Nehru Vs Bose – Clash of the Icons

What happened to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose? How did he die, and when? The answers to these two questions have been shrouded in a dark cloak of mystery for close to seven decades now. The only piece of information that was released for public consumption was that Netaji died in a plane crash on 18th August 1945. This particular explanation has been dismissed by many, including one of the members of the committee (Shah Nawaz Committee, 1956) which submitted the report, as farcical. Two more commissions of inquiry happened at subsequent times under different governments but the actual truth of Netaji’s disappearance and death remained elusive to the laity. Yet, the truth exists, although it lies hidden from public view in the confidence of the Indian State. And the currently raging row about the Nehru government’s snooping on Bose’s kin, that too for two decades after Netaji’s death, is making it increasingly harder for the government to conceal the truth any further, on whatever pretext (ostensible or real).

Although the suddenness and the strangeness with which Subhas Bose met his end shocked and troubled the nation for long, the country had moved on. Jawaharlal Nehru became the first Prime Minister of Independent India and went on to rule the nation for sixteen long years. His name is now firmly entrenched in the history books as one of India’s foremost national icons, whose name is uttered in deference to the halo of virtue and patriotism that shrouds every national figure of India’s fight for Independence. Yet, the very inviolability of that aura has been put to scrutiny in an unlikely era so far removed from Nehru’s own, and due to the opening of another chapter in the continual saga of intrigue that surrounds the death of one of the greatest figures of India’s Freedom struggle. The recent de-classification and uploading into the national archives of a section of the Bose files raises pertinent yet uncomfortable questions about the role of the then Nehru government in keeping the activities of Bose’s family and relations under secret surveillance for as many as sixteen years and by the Indira government for another four years after Bose’s reported demise in a plane crash.

The revelations in the declassified document have not just reignited emotions pent up in many over the unsolved mystery of Netaji’s disappearance, but have also brought back in focus the fact that Indian History has been less than just to a man who was perhaps equally, if not more instrumental in liberating India from the British than even Mahatma Gandhi. It is a well known fact, acknowledged by historians internationally, that the British would not have left India in such a hurry had it not been for the danger posed to it by the Indian National Army, of which Subhas Bose was the founder. Clement Attlee, the then Prime Minister of Great Britain, admitted in 1947 that they (the British) were left with no other choice but to leave the country in the face of the deep divisions created within the Royal Army due to open affiliations of certain sections of the army for Bose’s INA. Yet, Indian History is silent on most of Netaji’s exploits. The INA finds no place of pride in its pages. The thousands of Indians who sacrificed their lives for the country as members of the INA are but pariahs in the anthology of Indian Independence. Now, as the actual details of Bose’s disappearance begin to trickle out of the vault of secrecy, albeit in driblets, History will be questioned anew, and might well be shaken to correct itself.

As far as historical records go, Nehru and Bose harbored no apparent animosity towards each other, and it would be presumptuous to believe that Nehru had any reason to view Netaji as a political rival or a potential usurper, as the many inferences from the current disclosures would have us believe. Yet, his pushing for the “plane crash” theory against all odds and the secret surveillance of Bose’s close relations by Indian intelligence agencies for sixteen years, assuming Nehru was privy to it, which it is hard to believe he wasn’t, reeks of something more than the eye could see. The recent disclosures have brought all those questions to the fore again, raised newer ones, and hardened the determination of all those affected in this case to fight for revelation of the truth with renewed vigor. The premise upon which successive governments have taken shelter in to justify the secrecy - to prevent straining of diplomatic relations with a friendly nation – is now beginning to sound more and more unconvincing. Instead, it has given rise to a suspicion that the effect of the revelations would be more domestic than international. Here again, Nehru comes back into focus. Is it that the disclosures will lend substance to perception, and darken Pandit Nehru’s so far unblemished image in a lesser light? Was this the real reason why Netaji’s last days were consigned to the realm of oblivion, and his memories sought to be erased from public memory?

Questions, all of these, to which there have been very few answers, if any. The million-dollar question, if there ever was one, is whether the long-sought declassification of the Bose story will finally happen. There have been many upsurges of emotion, many instances of hopes rekindled on this issue in the past without any fruitful consequence. After several commissions of inquiry failed to clear up the mystery, rather obfuscated it further, will the threads of reality finally unravel? With Netaji’s surviving kin looking more determined than ever, and PM Modi assenting to discuss the issue in all seriousness, hope shines bright at the end of the tunnel, and India may yet get to know the truth about one of its greatest (if not THE greatest) sons, without the accoutrements of secrecy.

Modi - The Master Communicator

Narendra Modi – the enigma surrounding the man, and the thought processes that drive his indefatigable existence, have confounded the best of political and social pundits - both in India and abroad. While Modi is fast developing into a symbol of India for the World, and a symbol of change and development for the vast majority of the Indian polity, he is still looked upon as a symbol of divisiveness and authoritarianism by his political opponents, many of whom were unabashed and crude in the expression of this view before and during the elections, but are now forced to constrain their opinions after Modi became PM. One thing that everyone will agree upon however, although some may reserve this opinion to themselves, is that there is no one in the Indian political scene today who can match Modi in terms of oratory, diligence and incorruptibility.  

