In the summer of 1966 we went by ship from East Pakistan to West Pakistan. We lived in Chittagong at the time. My father came home one evening from work and said he had a surprise. What, we asked. I have been posted to Karachi, he said. Oh, we said, thinking that wasn’t that big of a deal. My father was in the central government service and his official transfers in the past had shuttled us between Pakistan’s two wings – in fact we three children had been born in Karachi. But then he announced that this time we had a choice: We could either go by air or by sea, and what did we want to do. We had never sailed on the high seas. Before my mother or my little sister could say anything, I and my younger brother shouted “Ship, ship.” And that was that, ship it was! The trip would take ten days.
We sailed aboard the MV Ocean Energy, a 9,000-ton cargo vessel. It was modest enough by the standards of sea-going vessels, but to us boys it looked like a gigantic playpen. The shipping company had fitted it out with a few passenger cabins to make some extra bucks on the side. We had two cabins. My parents and sister occupied one while I and my brother got the other. Having a cabin all to ourselves made us – two cloistered, middle-class Bengali boys – feel very cosmopolitan and adult. We had our own keys, and we came and went as we pleased. For absolutely no reason at all, we would slide the key into the door, open it, then shut it and lock it again. We did this a few times a day. Other passengers on board were a Turkish world traveler – quite possibly the world’s first backpacker – with a rucksack full of books and a single change of clothes; a very proper Anglo-Indian family with a boy slightly older than us; a Pakistan army major, and a government officer like my father, traveling alone.
Life aboard the ship was novel, spun from the elements, from the sun and the wind, the deep-blue heave of the ocean’s groundswell and a boundless, changing yet strangely changeless horizon. All of this was underlined by a constant, purposeful movement forward, the floor never ceasing to emit the music of powerful engines. At night the ship’s lights on the black ocean waters and the phosphorescent froth of a turbulent wake created an enchanting halo around the vessel, inviting dark, deep, dreamless sleep on laundered sheets. At times during the day I would steal off for sessions of auto-hypnosis, standing at the ship’s bow looking down mesmerized at the knife-edge fathoms below cutting remorselessly through the water. Aha, but what is life on land compared to this, the whipping air seemed to sing in my tender ears.
My parents and sister tended to stay in the cabin, but we two boys roamed all over the ship. There was even a ‘swimming pool’ on the rear deck, actually a metal tank about thirty feet by twenty feet. First thing after breakfast we would jump into it with lifesavers shanghaied from the deck railings and the Turkish traveler would join us puffing on a huge cigar. But then on the third day out the Anglo-Indian boy squealed on us, and the First Officer came around and gently said no lifesavers, boys, against safety regulations. We had to give them up and our frolics in the pool were never quite the same again. But there was plenty else to do: Go down to the engine room and see the massive guts of the ship, or skip up to the wheelhouse to ponder the compass and the intricate maps, or swing by the doctor’s Red-Crossed little room full of medicine bottles. My favourite on board was the Goanese Anglo-Indian cook, who would stir out of the galley to smoke a cigarette and once tried to – unsuccessfully! – teach us The Twist clad in a white apron – ‘One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock, rock…’ He had two assistants whom he called “buggermen” – as in “You buggermen all-a useless buggers, listen, lunch bell be going and you sill-ly buggermen just buggerin’ around…” And one siesta-time he said to us, “Boys, come sail at Christmastime and men men, you eat a cake I bake you never eat before.”
Or I would just sit in the lounge and read – I discovered British adventure paperbacks for boys in the ship’s library, from ace pilot Biggles to an upper-class detective named The Toff! And schoolboy William, or ‘Will’um’ as he called himself, who always got into scrapes! The sea air made us ravenous and we two boys ate enormous amounts of the delicious food, though at first we were inept with knives and forks since we had grown up eating with our hands and which made the Anglo-Indian boy with his exquisite handling of the cutlery snigger at us. At lunch the first day, before we hoisted anchor and set sail in the afternoon, my dad pulled a face when he learnt that the Cokes his children had ordered weren’t part of the menu and had to be paid for as an ‘extra’. They cost quite a bit more on board the ship than on land. Dinner the first night out we were all invited to sit at the captain’s table. He was a supremely gracious, silent, grey-haired man with a beautiful, slim, bored young wife in clingy chiffon saris.
We slid effortlessly into the rhythm of life on the ocean. We soon found out that the captain’s wife and the cadet officer, a Punjabi hunk in faded khaki shorts, had a thing going on. One morning, after the captain in full dress uniform had ascended the steps to the wheelhouse to oversee matters of the ship, the cadet cajoled us to go with him to the captain’s cabin. There he immediately sat us down with the captain’s considerable stamp collection while he and the wife disappeared into the tiny bedroom. If anybody had knocked or poked his head into the cabin he would have seen two boys there and would have assumed the begum sahib was resting. After some time the two came out, smiling and shy, and the cadet left with us trailing behind him. The rest of the time he totally ignored us, busy with grunt work, scraping the deck or painting the railings, with a distant look in his green eyes.
