Chapter 26. Working with the Joint Steamer Companies

Towards the end of April 1948 I received orders transferring me to the Gauhati Agency in Assam as Third Assistant, which was the position meant for a representative of I.G.N. Company in an Agency controlled by the River Steamer Company (R.S.N.). In charge of this Agency was Mr. Eric Kaye, the Joint Agent, a bachelor, who had a beautiful bungalow on top of a hill.

Others included Ted Calder (and wife Chris) as the First Assistant, and Mahmud Ali, youngest brother of Mr. Mohammad Ali of Bogra, (with wife Noreen and their children) as Second Assistant. Mahmud and Noreen, along with their children lived in a house in the town known as “Green Gates” while Ted and Chris Calder lived in the married accommodation aboard the Flat “Cashmere”.

The accommodation for the Third Assistant, supposed to be a bachelor, was in the after end of “Cashmere” on the same deck as the living quarters of the First Assistant. It had one bedroom with an attached bathroom and a combined dining and living room. The kitchen was in the rear along with the servants quarters. The Agency offices were below deck in the forward part of the vessel, while accommodation for the crew was in the stern of this ‘House boat’.

Before going further let me explain the concept of having ‘House boats’ such as “Cashmere”. We called them “Flats”. The owners of the Joint Steamer Companies had the vision and farsightedness to have comfortable living accommodation for the large number of officers they would require to manage this vast organization spreading from the northern most part of Assam, along the rivers of Bengal, to Patna, the western most point on the river Ganges.

It was always a problem to find sufficient number of Bungalows ashore and it was most practical and convenient to have Agency offices as close to the river as possible. In order to meet this problem they decided that, instead of scrapping old steamers, why not convert them in to “House boats” and call them “Flats”.

These flats, some large and some small, had the equivalent of apartments on the upper deck. One-bedroom apartments for bachelors and two to three bedrooms for married officers. Some flats could accommodate more than one family. They were fully furnished. The crew of the flats occupied the lower decks.

Some of the larger flats had apartments on the upper deck and the lower decks were used to store cargo, load and unload them and for berthing passenger steamers. Some flats, like the “Dilawar” in Gauhati, had several two-bedroom cabins for officers in transit or for temporary stay which Ayesha and I used while waiting for our “Bachelor apartment” to be vacated by my predecessor.

The flat CASHMERE accommodated the first and the third assistants on the upper deck while the entire forward part of the lower deck was used as the offices of the Agency. It had a fairly large room for the Joint Agent (Eric Kaye, later Walter Ravenscroft), a smaller room for the First Assistant (Ted Calder, later Harry Beatie) while the Second Assistant, Mahmud Ali and myself, the Third Assistant shared a large room with our desks facing each other.

Eric Kaye was taken by surprise when I landed there accompanied by Ayesha, but, the wonderful person that he was, he was quite happy as long as Ayesha and I had no objection living in the bachelor accommodation. We spent two glorious years in Gauhati, even though there was a mishap of a kind the day we were leaving Calcutta.

It was very unlike me to get mixed up with train timings but, on arrival at the Sealdah station we found that the train had left an hour ago. Fortunately, our domestic help, Fateh Muhammad, who had gone to the station in advance with our luggage, had the presence of mind to off load our luggage when he found that the train was about to leave and there was no sign of us.

The result was that the next day when we reached Parbatipur, where we had to change trains, there was no “reserved” coupe for us. However, seeing our predicament a family – husband, wife and two young children – in a five-berth compartment very kindly offered to accommodate us Ayesha and I slept on one of the two upper berths.

The head of the family was Mr. A. R. Sen who was posted to Gauhati to head an Insurance Company, and, as it turned out, he was the brother of Mr. B.R. Sen, a very senior and well-known I. C. S. officer whose daughter Benji was a friend of my elder sister Tahera. It was this family who became our friends and well wishers in Gauhati and we spent a lot of time together.

As soon as I took over from Jim Ray he left for his next post and we moved into the vacated apartment on the Flat Cashmere. I found my work very interesting as I was responsible, among other things, to deal with ‘Claims’. Most of the merchants I dealt with belonged to the Marwari community.

