One Shukur Ali of Rocket Steamer
Rocket Steamer service of then East Pakistan and earlier East Bengal was a premier river steamer service that operated between Dhaka and Khulna via Barisal. There were several steam operated pedal steamers with interesting names like Ostrich, Ghazi, Lepcha, Tern, etc. some of which still exist defying time and age. The steamer service was the main connection between Dhaka and all those river ports and towns in those days.
The steamers would leave Dhaka early in the evening and arrive at Barisal late in the afternoon, leaving again in the evening and arriving Khulna in the morning. The total journey would take about thirty hours, barring any unforeseen weather or engine related delay. Irrespective of this long time, the whole experience of plying through rivers was an enormous delight which can only be remembered by only those who had travelled in Rocket steamers.
The sheer joy and beauty of the rivers at night and watching boats navigating the waters at daytime were enough to entice anyone to travel in these steamers. On top of watching nature were the heavenly cooked meals that were served in the Rocket steamers, particularly in the upper classes. The cooks were masters of creating mouth-watering dishes like smoked hilsa, chicken and prawn cutlets, mutton chops, chicken korma, mughlai paratha, and what not. Imagine feeding yourself with all such scrumptious food as you navigate the placid waters and watch country boats carrying merchandise and passengers, and see children jumping into the rivers from the banks nearby.
My first experience of Rocket Steamer travel was in mid-sixties, and it was love at first sight. But my frequency of travel by Rocket increased after I had joined the civil service. I was then posted as a probationer in Khulna. In those days, one could go to Khulna in two ways; by train via Sirajganj after crossing river by railway ferry, or by steamer service. It would take one and half days either way to go to Khulna. The fastest way was by Air to Jessore, and by road thereafter. But the last mode was very expensive that time, and therefore, most people used more direct route of river steamers.
I found the Rocket Steamer service most convenient as well as lucrative, primarily because of the food that I would get. It was during one of my journeys to Khulna that I met Shukur Ali. He was the head bearer of Ostrich, one of the original Rocket Service fleet. During that journey I had complained about some food to the bearer attached to my cabin. Hearing my complain the head bearer came running and apologized hugely for the smoked Hilsa that turned out to be cold. He replaced it with a piping hot smoke Hilsa.
Next morning, he himself brought my morning breakfast. I was very touched by his gesture and asked him to sit in the cabin. When I enquired how long he had been working for the Steamer Company, he said since the age of fifteen. He had been working since the British period with then Indian Steam Navigation and Railways Company where his father worked as a cook. He was sixty now. I looked at him with surprise. He was a small man with a wiry body. But he did not look at all that old! When I made that remark Shukur Ali smiled. It is then he had given me his name.
Since that journey I became rather fond of Shukur Ali. Every time I went to Khulna or returned to Dhaka, I chose to take the Steamer and selected the days Ostrich operated. Every journey Shukur Ali brought my food to the cabin instead of the designated bearer, and of course fed me the delectable dishes some of which he had prepared. Besides being the head bearer Shukur Ali was also one of the cooks of Ostrich steamer. In fact, he was the cook who made smoked Hilsa in the kitchen he told me.
After meals when I sat in the deck Shukur Ali brought me tea and would talk about his village, and his dead parents. When I asked him why he did not marry he sighed and said after the death of his father he had to take care of his old mother and siblings. He had no time for marriage. Now that his mother is gone and siblings on their own, he have nothing but this Ostrich steamer as his home.
I left Khulna in January, a few months before 1971 war began. I also lost touch with Shukur Ali since I did not have to ride the steamers anymore. Sometimes I wondered about him and would have liked to take the steamer service once again just to meet him. But the turbulence of 1971 had made all kinds of journeys beyond Dhaka dangerous. (The service was not fully restored until sometime later as river navigation was difficult with many steamers damaged during the war.)
My next opportunity to take the Rocket steamer service would not arise until 1976 when I was required to go to Khulna from Dhaka for some work. I had deliberately decided to take river transportation instead of Air or Rail only to avail the lovely steamer service.
When I enquired of Ostrich steamer, I was told that the name had been changed to Mashud, but it was the old steamer all right. In the steamer when I entered the first-class cabin, I found other cabins empty. I was told by the steamer staff that the cabins were reserved for a family of four who cancelled the reservation at the last minute. I was kind of relieved thinking that the deck will not be crowded.
