Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Touchstone - A Cancer Diary

(Winner of the 2016 Winchester Writers' Festival Memoir Prize)

The last day of school. The mums stand around in knots, discussing camping, the weather, the holidays. I am with a few who are discussing the Big Forty. Yes, quite a few of us this year are turning forty. Which means we need to do something special. One suggests jumping out of a plane. Sky diving. The Dartmoor Challenge. Something to remember for the rest of our lives.
I stand there, wondering what I should do. A small party perhaps. Nothing outrageous. I have no idea that I too will do something very big, very very big for my fortieth.
The Unhappy Breast
It’s been a while that I’ve noticed something different about my left breast. The first time was when I finished breastfeeding my firstborn in 2007, my breast shrivelled up. I used to joke about it, how it puckered like a prune while the other one looked so cheerful. Breastfeeding changes the body, I was told. Slowly, she came around and stopped looking so sad. She geared up for the second round of breastfeeding. I found it odd that both of my babies never really took to the left side, always preferring the right one, leaving the left angry and envious once again. But this time she didn’t sulk in a corner. She decided to internalise, and soon there began changes within that weren’t apparent to plain sight. 
Fast forward to 2014, and I am busy, so busy I don’t notice anything unusual. There’s the children to look after, the novel to finish for publication, summer school teaching and usual arguments with husband. But in the midst of all this, I notice my left breast has gone into a sulk again. Not a sulk, she’s quite upset. The nipple appears darker, sunken and puckered. There are no lumps. No matter how I poke and prod, I don’t feel anything. And yet, I feel her unease. I feel her anger. 
So one morning, on my way to work, I call up my GP. Of course I know I won’t get through. They are always so busy, and my class begins at nine. I give up and go to class. My Chinese students are discussing Scotland and cutting up cardboard boxes to build the Edinburgh Castle.  We also talk about society, marriage and homosexuality. They are keen to give their opinions and viewpoints. Marriage is very good, the other not. We eat lunch at the cafeteria. Chicken curry and rice. Naan and salad. Brownie. I eat up quickly so I can get my bus back home. 
My bus is late. As I wait around, there is an urge from inside. Something inside is telling me to call the surgery again. I resist. I feel fine. The curry has made me feel warm and satisfied. The bus isn’t here still. So I make the call. 
Within a couple of hours, I am at the surgery. The GP says she can’t feel any lump. There’s nothing untoward, but yes, I am right in saying this breast looks a bit different. It’s completely normal to have this differences. Breasts change with age. With motherhood. But she still refers me to the hospital. Just to make sure. Just to cross out any probabilities. Armed with the referral, I return home.
Abnormalities of the breast are looked into very quickly by the NHS. On my way home that very afternoon, I am offered an appointment at the hospital ten days later. It’s on a Friday morning. Damn, I think. I’m going to have to miss class. I’m also going to have to miss the full English breakfast provided on Fridays for the teachers and students of the summer school. 
My husband will be away on an important conference the week of the scan. I don’t tell him what’s happening. My mother is here for the summer. I don’t tell her either.
Independence Day
The 15th of August. Such an irony that on India’s 67th Independence Day I am told such news that will take away my own independence for a while. Or for life. I’m not sure yet.
I make my way to the hospital on Friday morning. It’s a beautiful summer’s morning. The sun is shining. The sky is clear, and people are happy and smiling on the bus. I feel that’s a bit odd as it’s the bus that goes to Asda and to the hospital. Soon I am there. I dodge past the smokers who stand ceremoniously by the ‘This is a smoke free site’ and enter into the bowels of Derriford Hospital. I admire the knitted patchwork quilt on display in the charity shop on the way to the lifts. The cafe smells good and reminds me again of the full English I have missed.
I have to go to the Primrose Breast Care Unit. I like that name. It sounds delicate. It also sounds sturdy, a place for survival. I know this from the abundance of primroses that grow through the cracks of paving at the front of my house. They survive in spite of my vicious attacks on them. It feels good to know this.
But still, I don’t feel anxiety. This is a routine test. I will come out feeling relieved. I will go on with the rest of my life. I even contemplate lunch with the students if I finish the examination early. The room is very busy this morning. Women of all ages sit around the comfy orange and green chairs. There are lots of magazines strewn across the various tables. Mostly women’s. I wonder how a man will feel if he has to come in for a check up. There is a man who’s come in. He looks worried, and he doesn’t have a magazine to disappear into. There is a lot of chatter, coming in and going out. Names being called. Some take longer to come out. Some come out looking like they’ve let out a deep, long breath and now rushing to catch up with their morning. Some come out in tears. 
I wait. I want this over and done with. I flick through Good Housekeeping and remind myself to get lots of colourful cushions for the settee. They make a house a home, I’m told. My name is called. I always know when my name will be called because the person always comes out with a file, looks at it and hesitates. They probably say it once in their mind, by which time I know it’s me. By the time they stammer out a ‘Mrs B-Bh-’ I’m up and walking towards them. I feel sorry to give them such a hard time. My name is not easy to say even after a few drinks.
I’m seen by a breast surgeon. He examines me quickly and deftly. He marks a few circles near the nipple and says I need to go back and wait for the mammogram and ultrasound scan. I ask the nurse if there’s a long waiting period. She says yes, perhaps a couple of hours wait. While I settle back in my orange chair, the only man comes back out. He smiles at his partner and says it’s all clear. I feel happy for him. 
