Book Excerpts

The Census and the Merchant Ship – A chapter from ‘The View from Kollam’

The gangway was lowered in silence as the harbour launch that brought the collector, the DSP, his fellow officers, me and the tehsildar from the port to the large cargo ship at anchor some distance away bobbed around in the high swells. […]

As we climbed up the narrow gangway along the steep sides of the massive ship, I looked up at the looming mass and could see several pairs of eyes anxiously regarding our progress up the steps. Finally, we were on a spacious deck, being received by a large bearded man in a spotlessly white uniform who was obviously the captain of the vessel. Judging from the elaborate welcome, it was clear he had received a signal from the port office that a team of officials would be boarding his ship. The worried expression on his face, as well as on the faces of the others assembled on the deck, was probably because they were unable to understand the reason for the visit.

We were given a short tour of the vessel, which was an old break-bulk cargo vessel that had seen better times. The paint was peeling off her sides, and she did not seem to be in great shape. The cavernous holds seemed enormous, their depths hidden in darkness far below where we stood. These holds would soon be filled with sacks of the mineral sands for which this part of the Kerala coast was famous. These sands would be taken to chemical complexes in Japan where they would be processed to extract the valuable minerals they contained. […]

Our tour of the narrow passages, up steep stairs or down precipitous hatches, was not very comfortable or interesting, till the captain approached another closed door. In front of it stood another Greek, built on the same gigantic proportions as the captain. His bushy beard and fierce eyes made him look like the pirates drawn by comic strip illustrators. His oil-stained overalls indicated a man who appeared to spend most of his time with machines and engines. We braced ourselves for a descent into an inferno, full of hissing and roaring machines, having to pick our way through the mess of oil, cotton waste and rust.

Instead, what greeted our astonished eyes was a gleaming large cavern, which fell away in a series of steps to far below where we stood. As far as the eye could see were banks of gleaming engines, working with deep rumbling and rhythmic sounds, attended to by people moving purposefully among them unhurriedly. The floor was conspicuously free of oil or water or cotton waste. Every brass fixture gleamed as if it had been polished just a few minutes earlier, as did every steel part. Needles danced in clean glass gauges, and data was recorded by engineers on neat charts. The chief engineer, who is customarily referred to in novels of the sea as ‘chief’, stood by, peering at our expressions, as if anxious about the verdict, and he appeared to be satisfied that we were obviously impressed by what we saw.

We were led to a large wood-panelled room resembling the conference room of a typical corporate office. A large oval table dominated the room, with comfortable chairs arranged around it. On the walls, paintings of ships hung in sturdy wooden frames, presumably other vessels of the same line that owned this one. There was a framed portrait of an elderly man in resplendent uniform on the far wall, and closer examination revealed this to be the king or president of Greece, the country of origin of this vessel. While we made ourselves comfortable, plates heaped with various dried fruits and nuts were placed in front of us. Another steward came around with bottles of beer and wine. There was some hesitation among some officers, but the collector reached for a glass of wine, and soon foaming glasses of beer stood in front of every person.

There was one member of the crew who appeared to understand English, and we were soon engrossed in the task of trying to explain to the captain the purpose of our visit, which was to enumerate him and the crew of his ship as part of the decennial census. We were in the early part of January 1981, and under the Census of India Act, all persons on Indian soil or in Indian waters would have to be enumerated for the census. This was clearly beyond the powers of the hapless interpreter, who was unable to explain to the increasingly alarmed captain the purpose of our visit. The presence of the uniformed senior police officers had made a profound impression on the captain, who was certain that his vessel was under suspicion for violation of some important law. He gloomily downed his glass of beer as if it were lemonade, and refilled it, probably thinking that if this were to be his last drink before he was clapped in handcuffs and led off to some stinking Indian gaol, he had better get his fill of good beer.

[…] My mind went over the tremendous changes that had taken place in India and the region since the last decennial census: the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, the Emergency and its aftermath during 1975–77, the first non-Congress government in India, my abortive PhD programme at Thiruvananthapuram, my selection to the IAS, the two-year training programme at Mussoorie and Manipur, my posting to Manipur and experiences there, the death of my younger brother, a lieutenant in the Armoured Corps, in 1979, and the subsequent events connected with that tragic event that brought me quite unexpectedly to Thiruvananthapuram.

