It has been close to four years since Mumbai-based Merchant Navy officer Rohan Ruparelia was rescued after being held captive by pirates in West Africa for a month and half. But with a recent release of a book which fictionalises the real-life rescue mission, he knows that there is no going back. Ruparelia (31) is well on the way to becoming the poster boy of the global fight against pirates.
“My colleagues do not want to talk about what happened to us. But now that I am here and am happy and smiling, I might as well tell people,” says Rohan about The Eleventh Indian, written by serving Indian Navy officer Gautam Marwaha, who played a key role in Ruparelia’s release.
Rohan was among 18 crew members onboard the MT Maximus who were taken hostage by pirates off the coast of Ivory Coast on February 11. While the Nigerian Navy managed to rescue 16 crew members after a gun-battle with the pirates days later, Rohan and his Pakistani colleague Siddiqui remained.
The moment she was informed of his abduction, it was Rohan’s cousin Zankhana and her husband Bijoy Patel who hounded the Indian government and High Commission in Abuja, Nigeria, for information. Finally, on March 20, 2016, then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj announced that the “11th Indian”, had been rescued from the clutches of the pirates, a tweet that inspired the title of Marwaha’s book.
Marwaha was the first official from the Indian High Commission to speak to Rohan and Siddiqui after they were rescued and moved to a hotel in Nigeria. “I was inspired by the resilience showed by Rohan and Siddiqui, who are young sailors. I also wanted readers to know the role that Rohan’s family had played in ensuring his return,” said Marwaha. Throughout that retelling, Rohan lost his composure for not more than 30 seconds, added Marwaha.
The book charts Rohan’s first-ever sail, presents a fictionalised account of the motives of the pirates all through to the end of tense negotiations which resulted in the release of Rohan and Siddiqui. As an epilogue, the book adds that both Rohan and his captain rejoined the vessel just months later. “I believe in conquering my demons. Sailors have an amazing bond with their ships,” Rohan said.
He recalls a clear feeling of déjà vu the minute he stepped back on the ship. “The entire episode went through my head. It was as if a current had passed through my body. But then I went to meet my captain. We exchanged a smile and that was it.” A new man after his release, Ruparelia now likes to celebrate his birthday on March 21, the anniversary of the day he took the flight back to India.
With his story, he hopes to get youngsters curious about exploring a career in sailing. “Incidents happen everywhere. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t join the merchant navy. These days families put a lot of pressure on their children not to go out to sea. The industry is suffering as a result. At this rate in the next 30-40 years there will be a deficiency of manpower,” he said.
Marwaha added that he took a conscious decision to retain the names of the story’s four main protagonists. “The reason behind writing this book is to show the courage, camaraderie and spirit of Merchant Navy men,” he said.