Within twenty minutes I’ve had a mammogram and am ushered in for a scan. The ultrasound technician makes me comfortable and smothers cold gel on my chest. She peers into the screen and says there are no lumps. I exhale. But wait, can you see the little speckles all over the breast tissue? I look. Yes, there are tiny spots all over. It’s called calcification. It’s an indication of cancer or pre-cancerous tissues. She does a biopsy. Suddenly, everything’s changed. The C word has entered the vocabulary. I’m not enjoying this conversation anymore. 
What do I tell at home? I ask. What should I tell my husband? He’s away and I don’t want to freak him out. Tell him the truth, the technician tells me. It’s serious enough. But yet, we are not sure until the results. She leaves the room, and the nurse attending cleans me up. A little white lie won’t help, she smiles. There’s no need to tell him everything now. He can’t do anything about it. I feel better. Yes, it won’t help anyway.
I wander back to the cheerful waiting room and hide inside a magazine. My eyes roll back into the head for a split second and I find myself trembling uncontrollably. This is unreal. This isn’t really happening to me. But it is. I square my shoulders and walk out the door. I don’t need to panic yet. The results are not out. It could just be pre-cancerous and that can be taken care of. I make my way to the exit. I meet the mammogram technician on the way out. She’s finished her shift probably. She walks beside me, and I can see she wants to hold my arm. Or pat my back. But she doesn’t. She tells me instead to sit down and have a cup of tea in the cafe. It’ll do me good. I nod and say goodbye to her. But I don’t stop for a drink. I just want to go home.
Too much chocolate is a good thing
The days pass in a whirl. The university course is keeping me occupied. I don’t think much about my condition. I haven’t even cried since the time at the hospital when the nurse asked me how old my children are. When I said three and seven, she replied ‘oh, then we must take care of you and make you better.’ That’s when I cried, briefly. 
We had planned a holiday with the family once my husband was back from India. The London museums. Cadbury World. The surgeon arranges to meet us the day we return with the results. 
It’s a good holiday. We do the Natural History Museum. Science Museum and a bit of the V&A. Not one to pose for pictures, I find myself taking a lot of photos with the girls, selfies even. I think I’m trying to keep images for the girls to look at later. Maybe I’m preserving pictures of myself when I am whole. I may not be very soon. 
At the science museum, M drags me to the exhibit of the human baby and says in her usual loud voice, ‘mummy, that’s me in your tummy. When I was being born, I was peeping through your belly button and saw Baba. Then I popped out and flew straight out to him.’ Everyone smiles. I tell her to talk softly. They are fascinated by the container full of human blood. The dinosaurs are a bit of an anti-climax. The children don’t care about the bones. They like the ‘real’ one roaring and stomping at the end of the room.
London is great because there is such a huge choice of Indian food. After the educational and cultural hunger is satisfied, we rush to Southall to satiate the needs of the stomach. Cadbury World is a chocolate lover’s delight. We gorge on so much chocolate that for that day we are oblivious of everything else in this world. We have to return to the hospital tomorrow. I suck on the spoon full of warm, melted chocolate. Life is so good today.
Mummy’s Lump
So we meet the surgeon and she’s got the results and I’m afraid it isn’t good. The tumour is definitely cancerous and because of the large size, a mastectomy is the way forward. Lots of technical terms fly about. I cannot make sense of anything. Grade 2 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. I feel better it has a name. I wonder how I never got a feel of its present beneath my skin? Sitting there quietly all this time, playing a waiting game with me.
There is a date free on the 4th of September. I am offered it for the surgery. We say yes immediately. Just three days before my 40th birthday. At first, I am devastated. But then I think, what a lovely birthday present. A cancer free body for my 40th.  I think I am good at psyching myself, and I feel proud of myself.
There’s lots of phone calls and discussion at home. My 7-year-old can feel something is going on. We haven’t told the children anything yet. What do we tell them? I cry at the thought of breaking the news to them.
Ro is tearful and being difficult. I know it is playing on her mind. So my hubby gets the book Mummy’s Lump and we sit down to tell the children a story. It’s a family story telling session, with my children, my mother, my husband and me sitting together, eagerly listening to the story as I read it out. 
The story is about a lump that grows in Mummy’s breast, and she needs to have it taken out. I tell them one of my breasts will be removed in a surgery in a few days time. M asks, you mean, they’ll cut it off and it can run away on its own? 
Yes, it will be removed but it cannot run off.
Then who will take your tete? She asks, cuddling up to me. She squeezes it reassuringly.
Ro says, The tete man.
That’s a good idea. The tete man will take it away, and keep it safe.
Then there’s the one about chemotherapy and losing the hair. 
Will you wear a wig?
Yes, I might.
What colour?
What colour would you suggest?
Blonde?
Red?
Orange?
Mummy, I want you to wear a different colour on every day of the week. Rainbow colours. (By now you should know whose suggestion this is!)
We are all laughing and imagining me in funny wigs.
But that night, as I tuck them into bed, Ro has a question that she can’t ask.
Mummy, are you going to -? Are you going to-?
I look into her eyes. No, sweetheart. I’m not going to die. I’m going to be alright. I see the relief wash through her body. She closes her eyes and goes to sleep.
Come September
On the 4th of September 2014, I leave my children with my mum and go to the hospital with my husband. I am prepared for the worst. 
When I wake up, I am aware I’m missing a part of my body. I have a drain attached to the vacant space where my breast had been. I should feel upset, but I am glad it’s gone. The cancer has been removed. I have a window before the chemotherapy will begin. I have some time before this cancer treatment hits me like a truck and changes my life forever. I take a moment to think of my fortieth birthday in three days time. I am grateful that I have reached this milestone with something to show for.  I am ready for the rest to unfold...

