My soul is full of longing
for the secret of the sea,
and the heart of the great ocean
sends a thrilling pulse through me
― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The SS Strathmore was docked at Ballard Pier, Bombay. A crowd had gathered to gawk at the P&O liner - a sea- veteran since 1935. The single-funnel steamship sailed the UK - Australian route, making port calls at Bombay, Colombo and Melbourne to Sydney. Ship enthusiasts in the crowd would know that in the war years it had served as a troop ship till 1948, and thereafter had been re-commissioned as a voyage ship.
|Postcard of the Strathmore issued to passengers|
Boarding this majestic liner, in December 1960, was a rookie engineer from Bengal Engineering College, Calcutta, on his first trip across the seas, to distant Sweden. His eyes danced with excitement and anticipation as he waved across the wooden railings to his parents.
His mother’s advice had been practical yet emotional –
1. Do not be picky about your food, eat everything. Eventually you will like it.
2. Do not marry a foreigner.
While Advice 2 seemed unlikely on the boat pier right then, he certainly meant to follow Advice 1 diligently.
As for his father – a six-foot plus handsome engineer himself – he was the man responsible for the journey. Having arranged the Swedish employment, he had ensured that the solitary bespoke suit for his son was stitched by the legendary Ghulam Ali at New Market in Calcutta and the passport photographs were clicked by none other than Bourne & Shepherd on Park Street.
The Shome family members maintained their legendary stoicism across the ship’s gangplank, emotions in check, as the Strathmore slowly backed away from the pier and made its way into the Arabian Sea.
Subid checked his ticket details. It was to be a 14 day journey from Bombay to Genoa at the Italian shore. His 1000 rupees’ ticket gave him an upper berth in a four-berth cabin, full access to the three restaurants on board and all the entertainment that the liner had on its calendar for the two weeks. He was excited, no trace of homesickness. It was going to be the biggest adventure yet for this Bengali boy!
Once in his cabin he quickly made friends with his three cabin-mates, all north Indians – friendly and robust. They agreed that these two weeks were to be spent in camaraderie and made memorable in whatever way possible. The cabin itself was below the waterline and being an outside cabin, from the portholes was visible the turbulent waters of the ship’s wake. It was hardly exciting viewing. So the new friends made their way up to the restaurant deck to explore more.
The restaurants were fancy and the fare served left Subid wide-eyed and delighted. Except at his father’s dak bungalow at the cement factory, where the cook served delicious European dishes, he had grown up on Bengali cuisine and the eclectic menu of Calcutta restaurants. Every dish on the Strathmore tasted exotic and a must-try.
As the days passed on board, the sea became gorgeously blue. Often Subid would stand on the deck and watch dolphins somersaulting in large groups. When the Arabian Sea passed through the Gulf of Aden and into the Red Sea, it was announced on the PA system that there would be heavy rolling for at least 24 hours. Passengers were advised to stay away from the decks. But that was hardly a deterrent for the inquisitive Bengali boy on board. At dusk he stood and watched the massive waves attacking the vessel from all sides. The ship pitched and rolled as he held onto the railings, fascinated by this dangerous roller coaster. Later in the evening, as he and his friends sat down for dinner, the restaurant looked strangely empty.
“Where is everybody?”
“Most passengers are seasick sir, we are surprised to see you at dinner as well,” replied the Maitre’d.
“Really? That’s weird,” said Subid, reaching out for the soup of the day and the grilled fish.
For the next two days, while the rest of the passengers retched and lay in their cabins, Subid and his friends ruled the roost at the restaurants. They were untouched by seasickness of any sort and all the rolling and pitching just made the days even more exciting!
3000 nautical miles later, the ship docked at Port Said, Egypt. Taking advantage of the break for a few hours, the four bedouins disembarked and took a bus to Cairo. Taking in the bustle of the Egyptian city and a camel ride later, they saw the pyramids at Giza and stared transfixed at the Sphinx. Was this really happening? Or was it all a dream?
Later, after the Suez Canal, the ship entered the Mediterranean Sea – blue as a legend. It was a sea of dreams – catching fire with the afternoon sun and then again quiet and contemplative, like the curls of pale blue smoke of a woman’s cigarette.
At Malta as the crew changed, Subid sat and pondered the rest of his journey to Sweden. His voyage was not to end at Genoa; he still had to make his way to Sweden over land across Western Europe. It seemed daunting for him – who had never stepped out of his country before – yet this only made the days ahead more exciting.
The last few days on the SS Strathmore were spent watching the sea turn more azure as the winter sky sparkled. At night the surf rolled in a silvery shimmer. Indoors there was ballroom dancing, musical performances and sports competitions. The four cabin mates exchanged contact details as the day to leave the vessel fast approached. Finally, two weeks after they had left the shores of Bombay, the liner docked at Genoa.
Subid walked down the ramp and waved goodbye to his friends, who were to continue onboard to the United Kingdom. Here on Italian land, his heart filled with joy to have completed this beautiful voyage at the cusp of his adulthood. As the yellow smokestack of the Strathmore set off puffs of smoke, Subid picked up his two suitcases and headed for the railway station.