Even in the 21st Century, sailing on the high seas remains a male-dominated trade. Whether aboard trans-oceanic cargo vessels or sturdy inshore tugboats, crews and officer complements of India’s ships are mostly made up of men. And if you do find a woman aboard, it’s quite likely that she has walked a memorable path to get there.
Take, for instance, Captain Radhika Menon — the first woman captain in the Indian Merchant Navy. Having sailed through all sorts of storms (both figuratively and literally) to achieve her dreams, Menon is the world’s first woman to be conferred with the IMO award for exceptional bravery at sea!
Thanks to the example set by women like her, the entrance of Indian women into the seafaring trade has become a steadily growing phenomenon. Yet few Indians know about the woman who defied societal pressure and convention to join the hitherto male bastion of maritime engineering way back in 1999.
The woman was Sonali Banerjee, India’s first woman maritime engineer. And this is her untold story.
Born in Allahabad, Sonali had always heard the call of the deep. As a little girl, she loved poring over pictures of swanky port cities and tropical islands. Furthermore, her uncles served in the merchant navy and it was their tales of the sea that ingrained in her a desire to become a globe-trotter with a ship of her own.
Years later, fired by this dream to “see the world”, a teenaged Sonali enrolled herself in a four-year B.E course in marine engineering at Kolkata’s Taratala-based Marine Engineering Research Institute (MERI).
But the girl’s journey to earning her spurs as a maritime engineer was not easy. Everywhere, she ran into walls of scepticism, from disapproving relatives to fellow students who thought of her as a liability on board.
“Even my father was apprehensive about my choice of career. After all, I was stepping into what is known as a man’s world,” Sonali later told the Telegraph.
But Sonali was made of stronger stuff and stood her ground to join the course. Once there, she threw her heart and soul into her studies. Soon enough, she had won the respect of her fellow students. After that, things went smoothly at MERI.
Interestingly, such was the uproar caused by Sonali’s admission at MERI in 1995 that the premier institute did not know where to put its only female student! After much debate and deliberation, she was given a place in the officers’ quarters.
In 1999, Sonali passed out of MERI as India’s first woman marine engineer, the only girl among 1500 cadets. Soon after, she was selected by Mobil Shipping Co for a gruelling six-month pre-sea course. This hands-on training took her to ports in Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Hong Kong, Fiji and Australia.
Months of sailing, miles away from home and family, with weeks of little or no contact except via a prohibitively expensive satellite phone was enough to make the toughest of sailors more than a little homesick. But the young girl from Allahabad took it all in her stride.
However, while Sonali always knew it would be tough, having to prove that she was capable (and not privileged to be there because she was a woman) was frustrating at times.
“While men can make small mistakes that are ignored, I have to be extra careful not to make one, for it will be noticed and commented upon,” Sonali once told Times of India. She added, “It was my determination and perseverance that pulled me through.”
Having passed this crucial course, on August 26, 2001, Sonali made history when she boarded a Mobil Shipping Co vessel and officially became the first Indian woman to take charge of a ship’s machine room.
Sonali’s trailblazing journey opened a new chapter in the history of India’s maritime industry. The most remarkable fallout was the interest and enthusiasm it sparked for seafaring among girls across the country.
Ever since, more and more Indian women have been walking in Sonali’s footsteps, falling in love with “the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking” (from John Masefield’s poem Sea Fever).
The fact that many among India’s growing fleet of women seafarers come from non-shipping backgrounds also indicates a larger change — the nation’s new-age middle class is not just accepting the ambition that drives women to choose lucrative careers; it has also started accommodating their spirit of adventure.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)