The mission of undocking a ship from the quay is always a matter of pandemonium, a chaotic task. Two things that everyone gets to observe are: a lot of running around and shouting.

Some of you may think that white people perform all their tasks within a cloak of silence, while we cannot do anything without a hue and cry and making life unbearable for our neighbours. This sort of idea is not entirely wrong. You must have seen in films how the English eat at their banquets without making a sound. The butlers come and go silently; there’s a muffled tinkling sound of forks and knives; people talk in low voices; everything is too well organised, well managed. And what happens at our invitations, at our festival feasts, at our big gatherings? Do I have the ability to describe that? Especially when my guru Sukumar Ray has left behind this description in his unforgettable words. Listen to this:

Come over, this way, with your dishes full of food,
Stand and watch, it’s a very very chaotic mood –
Someone’s calling for curd; another wants bread,
Some are holding empty plates and crying instead.
Over there, two Lords, with plates in their hands,
Are squabbling as wildly as they possibly can.
They all think they’ve power; for others they don’t care –
They’re dying of hunger in this crazy affair!

What was he saying? Dying of hunger at a feast? Of course. Or how else could it be a Bengali invitation? If you do not like it, you are free to go to Firpo’s. You can eat bland, half-cooked pig’s head or the tail of some other animal. But much like the howling sounds of all jackals sound the same, the noise when a ship undocks is the same anywhere in the world.

I have seen ships setting sail in Venice – the sailors on board and at the port, both on water and on land are macaroni-consuming Italians; I have seen the same in Marseille – sailors of both sides were authentic frogeating French; I have observed it with full concentration in Dover – the monkeys at both ends were beef-steak devouring raccoon-faced English. And there is no count how many times I have seen this contest on the Ganges, at Goalondo, Chandpur and Narayangunj.

On both sides they were my protégées – beard-waving, lungi-clad Noakhalya or Sylhetya. The shouts, the uproars, the hullabaloo in all ports are the same. Same smell, same taste. If you close your eyes, you will not be able to tell if you’re listening to Chittagonian in Narayangunj or German in Hamburg. Standing by the railing on the deck, you may be tempted into thinking that the sailors, both on the ship and on land, should have an agreement to get the ship released from the shackles of the ropes tying it to land.

But brother, you will have made a great mistake. Actually, the intention of both sides is to start some sort of a war. Unshackling or docking a ship is just a pretext. What the sailor, running from one end of the ship to the other is saying, by making faces at the sailor on land, cannot be heard in the din of the chaos but if you apply some imagination and if you have some knowledge of sailor psychology, you can understand that his simple statement is, “You brainless idiot, can’t you see that the rope is tangled on the left side? Do I have to put a mast in your eyes to show this? You” – (again swear words) – Do not think that the sailor on land cannot give a fitting prompt reply either. You cannot hear his voice; you can only see his wonderful expression or rather contorting face and you have to imagine the rest.

He will noisily spit after looking up at the ship and say, “You great primate, wrap your side properly. The pull of the ship will untangle the rope on my side. You don’t know how a rope works and you’ve come to work on a ship? Won’t you be better off going back to your village and picking nits in your granny’s hair? You flat-faced” – (again swear words) – Armed with the soap of imagination, you can thus blow many bubbles.

On the other side the ship’s horn is blowing “toot toot” over this ruckus – in Michael Madhusudan’s language, “The tumult of chariot wheels – the clamour of great bows”. It means if it is a small boat, “You lad, move aside. Can’t you see that I’m on my way? You’ll break into thirty-two pieces if I just brush against you. Will you put yourself back together by glueing yourself with the extract from marigold leaves?” If it is bigger than your ship, then it would mean, “Greetings, big brother. Would you mind moving a little to your left so I can slip away from the right?”

The sound of the horn also has a third meaning. If someone was getting drunk in the delight-juice, he will wake up instantly with the sound of the horn and run for his life to catch the ship. Once I had seen a sailor swim to get to his ship. I had to close my ears and move away after hearing the swear words the other sailors hurled at him. There is an adage in English, “He can swear like a sailor.” If you can avoid their language, you will become famous all over the world for being a sweet-talker.

If you have a friend who has read Farsi, you can ask him the whole story of Iskandar-e-roomira purshid – meaning “What Alexander the Great was asked”. The story was like this: Sikandar Shah was asked, “Where did you learn to be so well-behaved?” He replied, “From ill-behaved people.” “How is that possible?” “I avoid what they do.” I am not saying that it is a very witty story. But you will benefit if you can avoid the language of sailors, especially the English sailors.

Excerpted with permission from Tales of a Voyager (Joley Dangay), Syed Mujtaba Ali, translated from the Bengali by Nazes Afroz, Speaking Tiger Books.