Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Ferry Tale

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The lettering on the prow declares her to be the Indus Queen, and she certainly has known better days. But now, well into her fifties, she seems not to have very long to live. One day, not far in the future, the bridge spanning the great width of the Indus flood plain between Mithankot and Khanpur in southern Punjab will be built. Then she will either be beached for the last time to rot away, smothered by cat tails and reeds as has been the fate of at least two other steamers on the Indus, or they’ll come with their blow torches, crow bars and sledge hammers to break her up and cart her off to some foundry or other.

Then commuters will not be crowding the sandy, sun-baked banks of the Indus attracted by the pounding of her engines as she comes around the island where the grass grows tall. Then the clanging of her brass bell will resound no more. Then, barely a thousand metres south of where she now berths, commuters will be zooming across the Indus over the new bridge in less than ten minutes as opposed to her unhurried one hour. After almost six decades the Indus Queen will finally have become redundant.

She has, however, not always been the Indus Queen. Freshly commissioned in the late 1930s by Sir Sadiq Mohammed Khan Abbassi V, Amir of Bahawalpur, she was meant to ply the Sutlej River as a royal pleasure boat and was called, naturally, the Sutlej Queen. Powered by slow speed Gleniffer marine diesel engines she was equipped with at least two royal and a number of first class suites, and what seems from description to be a ball room and a bar. All around the roof ran a balcony with wrought iron grotesquerie where guests could promenade as she made her way through the swirling Sutlej. Surely, in her heyday, she saw many a snooty party where the sahibs and memsahibs of the Raj rubbed shoulders with the royalty of Bahawalpur.

After Partition and the signing of the Indus Basin Treaty the Sutlej began to die. This was the time that the local bureaucracy used the Queen as a venue to fete incoming and outgoing officers. When the provinces were abolished and Pakistan became ‘One Unit’ she was donated by the Abbassi family to the Government of Pakistan. Subsequently, about 1958, fearing that she would be beached permanently in the dying river she was transferred to Ghazi Ghat, the ford on the Indus between Dera Ghazi Khan and Muzaffargarh, and renamed the Indus Queen. But the current at Ghazi Ghat proved too fast for her and in 1959 she was shifted downstream to Mithankot.

There she has remained ferrying commuters between the towns of Mithankot on the west bank and Chachran on the east through the long summers when the river rises. Around the end of November, when the Indus dwindles into a single channel that is spanned by a boat bridge, she goes into dry dock to undergo the annual overhaul.

Qadir Baksh, the captain, who pronounced his name ‘Bushk’ was an employee of the Department of Highways to whom the boat now belongs and together with the pilot, helmsman and three technicians in the engine room made up the crew. He had a tousled mop of hair, a walrus moustache, was unshaven and wore a long kurta over a green and red lungi. On his feet he had fancy albeit disintegrating khusas. It was silly of me to have expected a captain dressed in white cottons with a cap planted at a rakish angle on a head that was full of stories that captains traditionally tell.

The foredeck with a capstan and an anchor was a jumble of steel wire rope together with a number of iron stakes. Aft of this was the main deck for vehicles coming aboard for the crossing. Amidships was the wide open cargo hold followed by the women’s deck, and just forward and below the afterdeck was the engine room with its replacement Caterpillar marine diesel engines. Forward and aft steel ladders ran up to the corrugated iron sheeting roof. Above the foredeck was the bridge with its large wheel, brass bell, a control panel with four switches, four coloured lamps and a broken ampere meter, a rickety chair, a bench and a charpai. At the other end was a space with a railing running all around and a sign saying ‘Mosque’ – perhaps a remnant of the dark night of ‘Islamic dictatorship’ when mosques were necessary adjuncts to everything owned by the government.

Beside a car, a pick up truck, several motorcycles and bicycles we took on about two hundred people, all in their holiday best. Most were travelling to visit relatives, some had trains to catch which were more likely to be missed than caught since we were two hours behind schedule. But then again when have trains ever run on time that one should fret about missing a connection. Everybody took the delay with great equanimity; there was no anxiety or anger. Time had a different meaning in the outback of the Punjab.

