Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Dying with the Indus Queen

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‘I am now about to die.’ (Main hun murn vala aan.) Qadir Buksh who, more than two decades ago, would pronounce his name Bushk, said in a wheezing squeaky voice. It was not a sad plaint; it was a statement of an imminent event. It was as if one would squint skyward on a dull day and say, ‘It’s about to rain.’

Qadir’s utterance destroyed me inside. I had come to talk to him of days gone by; of the glory days of the Indus Queen when he captained that beautiful river boat. I had wanted to tell him of the lie I had then told knowing full well he would never read the piece I would write. I had imagined we would together remember those far off days and laugh. And perhaps even shed a tear or two at the fate of the Queen. In my mind’s eye I saw the man still as he was then in his forties with the same thick mop of tousled black hair and a heavy walrus moustache in his coloured laacha and white kurta. On his feet he had finely worked khussas that were all the worse for wear.

This time round, in his mid-sixties, Qadir wore a green laacha and white kurta all right, but his hair was cropped short and he was a shrunken man, half the size I had seen back in 1994. He was barefoot and could not walk without support. Though they could still see, his watery eyes were as if sightless. Worst of all, his mind was gone. He said he remembered nothing. Two decades was a long time when he did not know anything from the past hour.

I went into shock. For several minutes I just stared at Qadir Buksh unable to say anything.

In those happy days, I had come from the Chachran side on the east bank to take the back and forth ride on the Indus Queen cleaving across the September eddies of the once mighty Maha Sapta Sindhu. Qadir Buksh, about my age, had immediately warmed to me. He took me by the hand and led me up the steel ladder to the superstructure above the deck. There, behind the wheel, was a charpai laid out for the captain to repose on and oversee the helmsman’s activity. There was also a rickety chair and a bench. I was told to make myself comfortable on the furniture.

Long decades before that balmy September in 1994 when I first rode her, the Indus Queen, as the property of Nawab Sadiq Mohammad Khan Abbasi V was known as the Sutlej Queen. As a pleasure boat for His Highness, it plied the Sutlej and was host to many a soiree hosted by the Nawab. Following Partition and the signing of the Indus Waters Treaty that all but killed the Sutlej, the boat sailed less and less.

After the abolition of the State of Bahawalpur, His Highness gifted the boat to the Government of Pakistan. In view of the danger of the Queen becoming beached in a Sutlej that seldom had water, she was shifted to the Ghazi Ghat crossing between Dera Ghazi Khan and Muzaffargarh and by virtue of her place on the Sindhu was renamed Indus Queen.

Qadir Buksh
The current at Ghazi Ghat was too strong for the Queen, however. At some time in the early 1960s she was moved south to ferry man, beast and motor vehicle between Chachran and Mithankot. And if it was anything, it was a right circus.

The console in front of the helm had a control panel with four switches, an even number of coloured lamps and a broken ampere meter. The switches lighted up a corresponding coloured lamp in the engine room for the crew to know whether to go forward or astern and slow or fast. Above the console hung a brass bell. Other than the bell, all was broken however.

When we got underway, the only way the captain could order way to go was by ringing the bell to attract the head poking out of the manhole in the afterdeck just above the engine room. To him the captain would shout astern or forward. Now, since the engine was noisy, this head had a rod with which he flogged the corrugated tin roof to catch the attention of the two manning the pounding Caterpillar diesel engines. He would relay the captain’s order to them.

But this time on a warm and humid September morn all was quiet aboard the Indus Queen. There was no pageantry of two hundred people wishing to board the ship for the crossing. There were no motor vehicles vying for place on the deck amidships. The Caterpillars were quiet; their big pistons had not been cranked for more than a decade. That huge crankshaft would surely have rusted fast in its housing. The engines were caked with dried, cracked mud from floodings past. On the foredeck, a solitary man lounged on a charpai. He said as an employee of the Department of Highways (who own the Queen) he was guarding the ship.

In the prow the capstan that took the steel ropes of the two anchors was still in place. But the winch to haul the anchors was askew out of its housing; the steel ropes and anchors gone. I later found one anchor on the afterdeck. As I walked aft, I could almost feel the thrum of the diesels under my feet; I could smell the rich smoke and even see the jostling crowd. But that had occurred in another age, in a time when Qadir Buksh was captain and the Queen braved the eddies of the Sindhu.

I went down the steel ladder into the engine room. In the floods of 2010, the water had flowed over the ship and the engines were covered with mud. The hull was similarly under a few centimetres of silt. But where it wasn’t I could see the brown water of the Sindhu: neglect had rotted the ship to a state where it will never float again. The Indus Queen is dead; a derelict hulk caught fast in the silt at Mithankot.

Having asked the chowkidar where to find Qadir Buksh, my friends drove me to Basti Gulkhani – Township of Flower Eaters. It was such a lovely name for such a sad reunion. But of the sadness I was to learn only upon seeing the captain of yore in the decrepit state I found him in.

I had wanted to make him laugh recounting that time when his helmsman overrode his captain’s orders and took the ship back to pick up an important freeloader. Since this had occurred after a heated argument between the two, Qadir Buksh came up to me and said if I wrote of it, he would lose face. Totally brazen faced I lied I could not even think of doing such a thing even as I was giving words to the incident in my notebook. I wanted to tell Qadir Buksh that event had made my story and I wanted him to laugh with me. But the poor man was past caring for such a thing.

‘I am now about to die,’ he had said without being asked what ailed him. It was as if he wanted to say, ‘They killed my ship even before I retired from the service. Does it matter now that I die too?’

But perhaps he did not even remember the Indus Queen. I wanted to ask if he did. Despite struggling to form the question for several minutes, I could simply not bring myself to the actual utterance. I came away without knowing if he did or not.

After September 1994, I had returned in January 2001 to find the Queen in dry dock and had hoped when I came again, she would be afloat. But fourteen years on, the Department of Highways has given up on the ship. They have let her die.

I don’t know when I will return to the Mithankot ferry. Perhaps never again. They tell me the Benazir Bridge across the Sindhu will be completed in February 2016. That will mean the Queen will never again be needed for a crossing.

Another few years and the ship will begin to disintegrate in the mud. As Qadir Buksh is doing right now in his home. Another few years and I will find neither there. Qadir Buksh who captained her for so many years is dying with the Queen.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 26 September 2015 at 11:37, Blogger Zaheer Chaudhry said...

Thank you Sir, i just shared it on eP with some extra:
#‎old‬ ‪#‎Indus‬ ‪#‎junk‬ ‪#‎restaurant‬ ‪#‎tourism‬ ‪#‎Idea‬!

At 26 September 2015 at 22:43, Blogger Muhammad Imran Saeed said...

I read it to celebrate the spirit of Indus, The Mighty Sindhu. Unfortunately like the Queen afloat its waters, she is also dying. What a sorry state of affairs that is... You shared it with us through your beautiful words, words with a sorrowful beauty... thank you for sharing your emotions.

At 27 September 2015 at 13:25, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Imran Saeed, we are losing too much of our heritage too fast. No one seems to care. We have lost our moorings for without this heritage to bind us to the land, we are adrift in stormy waters headed for a sad end. Why can we not be proud of what we once had.

At 27 September 2015 at 13:26, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you very much, Zaheer. This November: WE ARE MEETING IN YOUR VILLAGE TO CHECK OUT THOSE BURIALS.

At 30 September 2015 at 09:34, Anonymous Meher said...

A very sad ending of both the ship and the Captain.....beautifully narrated.

At 5 October 2015 at 09:49, Blogger Unknown said...

Empires of Indus by Alicia Albinia talks about the rivulet that the mighty Indus has become.


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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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