Ever since Modi was unanimously chosen as BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate back in September 2013, his political career has been on a steep upswing, largely due to his impeccable oratory, and his unbelievable connect with the masses. He is a natural speaker, and one who connects with his audience with effortless ease. The content of his speeches is aimed at the audience he addresses, and he knows exactly what needs to be said to strike a chord with his listeners. The fact that Modi addressed more than four hundred rallies during the epic general elections of 2014, and that each rally was a resounding success in terms of attendance and enthusiasm is sufficient testimony to this stamina and oratorical prowess. His speeches are object lessons in mass communication, insofar that they are so well organized - in spite of being extempore – and so natural and convincing in their delivery that the audience is held in a trance every time he speaks. This, combined with his convincing push for efficient and corruption-free governance, and his innovative ideas for a better India, has already established him as one of the most popular leaders the country has seen.

Modi’s critics accuse him of being a lofty speaker without substance, but he has in a space of a few months achieved what his predecessor could not achieve in 10 years. He has made huge strides in strengthening India’s relationship with her neighbors Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Relations with Japan and US have been taken to all time highs. His stoic stance towards border aggression has meant that China and Pakistan are now more wary of making indiscreet advances than ever before. The economy has started picking up, inflation has started moderating. S&P has already upgraded India’s outlook from negative to stable. Surely, one would think that all this cannot be achieved by mere lofty talk.

All through his campaign for the general elections, and the four months so far of his Prime Ministership, Modi has made it his prime agenda to maintain, and enhance his connect with the people. He is always seen to be making newer and newer efforts to raise his equity among the masses, be it through his unfettered delivery from the Red Fort without the customary bullet-proof glass enclosure; or by his fervent appeal to all people to help him make India a clean country by 2019; or by his innovative interaction with the people through Twitter, Facebook and the official government website; or, as most recently, by interacting with the people through All India Radio.

His communication skills have held him in good stead on the international front as well. What has amazed political watchers, citizens, analysts, critics and even his own party men is the ease with which Narendra Modi has adapted to an unfamiliar role of overseas diplomacy. He not only went through all his engagements without faltering even for a moment, which many of his critics expected him to do more than once, but he did it with a sense of aplomb and poise that has made every Indian proud. His engagements with various world leaders at the BRICS summit showcased India’s newfound assertiveness on the world scene. His successful visits to Bhutan, Nepal and Japan where he displayed great bargaining skills and yet maintain a friendly stance catapulted India’s image into prominence in the international scene. His deft ploy of pre-empting any hostility towards the new government from neighboring nations by inviting all heads of SAARC nations to his swearing in ceremony, including Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif, who was rightly taken aback by the surprise invitation, has exhibited the astuteness of his diplomacy on the international front. The greatest coup however, has been his visit to the USA, which was touted to be the most critical, and the grand finale in this series of foreign engagements of the Prime Minister. If the expectations from this trip were high, and expectedly, they were certainly not anticipated to reach the heights they eventually did. Right from the moment Modi disembarked Air India One and set foot on American soil, to the time he waved goodbye four days later, the mood among the Indo-American community in the US was one of ecstasy, euphoria, and at times even bordering on hysteria wherever Modi made an appearance or was anywhere in the vicinity. The way vociferously chanting crowds lined up the street to have a glimpse of the Indian PM as his cavalcade passed by; the way the crowds at Madison Square Garden cheered his every sentence and his every nuance; the way people celebrated with traditional attires and cultural functions on the lawns in front of the White House even as Modi held discussions with Obama, it was Modi-fever all the way, with the charismatic Prime Minister taking America by storm. Even the uneventful meeting between Obama and Modi, which could not resolve outstanding issues such as WTO trade facilitation, nuclear trade and America’s Pakistan policy among others, the camaraderie and warmth with which Obama interacted with Modi was a sight for sore eyes, and a reflection of Modi’s ability to connect personally with Obama in spite of all the differences.

With his redoubtable communication skills, Modi has won several battles leading up to his coronation as PM, and after. Yet the war, which is still to be won, is the one that will determine whether or not his name will be taken in the same breath as of the greatest personalities that Indian history has known. The road to greatness will not be traversed without passing through tough tests, and tribulations, for sure. But that is what great history is all about, after all. 

My Encounter with Lucy

It’s been a while since I have had either the reason or the motivation to pick up a pen and write; write with a cause, and an enthusiasm to lend expression to my deepest feelings. Very rare has been the occasion when I felt words and sentences taking birth in the deepest corners of my heart and flowing spontaneously to the tips of my fingers.

Very seldom, if ever, does an imagined perception of goodness, beauty or virtue manifest itself in real life in the form that it was imagined or dreamt of. Even the magnificent Yarrow could not live up to Wordsworth’s imagination ("Yarrow Unvisited" & "Yarrow Visited "). When such a thing does happen, however, it happens unexpectedly, as in this case, in the unlikeliest of times and places, and it would be a sheer waste not to record the priceless sentiments of such an occasion for the sake of posterity.