Friday, 28 October 2016

500 Words




Aleppo Dreams

She rushes out of her nightmare, into the silence of night. She gasps, as though fingers are closing around her throat. Breathe in. Breathe out. Feel the peace. Push away the images. She tries, like she tries every other night. But the dreams of her first husband trample her sleep. The bombs falling through the air. The rubble. The smell of gunpowder. The blood. Her mind always ricocheting between what was and what is. Breathe in. Breathe out. She wants to reach out for his hand. But she lets him sleep. He should not be drawn into the unbearable layers of her past.



He feels her breaking out of her dream. She is gasping. Moaning. Gagging. He knows that she had stood there, bathed in her husband’s blood, screaming like an animal. That was years ago, before he married her. And he wonders if he should have married her at all. He cannot take this anymore. They have escaped, but cannot escape the haunting of her husband. He feels her reach out for him and then her hesitation. He moves away. He cannot comfort her. His life too has been riddled with loss.

They resort to sleeping separately. First, he on the floor and she on the bed. Then to different rooms. He claims her dreams keep him awake and he cannot concentrate on the present. She agrees, and is relieved. It is time to move on, but she is fettered. She has nothing to offer him. Together they have memories of trying to forget their individual pains. Together they left their country and struggled to gain a new identity. But they have no identity. Only a past. Only a story. Only a dream.

