Chapter 24. Working Along Mighty Rivers of the East

In order that one may have some idea of the great rivers of Eastern India in the Nineteen Forties, I am taking the liberty to quote extracts from a presentation made by Hamid Ismail, at Cerne  Abbas Discussion Club,  Dorset, England,  on  12th  October  2004.

The theme of his presentation was: “Inland Water Transport in Bangladesh – the British contribution.” He has served for over 25 years with Inland Water Transport organizations. After introducing himself, he said: “I felt that it would perhaps be interesting to  talk to you of the courage, determination and farsightedness of British  entrepreneurs in the early nineteenth century who embarked on a venture many  thousands of miles away, to establish an inland water transport system in  the easternmost part of India, which today is Bangladesh.”

Talking about the great rivers of Eastern India, he said: “About 180 years ago, Charles Alexander Bruce, Commander of the steam gunboat  Diana, set out from Calcutta on an epic voyage.  His destination lay well over a thousand miles distant and yet at no time in the two-month-long  journey did Bruce put his vessel to sea.  When the Diana finally dropped  anchor, she lay in the shadow of the Himalayan foothills, barely sixty miles  from India’s frontier with Tibet— the first voyage to be successfully  completed up one of the greatest rivers of eastern India.

“Others followed in the Diana’s wake, exploring not only the Ganges, and its  tributaries the Jamuna and Gogra, but also the Brahmaputra and the vast network of waterways in East Bengal which form the combined delta of these  mighty rivers.  From such beginnings there grew an enterprise which ultimately embraced many hundreds of steamers and other craft, operating over some 5,000 miles of river routes.

“One thing these regions had in common.  They were watered by two of the  world’s greatest river systems. The Ganges, sacred to all Hindus, rises in  the Himalayas, leaves the foothills and enters the plains of India, where it is joined by the Jamuna and then flows on into Bengal.

“Another well-known river, the Brahmaputra, rises in Tibet, where it is  called Tsangpo, and flows east until it turns south to cross the Indian  frontier and eventually to join the Ganges at Goalando in Bangladesh. In  summer, the snows of the Himalayas melt and supplemented by subsequent  annual rains the Ganges and Brahmaputra become raging torrents. They spill over their banks, but the force of the current is still sufficient to scour  away sandbanks.

The combined river, now known as the Padma, is truly  awe-inspiring, as described by a Captain Johnson in 1946: ‘One of the most wonderful sights in the world is to see the Ganges in full flood at the point where it joins the Brahmaputra.  Over 8 miles in width, the swirling waters of the two rivers join and spread out over low- lying  countryside, forming what looks like a stormy inland sea.  The regular harsh  swish of the current breaking over the banks, the bubbling sucking noise of  the eddies and the muffled roar of the two rivers as they unite to sweep  together with terrifying force down the broad bed of the Padma, make a  fitting accompaniment to the grandeur of the scene.’”

Hamid Ismail continues: “Among the companies these men founded were the India General Navigation  Company Limited (an English company) and River Steamers Navigation Company  Limited (a Scottish company).  Originally competitors, they later merged to become known as the Joint Steamer Companies and together played a vital role  in the development of inland water transport in Bengal and Assam.”

Hamid’s presentation appeared in the Dhaka Nawab Family Newsletter  where he added that: “the Dwara Flotilla was established in 1903 by George Garth, the Manager of Dhaka Nawab Estate, with the Nawab as its principal shareholder.  At that time the Nawab was  described as the uncrowned king of East Bengal.  Even thirty years later  when Sir Percival Griffiths was in charge of the Nawab Estate, the launch in  which he was travelling up the Dhaleswari with the Nawab’s flag at the masthead was greeted with awe-struck cries of “ Dekho, dekho Dhaka Nawab Bahadur.” It might have been thought that a flotilla thus sponsored would have captured most of the traffic of the Joint Companies.  But this did not happen and in 1904 the flotilla, consisting of two steamers and five flats, was leased to the Joint  Companies.  In 1907 they bought it outright”.

Hamid Ismail, a senior member of the Dhaka Nawab Family, is my uncle, brother of Najma Rahman Quader, who joined the Joint Steamer Companies

in 1948, and was posted to Gauhati in January 1949.  He worked for them until he left Bangladesh in 1973, when he was Deputy General Manager and Director representing the London shareholders. He lives in London with his wife Lucy. They have grown-up twins, Alison Najma Ismail and Alexander Salim Ismail. Alison is married to Mike Short and they have a one-year-old daughter named Molly.

It was providential that, as the need arose for me to wear glasses, due to weak eyesight, which required me to submit my resignation from the Bengal Pilot Service, a gentleman  Mr. Dhiren Mukherjee, owner of a Bank, whom my father knew very well, called  one evening and asked my father: “Where is your son who was in the Merchant Navy, and what is he doing now ?” Father gave him a brief account of my war-time experience and informed him that I was working for the Bengal Pilot Service.

