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Sailing between Karachi and Bombay

Updated August 25, 2013
Dwarka was one of the three ships that sailed between Karachi and Bombay. -Photo courtesy: wwwshipsnostalgia.com
Dwarka was one of the three ships that sailed between Karachi and Bombay. -Photo courtesy: wwwshipsnostalgia.com

I have a happy dream. Sometimes, when I am particularly distressed by the politics that carries on in our sorrowful subcontinent adding to its various peoples’ misery, I allow myself to be lost in this delicious dream. I imagine myself sailing to Cox’s Bazar.

The small, beautiful ship starts every Saturday from the newly commissioned port of Gwadar on the western Makran coast. It passes through Karachi and picks up most of its Pakistani and some foreign passengers from here. But I have made it a point to travel on the coastal highway to the starting point and when the ship touches Karachi, look at the city of my residence without getting down, as someone travelling in a passing vessel would. I have a long and fascinating journey before me: we’ll pass through many ports and stop at some of them:

Dwarka, Porbandar, Diu, Surat, Daman, Bombay, Ratnagiri, Panjim (Goa), Mangalore, Kozhikode (Calicut), Kochi (Cochin), Trivandrum, Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari), Pondicherry, Chennai (Madras), Vishakhapatanam, Puri, Patuakhali, Noakhali, Chittagong and our final destination: Cox’s Bazar. Since such a thing is on no one’s agenda, it is safe to predict that it is not likely to be launched for as far as we can look into the future. Which gives me all the freedom to add delectable details without a care for whether they are sensible and practical.

If there is any realistic basis for this work of my imagination, it is my journey of many years ago that covered a very small part of this long voyage along the coast of the subcontinent. The year was 1982 and I was keen to make the discovery of India for myself. Finding Muhammadi Steamship Company, handling the booking and other details, in the central business district was not difficult. I was given a fairly long list of the classes I could choose from. It was only natural for my gaze to quickly slide down to the bottom, where it said “deck with food”. I even asked if there is a class called “deck without food.” There wasn’t. I bought the bottom end return ticket for Rs 1,100.

Dwarka was one of the three ships that sailed between Karachi and Bombay. The other two — Sarasvati and Sabarmati — had completed their lives and had been taken off from service. Dwarka had been serving for the past 50 years, taking mostly labourers from Kerala and small businessmen from Bombay and Karachi to Kuwait and back. And, yes, some foreign tourists as well.

The group of five French travellers (four men and a girl) were headed towards the Himalayas, excited about the treks awaiting them. I shared some of their excitement, so they casually invited me to join them. I told them, I could not, since the Indian deputy high commission at Karachi had given me visa only for four cities. They were too fortunate to make sense of it. The only possible explanation they could come up with was: Perhaps then Bombay and Bhopal were city states, authorised to issue visa to foreigners, although they had been given visa for the entire place called India. It could only add to their astonishment that the cantonment areas of even these cities had expressly been declared out of bounds for me!

Soon after the excitement of watching a port go back in the distance for the first time in one’s life was over, my attention was drawn by the open shutters of the ship’s tuck shop out on the deck. I bought a can of beer and couldn’t believe myself when I freely drank it sitting on a bench and looking at the afternoon sun. making wonderful patterns on the surface of the Arabian Sea. Alcoholic drinks had been banned in my country since 1977 — another desperate attempt of a supposedly liberal, left-of-centre government to retain power by bowing to the whims of religious fanatics. In the words of the great cartoonist and satirist Yusuf Lodhi (“Vai Ell”), if you ban alcohol, it doesn't disappear; it just becomes expensive and out of reach of the ordinary citizens like you or me.

As the nightfall drew closer, I was happy to discover that some of the berths in the bunkers were empty, so I could spread my sleeping bag a little higher than the floor of the deck. Later, I climbed down several metal ladders to reach the canteen which served food to the lower class passengers. The food had a distinct taste and smell of Karachi’s Malabari food joints (now completely disappeared from the city) and the ambiance matched the food. The workers returning from the Gulf to Kerala were travelling with their unbelievably large metal trunks. With their bright-coloured saris, tee-shirts and lungis and their loud chatter, they seemed a happy lot.

Twice during this 40-hour journey on board Dwarka did I make the mistake (which was to be repeated several times before I was warned by a friend) of asking a Sikh fellow-passenger for a matchbox to light my cigarette. The French trekkers, travelling in first class obviously, kept coming to the deck and discussing their plans to systematically cover all the tourist attractions India could offer before reaching the Himalayas. The Malayali men and women kept chatting and listening to loud, heady music on their large cassette-players. And I kept trying to stop myself from spending too much from my less than shoe-string budget on beer, as I did not know how long a journey awaited me once I set foot in Bombay for the first time in my life.

When I did, it was the late morning on Jan 26, the Indian Republic Day, and it was not possible on a holiday for me to contact my only acquaintance in the city. I hired a taxi and asked the young driver to take me to the YMCA International House near Victoria Terminus, although I did not have a booking there. The driver welcomed me in the city of his birth with a word of caution. “Idhar Mumbai mein,” he said,“jiyada baat karne ka nein. Khali dekhne ka, kya?

About two and a half months into the journey I was in Bhopal when I received a letter from my friend in Bombay, saying that the last ship would leave Bombay on April 30 1982, and I should be careful not to miss it. I was at a complete loss to understand what the “last ship” was supposed to mean. Soon I discovered that at that assigned date the Dwarka was scheduled to sail from the port of Bombay for the last time, empty itself of its passengers and cargo at Karachi and Kuwait, and come to Gadani, on the western Makran coast not far from Karachi, to be dismantled, following its predecessors, Saravati and Sabarmati into history.