Then one day, years later, he will dream. He will dream of paradise. The streets of Aleppo alive with celebration. The arghul filling his heart with the music of his childhood. Men dancing the dabka, swirling, kicking and clapping. Their energy thrusting into the air. The smells of sheesh kebabs and shawerma spilling out of cafes and driving him closer to ecstasy. Bakalava, like only his mother could have made, dropping bit by bit onto his hungry, greedy tongue. And he will see her in this dream. Gliding in swathes of cloth, her laughter tinkling and merging with the sweet giggles of his daughters, the husky guffaws of his mother, the laughter of his first wife. Her voice long forgotten. Their warm breath will caress his face and he will reach for her. But find emptiness. She is long gone. And he?  His body will not be strong or young. It’ll be just like a pressed leaf. The memory of youth. Only the skeleton and veins will remain.

(First published in The Lampeter Review and then in Flash Flood Journal)

Mind Games


There she was at the window, steam creating a misty blur on the glass. Her head bent, she was probably doing the washing up. Laura peered over the hydrangea bushes, standing on her tiptoes to get a better look. She had not acknowledged Laura ever since that fateful day. Laura had been concerned, but she had ignored the hesitant knocks on the door, the note scrawled untidily, offering to bring over some soup. Laura tried to be a good neighbour, but she hadn’t allowed it. Slowly Laura tapered off, leaving her to herself. She had now started to leave the empty milk bottle outside the door again, and would collect the fresh one in the morning. Laura had hated to see the milk curdle on the doorstep, incriminating her with that small move. She had resumed listening to Woman’s Hour on the patio, stirring her tea with a metallic clink.
So why was she crying now? Laura looked again. She had been getting over it, Laura had presumed. But today she stood at the sink, enveloped in steam, gently wiping her eyes. Perhaps she ought to call on her, Laura thought. Try to win her over again. But would she respond?
***
Pam was aware of her hovering about in the garden and refused to make eye contact. She was behind the hydrangea bushes, surely on tiptoes, trying to get a look in. Every time Pam saw her, she remembered how that woman had been responsible for Pasha’s death. The shameless woman had tried to make up for it with promises of soup. What a cold-hearted murderer. Pam leaned over the sink, letting the steam soften the sting in her eyes. She had purposely left the milk to curdle on the doorstep for weeks, hoping to drive the thorn of guilt straight into Laura’s heart. Poor old Pasha, crushed under that woman’s car. The thought of it sent shivers through her body. She had been sorry, of course. But that was not enough. Laura had to suffer. Pam would make sure she suffered.
Pam stood at the sink, enveloped in steam and gently wiped her eyes. If Laura came over to make amends she wouldn’t respond, yet. She dabbed her face with a tea towel and turned away from the window. Picking up the knife, she continued to chop the onions.
(Published in Spelk Fiction)
Steady on (250 words)
They reach the corner and stop. The filth is bobbing around their waist. A rat swims past. A sanitary pad floats up to her. She turns and retches. “Look what you’ve done,” he shouts. And now around them, bubbling like stew, her breakfast. They move on, slowly, dragging their feet. They mustn’t fall into an open manhole. She’s sobbing. The rain washes her salty tears away. Her eyes sting and she cannot see very far. She wants to throw these clothes away. She wants to peel her skin off. She holds on to his shoulder as he tests each footfall.  There are others, like them, balancing in the water. Lurching. Slipping. Clutching to one another for support. The sharp pain hits the side of her belly. She screams. He holds her up and comforts her. They can do it. They must do it. There are helping hands along the way. She stays focussed. Ignore the pain and keep moving, is his mantra. Today of all days, she curses under her breath. Try to hold back, he urges her. But no, there is no way out. She shuts her eyes and immediately a picture of her Gods and Goddesses with garlands round their necks springs to mind. She wades, comforted by their image. The filthy floodwater swishes around like a whirlpool, threatening to swallow her whole. But she perseveres. They reach the fluorescent lobby of the hospital. A starched white nurse reaches out for her. Her waters break.

 (Published in Flash - The International Short-Short Story magazine)

It’s Pizza night, Mum.
We scream and race around the room, throwing our schoolbags on the floor. But there’s no smell of pizza. No plates or forks or knives on the table. No Mum. Where is mum? Muuuuum! Robbie attacks us with a candlestick, his light sabre.  Miah recoils, giggles and runs. Where is she? She had promised pepperoni and cheese. I’m desperate for the toilet. I rush in and Mum’s on the floor, her eyes all funny. I watch a line of red run down her mouth.  It’s pizza night, Mum, I say, shaking her body hard. She remains still. 

