Guest Article #37: For the Joy of Sharing

My First Sea Voyage

By C.I. Sivasubramanian
Aged 95, Retired Director, Ministry of Commerce, New Delhi

Foreword by Venkat
Any travel to a strange land is always fascinating and when it comes as surprise at a young age, it becomes an adventure. Mr. C. I. Sivasubramanian shares his beautiful memories of his first travel by a ship to Mombasa, Africa. He describes in his tender touch, the various feelings his mind sailed over while aboard the English ship, with his wife, a young child and a new chapter of his now illustrious career.
There must be something deep in this mode of travel that brings a connection to reminisce even after fifty years. Perhaps, where the waters run deep, we sense the depth of life. Personally I have never been on anything bigger than a small boat. Looking forward to one some day!

The author (my uncle) is from Coimbatore. He has been living in Delhi throughout life. He was employed with the Government of India, Ministry of Commerce and retired as Director in 1986.

Some memories are forever to cherish and some experiences always inspire. Enjoy the sweet journey in this narrative spruced in uncle’s gentle humor!

My First Sea Voyage

I came to Delhi from the far off Coimbatore in 1946. For nearly a decade, I did not stir out of the country. But an opportunity came my way in 1954, when the Government of India selected me for a posting in the Indian Trade Commission at Mombasa (Africa). There was no organized foreign service then; people were selected ad hoc for foreign postings. For political posts, officers were selected from the Ministry of External Affairs, and for commercial posts, officers from the Ministry of Commerce. I opted to go on a foreign service mission and I was selected to go to Mombasa.

India was represented by the Commission of India located in Nairobi, capital of Kenya. Our commercial affairs were looked after by the Indian Trade Commission in Mombasa. The Trade Commissioner in Mombasa was in charge of the office, with a limited staff.

Well, I was thrilled to be selected for an overseas post; at the same time, nervous about how I was going to discharge my duties. I was myself young, my wife younger, and we had a child to boot. We (my wife, child and I) reached Bombay by train and stayed with my wife’s cousin for a couple of days before embarking a ship at the Bombay port. Our cousin escorted us to the port.

The port was crowded with passengers and coolies (don’t know if I can call them that in these days). The coolies were carrying the luggage. The passengers had to go by a small rowing boat for a distance before they could reach the ship. The ship always anchored a distance away, in deep waters, and the travelers had to take boats to reach the ship. A huge rope ladder hung on the side of the ship and we had to climb it to reach the ship. I wondered how my wife with a child in hand could climb the rope? But she did pretty well and we all reached the deck safe and sound.

The ship was called S.S. AMRA, a steamboat owned by the British. In those days only English boats plied between Bombay and Mombasa. After a while, the ship removed its anchor and slowly moved away from the shores. We, as several other passengers, stood on the deck and waved ‘good byes’ to the people who had come to see us off. The people became smaller and smaller as the boat moved farther and farther away and within a short while, the Bombay port et al just disappeared from view and there was only sea and sea all around us! You can imagine the thrill and suspense we all felt then.

We were given a cabin all to ourselves in the upper deck. I saw many families were given accommodation in the lower deck where they were spreading their beds on the bunks and cooked their own food. In the lower deck, the ship’s motion is felt more than in the upper deck. In the upper deck, the passengers were served from the pantry. Till then, I was not sure what kind of meals we would be served on the ship and if we would be able to get vegetarian food. It was a great relief for us to learn that vegetarian food would be served. It was a different matter how the food would taste, but what was important was that we would not starve!

And there were entertainment avenues galore: we could play different games on the deck, dance, etc. Being an English boat, they catered to the needs and tastes of the Englishmen travelling by the boat. There were deck chairs where we could simply sit and watch the endless seas and the steady movement of the boat rocking to and fro. And all around us were strangers, and we all looked like a large family in a world of our own. Everyone was friendly and forthcoming. It was all excitement. Time flew by with several courses of meals and tea served all through the day and entertainments going on in the deck.

Around the time that we were closing in on Mombasa, an announcement was made that we were about to cross the equator! We will be going over to the southern hemisphere where the weather is ‘ulta’ – when we have summer in the north, the south experiences cold and vice versa – we crossed the imaginary equator and entered the southern hemisphere! What a great occasion! I wished I could see the real line.
After seven days of travel, on the 30th of May 1954, we docked at the Killindini port at Mombasa.
MOMBASA! The foreign land!! All people belonging to a different race!!! All speaking a strange language!!!! The whole atmosphere was completely alien to me. Will I be able to survive in this atmosphere and carry on my duties in this strange land? You can imagine the thoughts of a young man in a strange land.

Well, at least the port looked no different from the Bombay port, except that it was much smaller. There were African men all over the place speaking a strange language. But they were friendly. Two of my office colleagues had come to the port to receive us. We were taken to our residence. The thrill of travelling by ship has always been around and I continue to reminisce over those days even now, after more than half a century!

By C.I. Sivasubramanian

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