My most recent encounter, a sweet tryst in a dreary environment, reminds me of Wordsworth’s Lucy. Lucy inspired Wordsworth (“She Dwelt Among The Untrodden Ways”) and Wordsworth’s poignant eulogisation of Lucy has always fascinated me. The great poet’s sentiments echo in my own soul today, and I cannot ever believe in them more than I do now. The striking similarity of the contrasting environments which occasioned the encounter so vividly described by the poet and the one which affected me in no different way made me wonder, at the sheer unpredictability of life and at the potential for wonderful surprises that it possesses. I have deliberated within myself as to the most apposite expression that my thoughts should take, and convinced myself that only Poetry, which is the sole medium that transcends all forms of prosaic expression, can lend the subtlety deserving of such a subject; and so it is poetry that must be the vehicle of my expression.

The scene is the watery wilderness of the Indian Ocean, and the location – a gigantic ship, which reeks of metal, metal and more metal: 

Cast away, far from shore, on this gigantic craft
Gazing into the sea, my face meets a pleasant draft
Amid sounds of steel and a deafening hum, I stare
With wandering thoughts, into the dark, misty air

Lo! What is this transformation in the haze?
Do I see a winsome face, in this God-forsaken place?
Unbelieving as I stared, my senses all in a twist,
A fairy t'was in the mist; my feet were unsteady, as if the ship was a'list

She smiled so bright, it shattered the dark,
A voice so clear, she could’ve been a lark,
Countenance so serene, like some divine art
And a manner so simple, it caressed the heart

Was I swaying between reality and sleep?
Was it but a vision, of my feelings so deep?
Can the creature of the world of dreams
Walk the hard ground of reality's realms?

Then she spoke, and enraptured I listened so
Then she sang, and enchanted I listened more
The world seemed to float up to the skies
The sights around seem’d to drown in her eyes

Time was long lost, Sleep was forgotten,
Duty and Responsibility were now step-children
Worries n Cares were banished from Earth
The air was so full of fun, so drenched in mirth

The morn approached fast, methinks just too fast
The good times were not destined to last
She wafted into the dissolving dark, leaving a trail of silver light 
The noise came back, the hum returned, reality was back in sight

Wistful we stood, my solitude and me
The playful waves were dancing in glee
The whispering breeze was saying to me
Your own dreams are still yours, so mourn not thee

The Great American Conspiracy

December is a month Indians will begin to dread every year from now on, and not without reason. Last year in December the nation was put through the agony, the travails of the aftermath, and eventual death of a girl who was the victim of the most inhuman form of rape the county has ever known. This December, something of a similar nature has happened to yet another Indian lady, this time an Indian diplomat on foreign shores, at the hands of the Administration of supposedly the “the most civilized nation on earth”, the US of A. Last year’s gruesome crime in Delhi took months of civilian protest and uncountable debates in and off the courtroom to finally come to a decisive climax in the form of death sentences to the accused (barring one who escaped punishment due to his “tender age”). This year’s equally appalling crime by a bunch of thoughtless, racist individuals in the US State Department and the US Police has evoked similar scenes of protest and animated debate across the country, but is yet to reach an end that will restore the dignity of the diplomat and will repair the veritable affront the Indian tricolor has been subjected to as a result. The infringement upon the dignity of Dr. Devyani Khobragade, - a 1999 batch IFS officer, and a senior Indian diplomat to the United States - which has rocked the very foundation of US-India relations, must be considered not just a molestation of feminine dignity, but also a blatant example of the prevailing undercurrent of vitriolic racism and unscrupulous abuse of human rights in a country which proclaims itself to be the ultimate protector and preserver of human rights and liberty. This statement of fact can be averred without the least sense of unfairness, knowing that similar cases of arrest and interrogation of diplomats from “white” countries in the USA have been undertaken without resorting to the despicable and beastly “standard procedures” such as strip search and cavity search applied in the case of Dr Devyani, just because those diplomats were of a fairer origin. Even as the facts of this case begin to unfold every minute, it is now emerging with greater and greater clarity that Devyani has been the unfortunate object of a sinister American plot, the details of which are yet to be fully unraveled, to insult and humiliate her, and in the process, humiliate our nation, its judicial system and its polity. Yet, there may be more to this case than meets the public eye, and it would hardly come as any big surprise if it turns out to be another instance of America’s notoriety in meddling with the affairs of other nations and acting self-righteously to protect its own interests all over the world in the vicious garb of a universal cop with the ostensible intent of erasing injustice and unfairness on the planet. The greatest irony of the whole forgettable episode is perhaps the fact that the man who has now emerged as the architect this foul plot, the US Attorney Mr Preetinder Bharara, is a man of Indian origin, now looking up in reverence to his masters in his adopted country, in an attempt to prove his loyalty to the US flag (and his contempt for the country of his origin)

While it is yet unclear as to the substantial measures and steps the Indian government is taking through diplomatic channels to address the issue (other than the removal of barricades in front of the US Embassy and other cosmetic actions to alleviate the angst and anger amongst the media and general public), there can be little doubt in anybody’s mind as to the necessity of initiation of the following actions without any dithering whatsoever: (1) demand of the US government a full investigation into the details of the arrest of Dr Devyani Khobragade and the justification thereof as well as of the procedures adopted by the US marshals post the arrest, (2) full investigation of the role of the US Attorney Mr Preetinder Bharara in evacuating the maid Mrs Sangeeta Richard and her family from India without the permission of the Indian Government while criminal proceedings were undergoing against the family in Delhi High Court (3) immediate dropping of all charges against Devyani Khobragade pending a full investigation of the case and (4) adequate compensation to Ms Devyani for the trauma that the indignity has caused her.

