HYDERABAD/ALIBAG: I am sitting here in the elegant ambience of the Admiral Ram Dass Katari Heritage Hall, Secunderabad. This aesthetic space of 700 sq ft, an add-on to my late father’s home in Sainikpuri, represents our humble effort to provide a glimpse and capture a very small part of the immense maritime heritage of this country. We tried to do this by showcasing artefacts, letters and anecdotal evidence of the life and professional achievements of a young man of humble origins, born in Tamil Nadu – migrated to the erstwhile Nizam’s state and who stubbornly insisted that all he wanted to do was to sail the seven seas. This guy, from a land locked area who had never seen the sea, rose to head the Indian Navy – the first Indian to do so after the end of British colonial rule in India.

So - why is it so important to preserve and recall this incredible maritime heritage which goes back to the Indus Valley Civilisation one might well ask. What has an ancient aircraft carrier got to do with this heritage? And why Now?

I have asked myself this question over and over again. And I keep returning to my father’s passion about the romance of the seas and his clarity on a recurring theme about how we Indians paid a heavy price and centuries of subjugation, because we never seriously learned the right lessons from our own history. Often, between sailings, he would share the gripping tales about how the British mastery over the oceans played a major role in the conquest and subsequent colonisation of India.

And I can never forget the gleam in his eyes when he spoke and wrote in his book of how a small band of Indians dug their heels in when the British colonial powers dismissed any suggestion of the Indians needing to have their own Navy and Merchant Marine, in the run up to dominion status and ultimately, independence. This dogged and principled stand by a group of fierce fighters led by Sir P.S. Sivaswamy Iyer “that redoubtable champion of Indian shipping”for the right to Indians having their own maritime presence – both merchant marine and a fighting Navy. And his insistence for a “Nautical College in Indian Waters’ is what finally led to the establishment of the first maritime training ship – the IMMTS DUFFERIN. This is where my father as Cadet no 1 – cut his teeth as a young mariner in the late 1920s.

Not many of us are aware that India’s tryst with the sea began with trade during the Indus Valley civilisation forming linkages with the world. Our history and geography text books rarely taught us about this. The Maritime Heritage of India - a book published by the Navy under the aegis of the Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala, in Kerala –– provides us a stunning overview of over 5000 years of our Maritime History and Heritage - and endless narratives of the skill of shipbuilding and navigation which took our mariners far far away from home waters .

At a point of history like the present, where we are struggling to recall, and above all to protect our civilizational heritage, it is a good moment to remind ourselves that it was through the ebb and flow of the waters, the rivers and the seas that the earliest forms of communication – of trade and commerce – of the interaction and cross fertilisation and creation of new cultures and languages – the rising and fading away of civilisations were founded. And while books and histories are undoubtedly important – there are too many of our people – our children in particular, who will never ever see the inside of such hallowed temples of learning or libraries. This is why, to me personally, the idea of using a once beautiful, humming and living organism like a ship – especially an aircraft carrier, as a vast, living and iconic museum, classroom, interactive learning space – open to the public, is so totally mesmerising and exciting.

Is this why I am so passionate about what is right now a large floating hull – of iron, and metal, and decks and machines – of gun mountings and sophisticated technology - packed into its every nook and cranny ? Maybe. And certainly, the memory of the shocking destruction of our iconic first aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, is never far away from my consciousness.

INS Viraat – as indeed the Vikrant before her – captures within herself an ancient heritage – histories – geographies – cultures ; above all , memories of the critical role of Maritime power in the evolution of civilisations. The deeper message to my mind is that ships and the seas carry above all, the message of peace and borderless relationships – as the ocean touches so many lands and peoples – through the 70% of water which covers the earth’s surface.

I have been discovering with joy and wonder, extracts from author Lincoln Paine – in his recent epic called The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World – gripping tales of the history of civilization from the earliest times to the present through the lens of maritime development. And it all came together in a flash - that this is what a ship like Viraat could become and do in her next Avatar - tell the stories that could transport future generations back to the past and equally, an exciting leap into the future.

Paine, says a reviewer, “takes us back to the origins of long-distance migration by sea with our ancestors’ first forays from Africa and Eurasia to Australia and the Americas. He demonstrates the critical role of maritime trade to the civilizations of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley. He re-acquaints us with the great seafaring cultures of antiquity like those of the Phoenicians and Greeks, as well as those of India and Southeast and East Asia, who parlayed their navigational skills, shipbuilding techniques, and commercial acumen to establish thriving overseas colonies and trade routes in the centuries leading up to the age of European expansion. And finally, his narrative traces how commercial shipping and naval warfare brought about the enormous demographic, cultural, and political changes that have globalized the world throughout the post–Cold War era. “

AMCHI VIRAAT in AMCHI MUMBAI – those magnificent men and women in their flying machines!