(100 words)





Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The 6.13 Ladies' Special






The 6:13 Ladies’ Special creates a phenomenon of biblical origins on the suburban train stations of Mumbai: the parting of the Red Sea. As soon as the announcement crackles over the noise and clamour of commuters waiting to return home, there are two distinctly opposite reactions. An audible grunt of impatience from the men, who have to move backwards, grudging the minutes lost in the rush back home. And a sigh of relief from the women, who triumphantly step up to the front. The Ladies Special glides in, and with a cacophony of screams and shouts to match no other, a surge of women sweep on board. This is the daily commute for most middle-class people living and working in Mumbai.

As the city progressed from a tiny fishing village to a flourishing city, more and more people streamed in from different parts of India to make their fortunes. The British built the railways, and in 1870, the Churchgate Station opened. Mumbai, then Bombay grew in a linear fashion, stretching along the western coast of India. And the need for the tracks to go further into the suburbs created the 153 km long railway that ferried people from one end to the city to the other.

I was fortunate that in 1991, the world’s first ladies only train was introduced. I had just started college, and having to negotiate the rush hour journey across town was quite an initiation into independence. In time I too became a toughened old hand, adept at jumping in and out of running trains every day. Two torn ligaments, results of falling off running trains are the only proof of my struggle in my daily commute.

In time I got a job and that placed me right in the heart of the business quarter of Mumbai: Nariman Point. My office was near the seafront though I never did get to see it through the darkly tinted windows of my workplace. Funny how in order to keep the sun out of sight, we also had one of Mumbai’s most beautiful sceneries obscured from view as well. At lunchtime, my colleagues and I often took a stroll on the Marine Drive promenade. The sun baked our heads and scorched our skins the colour of chocolate. But a breath of fresh sea air was essential after being cocooned in a stale air-conditioned environment for hours. At the end of the day, most people, tired and impatient to return home, hurry along to the station. In fact, an aerial view of Churchgate station, golden domed in the setting sun, could easily pass for a hive, with people swarming towards it like bees.

As it’s best not to mess with bees, it’s not a good idea to stand in the way of the thousands of commuters already highly stressed about their journeys back home. It takes an hour and twenty five minutes on a fast train from Churchgate to the then farthest point on the Western Line, Virar. That’s about 84 kilometres. The suburbs have now extended beyond Virar, adding eight more stations to the Western Line, an extra sixty-nine kilometres of track.

But that’s only the physical distance from one point to another. It takes a hardened commuter a lot of will-power, die hard attitude and the willingness for repeated self-torture to be a regular passenger on these local trains.

There are rules. And one must always obey them, or the result could be disastrous. One should never travel on a Virar Fast, which stops at selected intermediate stations, to go to a destination that could be reached on a slow train, which stops at each and every one. If you manage to even inch towards the exit (the phrase ‘packed like sardines’ fits perfectly; as nearly five thousand commuters crush themselves into carriages meant to carry only eighteen hundred), you will be showered with abuses, poked with vicious elbows and I have even heard that safety-pins have found their uses in commuter train battles. 

Hair-sprayed office PAs gnash teeth and grind their bodies against salwar-kameez clad shop assistants. Fisherwomen returning home from the markets hold their stinking, fish water dripping baskets in front of them as armour. Tight jeaned college girls tap giggle flirtatiously to their boyfriends on their phones while digging their well manicured nails into an unsuspecting victim. Beggars sing for their dinner. Hawkers push their plastic wares into sweating faces and banter for a sale. Train friends swap tales and snacks, or play cards if lucky to be sitting down. The technical term, ‘super-dense crushload’ is completely justified here.

As the stations fly by, more and more women pack themselves into the train. The Ladies Special is a haven: an entire train to the women. No pinching fingers or heavy breathing to fear. No sexual innuendos or badly sung Bollywood songs to endure. In spite of the constant battle for space, it is still our battle. We womenfolk fight our own corners and sort out our own problems. After Bandra, the crowd starts to thin a bit. There’s still half the journey left. But at least by now, there may be place to sit. There’s an opportunity to breathe deeply and relax. To smile at the person opposite. To take the vegetables that one has hurriedly haggled and bought outside the station out of the bags and then begin to chop them one by one. There’s never any time to be wasted. As a woman in the metropolis, one is always thinking ahead. There are hungry mouths to feed at home, and no time to cook. Simple solutions like cleaning and preparing the vegetables for meals begin in the train. Women gossip and get ahead of their housework. A seamstress takes orders for dresses she will make and supply on the train in a fortnight’s time. She measures her client, pins stuffed in her mouth, measuring tape flapping as they are jolted from side to side in the speeding train.