Soon the steamer lifted anchor and started moving. As we were leaving the dimly lit jetty of Sadarghat, I entered my cabin and pressed the bell for attendant. He was a sprightly young chap in his twenties. When I asked how long he had been working in this steamer, he said four years. Then I asked him if he had met Shukur Ali, the head bearer. He said no, adding that most bearers from before 1971 had retired. Shukur Ali must be one of them I thought.
My next shock came when I asked for smoked Hilsa for my dinner. The young bearer flatly stated that the menu did not have smoked Hilsa. Why, I asked. The young attendant replied that no one in the kitchen knew how to prepare this. He had heard that some cook tried but failed. Oh well, I gave in to the fare in hand. But the food that was served, prawn cutlets, mutton curry, aloo chops, fish curry and daal were extremely delicious, ended the meal with mishti doi, and chamcham.
After the end of the hearty meal I went to the deck outside and sat on a chair. It was a wonderfully starry night. The dim lights coming from lamps on the riverbank, chugging sound of the paddle steamer, and chopping sound of water below created an unbelievably romantic environment. I moved back to my cabin after some time as I was feeling sleepy.
I went to bed and immediately fell asleep. I do not remember how long I had slept, but I woke up hearing a knock on the door. It was five o'clock by my watch. It was too early for morning tea, but I got up and opened the door, nonetheless. I saw at the door none other than old Shukur Ali holding a tray with tea and some food in it. Despite stubble in his face I could recognize him in his old livery and green cap with steamer service logo. I let out a yelp, Shukur Ali, what are you doing here so early in the morning. Please come in, I said.
Shukur Ali slowly entered into the cabin and put down his tray on the table. I heard you have come, so I came to see you, he said. I asked him to sit down. As he sat on a stool putting bis green cap on his side, he pointed at the tray and said, Sir, I have brought your favourite smoked Hilsa. And indeed, there it was sitting in a plate along with some buttered toast.
But then I was told the kitchen did not make smoked Hilsa anymore, I said. Shukur Ali gave a smile and said, I made it this morning for you, please eat. I did not waste any more time, and bit into the succulent fish. It was as delectable as before.
After finishing the food, I asked Shukur Ali how it was that he was still in the steamer since he had long retired. Shukur Ali again gave a wry smile and said he had officially retired but he still came to the steamer now and then. I was puzzled by his reply. How it that he came to the steamer and no bearer knew about him, I asked? He said lowering his gaze that he came occasionally, especially at night only to go around the cabins where he worked all his life. This steamer, Sir, is my life, he said with a deep sigh. Saying that he said he needed to put away the tray he left the cabin. He also said he would return. I waited for half an hour or so, but Shukur Ali did not return.
I had gone back to bed and must have fallen asleep. I woke up at the voice of my room attendant at the door. He was standing there with my morning tea. It was seven o'clock, normal morning teatime. What, Tea again? I exclaimed. Sir, this is the time I bring tea in the morning, a perplexed attendant replied. But Shukur Ali had already brought tea and smoked Hilsa for me. Look at the plate and teacup over there, I pointed at the table. But this was my moment of perplexity. There was no tray, no plate, no teacup. I felt astounded, and the attendant was more so at my inexplicable statement. Did I really have a dream? I asked the attendant to forget about what I said and asked him to leave the tray on the table.
I looked around the cabin to see any sign of the tray or remnants of food. There was none. Suddenly I saw on the stool a green cap with the steamer's logo on it. I took it to see if it was real. It was an old cap soiled by years of use. Perhaps it was not a dream after all!
I did not talk about my strange experience with anyone else in the steamer. But when I was leaving the steamer at Khulna Ghat, I suddenly saw a person who used to be the Second Mate of Ostrich. I knew him well from my previous journeys in Ostrich. After exchange of greetings he told me had settled in Khulna after retirement. Then I asked him if he knew where Shukur Ali was these days. The Second Mate gave a sigh and said it was a tragic story.
Five years ago, when Shukur Ali was given notice of retirement, he refused to leave saying he had no place to go and that Ostrich was his home. Nevertheless, under government rules he had to go on retirement. But on the day of his retirement he was found dead in his cabin near the kitchen. Post-mortem revealed he had died of a heart attack. That way Shukur Ali never had to retire. His body was later sent to his village home for burial. Why do you ask, asked the former Ostrich hand? Never mind, I said. But I was then certain that my early morning bearer of tea was none other than Shukur Ali, holding the soiled green cap in my hand.
Do I still have that cap? Come and see by cupboard of memorabilia.
The writer is a former civil servant