We set sail after Qadir ‘Bushk’ had very nearly gone crazy running about and shouting at his crew for being behind schedule. With a puff of black smoke the engines came to life and the Indus Queen shuddered with the throbbing as we eased away from the banks. The intricate procedure of turning the Queen around in the narrow channel began with much ringing of bells, yelling and one man, who was poking his head out of the opening in the aft section, flogging the tin roof with a rod as we went forward and backward until we were pointing into the current.

I asked about the four switches and the coloured lamps and Qadir ‘Bushk’ explained: ‘This switch and light are for going forward, this one for astern; this one to stop and this is for one or two engines.’ It turned out that if he threw anyone of these switches a corresponding lamp lit up in the engine room telling the crew what was required of them. But now, as I watched, the pilot rang the bell to attract the attention of the head poking out of the opening in the after section to whom the captain shouted his orders. This man flogged the tin roof to caution the man on the deck below and relayed the captain’s orders to him. This man, in turn, shouted to the man in the engine room – who was certain to be stone-deaf from spending so much time in such close proximity of two pounding engines. This was a relay system at its very best, but it all seemed very complicated so I asked why they did not simply use the lights.

‘You see the battery to power these lamps died several years ago and was never replaced, so we use the bell instead,’ said Qadir ‘Bushk’ fiddling in embarrassment with the switches.

We had barely completed the complicated manoeuvre of turning around when a jeep arrived in a cloud of dust, a man jumped out and ran alongside shouting that ‘sahibzada sahib’ had arrived to be taken across. A similar shout went up on the bridge. The pilot said we must turn around to take him on. The captain said like hell; we were already two hours behind and we weren’t going back. The pilot said he was the pilot and the boat was doing what he wanted. Qadir ‘Bushk’ vainly tried to assert his authority but the pilot rang his bell and shouted at the head in the opening to go full speed astern.

The man flogged the iron roof and shouted at the men below but even before the order could be executed Qadir ‘Bushk’ angrily jangled the bell and shouted to carry on forward. The man thrashed his roof and shouted again. The pilot grabbed the bell and yelled to go astern for sahibzada sahib. And so it went on: the captain and the pilot screaming at each other and jangling the bell, the man in the hatch flogging away at the tin roof while the engines idled and we drifted towards the shore. A man clambered over the gunwale, threw the rope out to the party on the bank and told the bickering men to shut up and get the sahibzada and his jeep aboard. The captain withdrew and the pilot smugly ordered the planks to be put out to take on the jeep.

Another hour passed before we were finally underway with the sahibzada on board. The man claimed to be a descendent of Khawaja Ghulam Farid buried at Mithankot and possessed the arrogance that his illustrious ancestor would most certainly have disapproved of. He sat there with all of his twenty-five or so years of affluence showing in his bloated cheeks, gross double chin and pot belly – an affluence accumulated by generations of ancestors who grew like parasites on the superstitions of illiterate villagers. Several men (never women) from amongst the passengers on the lower deck came up to do obeisance. Some touched his knees, a few his feet while other simply stood by reverently. He seemed not to notice anyone of them as he sat cross-legged on the chair and with exaggerated insouciance spoke to the two men who had come aboard with him. Occasionally he glanced in my direction as a cue for me to go forward and pay my respects. I took great pleasure in disappointing him.

As we went around the island Qadir ‘Bushk’ came up to me, ‘This business about having to go back.’

‘What of it?’ I asked.

‘You won’t write about it, will you?’

‘Not if you don’t want me to,’ I lied.

‘You know, if you do, I’ll lose face,’ he said a trifle abashed.

Qadir ‘Bushk’ was commanding another ferry several miles downstream when the Queen’s captain retired three years ago and he was sent here on promotion. Surprisingly, however, he felt no attachment for the ship and considered it simply a job that had to be done. It seems such attachment with inanimate objects that one deals with is a purely Western affliction. He was not sure how long she would continue to ply the Indus, ‘Perhaps until they build the bridge everyone is talking about.’ he said. When that happens the Department of Highways will adjust him elsewhere; the boat will be scrapped and life will go on. No sleep will be lost over the death of the Queen.

