On the morning of June 13, 1982, workers at the Gadani Beach shipbreaking yard near Karachi, Pakistan, were told to begin tearing down a ship weighing 4,851 gross tons with a length of 399 feet and a width of 55 feet. As the metal was rent apart, the workers probably had little idea about the historic significance of the white passenger and cargo ship, which had the words Dwarka and London painted on it. The SS Dwarka, which connected Bombay and Karachi to the countries of the Persian Gulf, had ferried hundreds of thousands of working-class passengers from the Indian subcontinent to the sparsely populated and oil-rich countries of the Gulf and back for three and a half decades.
The Dwarka’s journey began just before India attained independence. The British India Steam Navigation Company, which had been operating ship services between Bombay and Gulf ports since 1862, received the Dwarka in June 1947. The ship, which belonged to BI’s D-Class series comprising of the Dara, Daressa and Dumra apart from Dwarka, was deployed on the Bombay-Basra route. The D-class quartet was designed to carry up to 6,000 cubic metres of cargo, with the ships’ holds being partly insulated and air-cooled to allow fresh fruit to be delivered from the Indian subcontinent to the Gulf, Michael Quentin Morton wrote in a 2013 paper for the Liwa Journal.
The Dwarka, manned by a crew of 122, had a capacity of 1,104 passengers, of which 1,050 places were in the deck class. The captain and officers were mostly British and would be dressed in the warmer months in their trademark white shorts and shirts.
The ship set sail from Bombay and headed to Karachi and from there to Gwadar and Muscat, Bandar Abbas, Dubai, the Qatari port of Umm Said, Bahrain, Kuwait, Khorramshahr and Basra. The total journey took 14 days, but few passengers from the subcontinent travelled all the way to the final destination. Most would disembark at one of the Gulf ports to work in the oil, gas and construction industries.
Before air travel became common, Indian traders looking to set up shop in sheikhdoms would also sail on the Dwarka. Other passengers, in both directions, included Muslim pilgrims travelling to holy sites in Iraq, Arabs moving between Gulf ports, Indian armed forces officers and soldiers, wealthy and adventurous tourists and even Hippies from the West.
On the return journey to the subcontinent, workers travelled with radios, household appliances and large metal trunks full of new clothes and goods that were not easily available at that time in India or Pakistan. Upon landing in Karachi and Bombay, they would face the full wrath of Customs officials. Indian officialdom was particularly wary of gold being smuggled into the country.
It’s hard to imagine how underdeveloped the Gulf countries were in the 1950s and ’60s, when South Asian labourers were first invited to work there. Few of the ports of call had any modern infrastructure at that time. “It is said that in the early days of the Dubai run, a boy was sent up a date palm to signal when the BI steamer came into sight,” Morton wrote. “By the early ’60s, the only Gulf ports that had alongside berths were Kuwait, Khorramshahr and Basra. Apart from Karachi and Bombay, ships anchored at all other ports and passengers and cargo were embarked and disembarked from motorised dhows.”
Just a few months after the Dwarka set sail on its maiden voyage, India was partitioned by the departing British. In 1947-’48, the Dwarka took Muslims from Bombay to Karachi and Hindus in the other direction. Until the 1965 India-Pakistan War, visas were relatively easy to obtain from both sides and the Dwarka was popular with travellers who wanted to meet friends and family in the other country.
Even after it became more difficult to travel between India and Pakistan, the consulates in Bombay and Karachi regularly issued visas for those wanted to travel on the liner. Pakistani writer and translator Ajmal Kamal travelled on deck class in 1982 from Karachi to India’s western metropolis. He wrote in the Dawn about the simple pleasure of drinking beer on board the ship, a joy denied to Pakistani Muslims by Zia-ul-Haq. Kamal also recalled his interactions with French tourists who had the privilege of visiting any part of India, unlike Pakistanis who could usually only get visas valid for a few cities.
Most of the Indians and Pakistanis travelling on the Dwarka were migrant workers. On the westward journey, 500 places were reserved for passengers from Bombay and 500 for those from Karachi. Working class men from Kerala, Punjab and other parts of India shared deck space with those from Sindh, the Northwest Frontier and Balochistan. No reports suggested any major conflict between Indians and Pakistanis who were leaving the subcontinent in search of a better livelihood in the Gulf.
