The Rime of the Ancient Submariner

First Person

The Rime of the Ancient Submariner

Illustration: Saachi Mehta/ Arré

T

he signal started flashing, somewhere in the afternoon. Or I think it was afternoon. We’d been on a sortie for three weeks and the days and nights had merged into each other, in a haze of artificial white light.  Once you go underwater, only the officer who mans the periscope is able to see sunlight. The rest of us had come to terms with living without it and losing touch with our biological clocks until we could no longer tell the hours anymore.

The day of the leak started like any other; the constant battle between inertia and alertness that marks life in a submarine continued. It was all relatively new for me. I was in the first year of service, after having completed my training. Living with 70 men, who have not seen sunlight or breathed natural air for two months, sharing two toilets, maintaining a closely monitored silence, and living in sub-optimised levels of oxygen – I was still getting used to it all as well as the undercurrent of friction that runs through this subterranean, ghostly world that has a singular, unremitting purpose – to listen in on the world outside.

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That day, as the red signal flashed, the usual, eerie silence quickly turned into an urgent rustle of feet. We didn’t know what had gone wrong, but 800 feet under the water, the smallest leak could be catastrophic.

This aquatic existence is a triumph of engineering as well as a daily battle with elements. The most dangerous is water. The weight of the ocean holds the submarine in a death grip. Every 10 metres that a submarine plunges into the ocean’s depth, the pressure on it increases by a kilo and at any given time, a submarine is being compressed on all sides by enough force to destroy modern marvels like bridges and dams. But it is not this Hulk-like embrace of the ocean, which causes a red alert; it is often a tiny spray of water which spells danger.

The hull of an average submarine has up to 150 small joints that engineers have to inspect carefully on every shift. A tiny change in temperature or pressure on one point could lead to a disaster. When we reached the briefing point, that’s exactly what we were told: A joint on the hull had given way to a feeble but steady spray of water near the control room.

The suppressed panic was evident in the eyes of the crew. The control room is like a sanctum sanctorum. Nothing can defile it. If the spray elicited a spark from the controls, it would be the end. We might as well rise up and wave to the enemy spies. Our game was up. Smoke would spread quickly through the vessel and a carbon-monoxide asphyxiation in a closed environment would lead to quick deaths. There would not even be an SOS call; a submarine never sends out a signal, it only receives orders.

Our lives are top secret, our locations never disclosed, our missions never to be seen or heard of, even though we are an integral part of our country’s defence and espionage mechanisms.

The only option, if things escalated, was to escape. Escape was by far the most ardous, psychically daunting enterprise of a submariner’s life, one that all hope never to encounter. During the escape, each man has to wear a suit and crawl through a dark, breathless tunnel with a diameter of 500 millimetres. Think of it like crawling through the belly of a snake. It is a trek, which a lot of people are unable to finish. Those who succeed, find themselves thrown into the middle of the ocean where the seawater temperature is cold in a way that sends existential terror shooting through your subconscious. On the small off chance that you survive, you are rescued by helicopters.

On the whole, you’re better off asphyxiating in your bunker than attempting a submarine escape. The death, at least, is quicker.

***

I had chosen to be a part of this bottomless world at the age of 22.

In my batch, there weren’t many takers for this naval branch. There is no obvious glory to it, no brotherhood, no playful jousting. There is only a brutal structure of three-hour watches and six-hour rests, claustrophobia, boredom, and an all-pervading stink of 70 heaving, sweating, breathless men, doused in oil at all hours of the day. On a submarine, clean laundry can give you a high.

We are initiated into this way of life by knocking back a glass of seawater. All the rookies are lined up for the ceremony and handed their glasses. For the next three months, this water is the only element we submariners know, our lives depend on it. So we start our journey by ingesting some, becoming one with the sea in a way. And then we say goodbye to the world, as we know it.

With that glass of stomach-churning liquid, we enter a profoundly secret world. Our lives are top secret, our locations never disclosed, our missions never to be seen or heard of, even though we are an integral part of our country’s defence and espionage mechanisms. Our orders come from New Delhi and the captain is handed over burn-after-reading envelopes before he starts on a sortie. He has little idea where he will lead the submarine and crew to, and is only supposed to open each envelope when he receives orders to do so.

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Indian submariners are trained in Russia, in a gruelling boot camp that is packed with more than 14 hours of training every day.

None of this comes as a surprise, of course. Our training has more than prepared us. Indian submariners are trained in Russia, in a gruelling boot camp that is packed with more than 14 hours of training, six days a week with a five-day break in the year. We sit there studying for as long as we can, then march back to the barracks, shower, sleep, and do it again. Imagine 10 hours per day, learning different components of alloys and engines, followed by exercise (if we’re lucky) and then… surprise, some more studying. We cram four to six years of college-level information into a year. It’s an impressive system in the same way watching a car get compacted in a junkyard is impressive. At the end of it, we are prepared for anything.

I was prepared for hovel-like rooms in which I couldn’t fully stand up, I was prepared for the deadly “ultra-quiet” order where the vessel is put on silent mode, the air conditioners are switched off. I was prepared to lie down for hours, sometimes for days in hot, airless bunkers so that there is pin-drop silence through the vessel. And I was prepared for evacuation.

Or at least that’s what I told myself as I waited for the technician to give his verdict. As the other men retreated into groups, I stood alone, thinking of my wife back home, as I imagined slipping into my watery grave.

***

That day we didn’t sink, escape, or asphyxiate. After fifteen long and agonising minutes, the technician fixed the leak. The control room remained dry and we lived to fight another day. Three decades passed this way – many more leaks came and went, as did detection threats, botched missions, disease outbreaks, ultra-quiet modes, and I lived through them all.

It’s been three years since I last went underwater. Now, there’s abundant sunlight and oxygen around, but there’s still part of me that longs for those florescent days at sea.

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