Heaped plates of assorted cold cuts were passed around, as were bowls full of olives and various dried fruits like figs, apricots and dates. Most of the visiting team were obviously unfamiliar with these and tentatively nibbled at the offering, while quaffing the excellent beer. I shovelled large quantities of these rare items into my mouth, and left the meats untouched. The solemn and worried expressions of the captain and crew appeared to soften a bit as the appreciative sampling of the food offered appeared to indicate that our intentions may not have been that hostile after all. But, they were still watchful, expecting any moment to see the police officers produce handcuffs and other unfriendly hardware.

The collector gestured to the tehsildar to start his work of enumerating the crew of the ship. The first to be enumerated was the captain. The giant Greek wiped his perspiring face with a kerchief that looked like a tablecloth and turned to the tehsildar as if he were facing the firing squad, a noble, brave expression on his bearded face, a faraway look in his eyes as they probably gazed at a mental picture of the loved ones he would not see again. He glumly answered the few questions that were put to him, surprised at the finickiness of Indian law that collected such trivia from a condemned man. The data collected included details of the house he lived in (whether it was a ‘pucca’ or ‘kachcha’ structure!), the members of his family (why did they have to be dragged into this terrible mess?), his educational qualifications (what conceivable use would this information serve the Indian authorities, he wondered), and the other minutiae that constitute the census data-gathering exercise.

After the tehsildar was satisfied that all the questions had been answered, he was told that his part was over, and that the next man should step forward. The captain barked out a command in Greek, and another swarthy man stepped forward, bracing himself for the ordeal. The interpreter was going over some of the finer points of the questionnaire with the tehsildar while the next man waited in trembling silence. The questions were asked with a straight face by the interpreter who had probably by now figured out that this was not the prelude to execution by a firing squad, but just a routine data-gathering exercise. Being of a mischievous bent of mind, he probably decided to keep this discovery to himself and enjoyed the discomfiture of his shipmates for some more time. His grave expression and sepulchral tone did not help the morale of those waiting for their turn, anxiously searching the face of the one who had just finished his ordeal for a clue.

It was only after all the crew had been enumerated that the interpreter let the cat out of the bag that this was a routine administrative exercise and that the police were not here to arrest the crew. The relief on the faces of the crew was worth going miles over choppy seas to see as they started to smile broadly and thump each other on the back. The captain, relieved that he was not going to have to spend the rest of his life in a stinking Indian prison, roared out a command, banging the polished table with his huge fists. The glasses and plates on the table quivered at the impact. A bottle of clear fluid was produced, which the interpreter explained was a traditional Greek drink. Tiny shot glasses were produced and quickly filled and placed before the company assembled.

The captain took one in his huge ham-like fingers and stood towering over the assembled company in the room that suddenly appeared to have shrunk. He gritted out a short speech in Greek, which, freely translated into English for us visitors, invoked the blessings of the Virgin and sundry other protectors of seafarers on the census enterprise, asking the gods to ensure that the data collected by us was the truth, and wishing us godspeed in our sacred task. There was a brief silence after the interpreter completed his translation, and then the captain glared at the little assembly, and then with a swift motion tossed the contents of the shot glass down his throat. We followed suit, and some among us coughed as the fiery liquid seared its way down unprepared throats. No sooner had we placed our glasses on the table than they were refilled, as if by magic, and we found ourselves standing again as the vice-captain stood and delivered an emotional peroration, even  more flowery than that of the captain. No translation was necessary this time, as we smiled knowingly and tossed the contents of the shot glasses down our throats.

The glasses were refilled again, over some weak protests from a couple of the visiting team, and a third crewman stood, grinning from ear to ear, to deliver a thundering toast that reverberated in the small room, rolling around that confined space like thunder. The movement of the glasses to lips was less steady this time around, and some of the visitors were compelled to steady themselves against the table with their free hands. This time, when the glasses were returned to the table, some clamped their hands firmly on the mouth of the shot glass to prevent it from being refilled.

It was time to leave, and the collector got to his feet unsteadily, as did the rest of the visiting team, and we all made our way carefully down the narrow passages, down steep stairs, and finally had to negotiate the gangway that was lurching and swaying in a sickening manner as the sea had become more choppy in the interim. We all made it into the launch without mishap and were soon bouncing on the waves on our way away from the huge ship back to shore. The big vessel gradually receded from us as we drew closer to the breakwaters guarding the entrance to the fishing harbour, passing a barge with its gunwales just above the water, weighed down by a cargo of mineral sands en route to the big ship. Back on land, we dispersed to our respective vehicles and were soon on our way home.


Buy the collection of C. Balagopal’s delightful anecdotes from his tenure as a young IAS officer in Kerala here.

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