However, Indian foreign policy has been always weak-kneed in the face of pugnacious posturing of powerful countries such as USA and China, and it is only the relentless pressure from the media and social activists that has always goaded our politicians into acting on behalf of our country and our citizens. This time, India is confronted with an arrogant nation disdainful of the laws, customs and principles of any other country but its own, especially of countries in the Third World, with whom it is okay for America to do trade and earn moolah for its citizens but is also okay to maintain its stance of condescension and veiled racism towards the citizens of these countries. This is amply exemplified by the deafening silence on the part of the US President, who has considered this episode not worth even a mention in his press statement before he left for his weekend getaway.

The Devyani episode will be an acid test of India’s assertiveness in the international arena. It has brought us to a cross-road in our march to prominence in the international field; and may well prove to be an inflexion point in our ascent to a point of recognition as a power that matters. Whether that inflexion is for the better or for the worse, so far as our stature in the world is concerned, will depend on the firmness (or absence of it) in our response in this matter. India can either chose to assert its intolerance to any violation of human rights and dignity, and stand firm in its resolve to support one of its own in a foreign land, which it can do by not budging on its just demand for an apology from the United States government, and in ensuring justice and adequate compensation for Devyani, or it can chose to let this affair disintegrate with time, swallowing all the hurt and humiliation in the process, in a bid to protect its trade and military relations with Uncle Sam. In the latter case it runs a major risk of causing irreparable damage to its image in the eyes of the world and to its credibility in the minds of its own people.

Do We Really Care?

Humankind is deemed to be God’s supreme creation, purportedly at least, with all the versatile faculties at its disposal. Our intelligence, our powers of understanding and analytical thinking have lifted us above other creatures, to a level of superiority that is by now virtually unsurpassable. However, with power comes responsibility, and with intelligence comes empathy and kindness, all of which are necessary to keep the balance of life on earth at a sustainable level. We, as the species appointed for the care, nurture and protection of the lesser creations of God, be it the flora or the fauna, need to exercise our power and intelligence in such a way as to make co-habitation of man and animal harmonious on our planet. Many civilizations have realized the importance of this tenet, and have successfully developed and infused in their peoples a culture of kindness towards animals, so much so that animals in many developed nations are treated almost at par with humans. Today, the level of human development in a country can be aptly gauged by the amount of respect and kindness that its animals are treated with.

Yet, the fact remains that the world is a conglomeration of variegated races – some in a mature state of civilization, and others which are still on the road to that destination, and it is in the areas inhabited by the latter species of humankind that the other creatures of this earth are always at peril; peril of indiscriminate slaughter for monetary profit; peril of being expunged from existence. Sadly, with precious animals falling to poachers in brutal fashion every other day, India today is finding it increasingly hard to convince the world that its economic development has not outpaced its human development index. There is hardly a day that passes by without some news of an animal being killed by poachers in some part of the country. A Rhino killed every other day in the most brutal manner possible in Assam; a tiger killed in some reserve in Maharashtra, an elephant cruelly killed and shorn of its tusks; migratory birds gunned down in large numbers as they descend unsuspectingly upon mud flats and green fields; and many more such instances of cruelty to animals. The heart cries out for the animals in empathy for the pain they must have felt in their cruel deaths, and in the angst at the continual depletion of precious species that adorn our forests. Frustratingly, for all right-thinking citizens and animal-lovers of our great nation, the belligerence of the poachers and the level of cruelty of the killings show no signs of abatement, and, most exasperating of all, the authorities seem much less perturbed by the rising menace than would have been expected of them. Knowing that the grey market for Rhino horns, elephant tusks and tiger skins is a billion dollar business, the lack of sufficient action on the part of the powers-that-be reeks of a greater reach of the poaching conglomerate than meets the eye.
With the state of affairs as they are today, it seems highly unlikely that the environment for animals in India and other countries of the kind will improve sufficiently to ensure their safety and security even in their rightful havens, the forests. At a time when money power rules the roost in society, and even the value of human life is being relegated to insignificance, it will be harder by the day to keep organized and determined poachers off the limits of the forests and reserves. International organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and national societies for the cause of animals such as PETA do not have the teeth to fight this menace, and words of protest alone are hardly the wind that can ruffle the feathers of the killer forces. The fauna of the world are not the exclusive property of the countries that human borders enclose. Animals belong to the world at large, and as such the responsibility for preservation of any species of fauna should be shared by all the countries on earth. It would be a great pity to allow such beautiful creations of God to vanish from this world for ever just because one particular country was unable to prevent a few elements of the nether world from destroying the species. Perhaps, the need of the hour is to create a responsible international organization, with powers and jurisdictions similar to the United Nations, to ensure that animal rights around the world are protected, and that no animal, irrespective of the part of the world it belongs to, will ever face the threat of extinction due to humans overcome by greed.
We, as citizens of the world, and as cohabitants of this great planet, need to pause and think at times – do we really care what goes on in the wilds far from our homes? Does it matter to us whether a rhino, an elephant, a tiger, or for that matter any animal species lives or dies? We should really take time out and think about this.