The premises of Gauhati Club were taken over by the Government of Assam, but the tennis courts were available to its members. Ayesha and I played tennis regularly. Mahmud Ali was a very good player. Members of the Club – Mahmud, Ayesha and I were the only non-Europeans – met every Saturday night, in turn, at the homes of each member.

In addition to the Steamer Company, there were representatives of Imperial Tobacco Company, Steel Brothers, Ralli Brothers, Shaw Wallace and others. In addition to Saturday ‘Club Nights’ we were invited to lunches and dinners at various homes.

On one such occasion, which was the first time Ayesha was attending a lunch party at the home of a European couple, just before lunch was served the hostess asked her: “would you like to powder your nose,” i.e. use the restroom to freshen up. Ayesha had not heard this expression before and answered, innocently, “No, I do not use any make up”

Ayesha and I also made it a point to meet and get to know local families and officials of the Government of Assam. All of them were very kind and hospitable and helped us in every way. There was one cinema house known as Rupnarayan which showed the latest Indian films and a very fine Sikh gentleman – called Mr. Singh – was the manager.

There were occasions when Ayesha and I decided to go to the movies at the last minute and sent a messenger to inform Mr. Singh who would wait for our arrival to start the movie.

Towards the latter half of the year 1948, Hamid Ismail joined the R. S. N. Company and was posted to Gauhati as a Traffic Assistant in January 1949. He was followed by A. N. H. Bari and Syed Mehboob Hyder. It was my duty to take the car to Pandu to meet the new arrivals and bring them to Gauhati. They had to do a lot of traveling, but, whenever they had a break of a few days in Gauhati, our apartment used to be the meeting place. It was Hamid, more than others, who spent a lot of time with us and even accompanied us to the Sens.

Noreen Mahmud Ali, who was Scottish, and Ayesha became good friends and are in touch with each other even now. During World War II, Noreen worked in the typing pool of Sir Winston Churchill. Mahmud passed away a few years ago. At Gauhati our two families spent a lot of time together, mainly at their home Green Gates, We were also visited by Mr. & Mrs. S. V. Mukherjee from Shillong, who stayed with us in our bedroom while Ayesha and I moved to the living room.

Hamid, a very good Table Tennis player, once took part in the All Assam Table Tennis Championship and reached the final where his opponent was a college student whose supporters, in large numbers, were rowdy and volatile. I was selected to do the difficult job of umpiring the match and keeping the rowdy elements under control.

For the first time in the sporting history of Assam, All India Radio decided to broadcast the event, and Mahmud Ali was selected to do the running commentary. It was a well fought match which the student eventually won. Hamid, Mahmud and I had the great honour and privilege to have been a part of the sporting history of Assam.

It was in the same year, 1950, that communal riots broke out in Assam, and the company decided to transfer me to East Pakistan as Assistant Joint Agent, Lohajang, a steamer station also known as Tarpasha. The idea was to swap places with Mukherjee (Junior), who would be transferred to Gauhati .

Ayesha and I were very sad and sorry to leave Gauhati as we sailed aboard the “Tibetan” one of the biggest ASD (Assam/Sunderbans/Despatch) Service steamers, with Khan, our domestic help, bags and baggage, and two cats.

We were having great fun sailing down the river, past Dhubri, with the luxury of having the entire First Class accommodation with eight two-bedroom cabins, the dinning saloon and a spacious fore deck all to ourselves, with bearers to serve us at meals.

Our domestic help, Khan, was also having a great time. Then it happened. At Noonkhawa shoals, on the border between Assam and Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), the famous spot where many vessels are known to have gone aground, the “Tibetan” went aground. For two days efforts made to make her afloat failed.

Fortunately for us a very small ‘stern-wheeler’, I forget the name, on her way to Goalundo Ghat, came to our rescue. We transferred ourselves and all that we were carrying on to her and occupied the one and only cabin it had. Khan cooked and served us meals in our cabin which was immediately behind the wheel on the fore deck manned by the crew.

The following evening after we left Noonkhawa shoals, we met with a severe Nor’wester which made us anchor near the shore. It was so bad that this small vessel was literally lifted above the strong waves on the river. At one point, the Master of the vessel got so nervous that he asked us to put on the life-jackets. It was at this stage that my training in the Dufferin came to use as I manned the wheel myself and kept the bow of the vessel facing the wind. After almost two hours the storm abated and the sky was so clear that we could see the stars.