Step back for just a moment – and try to visualise an imaginatively and creatively curated space where we are able to take visitors – children and young people in particular – through a series of journeys – from ancient times to the present – understanding the fascinating history of water, rivers, climate, oceans , the growth of great empires and settlements.. and ofcourse the growth of shipbuilding, of trade, of navies and the technologies we have transited over these centuries.

It is possibly only an aircraft carrier that has the physical presence and the dimensions to truly enable such a “monumental retelling of world history through the lens of maritime enterprise, revealing in breath taking depth how people first came into contact with one another by ocean and river, lake and stream, and how goods, languages, religions, and entire cultures spread across and along the world’s waterways, bringing together civilizations and defining what makes us most human.”[another review of Paine’s book] This is an adventure story par excellence and would show us – our children and grandchildren the world in a new light, in which the sea reigns supreme.

Let the Viraat be grouted – (and to that effect the TOI dramatic headline of “ resettlement plans for Viraat running aground” are strangely prophetic!). Teams of professional engineers, architects and concerned citizens, are standing by with studies and reports which would then be scrutinised along with a budgetary projection of how best to conceptualise and operationalise the creation of a truly unique and memorable Peoples’ Maritime Museum project.

A dedicated and committed team calling themselves the Viraat Maritime Museum – comprising men and women from both Navy, Civil and other sectors have already done detailed preliminary studies – as part of the original dream of being able to convert the INS Vikrant into a state of the art museum and enable vast numbers to visit, learn and have fun in the space thus created.

But my limited objective here right now is to imagine and create among the citizenry and the public – a sense of excitement and anticipation around this idea – one that has never before actually been seriously been explored or indeed projected.

And as with any new ideas – it lends itself to flights of fancy but also a sense of being grounded in our diverse and fabulously rich heritage.

Perhaps we might evolve a fascinating subaltern view of maritime heritage from the decks of one of our most elite vessels – an Air craft carrier – what a subversive thought that could be?!!….

While the proposed site for her permanent resting place looks out on the historically famed Sassoon Dock and also the Bombay Port Trust park – and close to the home of one of our doyens of Inudstry, Ratan Tata – a short walk to the other side of the deck of the carrier, will open up view the famed Oyster Rock – and then beyond that – to Mandwa – Thal Knob – Alibag – our home across the Bay…and down the impressive and fertile Konkan Coast

And one can fantasise about untold stories and explorations of the history of our very own Amchi Mumbai – of the seven islands of Mumbai; of the Konkan coast – the fisherfolk and the ship builders of yore – of the mighty Maratha Admiral – Sarkhel Kanhoji Angre across the harbour in Alibag – and the fleet commanders who kept the Portuguese Navy at bay for a century or more! What were those ships in which they fought? Where were they built? Who were those gutsy heroes who gave battle? What did the feisty women they left behind do while men folk sailed for years on end – with no radar – no satellites – no mobile technology?

The possibilities are endless – and I hope that our young journalist friends would talk to some of us and understand the sentiments and the vision behind this effort to build a wave of excited public opinion – and somehow strike a chord with corporates and politician alike that we cannot and must not let this grand ship go to the shipbreakers yard, sold literally for petty change!!

We need to think beyond the views of a petty red tapism and a mindset which cannot think beyond the figures in the debit columns!

When the average Mumbaikar opened the Times of India last week – I can visualise the reaction to the headline below :


Frankly it was this cold, unfeeling and brutal headline which drove me to tears of despair and a determination to say NO – its not as crass as any old museum- hotel plan running aground. How can we just standby and let her be turned into some home for wealthy tourists or dismantled as scrap in this proud commercial capital of one of India’s greatest maritime states?

For me personally, far worse than the screaming Headlines was the bland, bureaucratic reply from a minister in Parliament – ‘yes a decision has been taken to scrap Viraat’ – and ‘yes the decision has been taken in consultation with the Indian Navy’……….

The announcement – like so many others – often mask so much that is not talked about – what process if any led to this heartless decision?

Money – Money - Money – yes indeed it is a fact that presently the carrier is taking up space meant for active serving ships – and it costs a large amount of money to maintain her there.

And yes it will cost money – to make this idea happen.

But then there are somethings which are not possible to put price tags to – and our collective concern for Heritage especially Maritime Heritage, is one such precious entity for which we would be willing to fight a long and good fight. And hence the plea for an early indication of support is so vital.

A ship is many things to many people – especially to those who sail in her and whom she nurtures and protects for years on end. There will be many stories to tell – and I have no doubt that the INS VIRAAT Museum will bring yet another unforgettable dimension to the legend and glory of the state and the people of this great maritime state of Maharashtra – the home of warriors like Kanhoji Angre and Shivaji – but also of Ambedkar and Savitri Bai Phule. Many different imaginings indeed!

Almost every maritime nation has used ships of every size and shape as museums in many of their port cities. We have visited a few – mainly in the UK and the USA – and the experience has been special. But reading the compilation of those nations who have all converted ships of all shapes and sizes into memorials, museums threw up many many more names – from the biggies like China and Russia to many smaller countries .While doing some research from Prof Google – I came across this fascinating link to a list of Museum Ships around the world: worth a few minutes of time to study.