The Man Who Cannot Die

It is hard to believe that Rajesh Khanna is no more. The news gave me a jolt when I first saw it on TV. It was so unexpected and seemed so unreal that it saddened me more than I would have imagined. It felt as if Rajesh Khanna with his departure from the world has also taken a part of my dreamy childhood with him.

Rajesh Khanna. The name still has a magical ring to it, even after all these years. The square features, the twinkling smile, the disarming charm, the romantic voice – every one of these characteristics were personified by Rajesh Khanna on the silver screen to such perfection that, even today, it is impossible to think of him as a man separate from the characters he portrayed. There never has been, and perhaps never will be a taller icon of romanticism in Bollywood and Indian cinema. Rajesh Khanna is one of my earliest memories, and someone I had begun to love and admire long before I even began to understand the language of movies.

My mind floated back to those carefree days when we – my brother and I – were half-grown kids and we labored at work in the hope of sweet rewards. The work consisted only of studying and going to school, and the rewards – comic books, playing with neighboring kids, going on an outing, eating out, and on extra-special occasions, going to a movie. Movies for us meant only War movies, Cowboy Westerns and Hindi movies featuring Rajesh Khanna. Among all the heroes of the various films we watched, the image of Rajesh Khanna towers above the rest, and reminiscences of scenes from his movies are the among our sweetest memories. For us, Rajesh Khanna had that aura of a super-hero akin to the superheroes of our comic books. We often compared him to The Phantom, our favorite comic-book hero, and many a debate as to who would emerge the winner in a Rajesh Khanna-Phantom fight, would invariably end with the conclusion that it would be a draw. Rajesh Khanna was, for us, no less than a superhero, and he fed all the puerile fancies in our minds as he must have done in the minds of so many others like us. There were no private TV channels, no TV promos of films. We only got to know of a Rajesh Khanna movie through the cinema section in the daily newspaper, or the posters on the walls in the street. We would scour the newspaper every Friday for new movies starring Rajesh Khanna. Whenever the name of Rajesh Khanna was discovered in any of the casts, the clamor to go to the movie would begin, and would not end until the movie was seen. The movie itself carried little meaning for us until Rajesh Khanna made his entry, and every scene that did not feature him was considered waste material. We used to go to the theatre to see Rajesh Khanna and only Rajesh Khanna, and the way he posed, the way he dressed, the way he fought the villains, and the way he danced to those fantastic songs. For us, all the songs portrayed by Rajesh Khanna were sung by him, and nobody could ever make us believe anything to the contrary.

As we grew up, the aura of Rajesh Khanna in our minds did not fade in the least, but was further enhanced, as we came to know that there was much more to the man than the chiseled features, the heavenly smile and the golden voice. The tremendous acting skills that he displayed in memorable films like Anand, Safar, Namak Haram, Agar Tum Na Hote, Kati Patang and his intense portrayals of the various characters made it impossible to believe that his true self was any different from the characters he played. He was used to being flamboyant and lavish in real life but the roles of the common man that he portrayed in films like Anand, Namak Haram, Bawarchi, Aavishkar and Aan Milo Sajana are models of perfection in acting till this day.

With the rise of Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna’s aura and dominance came under stress, but we were among those die-hard Rajesh Khanna fans, who would not acknowledge Amitabh’s growing ascendancy, but looked upon him as an upstart and an usurper instead. However, as time passed, we could not but love Amitabh as well, although he never could take Rajesh Khanna’s place in our hearts. Rajesh Khanna’s fans, and Rajesh Khanna himself perhaps, had to accept the fact that India was transiting from the age of romanticism into the age of realism and struggle, and that Amitabh had asserted himself as the most apt personification of the common man’s smoldering anger and frustration. In fact, Rajesh Khanna himself was modest enough to comment on Amitabh’s fiery performance in Namak Haram, that “India’s new superstar has arrived”. But the truth behind the magnificent stories of India’s two greatest stars is that they symbolized the Indian psyche of two different eras, although they existed side by side, and were born in the same year. Rajesh Khanna was the supreme romantic, the king of the romantic age, while Amitabh symbolized the anger of the common man.