We arrived at Goalundo Ghat the next day and we boarded a steamer that took us to Narayanganj, the river port ten miles from Dhaka

I left Ayesha with her parents in Dilkusha and proceeded to Lohajang – the steamer station was popularly known as “Tarpasha”, the regular stop for mail steamers to and from Goalundo, en route to Calcutta. – where I spent a week or so with Mukherjee (Junior) in handing over and taking over. Mukherjee was a fine young man from a well known Calcutta family. Soon after he left Ayesha joined me.

Lohajang came under Goalundo Agency, where the Joint Agent was Ogilvie whom I went to see to report having taken over from Mukherjee. From that very first meeting he and I disliked one another and I made it a point not to visit him unless it was absolutely necessary.

In Lohajang we lived in a bungalow which was on stilts six feet above the ground because in the monsoon season the water used to come right up to the steps leading to the bungalow. It was actually a village and there was nowhere for Ayesha to go. Being close to Dhaka she always had the company of one or more of her brothers and sisters.

Even her father visited us on more than one occasion. When the water came up to the level of our steps, we could see snakes all over the place. Ayesha used to attach some cloth at the end of a bamboo pole, pour some acid on it and play with the snakes.

I got in touch with some of the local officials and school teachers and made myself available to play football for a local team. I was, thus, involved with the village community and found myself doing something or the other to keep myself busy. My office was on the upper deck of the Flat which served as the berthing jetty for steamers. It was many miles away from the bungalow.

I had a Motor Launch “Dorothy” to which I reached by a boat from the bungalow, and she brought me to the office around 8 o’clock every morning. There was not much work except dealing with few jute shippers as we carried all the jute to Calcutta.

Therefore, after seeing of the two mail steamers I normally went home after 2 p.m., had a nap and then went to play football. In actual fact, the post of Assistant Joint Agent, Lohajang, was meant for non-covenanted officers and I was posted there to meet a particular situation caused by rioting which made it necessary for Mukherjee to be moved to Gauhati, and at the same time, bring me to Pakistan. The move suited the company, but I was not happy, and reacted in ways that made me unpopular.

One day a senior director of the company was on the mail steamer going to Narayanganj. I spent some time with him as I did with others during the time the steamer was berthed at the station. While discussing my work he asked: “When do you go home ?” I said: “Around 2 o’clock after seeing off the two mail steamers”.

He looked surprised and said: “Why 2 p.m., isn’t working hours up to 5 p.m.?” I got the opportunity to draw his attention to the fact that the company was wasting the time of a Covenanted Assistant who could be employed more usefully in a senior post, and said: “There is hardly any work here. I am not going to sit here till 5 p.m. doing nothing. Yet, if there was work to be done and it was necessary to attend to something really important, if need be, I would stay here for 24 hours.”

I added further that: “Even during the morning I have so much time on my hands that I spend the time studying for the correspondence course I am taking on “Book-keeping and Accountancy”. There was complete silence and a formal hand shake as the time came for the steamer to leave. I have no doubt that word went round to places where it mattered.

A few months later I was transferred to Narayanganj under Guthrie, the Joint agent. The First Assistant was Sydney Baker who was junior to me in the company, which made me quite furious. I began to realize that I was in the bad books of the company, and wrote letters to the Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Navy, as well as to Major General Iskander Mirza, the Defence Secretary, Government of Pakistan offering my services.

In Narayanganj we were staying in one of the 3-bedroom apartments on the upper deck of “Tegra” flat. This flat was so large that it also had the Sub-Agency office as well as another 3-bedroom apartment on the same deck. The lower deck was used for storing cargo, loading and unloading them and for the mail steamers to berth. Every individual who has traveled by steamer from Narayanganj is familiar with the name “Tegra Flat.”

In the days before partition of the Sub-continent took place, except for two 12-seater planes, “Emerald” and “Ruby” flying between Dhaka and Calcutta, taking off from an airstrip between the paddy fields of Dhanmandi, the only means of travel was by steamer and train. Later, air travel was introduced with the establishment of Orient Airways.

