Until he had to go to school, my son grew up on ships as his dad’s a captain on oil tankers. As far as he was concerned, the ship was home, and the entire deck with its pipes and companionways was his playground. A sturdy swing had been made for him using pilot-ladder steps. It hung from one of the innumerable pipes running along the main deck.
On transatlantic voyages, where there was practically no traffic, he would spend time on the bridge with Sergei, the second mate, whose watch it was from 12:00 noon to 4:00 p.m. He would eagerly rush upstairs with his collection of plastic balls and he and Sergei would toss them to each other. I would plant myself before the radar screen and keep a watch for stray ships, which Sergei found hilarious, but indulged me nevertheless.
Soon, my son was comfortably calling out “Kedai match” (phonetic spelling, I don’t know Cyrillic) in Russian, meaning ‘throw/catch the ball’. He differentiated between ‘bolshoi match’ and ‘malinki match’, big ball and small ball. In a few days he began greeting people with ‘Dobrevecher’ or ‘Prev-yair’. One day he said “Spasibo fo’ changin’ bubb” to the electrician when he replaced a fused bulb in our cabin! It was amusing to hear him say “Dosvidaniya” in a sing-song voice while leaving the saloon after dinner. He addressed all Russians on the ship as ‘dhyadhya’, meaning uncle, much to their delight. At the New Year’s party he picked up ‘Snoven godhaam’ and enjoyed teaching the Filipino crew to say it. I miss those days so much, it’s almost a physical ache. There’s nothing more fun than watching an excited and happy child grow!
Meanwhile, he spent about an hour at tea time with the Radio Officer and a couple of others in one of their cabins. One day, he came back reciting the alphabet, “A for alpha, B for bravo, C for Charlie, D for delta, E for echo …” all the way up to Z for Zulu! He would have to unlearn this, or they may not let him into pre-school in India, I thought!
An African proverb says it takes a village to raise a child. I often wonder how the various ‘villages’ my son grew up in through his nomadic early years have influenced his approach to life. I mean, a large part of his early childhood was about getting up in the morning, peeping out of the porthole and saying “Whe’ ah we today?” We would take him out to Chuck-e-Cheese in ports in the US, mainly for the ball pool he loved, and to various zoos, parks and McDonald’s in other countries. For those few hours he would be like other children, playing with peers instead of adults. Just when he got used to seeing the same view from our porthole for three or four days, it would be time to sail out. The port would get a mournful farewell as it receded into the distance. I still remember his sad, disappointed little face saying, “San Funando, Twinidad gone. Faaaw-away”, and rotating his little hands outwards over and over.
‘It takes a village’ reminds me of Hilary Clinton’s book, which in turn reminds me of how my son regarded the Clintons as part of our family circle. Those days, TIME and Newsweek magazines were, more or less, our only contact with the outside world. We got them once a fortnight or so, when we reached a port. And Bill and Hilary were often on their covers.
Once, when Immigration officers came aboard in the US – as is the usual procedure – to check our passports, my son pointed at one of them and announced “uk ike Kin-thun.” “Looks like Clinton,” I duly translated for the benefit of the man pointed at. Everybody burst out laughing and agreed that he did resemble Bill Clinton, while the man asked incredulously, “He knows Clinton?”
The TIME and Newsweek magazines were my son’s property. He hoarded them in his toy chest with his other books. When we had people over for drinks some evenings he would bring them out and introduce Bill and Hilary to everyone. He called them Biy and Ee-uh-yee, and I often had to explain to mystified people that he couldn’t pronounce ha, la and ra. Soon, he took to explaining, “I can’t say uh, uh and uh, an’ so I ko’ uh Ee-uh-yee!”
Russians, Filipinos, Indians, the Pakistani chief mate, Saad, whom I haven’t mentioned here, the Turkish Mr. Halaq who stayed on board for a few days on official work – they were all one large family to my son. Everybody was an uncle, and he could visit them in their cabins any time and be welcomed and fussed over affectionately. It was a happy life. His problems actually began when he had to continuously deal with small human beings in school!