Rajesh Khanna’s reign in Bollywood lasted a mere four years, although he continued to act well after his prime, but the kind of effect he had upon the minds of the masses had to be seen to be believed, and will perhaps never be equaled. For many people like me, Rajesh Khanna is an inextricable part our childhood, an infallible idol, just like the famous comic-book heroes, who can do no wrong, and can never be defeated. Just like The Phantom, who lives on and on, Rajesh Khanna to me will always be what The Phantom is - The Man Who Cannot Die.

From The Jaws Of The Ocean

Whenever I reflect upon the various events in my life that have had a lasting effect on me, I find one particular episode standing out conspicuously from the rest. Today, it is hard to believe that a decade has passed since, because the events of that day are as vivid in my mind as they would have been had they happened yesterday.

It was a typical summer afternoon out in the wild sea. Living in the middle of the ocean, far from civilization, and so far from home that it appeared remote even in my thoughts, has been my job since I chose to be an oilfield engineer, and the sea – its waves, fishes, sea gulls, sunsets – fascinated me far less than it did when I first stepped on to a beach and had my first rendezvous with this vast watery wilderness. That day proceeded for the most part like any other that I had been seeing for the three weeks out at sea on that particular trip. The ocean was shimmering in the blinding whiteness of the high sun. The sky was an umbrella of spotless azure hugging the sea all along its unbroken horizon. I was standing on the deck of the Oceanic Explorer, a gigantic oil-exploration ship, anchored in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by a limitless expanse of water in every direction. All in all, a normal day out in the sea, and there was nothing in the air that augured the events that were to follow later in the day. A strong and constant wind was blowing squarely on my face as I leant on the railing on one side of the lower deck, and looked out into the sea for some sign of human life other than ours, but in vain. Frothy waves appeared like blisters on the glistening water here and there, charging forward with great aggression only to drown out of sight, before rising and charging again with renewed gusto. The swells under the water rose and fell in varying magnitudes, making the ship dance to their tunes. A few shoals of flying fish seemed to revel in the sparkling water as they created momentary arches over the water in their playfulness. The seagulls too seemed to be having the time of their lives as they landed on the water in their flocks, staying afloat for a while before flying off together with great purpose, only to land on the water again. The ship itself might have felt very lonely, had it been capable of any feeling at all, standing in absolute solitude in the middle of nowhere, tormented incessantly by the restless waters. The massive ship tugged hard at the anchor ropes every time a huge swell passed under it, giving it the semblance of a wild elephant struggling to get free of its tether. Nature was its usual, carefree self, totally unconcerned about the rigors and tensions of the hundred-odd crew of the ship, who had been toiling away day and night for the last couple of months in drilling a four-kilometer deep well, which was expected to produce a good amount of oil, and end the drought of success in exploration that had stretched frustratingly long. Optimism and Hope are the main drivers of human perseverance in oil exploration, and this well was no different. Every person strove with equal conviction that oil would be struck this time round and even the mere mention of the possibility of a ‘dry’ well was considered taboo.

The sprawling decks, which spanned the wide area between the rig floor and the heli-deck, and an equally expansive space between the rig floor and the living quarters, were scenes of hectic activity. Every action was being directed towards the core activity that was taking place on the rig floor, where a string of pipes were being run into the well by means of a bulky lifting device hanging from a massive block of steel – called the travelling block – which hung on steel ropes from the top of a towering mast of steel trusses. The block was moving indefatigably up and down the mast as it lowered pipe after pipe into the four-kilometer deep well. The crane and the roustabouts were busy packing up and lifting more pipes to the rig floor, even as other people were absorbed in their own duties.  The welder was totally engrossed in cutting a large plate of steel, stopping only for a moment at regular intervals to rest his eyes. The cleaners were training water jets on the deck and the pipes to clear the rust and scrap. The roughnecks were sweating it out on the rig floor as they tightened the pipes being run into the well. A solitary being, known as the derrick-man on the rig, was perched up in the dizzy height of the mast, guiding the pipes standing on the derrick to the pipe-hanging tool on the moving block. The driller was his usual belligerent self, shouting instructions to the roughnecks from inside his cabin, and the drilling supervisor, who bears the ultimate responsibility for execution of all operations as per plan, kept a close eye on the activities. I was waiting on one of the lower decks, lost in idle musings, occasionally casting an eye to the rig floor, waiting for the pipe-running to end, and my activity to start. Suddenly, a stillness descended upon the rig. Nothing, except the constant rumbling of the ship’s engines was to be heard. I glanced quickly up to the rig floor. The block had stopped. The roughnecks seemed to be in a state of panic. The crane had come to a halt. The roustabouts were all standing in the middle of the deck and looking curiously up at the rig floor. I sensed something was terribly wrong. Even as I started hurrying up the steep metal staircases to the rig floor, I heard my name being called out on the announcement system – “Production Engineer To Rig Floor Immediately”. I quickened my climb, taking two to three steps at a time, and was quite at a loss of breath by the time I entered the Driller’s cabin. The cabin was crowded with supervisors of all sorts. The Drilling supervisor, the Rig Superintendent, The Tool Pusher, The Mechanical In-Charge, The Electrical Engineer, all turned their grim faces on me as I opened the door to enter the cabin. The scene outside the cabin, on the rig floor, was one of stillness. The well mouth was cordoned off by a barrier of red tape, signaling danger to human life. The roughnecks made themselves comfortable at a safe distance, and were sitting on whatever flat surfaces they could find around them. The derrick-man had descended from his high perch, and was promptly sent off for a well-deserved cup of tea. The Drilling Supervisor was the first to speak, “We are about to shut the well in at the BOP” he said to me, and pointing gravely towards the mouth of the well, he continued, “the well is flowing”. He then pointed to the digital display panel, where many numbers were changing constantly, and put his finger on one number, which was indeed rising steadily. That number showed the volume of mud, or drilling fluid coming out of the well. The situation was indeed alarming. If the drilling fluid was coming out, there can be only one thing that was causing it to come out – gas. I knew gas could cause havoc if it reaches the surface, and for a gas bubble to rise up a hole of a few thousand meters, it takes much less time than one can imagine. The steadily rising rate that showed on the digital display required much faster action than what the Drilling Supervisor seemed to be contemplating. I asked him, with a slight undertone of concern, “why don’t you shut it in right now?”. The Supervisor shook his head. “No, let us observe it for a few minutes”. Well control is the direct responsibility of the Drilling Supervisor, and he is supposed to know best what action to take under such circumstances. However, I had an uneasy feeling that he was being far more patient than was necessary. Before I could say anything to convey my thoughts, there was a sharp cry at the door of the cabin. A person who was manning the shale shakers, through which the outcoming mud from the well is circulated back to the rig mud tanks, had come up all in a huff and said that the outflow of mud had suddenly increased, and the shakers were overflowing. We looked instantly at the display panel. Nothing seemed abnormal. “that display is wrong” shouted the shaker-man, “we are getting uncontrollable flow”. The situation inside the Driller’s cabin was instantly converted into one of absolute panic.