Statistics reveal that more than five hundred people die annually in train accidents. Many fall off moving trains, others hit a live wire if sitting on the roof and get electrocuted. There are incidents of stone-throwing by slum-dwellers at passengers and also of people hitting electric posts because they lean too far out of the door in order to get a foothold into the train. But there are other stories too: heroic acts of bravery, loves found and lost, and some that are too good to be true.

It was a normal weekday. I was returning home from a client meeting. The Ladies' Special was running late. I decided to wait for it, rather than battle it out in the general trains. I hung around in the background, eating roasted peanuts to pass the time. When the train finally approached, I braced myself to fight and elbow my way into the train. I was lucky to have a first class pass, and to my absolute delight, not many women approached my compartment. Elated by the ease of the commute, I entered the train. It struck me a bit strange to find women huddled on one side of the first class, leaving the other side empty. I turned towards the window seat and looked in horror around me. The women shouted, come away, come away. There was blood splattered on the seats and floor. I ran back to the populated side, aghast. It looked like a murder scene. But the women seemed very animated. They laughed and chattered, waving their arms and rolling their eyes in excitement. Of course, they were discussing the event that had taken place earlier on in the journey.

“Baby, baby,” one woman cried, waggling her head. She seemed like a proud grandparent. I stared at them, not sure what to believe. But it was true indeed. A woman had just given birth in the first class compartment of the Ladies' Special. The commuters described to me the scene with renewed excitement. How her waters suddenly broke after setting off from Churchgate. They pulled the chain at Bombay Central, but she was unable to move. Doctors rushed to the train, and with their help, the woman pushed out a healthy, six pound baby boy into the world. Unbelievable, I gasped. This could only happen in India! And no wonder the train had been late.

When we approached the next station, a man with a red plastic bucket and broom jumped into the train. He splashed water on the bloodied seats and floor, and swept with a maniacal force. We kept well back, shouting at him for sending sprays of that water towards us. A local train waits at each station for 30 seconds. In that time, he had washed and spread the blood and mess even further across the train, before jumping out again. We sighed and shook our heads. And then the high-pitched conversation resumed once more.

The next day, I was handed a laddoo by my fellow commuters. The woman and baby were safe and thriving in hospital. I stuffed the sweet into my mouth, joining in the celebration in the Ladies’ First Class. There was no sign of any birthing in the compartment. Probably it was a bit too clean, and that was a sign in itself. The train authorities had had no choice but to scrub down the compartment. We were the elite First Class passengers after all. We laughed and celebrated the baby’s birth with full gusto. We exchanged stories of births and trains and all things in between.

“This baby boy will probably be the one and only male ever to be welcomed into a Ladies' Special,” I joked.

“Yes,” the women chorused. “The only male to set foot on our train with our permission!”


Bless him, I thought. He’ll also be one lucky guy to get a lifetime’s pass to travel first class on a local suburban train in Mumbai. But not on a Ladies’ Special, we wouldn’t grant him that!

First published in Riptide Magazine: The Suburbs, Volume 10, 2014

Wednesday, 21 September 2016



Memoir: At Home, at Sea

This essay was featured in The Commonwealth Writers Journal. Here's my story about my life as (most of the time) the only woman on board oil tankers.
Approaching Gibraltar

Before I came aboard, I was a city girl to the core. Born and bred in Mumbai, I was used to jostling my way on to a crowded local train to college and then to work on an everyday basis.  I felt uncomfortable in silence. Holidays in hill stations or other ‘nature spots’ were fine for a few days, but then I needed to return to the city and a hectic pace of life. So when I first started sailing, the sea, the sky, the steady sound of the water and the open space that surrounded me, made me nervous.


