Bomb on board Jala Kanta!

Lal Singh

While serving on a ship as chief engineer, I applied to my company for permission to carry my wife and sons, aged 7 and 11, for a voyage. The permission came through when my ship was in Calcutta, where my family joined me. Our first destination port of (cargo) discharge was Rotterdam in Holland, also called the Netherlands, the lowlands. After discharging the cargo we were instructed by the Bombay head office to go to Barcelona. After all the departure formalities, our ship left the port with a memorable stay at Rotterdam, and arrived in Barcelona in a few days. Our stay was only for a day and our next port of call was Genoa in Italy. Our ship headed for the Italian port of Genoa for more cargo and arrived there in the wee hours. After immigration formalities by Italian officials, my family went for some sight-seeing and shopping. In the evening, the ship’s duty officer came to inform me that two Italian police officers wanted to see me about some problem in the engine and machinery room. As the captain was not on board, I met the policemen in my office. They straightway came to the point and told me that they have to search the engine room, as they had decoded a secret message about the possibility of bombs being hidden in machinery spaces! Also, the entire ship had to be vacated.

In the meantime, local agents of our company were also on board, and advised us to shift our crew and my family to a hotel. Some of us stayed back on the dock to keep vigil. The next morning, after a period of over 12 hours from the time of receipt of the ‘bomb on board’ message, and thorough search of the ship, all clear was sounded. The message was treated as a hoax for the time being. Normal ship activity resumed.

Here a little explanation about the whole episode is necessary to solve the riddle. In those days in the 70s, a separatist group of Basque people, from the Bay of Biscay shores area, was in conflict with the Spain Government, and was launching attacks against the administration, demanding a separate region. As per the Italian police version, they might have planted bombs in the Spanish port called Alicante, a historic Mediterranean port south of Valencia and Barcelona ports. The ‘J’ in the name of our ship ‘Jala Kanta’ is pronounced differently in some countries. Hence, the bomb in the port of Alicante might have been mistaken for ‘bomb on board’, in the message intercepted by the Italian police.

After the completion of loading, our ship sailed from Genoa and our return passage to Bombay was uneventful. My family disembarked to return to our home in Amritsar. Any mishap by phonetic interpretation was well averted!

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