According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, “Orient Airways was registered in Calcutta on 23rd October 1946, the first and only Muslim owned airline. Initial capital was provided by the Ispahani, Adamjee and the ARAG group. Mirza Ahmed Ispahani was its first Chairman. On 11th March 1966 the Government of Pakistan merged Orient Airways with other airlines to form Pakistan International Airlines (P.I.A.). Even so, steamer/train travel was most economical.

Flat bottomed paddle-wheel steamers of the Joint Steamer Companies with First Class, Second Class, Inter Class and Deck Class passengers about 1200 in number, left Narayanganj at 12.30 p.m. as Calcutta mail steamers. Some of the steamers that were mainly used for this service were: Kiwi, Ostrich, Emu, Mohmand and Ghazi.

The First class had two single and six two-bed cabins, divided, on either side of a large dinning saloon, and a spacious deck in the fore part of the vessel with ‘Easy-chairs’ for passengers to relax. Soon after departure from Narayanganj, a five course. sumptuous lunch was served in the first class dinning saloon by bearers in uniform wearing white hand gloves.

People who traveled aboard these steamers used to rave about the food – smoked Hilsa fish and chicken curry and rice were the favourites.The Calcutta mail steamer stopped at three places – Munshiganj, famous for its bananas, Tarpasha (Lohajang where I was once posted) and Tepakhola. Tea was served at 4 p.m. followed by a sumptuous dinner beore reaching Goalundo Ghat around 9 p.m. Meals were also served in the Second Class dinning saloon while passengers in the Inter and deck classes bought food from vendors.

At Goalundo ghat passengers disembarked from the steamer and walked across to the railway siding – porters carrying their luggage – and boarded the train. First and Second class passengers had their berths reserved on the train which left at 10 p.m. and reached Sealdah Station in Calcutta very early the following morning.

On the return journey, the train left Sealdah station at 9 p.m., arriving in Goalundo at 6 a.m. and the steamer – the Narayanganj mail – leaving by 7 a.m. Breakfast and lunch were served before arriving in Narayanganj at 1.30 p.m. There were very few taxis in those days. Those who did not have their private cars meeting them, traveled to Dhaka by train.

Ayesha was expecting when I was posted to Narayanganj and we lived on the “Tegra” flat. As the time of her confinement approached, she moved to her parents home in Dilkusha Gardens. It was the 16th November 1950 that, by the grace and mercy of the Lord Almighty, our own little darling, Nazli, graced this world with her presence.

After a long wait I received forms from Naval Headquarters, Karachi, to apply for a commission in the Royal Pakistan Naval Volunteer Service (R.P.N.V.R.) which would enable me to continue working for a commercial organization and spend a month every year with the Navy.

I took permission from the company to apply and was called to report to the Inter Services Selection Board (I. S. S. B) in Kurmitola. For four days, with a group of ten other candidates for the three services, I went through various physical and mental tests, and on passing, was sent for medical examination, where the Dentist failed me temporarily to report again after three months.

The Army dentist suggested to me that the minor problem could be rectified and he was prepared to do it, taking me as a private patient. With my anxiety to join the Navy I succomed to his suggestion and, at a cost, got my problem attended to.

Meanwhile, with four months remaining for the end of my first four-year contract with the company, I was posted, once again, as Assistant Joint Agent, to take charge of the Badamtalli Ghat on the river Buriganga, quite close to Ahsan Manzil Palace.

I handed over charge of Badamtalli Ghat to Mahboob Ali Choudhry (Bhondu Bhai) and left for Karachi via Calcutta on 28th August 1951 with Ayesha and Nazli, to spend four months holiday that was due to me.

2 responses to “Chapter 26. Working with the Joint Steamer Companies

  1. Wonderful article. I had the honor and. Pleasure of knowing the author personally,he was a much senior Dufferin boy than me. In 1971 he approved my request to the National Shipping Corporation of Pakistan, to carry my family on the m.v. Sunderbans that I commanded. I had also served as Marine Superintendent to Pakistan River Steamers, so am well conversant with what he has related.
    Capt. Fazal Karim (Rtd).

  2. Do you know of my father in law Capt Barney St John Keane who served in PRS from 1960’s onwards for many years until its demise.?I am trying to trace Steamer ship Salema 1914 history and ot photograph

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