Please tell us about yourself
On August 26, 2001, Sonali Banerjee made a little bit of history as she boarded a Mobil Shipping Co vessel as “the first Indian woman marine engineering officer”. It was a “dream come true” for the 25-year-old student of the Taratala-based Marine Engineering Research Institute (MERI), as she takes charge of the engine room of the 1.5-lakh-ton ship carrying oil. “I was never interested in routine jobs and had always dreamt of going around the world,” smiles Sonali, after receiving her certificate of marine engineering officer from Ajoy Chatterjee, principal officer and registrar of Indian ships in Calcutta, on Monday. Earning her spurs as the first Indian lady marine engineering officer was “not easy”, admits the girl from Allahabad. “Initially, my father was apprehensive about my choice of career. After all, I was stepping into what’s known as a man’s world,” recounts Sonali, who joined the four-year B.E course in marine engineering just to “give it a try”. But at MERI, things went smoothly and she completed her B.E. in 1999. “I enjoyed every bit of my stay in Calcutta. The city gave me the opportunity to understand Bengal and its culture,” Sonali was selected by international oil major Mobil Shipping Company during campus recruitment. Starting her career in cruise with a six-month pre-sea training as a junior engineer with Mobil, she touched ports in Sri Lanka, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, Fiji and the Gulf. “The training period was tough. It was very tiring and recreation was limited to racquet games, occasional parties and surfing the Net… But the fact that I was the only woman in the 25-member crew wasn’t a problem. After all, I spent four years at the institute as the only woman among so many men striving to be marine officers,” says Sonali. After a successful training stint, she came back to Calcutta to appear for the certification test at MERI, which she cleared with “decent” grades. “Her clearing the tests successfully will allow her to be in charge of the machine room at the operational level. With this licence, she is now eligible to join any international ship as an engineer,” explains Chatterjee, proud of his ‘star’ ward. As she embarks on a career at sea, Sonali has her sights set firmly on the future. The girl-next-door is clear about what she wants to be – “chief engineer” of a ship. “For that, I will have to clear two more exams and complete another 30 months of service at sea,” says Sonali. She knows it’s going to be tough, but having cleared hurdles aplenty, Sonali is “confident” that she’ll make it one day. According to Chatterjee, Sonali’s success has opened a new chapter in the institute’s history. The most remarkable fallout has been the interest and enthusiasm it has sparked among girls about the mariner’s world. “Not just in our institute, Sonali’s story has inspired girls to sign up for private marine engineering colleges even in Pune. This is a heartening trend.”
The woman was Sonali Banerjee, India’s first woman maritime engineer. And this is her untold story.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
Born in Allahabad, Sonali had always heard the call of the deep. As a little girl, she loved poring over pictures of swanky port cities and tropical islands. Furthermore, her uncles served in the merchant navy and it was their tales of the sea that ingrained in her a desire to become a globe-trotter with a ship of her own.
Sonali’s uncles were in the Merchant Navy. The intriguing stories of the sea they shared was something that sowed the seeds of becoming a part of this profession, in her mind. It was in the year 1995, when she finally enrolled in a marine engineering course. After around four years, in 1999, she became the first female to qualify as an officer in this profession. She was the only girl among 1500 cadets, who graduated from her institute that year. After moving forward from the Marine Engineering Research Institute, she worked on oil tankers and soon after, steered her way towards attaining the position of a Merchant Navy Officer in 2001.
But the girl’s journey to earning her spurs as a maritime engineer was not easy. Everywhere, she ran into walls of scepticism, from disapproving relatives to fellow students who thought of her as a liability on board.
“Even my father was apprehensive about my choice of career. After all, I was stepping into what is known as a man’s world,” Sonali later told the Telegraph.
But Sonali was made of stronger stuff and stood her ground to join the course. Once there, she threw her heart and soul into her studies. Soon enough, she had won the respect of her fellow students. After that, things went smoothly at MERI.
Interestingly, such was the uproar caused by Sonali’s admission at MERI in 1995 that the premier institute did not know where to put its only female student! After much debate and deliberation, she was given a place in the officers’ quarters.
What was your career path?
In 1999, Sonali passed out of MERI as India’s first woman marine engineer, the only girl among 1500 cadets. Soon after, she was selected by Mobil Shipping Co for a gruelling six-month pre-sea course. This hands-on training took her to ports in Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Hong Kong, Fiji and Australia.
Months of sailing, miles away from home and family, with weeks of little or no contact except via a prohibitively expensive satellite phone was enough to make the toughest of sailors more than a little homesick. But the young girl from Allahabad took it all in her stride.
However, while Sonali always knew it would be tough, having to prove that she was capable (and not privileged to be there because she was a woman) was frustrating at times.
“While men can make small mistakes that are ignored, I have to be extra careful not to make one, for it will be noticed and commented upon,” Sonali once told Times of India. She added, “It was my determination and perseverance that pulled me through.”
Having passed this crucial course, on August 26, 2001, Sonali made history when she boarded a Mobil Shipping Co vessel and officially became the first Indian woman to take charge of a ship’s machine room.
Sonali’s trailblazing journey opened a new chapter in the history of India’s maritime industry. The most remarkable fallout was the interest and enthusiasm it sparked for seafaring among girls across the country.
Ever since, more and more Indian women have been walking in Sonali’s footsteps, falling in love with “the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking” (from John Masefield’s poem Sea Fever).
The fact that many among India’s growing fleet of women seafarers come from non-shipping backgrounds also indicates a larger change — the nation’s new-age middle class is not just accepting the ambition that drives women to choose lucrative careers; it has also started accommodating their spirit of adventure.