My Dad may not remember this but he got me started on my obsession with the Titanic. One of my earliest memories (I might have been four) was attending the funeral of a fond aunt in Bombay where I was born and raised. As the coffin was hauled out along the church aisle at the end of Mass, the choir began singing, ”Nearer My God to Thee.“ A blubbering mess, my Dad turned to me and said through his sniffles, ”The orchestra played that tune, you know, as the Titanic went down“.
It was the first time I had heard about the ill-fated ship; but I found out more about the Titanic after he'd dried his tears. And ever since then, I cannot attend a funeral without thinking of the Titanic and the terrible fate of her passengers. It explains why each summer holiday when I took voyages, as a child, along the Konkan Coast from Bombay to Goa and back, I was terrified our ”steamer“ would sink. It indicates also why cruising has never been my preferred form of vacation. And it elucidates why, in my own intellectual activity, I have focused frequently on the travel experiences of those disaporic people for whom the process of immigration began with a long journey on the high seas. My current book manuscript, for instance, includes a chapter on India's sea-faring mixed race Anglo-Indians whose arrival in the UK began when they climbed the gangplank on the sweltering docks of Bombay and ended when their P & O vessels puffed into fog-ridden Tilbury or rain-sodden Southampton.
As the years went by, The Titanic became a leitmotif in the saga of my international adventures. In Southampton Harbor, about 30 years ago, for instance, as I waited to board a ferry to the Isle of Wight, I remembered those privileged, well-heeled, first class passengers--a veritable Who's Who of contemporary celebrity-- and felt their excitement as they held tickets in fevered fingers for the ship's maiden voyage on April 12, 1911. Across the English Channel, on Cherbourg's shores, I placed myself in the shoes of hordes of steerage passengers speaking every conceivable European dialect as they hustled into the bowels of the ship, there to be corralled like cattle as they crossed the pond. Indeed, immigrants such as these, who packed a multitude of hopes into their steamer trunks to seek fulfilling futures in the New World, were the first transnationals--long before post-colonialism made such vocabulary fashionable.
Then, three years ago, in Liverpool's Albert Dock, on a trip with NYU's London students, I visited the Merseyside Maritime Museum and gasped in a gallery devoted to three wrecked ships, the Titanic, the Lusitania and the Empress of Ireland. They say that tragedies occur in threes and this was certainly proven true when a trio of the most celebrated sailing vessels of all time was lost to the world between 1912 and 1915. Given that the supposedly unsinkable Titanic reached the bottom of the Atlantic pulling her passengers' precious possessions and her own prized appointments down with her, it was astonishing to see the only surviving first class ticket issued by the White Star Line Company for the ship's maiden voyage in a glass vitrine. The ticket belonged to one Reverend Stuart Holden whose wife had fallen ill the day before the Titanic sailed, forcing him to cancel his voyage. Reverend Holden had the ticket mounted and placed above his desk until his death in 1934. Just as I was surveying the exhibits in the gallery—sepia-toned photographs clicked during the ship's construction in Belfast, menu cards of the last meals consumed on board, a designer's model of the vessel—the opening bars of ”Nearer My God to Thee“ performed by a string quartet wafted around me. Giant images projected the hymn's lyrics on the walls of the gallery superimposed upon documentary depictions of the ship's sinking. It was my turn to follow in my Dad's footsteps and be reduced to a blubbering mess as I hunted frantically for a tissue to wipe my streaming eyes. Good job I was all alone in a near-empty gallery.