to be married off, only on the little savings from the money Arjun sent home every month.
Arjun thought of all those people and tried to imagine what it would be like for them to do without him. Would they survive? Would they manage to scrape through for a while and eventually find a way out of it, or will it be the same for them? Will they feel the way he was feeling right now, walled by cold, hard darkness all around, not a crack to let them know that there was a world outside, somewhere beyond this? Worse of all, will they blame him for the rest of their lives, like they blamed their father?
Hell was better. Hell, at least, had fire in it. He held his head in his palms, and opened and closed his eyes for a thousand times, till his lids hurt. Nothing changed. He wasn’t dreaming. He threw his arms forward, and his fingers brushed against the opposite wall, cold and metallic. This couldn’t be it. He couldn’t just sit there and wait for something to happen – whether that something was a rescue team, or death. At this moment, he felt like the only man left alive after the apocalypse. There was no sense of time left in him now; it could be anything between an hour or decades, or even centuries. He knew he wouldn’t come out the same person, in the same time and state of things – if he finally did manage to get out.
“What the fuck am I thinking?” hissed Arjun, gritting his teeth. Nobody died inside a cofferdam. If they did, then something was terribly wrong with the world. He gathered himself up again, gently, careful not to turn around. He stood still for a moment, and allowed his head to settle into a kind of resigned calmness. His racing heartbeat had already sunk into a tired limp.
“Think,” he told himself under his breath, “Think. Focus. Now!”
As he shut his eyes and concentrated, a map of the underbelly of the ship slowly formed in his mind; no one knew the ship as well as he did. He tried to place himself on the map, as it was quite impossible to do so in real space. He understood that every bit of it was guesswork. He could be roaming around forever in this dungeon for all he knew. But he had to try, as many times as he could.
And so he turned and went, slowly working his way back to the direction he had come from (or he guessed he had come from), reaching out to a wall for support. It was like a journey in circles. It kept exasperating him, and once or twice, he thought of giving up, and he probably would have, had the thought been a little less terrifying than this journey. And while he walked, he wondered if anyone up above spared a remote thought about him. He was the one who had been single-handedly saving the day since last week, but he suspected that nobody really knew his name, or where he came from. And their attitude, in a strange way, filled him with a peculiar kind of pity, something which he didn’t quite understand, which almost made him laugh.
After about a thousand of such exasperating circles, he finally saw the light up above. The shadow of a head was visible through the entrance, and a hand was holding up a lamp.
“Paanch saab, aap kahan chaley gaye thé?” asked the fitter, grinning stupidly, as Arjun climbed up the ladder, drenched from head to foot in sweat, “where had you disappeared, Mr. Fifth?”
“How long have I been away?” this was the only response he could think of. The fitter looked at his watch and gave an unapologetic shrug, “actually the lamp suddenly went out, so I thought I’ll go get it fixed. But then something came up and forgot all about it for a while. But then I remembered again, because I still had the lamp with me and came in here and waited for the longest time. I think it’s been over three hours now.”
Three hours! He had to be kidding. A lifelong had passed away from Arjun, or perhaps more, maybe a number of rebirths due to him were now gone, leaving him quite, quite empty, as empty and as dry as that tunnel under the engine.
“Brilliant,” he muttered.
He slowly climbed up the alleyway, grasping the railings with trembling hands. His body had grown its will, now that his mind was so numb. He could barely recognize the brightly lit corridors with polished wood surface that led to doors opening into cabins as warm and comforting as the mother’s womb. He spent ages in the shower. He could feel that the time-warp had messed with his mind. As he felt the cold, reassuring drops splatter his face and body he remembered what the fitter had called him, as everyone on this ship usually did. Paanch saab, he said, ‘Mr. Fifth’. Well, that did a good job of summing Arjun up. He was just a number, an insignificant, easily forgettable number, always somewhere in the middle, sandwiched between bullies, the odd one out. That was Arjun Kulkarni, the fifth engineer.
He knew that the smoke-room would be brimming at this time of the evening. But just for today, he didn’t mind them. As he opened the door, the familiar alcohol-soaked bark of the chief hit his ears like a bullet; never in his life had he found it so musical.
“Ah, to think of the devil,” said the chief, “where the fuck have you been all this while? Did you ever get around to inspecting the cofferdam or not?”
“I did, all of it,” he said in his usual quiet way, settling into an empty chair at a distance, “everything is fine down there.”