4am watchkeeping on the bridge
I had just married a Chief Officer in the Merchant Navy and jumped head first into my marriage by accompanying my husband on an oil tanker, a few weeks after the wedding.  If sailing around the world conjures up romantic images of sunsets and doing the Titanic pose on the foc’s’le, I won’t disagree, but there are many other sides to it. I had to learn to live as the only woman in a totally male-dominated environment. I had to find a balance between companionship with my husband – together on a boat every day and night without other friends or family – and my own privacy.
I had too much time on my hands and I felt guilty about the fact that I could lead a life of leisure. I didn’t have a house to run, or work to report to. If I wanted, I could spend all day in bed, or watch films endlessly. After sailing for the first few days, I got a little anxious. What was I to do with myself? I had brought along my art materials, but I couldn’t just paint day in and day out, surely?
My husband, having sailed with other officers’ wives on board, was adamant that I find ways to keep myself busy. Otherwise, he knew only too well, boredom would make me despise sailing, and like some of my predecessors, I would eventually stop accompanying him on voyages.
Watercolours: Macieo, Brazil
I did my best to maintain a routine. My mornings began at 3:45 am when my husband, as Chief Officer, had to do the 4-8 am watch. We’d spend time on the bridge; he busy with his day’s planning, while I enjoyed my morning cup of tea with him, often watching the most spectacular sunrises I had ever seen. I helped out with accounting, calculating overtimes and keeping a check on the ship’s safe. I also did watercolours of my travels and wrote journals. But the job I really enjoyed was plotting the ship’s voyage on the maritime charts. I learnt a lot about ocean currents, ship routes and weather systems. I had many opportunities to steer the ship in open seas.

