The Orals

The Orals

That’s how we popularly know them. The popular name gives an innuendo of that pleasure act equally popular in our MMS-crazed generation but, here, is actually a short form for Oral Examinations conducted by the Mercantile Marine Department (MMD) of Ministry of Shipping, India, for certification of merchant naval officers. The final steps towards acquiring any grade of licenses involves a face-to-face interview with examiners of MMD, known as Surveyors as per the provisions of the MS Act, 1958, and entails examination of our technical and managerial knowledge.
The results of all MMD exams are best described by a well-known maritime adage –‘Sea yields out whatever goes in it; it does not eat away anything.’ Yes, that’s right, one day or the other we all pass. But then like all humans have a need for some challenge to give them reasons to live, we have devised the challenge in passing the exams in ‘first shot’.
Over these years of revamped examination processes for seafarers in India the orals have become an integral phase of all officers. In fact, we have developed a gene of taking liking for them howsoever we may spite at them. The events of Orals, without discrimination, go down as legends in the seafaring communities’ treatises.
Currently Captain Das, Capt Mondal and Capt Vaz form the protagonist of most of our orals legends. They are the surveyors in any of the two MMDs’ of India, Mumbai and Kolkata, at any time. Our evening-tea talks centre around them—how foolish; smart; mindless; intelligent; out of syllabus; relevant—questions they asked on that day. Each of us has our individual perception of these surveyors.
Although the toughness of syllabus cannot be undermined anytime because only simple question to fail a candidate could be like waving a hand out towards the cloud forming the scenery of Surveyor’s window and asking the description of it, but the surveyors themselves being has-been candidates, do all-out to remain considerate. But there is an irony again-- the aforesaid is my perception of them! Quite a many of us continue to charge them of being regionalist, casteist, communalist, favoritism to Indian companies, et al. Like always, such prejudicial opinions are founded on factors like narrations by seniors and personal set-back experiences, particularly failure. The poorly educated Biharis and their likes see them as malicious anti-bihari people, Goanese as fiefdom of north Indians, Capt Vaz as saviour of Catholics, Capt Das as nemesis of ‘over smart’ Delhi and Mumbai-ites. Thus the understanding of the legends should be formed based on factors like region, community etc of the subjected candidate no matter how these ‘-ist’ you yourself may not be.
Capt Das has the glory of asking questions like loading a Circus, elephants, camel and snakes as cargoes on merchant vessels and besieging candidates with sharp and harsh cross-questions like what if a fight erupts between animals midway through the sea-passage or what if a snake emerges from the teak-wood cargo (it may be treated as damage to cargo, if killed!). So much has been his ‘tyranny/harassment’ that many candidates have turned away just on hearing his name for their orals. Being a Bengali-accented speaker of English, he had once surprised a candidate right at the entry into the Exam room itself by speaking out ‘U Fail’ to him. The poor chap cried out enquiring the cause of it even without getting questioned. The chap was mortified in reply, by being asked to explain U-F-L (a very basic question, Upper flammable limit). The other time, a candidate was ‘taunted’ away from the room for coming in inappropriate dress. His stylish belt-buckle appeared like some emblem of his princedom to Capt Das.
Other senior surveyors, in my opinion, wear such baffling behaviours, perhaps, to inspire some thinking the candidates. Whereas the Indian shipping fleet, also overseen by the MMD, has a very ragged reputation in the world market, the Indian officers remain quite in demand world over, and more specifically for their good English communication skills in relation to the Chinese, Pilipinos and the Croatians. The MMD, therefore, may be designing its methods to build some culture in its graduates, commonly unknown to latter, which may improve the ships also.
Among many things, there are certain things I can say for sure about these exams. One can distinctly say what they stand for and what don’t attempt to achieve. For example, they can not be aimed at-- a) making us fail-proof b) making us Mr Know-all. The exam result does not declare us excellent in job- it only declares us to be ‘competent’, meaning ‘capable of doing the job’. But candidates still have lots of misgivings about the orals and the surveyors. A host of them can always be seen mugging the whole syllabus in preparation and still failing. Not surprising that they come out with one single unanswered question as their ‘failing question’. A few of the indications can be safely and boldly taken from the kind of questions asked. Like, the surveyors—
a) Want us to keep abreast of technology and changes therein
b) Want us to be familiar with various regulations so that we may, in the least, know what all exist. A deeper enquiry can be held later but only if we know that there exist some proposition.
c) Want us to keep our mind active in thinking process and elevate from one level to another.
d) Want to remind us that there cannot be end of learning and that not all can be known by any person.
e) A fine blend of technical knowledge and management thinking is needed in day-to-day life.


  1. An afterthought:
    f) Want to inculcate in us the deliberations our decisions from human, logical, ethical, social, legal, commercial standpoint, all at the same time.
    – since most of the time we deal with various Code books only, such as the STCW, the ISM, the SMS, SOLAS, the MSA, INSA-MUI agreement book, Code of safe working practices, ship operation codes like BLU code, IGS code, -- it’s high time we start evaluating our decisions and actions through their standpoint also.

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