“CLOSE THE RAMS”, shouted the Drilling supervisor at the top of his voice, although the driller was barely a couple of feet away from him. The driller rushed to the BOP panel and pushed the button against the label “Pipe Rams”. The Pipe rams are high pressure seals designed to close around a pipe and prevent gas from coming to surface. Before the rams could close, there was a huge gush of mud through the rig floor, and instantly the glass panes of the driller’s cabin were all covered in mud. There was a dreadful sound of mud falling in lumps on the roof of the cabin for a while, and stopped. All was still. Nobody spoke a word. After a few moments, the driller carefully opened the cabin door and peered outside. The gushing of mud had stopped, which was evidence enough that the pipe rams have closed. One after the other, all the people inside the cabin were out on the floor. The scene outside was unbelievable. The rig floor looked like a mud field. The heavy handling tools near the mouth of the well had been flung about like toys. The mud spray was so powerful that even the upper heights of the mast were doused in mud. The lower decks were not spared either. The whole rig looked like it had just been retrieved from a mud hole. As shocked faces surveyed the mess, there was a sudden blasting of alarms all over the place. First, the gas alarm went off, followed in close succession by the fire alarm. In the midst of the deafening jangle, an announcement was made from the control room that there was a fire somewhere on the rig. We had to strain our ears to make out that the shakers had caught fire. A fire party was seen donning fire suits and arming themselves with water hoses and extinguishers even as other people on the rig scampered towards their muster stations near the life boats. I myself ran towards one, found myself a life-jacket and stood amongst the nervous crew members near one of the life-boats. I looked down at the sea, and somehow I felt that the waves were raging with greater fury than normal. The ship rocked with greater discomfort, and the anchor ropes looked to have reached their limits of resistance.

There was another announcement from the bridge at this point. The fire had apparently been brought under control and the alarms had been deactivated. Everybody was asked to report to the heli-deck for a combined briefing. Within minutes, everybody was assembled on the Heli-deck, and the Drilling Supervisor, along with the captain, addressed the group.