Living on a ship was like living on an island that had its own rules and customs. It was a place populated by men: it was their work and living space and I was an outsider. This didn’t make it easy for either side. I had to do most of the adjusting as I had come into their world. There were unwritten rules that I had to follow. I would stay in my cabin a lot of the time. I didn’t venture into the work spaces unless my husband was present. If I wanted to watch a film in the mess room, I could only do so if I was alone. If another officer wanted to watch a film, it was understood that I should leave and give him the opportunity to relax in his free time. There were certain videos and magazines I pretended not to notice. After six pm, when the men gathered in the mess room to relax, it was out of bounds for me, unless I was accompanied by my husband. Sometimes, I slipped past these boundaries when I joined the men in table tennis and cricket matches, or was lowered off the side of the ship in a full body harness, to go ashore.  But in a way, I had to become an archetypically feminine woman, according to outdated traditions.
Going ashore in a fishing boat in South India
My Mumbai life as a single, working woman had not prepared me to accept invisibility. When the ship docked in Kuwait, I had to stay in my cabin and not come out for days, until the ship left the shore. The inspectors and dock workers coming on board were prohibited from seeing a woman – or was it the other way around? All books, DVDs, videos, magazines and alcohol had to be put away in a sealed room for the duration of our stay in port. I might as well have been stashed away in that room – I would have enjoyed myself better – rather than kept waiting in my cabin, peeping out from behind the curtains at a hot, sandy landscape and raging against the unfairness of it all. I had been used to my independence – a freedom to live as I wished – having not experienced much discrimination in my life so far.
This isolation and being cut off from the rest of the world while sailing helped me to look inwards more.  I gave my emotional needs an importance I never had before. I learnt to love my own company and explore my creativity. I spent hours writing detailed letters to family and friends, bringing me closer to them than when I was actually living amongst them.
Seagulls chasing our ship!
The weather played an immense role not just to the smooth voyage of the ship, but also to the mental state of those on board. When the sky was grey and the sea choppy for days on end, it was difficult for me to get out of bed. When the sun shone, and the sea sparkled, my mood immediately changed for the better, and I spent my days outside on the deck, walking miles back and forth on the bridge. It reminded me of my childhood days, when I could spend hours in the back yard, hitting a ball against a wall and catching it, while making up stories in my mind. I did the same on board: my hours of walking produced many short stories and half a novel.
At the same time, I gained a deeper understanding of the working life of seafarers and how their lives were fraught with danger. Before, my husband had only told me beautiful stories of the sea; of the dolphins and whales and different countries he had visited – brighter anecdotes of adventures during his career at sea. He never mentioned the darker side: the dangers of work to which even lives could be lost, or the stress and fatigue that was taken for granted. There were times when they worked 72 hours at a stretch, for example during tank cleaning operations.  My husband would come back and collapse on the bed, in his greasy boiler suit and with his work boots on.
Dangerous jobs on board
He once handed me a spare walkie-talkie and told me to listen in while he went out to the fo’c’slestoreroom to investigate why the fire alarm had gone off there. There was a gale of force 10 blowing outside, the ship pitching recklessly and brutish waves engulfing the main deck. I couldn’t bear to watch so I stayed in my cabin, listening on the walkie-talkie to the shouts and cries of the men outside. They had tied themselves to a rope, my husband leading the team, and were inching forward in the heavy rain. I got increasingly panic-stricken, knowing I would be helpless if anything should happen. Then I heard a shout: “Look out, Chief.”  Silence followed. I rushed to the toilet and threw up. I stared at the walkie-talkie, petrified, willing it to come to life again. After what seemed like ages, I heard from them again. My husband was safe. Later, he told me very casually that he had hit the side rails along with a few others, but the rope tied to their waists had saved them.
But it was not always so grim on board the ship. Christmas parties were the highlight of any winter voyage. Once, the chief cook, being very artistic, organised a fancy dress party. He managed to transform about twenty-five men into all sorts of characters, mostly female! He used everything he could get his hands on: mops as wigs, a nurse’s uniform from the rags store, paint, footballs, grapefruit and even my lipstick! I had a difficult job now, being (of course) appointed judge of the best costume.
Pilot arriving on ship in Amsterdam
I had my own jobs on board. I sat by the bed of a crew member who had inhaled poisonous fumes and was rendered unconscious. I helped my husband to administer shots to another officer, jaundiced and shivering in the ship’s hospital bed. Stress levels soared when the ships were due for inspection. Everything had to be in perfect order for the ship to pass all the stringent tests required to mark it safe as a place to work.  All paperwork had to be up-to-date, ship standards maintained and health and safety issues checked.
When we sailed out of Brazil in 2003, the tanker got orders to sail to Nigeria for the next loading assignment. All supernumeraries would require an immigration pass, and that included me. But knowing the political situation in Nigeria at that moment, and the time it would take to acquire the pass, we realised it would not be possible. So I sailed into a country without any papers and, to avoid a fine or imprisonment, hid in my cabin for a few days. Once again I became invisible. The mess man and I had a code, so that I would open the door only to him so he could slip me my food. I sat cooped in my cabin for three to four days, listening to Nigerian radio and eating fish curry and rice in my day-room.
The radio was my companion on all my voyages over the four years I sailed, almost six months at a time, on seven ships. Whenever we anchored in a port, I would tune into the local radio, listen to programmes and record songs.  I built an entire library of those recordings that I have to this day. Sometimes, when I hear a particular song, it transports me back to that ship, that cabin, that country where I recorded it and played it endlessly on the longs days at sea.
Mumbai skyline
Then, one day, the ship sailed into the port of Mumbai. From my vantage point on the deck, I could see the familiar skyline of my city. The Gateway of India. The Taj Hotel. The spire of St Andrew and St Columba church. I was looking at my life from the outside. I longed to go ashore and get lost in the crowds of Mumbai. But I was on my own, standing on the deck, trying to spot familiar landmarks through my tears. I borrowed a pair of binoculars and would spend a long time peering through them, hoping perhaps to spot known faces.
I saw the hospital on Mahim Bay, opposite the school I went to. I tried my best to catch a glimpse of the school, knowing my mother would be teaching inside. Would she know I was looking out for her? I went back to my cabin and a little later there was a knock on my cabin door. Reluctantly, I opened it and there, grinning at me, were my mother and sister. My husband had arranged to have them come aboard to surprise me. I was so pleased to have them on board, with a chance for them to see how I lived; what I did. It had become important for me that they understood my way of life on the ship; now a part of who I was.


http://www.commonwealthwriters.org/at-home-at-sea/

Friday, 9 September 2016

Workshop on Life Writing at Badger Farm Community Centre

Hello all,

I'll be hosting a creative writing workshop focussing on Memoir and Life Writing on Saturday 24th September from 10.30 -12.30 at the Badger Farm Community Centre, Winchester.
It's £10.00 to book, and please email me at

susmita.writer@gmail.com

 to register.

Is there a memory or experience you would like to preserve through writing?

There will be writing exercises, exploration of ideas, discussions and resources shared in this 2 hour workshop.

Here's a life writing piece I wrote for Commonwealth Writers:

http://www.commonwealthwriters.org/at-home-at-sea/

I look forward to seeing you then!