List of museum ships - Wikipedia

Next month we will be visiting the famous VASA museum in Stockholm, Sweden, where they have salvaged a 333 year old ship which sank off Swedish waters in the North sea nearly four centuries ago. Today people travel from across the world to visit her and marvel at her construction and engineering.

It was sad that the one and only ship from India which featured on the list – the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant – could not be sustained and the entry reads that she was scrapped.

Admittedly there are only a handful of Aircraft Carriers in this list – but then there are only a few Navies in the world that actually have operated these mobile platforms for air power!

In closing I just want to reiterate that a great sea faring and maritime nation like ours- should take the lead in setting up state of the art Museum Ship/s and that too in the premier port city of Mumbai. In fact there should be not just one – but many such museums dotted around this extraordinary gift from Nature – our unique Peninsula, that straddles the ocean named for it – the Indian Ocean . The value we can add to the tourism industry has a potential we have not even thought about so far ..

Many studies have been done on how to convert and adapt and put to the best use – first Vikrant – and now Viraat. Yes, doubtless cost is a factor – but as I said earlier – this city more than any other should be able to generate the resources and find ways of sustaining this idea. It is the political will and vision that is required above all – and by the word ‘political will’ – I speak not just of the political parties – but of us all – the government and bureaucracy, our great business houses, the Navy, us veterans, the public …..if our combined political will is to say yes we can – then yes we will and must!

So – can we – will we – give Viraat her due – retrieve her from the recent sad and avoidable political controversy and restore her name, her dignity and fame as a great warship that has served two great Navies - the British and Indian? Indeed a young British airman who served on her in her earlier Avatar as HMS Hermes has actually offered to raise money to have her towed all the way back to the UK where the Royal Navy will house her and convert her into a museum. See here.

If nothing else, this should spur us into action – and maybe we can think of a truly interesting joint venture with our former colonisers - but also those who did lay the foundations of the modern Indian Navy!

I therefore call upon our influential media houses to take up the cause – float the idea – run with it – help raise the levels of awareness and of course help raise some much needed money too!!

I also call upon the Members of industry – corporate houses – business men and women, wealthy individuals with a vision for the future – to remember that the fortunes of generations of merchants were made by all those who traded - be it opium or tea, and who sailed the oceans far and wide. The fortunes were made because of those ships built with Indian teak in Indian yards, and on the sweat blood and tears of millions of workers who hewed the wood, built the ships, fished and dived and manned the masts and sailed wherever their masters ordered them ….yes they are all also part of our maritime heritage

I call upon our governments to come forth and take the lead in supporting and calling for support for this national project which should cut across all party lines. Yes the Viraat project is every bit as awesome, as the statue of Sardar Patel or a Shivaji Maharaj , as much a heritage project and a great legacy that goes beyond individuals– and ultimately it is state support together with Private Partnership, which must anchor and sustain this worthy vision.

And last but not least, I call upon all those Non Resident Indians from our vast diaspora – who live in those various countries and have seen the kind of investment and encouragement that those governments and navies provide to these kinds of projects. They can do so much to take a lead in encouraging our big ticket enterprise – which is surely worthy of their encouragement – sponsorship – and engagement in terms of ideas, expertise and more.

Finally, as we prepare as a society and world, to engage with the challenge of climate change and global warming -and the imminent rise of sea levels - imagine what wonders we could do for such a mass programme of awareness raising among our young boys and girls. We should plan now to have a ship – a submarine – a dhow – a catamaran – a fabulous snake boat – and every other sea going vessel, as iconic symbols of our maritime heritage – our love of the seas – our dependency on those very seas in every port around the country , big or small. We should invoke Varuna, Neptune, and all the gods of all the oceans, to protect all waters – to vow to share these waters with the rest of humanity – our neighbours - as the ultimate expression of our much vaunted philosophy of life – “Vasudaiva Kuttumbakkam”. Mother Earth Gaia or call her Bharat Mata – the mother goddesses -who give forth life and let the waters flow – would join in this endeavour with all her love, compassion and humanity!

My grand daughter just asked me, cheekily , But who are you – why would any of these people listen to you?

She is right – why would anyone listen? And Who am I?

I am a woman,
I am a citizen,
I am a daughter,
I am a sister,
I am a wife ,
I am a mother,
I am an Aquarian - I am a Water Bearer

And my father and husband have both served the Indian Navy as mariners and warriors and above all as lovers of the oceans, and all those whom the oceans touch and nurture ----for a combined period of nearly seventy decades – and with them and through them, so have I!

Our children need to see icons – they need to be inspired by tales of valour and adventure – they also need to hear the histories and herstories of our heritage - so much of it bound up with the story of water, of the oceans and the rivers who pour their precious burden into the seas….

Inshallah they will listen – and When many of us walk together, surely the way will be found.