“The good news is”, started the Drilling Supervisor, “that the fire and gas hazards have been effectively dealt with”. Everybody was silent. They knew that the bad news was coming.
“The bad news” continued the Supervisor “is that the pressure under the pipe rams is building up, and…” he paused uneasily, “there seems to be a slight leakage through the rams.
“Presently the pressure is two thousand pounds, and still it is increasing. The leak has not worsened as yet, but, under the circumstances, we have decided that the ship has to be evacuated of non-essential personnel”
The Radio Operator spoke. “We have informed base, and helicopters are being arranged for the evacuation, but as it is already dark, there are doubts whether the choppers will be able to land on the rig. So…”
The Captain, who was silent thus far, interjected, “we have alerted the stand-by vessel, and it is coming alongside to pick up as many personnel as it can”
Presently, there was a call from the Driller on the rig floor. It had come to light that the leak in the rams had increased, and gas was visible at the well mouth. This complicated matters further. The Captain, the Drilling Supervisor and the Rig Superintendent had a brief closed-door meeting, and emerged out on to the heli-deck again to make an announcement. It was the Drilling Supervisor who spoke,
“after a lot of deliberation, we have finalized an emergency course of action”, he said with a grim face “we have no choice but to close the shear rams, cut the pipe in the hole, disconnect the LMRP and abandon the rig”
Everybody was silent. We all knew that the choppers cannot land on the rig in the night, especially with the sea as rough as it was. The stand-by vessel can take at the most fifty people on board. The remaining fifty will have to take the life-boats. Nobody on the rig had ever been on a life-boat, in a real situation or otherwise, and the very look of the snarling waves sent shudders through our bodies.
Anyway, the plan was put into action. The shear rams were closed. The shear rams cut the pipe in two halves, the lower half fell into the well and the upper half hung from the block. The LMRP, which is a quick-release connector that facilitates release of the casing connecting the rig floor to the BOP on the sea-bed, was activated. The LMRP, however, did not function as expected. In spite of repeated activations, the casing did not release. “The sea currents are too strong” said the driller, “the LMRP will not release since the underwater casing is in tension”
Meanwhile, the stand-by vessel, which was a medium sized supply boat with an open deck for cargo, made several brave attempts to moor alongside the rig, although it was being ruthlessly tossed about by the hungry waves, but had to eventually give up. So, the part of the plan, which envisaged transferring part of the crew to the boat, had to be abandoned. We were left with only the life-boats until some external help arrived. Everyone, including myself, was very apprehensive and nervous about getting thrown about in the wild sea in pitch darkness on one of those tiny life-boats. Even the thought was horrifying. Yet, if worse comes to worst, we knew that the life-boats were the only barriers between us and the ferocious ocean, which seemed to be frothing and fuming even more at that moment, as if sensing a kill in sight. The wind speed had picked up considerably with the onset of darkness, and it seemed very unlikely that anyone was going to leave that rig that night.
We donned our life-jackets and filed into the crammed interior of the life-boat, which had benches for seats in two rows facing each other, with a box of supplies – water, food packets etc – in small quantities. Just as the life boat was being started, an announcement by the Radio Operator spread cheer amongst the crew. There was a chopper on the way to the rig, and that it would be landing in a few minutes. The announcement was followed by loud shouts of cheer as the head-lights of a chopper flashed dimly far away in the dark sky, and steadily grew brighter and larger as it approached the rig. The chopper made a few rounds of the rig, trying to make an approach to the heli-deck, but each time it had to abort its landing as the stiff wind prevented it from maintaining stability. After several failed attempts, the chopper headed away from the rig and soon vanished out of sight. In the meantime, it was made known to everybody that one of the life-boats had become dysfunctional, as its engine would not start. The mechanic was working on it, but until it could be repaired, half of the crew had no life-boat for an escape. Meanwhile, news from the rig floor was not good. The Driller had been trying all this while to release the LMRP, but was unable to do so because of the strong water currents. The Captain announced that the tension on the anchor ropes on one side of the rig had breached the danger limit and evacuation processes needed to be expedited. If the anchor ropes were to give way, with the casing still not released, the ship would lose its balance. More than half of the crew were trembling with fear, but thankfully, did not panic. The tougher ones were putting up a brave front, but must have been quaking within as well. The Chief Officer of the rig came to the life-boat stations and personally checked the sea-worthiness of each life-jacket. This conveyed the eerie message that we might have to take to the sea without life-boats, if the situation so demanded. One look at the seething waters and the feel of the hurricane blowing on our faces was enough to send shivers down every spine at the possibility of having to jump into the sea.
Suddenly, the sound of helicopter engines filled the air. The chopper was back, and this time it had another chopper with it. The pilots seemed determined to make a successful evacuation this time round. After a lot of maneuvers and failed rounds, one of the choppers did manage to land on the heli-deck. The Radio Operator announced the passenger manifest for the first sortie. The Chopper was a small Dauphin, and the maximum it could take was nine people at a time. Anyway, the first nine people were evacuated without delay. Every person was waiting with bated breath to hear his name on the manifest, even as the second chopper made its successful descent. Everybody had a prayer on his lips as the choppers struggled hard to combat the forces that night. In the end, the prayers yielded fruit, and the choppers came in one after the other, overcame the rough conditions and transported all the people to a nearby production platform, about twenty miles away. I was among the last to land on the platform, along with the Drilling Supervisor, the Captain, The Chief Officer, the Driller, The crane operator and the Radio Operator. It was 2 a.m. in the morning when the last flight lifted off the Oceanic Explorer, and it felt a bit sad that the ship was left to fend for itself in the stormy waters, to a fate that was yet unknown.
The feel of land was never as good as it was when I touched shore early in the morning light, and daylight was never more welcome. The events of the night remain fresh in my mind till this day, coming back to me like a nightmare every now and then. I have had my brush with death, like so many others on the ship, and for nothing would I ever relive that experience, in this life, or the next.
The Oceanic was handed over to an international Blow-out control company, which spent close to six months killing the well and retrieving the pipes. Investigations into the incident continue till this day, about ten years since that fateful night, and learning points are still being compiled, in a perennial effort to make offshore oil-drilling safer than it has been in the past.

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