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‘To reach a port we must set sail,’ Sonali Banerjee

12 February, 2021 11:14:45
‘To reach a port we must set sail,’ Sonali Banerjee

“My soul is full of longing
for the secret of the sea,
and the heart of the great ocean
sends a thrilling pulse through me.”
― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The year was 1995. The authorities at Kolkata’s Taratala-based Marine Engineering Research Institute (MERI) were in a quandary. Eighteen-year-old Sonali Banerjee had appeared and cracked the entrance test for admission to the four-year B.E. course in marine engineering. This was the first time in the history of the institute that a girl had applied for the course and had successfully cleared the entrance examination as well! This was a novel challenge for the authorities and they had to take a quick decision. So, a special meeting was convened. The first impediment that the authorities encountered was to provide a hostel room for this outstation student. But the problem was: where would she stay? There was no provision for any ladies’ hostel in this premier institute. In fact, the entire campus was a males’ only bastion. There was not even a single female among the office staff operating from the campus. Finally, after much deliberation, it was decided to allot her an empty quarter designated for the teaching staff.

Born in Allahabad, Sonali was bewitched by the call of the sea from an early age. Her uncle worked in the merchant navy and every time he returned home, he captivated little Sonali with fantastic tales of adventure in the high seas. His tales fired her imagination and she yearned to be a seafarer when she grew up. The atavistic call of nature is a very strong one for the perceptive soul and the cry of sailors, the azure sky above and the smell of the sea lure him/her to undertake journeys into the deep while letting the soul and spirit fly free into the mystic. Sonali heard the call within herself. 

The year was 1995. The authorities at Kolkata’s Taratala-based Marine Engineering Research Institute (MERI) were in a quandary. Eighteen-year-old Sonali Banerjee had appeared and cracked the entrance test for admission to the four-year B.E. course in marine engineering. This was the first time in the history of the institute that a girl had applied for the course and had successfully cleared the entrance examination as well!

She waited patiently till she completed her Intermediate Examination (higher secondary) and passed with flying colours. Now was her opportunity to take the first step towards fulfilling her dream. She decided to take the MERI entrance test. Her family and relatives were aghast when they came to know about her decision to study BE engineering at MERI. They were all against her decision and discouraged her from committing ‘hara-kiri’ with her future. Even her father was apprehensive about his daughter’s choice of career. But Sonali was a determined soul who focused on her dream and prepared herself to take whatever challenges that came her way. Thus, began her lone journey as she made inroads into the man’s world and created history with every move she made. 

The initial days were tough for Sonali. She was the only female student in her class and in the institute itself. Her classmates took time to open up and accept her as a member of their pack. Meanwhile, Sonali pulled all the stops and came up trumps in every semester, topping every exam with great elan.  Her batch-mates gradually accepted her and after that, it was cake walk for her at the institute. Finally, she completed her BE in 1999. Now it was time for undertaking a six-month pre-sea training. Once again, Sonali felt being in a disadvantageous spot for being a female as no shipping company was willing to accept her as a trainee despite her good academic grades. Finally, she was selected by international oil major Mobil Shipping Company during campus recruitment. Thus, began six-month pre-sea training as a junior engineer with Mobil.  

Sonali made history on August 26, 2001, when she boarded a Mobil Shipping Company vessel and officially became the first Indian woman to take charge of a ship’s machine room. Sonali’s success opened a new chapter in India’s maritime industry and she has been instrumental in inspiring other girls to dream big and answer the atavistic call of the blue sea.

The six-month training was back-breaking. Sailing for months on choppy waters far away from home and family with hardly any contact with the outer world makes even the toughest of mariner home-sick but this gritty girl took everything in her stride. She sailed on the ship and    touched ports in Sri Lanka, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, Fiji and the Gulf. After completing her training, Sonali came back to her base in Kolkata to appear for the certification test at MERI. Clearing this test meant she would get her professional license that would enable her to join any international liner as engineer. She cleared the test at one go and that opened an ocean of opportunities for this young mariner. 

Sonali made history on August 26, 2001, when she boarded a Mobil Shipping Company vessel and officially became the first Indian woman to take charge of a ship’s machine room. Sonali’s   success opened a new chapter in India’s maritime industry and she has been instrumental in inspiring other girls to dream big and answer the atavistic call of the blue sea.  

Story Tag:
  • Sonali Banerjee, Female marine engineer

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