About fifteen years ago, one night the superstructure of the Indus Queen was completely gutted by fire, ‘Bushk’ told me. Subsequently for several years, while the long drawn out inquiry was in progress, she lay in dock awaiting repairs and when they did refurbish her they made no effort to duplicate her earlier grandeur. What Qadir ‘Bushk’ had called a virtual ‘bazaar’ of rooms was replaced by the tin roof and the simple bridge. Now if such an accident were to take place she would, in all probability, be left to rot. For now it can be substituted by the several privately operated motor launches that scoot back and forth across the Indus at a price four times as much as the sedate Queen charges.

On the Chachran side riding the pickup truck to Khanpur I asked the driver about the proposed bridge across the Indus. That was what they needed, he said. After it is commissioned going across will not mean having to wait for the ferry which goes just once a day at a specific time; the bridge will be an all weather twenty-four hours a day facility. But everybody dresses up to ride the Indus Queen, I said, and it looks like a carnival. When the bridge is built this part of our riparian culture will die.

On his part the driver was convinced the bridge would make life so much the easier. And if that facility killed a part of the river culture – something that he could not even understand, it did not matter. All that mattered was that the bridge would mean more fare for him and shorter travelling time for commuters. In the whole scheme of things the Indus Queen was there simply to be used until an alternative was found: there was no attachment or a sense of belonging for a boat that had plied this stretch of the Indus for over thirty years. This was all rather sad for it was not fitting tribute for a Queen of the Indus.

As we drove away she was already taking on cargo and passengers for the return to the Mithankot side where she would dock for the night. Suddenly a sound sprang up from the dark recesses of my mind, the long forgotten words of Roger Whittaker’s moving song The River Lady, about the aging river boat that is doing her last voyage before she is taken to be broken up: ‘Round by the bend the engines pounding, back on the banks the old horn sounding, a little good bye...’

But when the Indus Queen’s engines pound out their last tattoo, there will sadly be no Whittaker to sing her requiem. She will go away unsung, uncelebrated. Very likely she will be abandoned where she runs aground for the last time; quite like her two predecessors; one whose hulk rots under the Ghazi Ghat Bridge between Muzaffargarh and Dera Ghazi Khan and the other outside the town of Dera Ismail Khan.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:00,


At 23 July 2013 at 14:23, Anonymous Jehan Ara said...

We are not a conservative nation. Indus Queen should land up in some museum if not installed near the bridge for everyone to remember old times. Is it still in service?

And if it was not for writers like you, no one even hear a mention of this.

At 23 July 2013 at 14:57, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

In 2001, I saw it dry-docked at Mithankot. It had not operated for some years then. Like the G Steamer rotting in the mud nearby, the Queen too will already have been scrapped. There is a beautiful song 'River Lady' sung by Roger Whittaker. It's about a similar river boat in Canada. The song rang in my mind when I saw the Queen in 2001.
Well, these things are so insignificant. Someone has to be crazy to be bothered about them. I suppose I am.

At 24 July 2013 at 15:21, Anonymous Anonymous said...

but it is crazy people who are more fun, are they not?

At 24 July 2013 at 17:24, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

My craziness had brought me a lot of joy. I hope I have managed to spread some little of it around.

At 24 July 2013 at 18:21, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You do. You do spread a lot of joy. When so much 'ugly' is happening all around, reading your narratives is sheer pleasure. Thanks for being crazy. Wish there were some more 'crazy' people like you.

At 25 July 2013 at 10:25, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...


At 6 May 2014 at 10:22, Blogger Servant of Aulia Allah said...

Excellent… :) Tarrar Sahib's novel "Qurbat-e-Marg main Mohabbat" uses this Indus Queen as one of the main characters.

At 5 June 2016 at 03:18, Blogger Naveed Akbar said...

i saw this ship, in my home town Ghazi ghat.....

At 5 June 2016 at 03:23, Blogger Naveed Akbar said...

Most of its part has been stolen, she is no more....just look like grave yard...


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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