The ship’s officers were a jovial lot, all hail-fellow-well-met West Pakistanis who drank liquids I had never seen before. I asked one junior officer what it was, and the answer was “beer.” I asked for a taste and he gave me the glass. I took one sip and spewed it out – it tasted bitter and foul. They showed us their impressive stock of booze, identifying different ones as whiskey or vodka or wine. We had never seen liquor before. I became friendly with another officer, playing Scrabble – yet another first – and got good at it very fast. The officer praised my spelling ability in front of everybody at the captain’s party, which made me giddy and venture a couple of uncertain sips from a glass of sweet white wine I had swiped slyly off the table to a dark corner. When I went off to go sleep in the cabin the ship’s floor seemed to swish and chuckle more than usual and the key wouldn’t fit into the lock, bzzzz, bzzzz...
Once there was a rainstorm. The wind died down and clouds massed above blue waters suddenly turned slate-grey. Then came a hard blast of rain on the roiling waters. This was the signal for the crew’s favorite game, which was to play a game of darts on the wildly heaving, wet deck. The dartboard swung madly from side to side while they tried to steady themselves for a throw. The winner was to get free drinks for the rest of the trip. Nobody landed a dart on the target. Then my brother tried, and by aiming two feet to the right of the board, speared it on the cork. He got free Cokes the rest of the trip whenever he wanted. The dining room head waiter was visibly impressed with the quantities of Coke my brother consumed.
Midway through the journey we anchored in Colombo – a lovely harbor fringed with palm trees – for almost the whole day. Tiny boats came swarming by the ship’s side to sell saris. The boatmen tossed up a rope up to us standing by the ship’s railing. At its other end was tied a wicker basket. Following my mother’s shouted directions (“That one, and that!”) they put the saris in the basket which we hauled up. Hard bargaining followed – in English! After a few up-and-down trips of the basket she chose a few and put the money – Indian rupees – in the basket and we lowered it to them. In the evening, we got into one such boat to see Colombo. It tossed up and down on the high swells, making us feel seasick. Getting into Colombo was easy – visas were automatic in those days for ship-to shore visitors. We were staggered to find that the rickshaw-wallah spoke fairly flawless English. He gave us a guided tour of the main streets, tree-lined and bucolic, and dropped us off at the island’s biggest department store. Climbing up to its third floor after going through its huge toy section we came upon a billiard room and found a lone Englishman smoking a cigar. He told us he was the store’s owner. We attempted a few shots on the green baize as he genially gave us tips, one of which was “You boys need to grow taller...”
Sailing up the west coast of India we entered the Arabian Sea. Here the light was dazzling, with diamond points glinting on the water. Flying fish were everywhere. Then came sharks to the party, their fins slicing through the water. They were built like grey torpedoes, flicking their tails to power themselves into lazy circles beside the ship. News of the sharks somehow reached the army officer, a Punjabi with the pink cheeks of Pakistan’s elite class, who usually hibernated inside his cabin. He now emerged to stand by the ship’s rail. As usual, he was dressed in his full army uniform. He un-holstered his revolver (later I would know it as the standard Army-issue short-barreled .38 Smith & Wesson) and holding it in both hands began to shoot at the sharks. The gun had quite a kick. The shots reverberated throughout the length of the ship, and boomed away over the water, a surprisingly big noise for a small revolver. Most of the time he missed the swerving fins, and we could see the bullets hit the clear water and spiral slowly downward like dying snails. But a couple of times he hit the sharks, and they would buckle momentarily before diving into the water, leaving a thin line of blood. It excited the other sharks, who would speed up and start to trail the one that was hit. Soon the blood would dissolve in the ship’s fizzy wake. The major stood there grinning, enjoying himself, firing one shot after another, reloading and firing again, crack, boom, crack, boom, looking at us and the gathered crew and grinning some more… till he had no more bullets left.
Later, with the waters turning orange-red as the sun sank into it, I and my brother collected the empty shell casings and stood smelling cordite as shark fins continued to circle beside us. Slowly and eerily.
I can still picture it clearly: The myriad sparkles like tiny flashlights winking on the water, the two-handed grip, crack and boom, a sudden spurt as a fin twisted and dived steeply, a thin line of red dissolving fast in the liquid swirl…
And who knows, men men, perhaps all is not lost, perhaps it is not the end, perhaps there is still time to go a’sailing at Christmastime on some cargo boat in the Indian Ocean with an Anglo-Indian cook and his buggermen and hear a ghostly lunch bell ring and eat a cake that I never eat before…