A few heritage ship websites mention a “rendezvous” in Muscat in 1965 at the time of the India-Pakistan war, when Indian passengers were exchanged for Pakistanis on board BI’s Santhia. The websites claim this exchange was supervised by the police of the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman and the British frigate HMS Nubian. However, records show that the Santhia was sold by BI to a Japanese firm in 1923 and scrapped 12 years later. Even if the websites got the name of the BI ship wrong, it’s hard to believe that such an incident, if it indeed happened, would have been completely forgotten and that there would be no trace of it in the public domain.
One well-documented case of violence on board took place in 1953, when two Somali deck passengers, angry over the cost of food on board, rioted. They ended up killing three crewmembers and injuring 11 others, before being restrained. It was likely that ticket prices were adjusted to cover food as well after that incident.
Right until the early 1980s, there were takers for the first-class cabins. A 1979 episode of the BBC’s World Around Us titled ‘An Arabian Voyage’ gives a glimpse into the luxurious side of the voyage. The presenter John Mackenzie, unsurprisingly, chose to book a cabin on a two-way journey. Describing his experience for an article for Sea Breezes magazine in 1978, Mackenzie said, “As a historian of India, I was delighted to become ‘the passenger sahib’ the moment I boarded.”
“In the galley for cabin passengers, all tastes, including Western are catered for,” Mackenzie narrated in the documentary, noting that the chief cook, his galley staff and all the stewards were Goans. He added, “The Goanese have a long tradition of service to passenger on British passenger ships and still serve on modern luxury liners…They have names like Ramirez, D’Silva, Olivera.”
On the return journey, the documentary shows Indian Army officers’ wives playing gin rummy in the ship’s library. “Their husbands have been training the Iraqi Army in Baghdad and Dwarka is the best means of transferring their homes back to India,” Mackenzie said. The presenter added that the ship maintained a “rigid Imperial, or perhaps Oriental structure”, mentioning that the soldier had to sleep in the decks while the officers had cabins. He went on to call the wives of the officers, “the inheritors of the Raj”.
The documentary shared some visuals from a dinner, where Goan waiters served wines and gourmet meals on fine crockery to the captain, senior officers, Western tourists and Indian Army officers and their wives, while the poorer passengers ate rice, curries and chapatis on steel thalis on the deck.
American writer Doug Wilhelm took the journey eastwards from Dubai in 1981, also travelling in style. He documented his journey in a book that was rejected 75 times and never published. Parts of the book are featured on his blog. Describing the dining experience, he wrote, “Three long tables are covered in white linen. At one sit some customs officers, guests of the ship. At the central table are three Arabs in white, a dignified Indian couple and two British officers, caps removed. Behind them on the panelled wall a portrait of the Queen presides.” Seated at an empty table, he was served three courses from covered silver trays. “Barely can one settle an empty water glass before one’s server is refilling it, from a silver pitcher; the silver buttons on his tunic are embossed with the Crown,” Wilhelm added.
Relic of another era
While the BBC documentary managed to generate a good amount of interest in the Dwarka, its days were clearly numbered by then. Writing for Sea Breezes in 1978, GA Hankin, the charismatic Ooty-born British captain of the ship understood that the service would be shut down in the near future.
“Dwarka seems like a lonely survivor of an intermediate period, and each time she passes through the busy shipping lanes of the Strait of Hormuz, it is almost as though she is being crowded out by the monsters all around her,” Hankin wrote. “Presumably here, as elsewhere, the unromantic aeroplane will take over as the principal carrier of people once Dwarka eventually bids farewell to such a fascinating scene.”
The Dwarka also featured in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film Gandhi. It was used for location shoots that portrayed much older BI ships. The most famous scene featuring the Dwarka is when Mahatma Gandhi disembarks from the ship in Bombay in 1915.
In the beginning of 1982, a decision was made to permanently stop the service, as it had become financially unviable. By this time, almost all migrant workers from India and Pakistan were flying to the Gulf, while larger container ships and giant tankers captured the cargo market.
The ship’s last voyage from the Gulf to Bombay ended in May 1982. The Dwarka was sold to Zulfikar Metals, a Pakistani firm, which arranged for the ship to be broken at Gadani. Thus ended an era of slow travel, and took this kind of experience out of the reach of ordinary travellers.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2021.
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