I do not know whether or not father mentioned to him about my eye problem and that I would be submitting my resignation, shortly.  Mr. Mukherjee told him that a well known British Inland Water Transport Company, known as I.G.N.. Company had decided to start recruiting Indians with well-known family background and he was asked if he knew anyone who could be considered for appointment in the Company. He told father that I should meet Captain Killick, the Marine Superintendent of  the Company, as soon as possible.

At the first available opportunity of returning to Calcutta from duty on the river, I  called on Captain Killick in the offices of Kilburn & Company, who were the Managing Agents. He gave a patient hearing to what I told him in answer to his questions about my qualification and sea experience.

He explained to me that the minimum qualification required for the post of a Marine Assistant, for which I was being interviewed, was a Board of Trade Second Mates Certificate which, unfortunately, I did not possess. However, he asked me to see him again the next time I was ashore from my duty on the river, and I had several interviews with him over the next few days. Finally he gave me the good news that the company had decided to take me on as a Marine Assistant.

It took a little time for the Government of India, Marine Department, New Delhi, to accept my resignation and release me from service. I joined the company as a Marine Assistant on 1st May 1947, and  was posted to Tezpur, in Assam , to work under the supervision of  Captain Harry Lee.

At that time there was only one other Indian officer in the company, Swarup Mukherjee (no relation or in any way connected with Mr. Dhiren Mukherjee) from Oxford, posted in Gauhati, as Third Assistant. Then Mahmud Ali, of Bogra, joined the R. S. N. Company a month later. I was, thus, the second Indian to join this British Inland Water Transport Company.

Tezpur was a cute little town on the banks of the river Brahmaputra, north of Gauhati (Eastern India). I did not see very much of the interior as, during the short period that I was there, my work kept me traveling on different steamers from Dibrugarh in the north to Dhubri in the south, inspecting crews of different vessels, condition of the hull etc.

Captain Harry Lee, who, I had been warned, was a very difficult person to deal with, appeared quite happy with me, but found that I lacked the sea experience which the job needed, even though I was very hard working and conscientious. He suggested to the company that my services should be transferred to the “Traffic Department” where my marine background would be an asset.

As a first step I was appointed Acceleration Officer and sent to Goalundo Ghat, an important river station in East Pakistan. To do the job I was given, I  boarded a towing vessel called “Abu”, and, with two fully laden flats (Dumb-boats) tied to either side, proceeded up the river Ganges en route to Patna, the capital of the Indian province Bihar.

It may be noted that all the steamers, big or small, were propelled by “Paddle-wheels”. My designation “Acceleration Officer” demanded that I reach Patna, full speed, as soon as possible. Unfortunately, we faced such strong currents that there were times when we found ourselves drifting backwards, and it was sad and painful to see dead bodies – victims of rioting – floating past us.

We were somewhere near Monghyr, on the river Ganges, as the day of 14th August dawned heralding the partition of India. It took me more than two weeks to reach Patna, where I received orders transferring me to Narayanganj, a very busy river port about ten miles from Dhaka, which had then become a part of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh)

In  charge of the Narayanganj Agency was Mr. C.E.C. Guthrie, the Joint Agent, and the First Assistant was Douglas Kane, while Eric Smith was the Second Assiatant. I was designated Transport Officer, and given the responsibility of allocating  shipping space to Jute shippers.

I had to be on the river at six o’clock every morning, moving up and down in the speed boat named “Trout”, so that I could prepare the daily report showing where the different vessels were berthed and the progress of loading etc. Kane, even though a bachelor, occupied the ‘married accomodaton’, whole of the first floor of “Mission Bungalow” while Smith and I had a room each, with attached bathrooms, on the ground floor. We had a common dining and living  rooms, and normally had our meals together.

It was while living in the Mission Bungalow in Narayanganj, that Ayesha and I were married on 6th March 1948, and three days later left for Calcutta en route to Shillong, a hill station in the Indian province of Assam, to spend our honeymoon.

Returning to Narayanganj I continued working as Transport Officer and staying at the Mission Bungalow, while Ayesha stayed in Dilkusha Gardens with her parents. She used to spend the weekends with me in Mission Bungalow. During this time there was a change in office management, and Swarup Mukherjee, the graduate from Oxford whom I had met in Gauhati, took over as First Assistant in place of Douglas Kane.

Swarup, was a very pleasant and friendly person to work with, a thorough gentleman. His parents, Mr. & Mrs. S. V. Mukherjee, were so kind and hospitable during our honeymoon in Shillong. Before coming to Narayanganj, wherever he was, he fell in love with a Muslim girl, Zebunnisa, from the well known Imam family of Patna, and married her.

We did as much as we could to decorate the upstairs rooms in Mission Bungalow to welcome Zebunnisa as a bride. They made a happy couple. She came to stay with him upstairs in the Mission Bungalow, and, was kind and hospitable to Eric Smith and myself, her downstairs neighbours.

In April 1948 I was transferred to Gauhati, in the Indian province of Assam, and that was the last time I had seen Swarup and Zebunnisa. We have been completely out of touch and have no idea how and where they are now.

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