Riddled with mismanagement, the 100-year-old paddle steamers now sit idle most of the time. But the steamships were once incomparable on the Dhaka-Khulna or Narayanganj-Kolkata routes for their speed.
Passengers used to be surprised to reach Khulna from Dhaka in 20-22 hours. They would fondly call the steamboats "Rocket Service", while many would call the vessels "Orange Rockets" due to the orange-coloured hull.
I was hanging out with the crew members on such a vessel, called "PS Mahsud". The ship returned from the dock after an overhauling three-four months ago, and made its latest trip in Ramadan. With the recent maintenance, the hull, lights, fans, switchboards, stairs, buoys, sand buckets, floors, railings and even the chimneys are still glazing.
It takes 17 hours for Mahsud to go to Bagerhat's Morrelganj from the capital. On a round trip, the boat consumes 3,500-4,000 litres of oil. The two-story ship is about 250 feet long, and 60 feet wide, while the draft is around 6 feet. Each floor is 9 feet high.
Mahsud can carry more than 100 tonnes of cargo and 850 passengers. The vessel is named after the marine architect who designed it.
Dozens of paddle steamers, including Sandra, Lali, Kiwi, Emu, Pelican, Gazi, Ostrich and Mahsud, were built at the Garden Rich Dockyard in Kolkata, owned by the Tagore family. The private dockyard was established in 1884 on the east bank of the Hooghly River. In 1916, the dockyard was renamed as the Garden Rich Workshop. In 1960, the Indian government took over the workshop. Paddle steamers that are familiar to us were built in 1918 and afterwards.
For example, PS Mahsud was built in 1928. Steam boats that fall in the category bear "PS" before their names, which means paddle steamer. Similarly, water launches have the "MV", or motor vessel, abbreviation before their names.
Mahsud has 12 first class cabins, while each can accommodate two individuals. The cabins are air-conditioned. Inside furniture includes wooden beds and cane-made chairs. The floor of the saloon or dining room is covered with fine carpets. There are chairs, tables and sofas in the dining area for the guests. Arrangements for first-class passengers in the ship span altogether around 100 feet.
The kitchen of a paddle steamer is called the pantry. There are three chefs in the pantry who serve Bangla and English cuisines, plus different snacks.
The menu for the English dinner includes soup, mutton and chicken, fish fry, boiled vegetables, pudding and tea. Bhuna khichuri, fried hilsa, eggs, vegetables and chicken are available in the Bangla menu.
Passengers also can enjoy snacks, such as fish cutlets, chicken cutlets, fish fry (hilsa or coral), chicken fries and smoked hilsa. Meals are usually prepared after receiving the orders.
There is also a set menu at Tk220 per person. If someone prefers having homemade food during the trip, he can get it at Tk50 per person.
According to the crews, Mahsud previously had lifeboats for emergency situations. In recent years, paddle steamers have been equipped with global positioning system (GPS) trackers, modern compasses and binoculars.
The sailors wished the boats had echo sounders and radars.
Mahsud has 10 second-class cabins, as there are 32 toilets and bathrooms on the first and second floors for onboard passengers and crews. There are two separate chefs who cook for the crew members. The third-class on the paddle steamer means the deck.
After leaving Dhaka, the ships stop at Chandpur, Barishal, Jhalokati, Kaukhali, Hularhat, Charkhali, Mathbaria's Bara Machua and Morrelganj terminal. Apart from Dhaka's Buriganga, the route includes Dhaleshwari, Meghna, Padma, Dakatia, Kirtankhola, Banshkhali, Sandhya, Kaliganga, Katcha, Baleshwar and Panguchi river.
Morrelganj is 161 kilometres from Dhaka; the first-class steamer fare is Tk1,615 per person. The first-class trip from Dhaka to Chandpur costs Tk400 and Tk1,000 on the Dhaka-Barishal route. Mahsud has only one engine, with a capacity of 1,200 horsepower. Its average cruising speed is 10 nautical miles, or about 19 kilometres, per hour.
The ships have round fans trapped in iron cages. There are about 150 lamps in Mahsud, including tube lights and incandescent bulbs.
The crew said submerged riverbeds after crossing Chandpur bother the ships the most by slowing the journey. Sailors then have to navigate the shoals carefully.
The entrance to the steamers is through the hull, while it is over the deck for a launch. Launches and steamers also differ in sizes. Launches are usually not more than 125 feet while the paddle steamers can be as long as 300 feet.
According to the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation (BIWTC), the country can take pride in the steamships as the service is only available in Bangladesh now and nowhere else in the world.
But what I regret is that the steamers do not run regularly. Previously those would make the trip every day. Then it dropped to six days a week and gradually to once in a while. The boats were in regular operations even in 2019.
BIWTC Public Relations Officer Mohammad Nazrul Islam Misha, however, claimed the paddle steamers now operate once a week.
The BIWTC now has three paddle steamers – Mahsud, Lepcha and Turn. The fourth one called "Ostrich" has been chartered, as the ship could be turned into a tourist carrier or a floating restaurant.
Misha gave some interesting information about the steamships.
One is that during British rule, the prison sentences imposed on anti-British activists would be commuted if they agreed to work on the steamers
He further said that there was a coal depot for steamers at Nitaiganj in Narayanganj. In the past, the ships were run by steam engines by burning coal. The gigantic paddles on either side of the boat used to be made of wood. Iron paddles later replaced the wooden ones.
Sailors said if the paddles were made of stainless steel instead of cast iron, cruising speed would have increased since passengers complain that steamer journey is tedious.
But according to the crew members, steamboat journeys are inexpensive, comfortable and certainly royal.
"People have money now but no leisure. Everyone is running to save time," one of the sailors said during the chat.
"Is there any scope for putting multiple engines in the steamer," I asked. The sailor replied in negative.
Politician Badruddin Umar's memoirs suddenly crossed my mind. He boarded a steamer for the first time in December 1945 at the age of just 14.
"The journey was very exciting at that age. Because we the West Bengal people did not have to take a boat or a steamer ride quite often. My first journey by steamer was very good," Umar wrote.
One of the sailors said, "During Ershad's regime, world leaders travelled on paddle steamers on several occasions. The 1985 Saarc [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] Summit was held in Dhaka. Many of the South Asian leaders who attended the summit later took a steamer ride. Food was brought for them from the InterContinental Dhaka, while they drank water from bottles imported from England.
"Once more than 40 MPs from different countries took the ride in Bangladesh. A cultural programme was also organised on the deck of Mahsud in their honour.
"Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also came. A thick red carpet was laid all the way to him even in his bathroom. During the steamer trip by Chinese Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang, the entire vessel was decorated with colourful lamps."
BIWTC official Misha said Yugoslav President Marshal Tito had also travelled on a paddle steamer with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1974. Other prominent figures such as Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose also rode the paddle steamer.
Researcher Hossain Mohammad Zaki wrote, "Hariprobha Takeda, also known as Hariprobha Basu Mallik who married a Japanese national, travelled from Narayanganj to Kolkata via Goalanda in 1912 along with her husband. Then she travelled to Japan from Kolkata by ship."
Rail service from Kushtia to Goalanda was introduced on 1 January 1871. The plot of the famous novel "Padma Nadir Majhi" incorporates the life of Goalanda, the railways and steamers at that time.
Bengali poet Jibanananda Das hailed from Barishal, and was very familiar with journeys by steamboats. He married Khulna's Labonya Gupta in 1930. They were married in Dhaka, and subsequently went to Barishal by a steamboat from Dhaka's Sadarghat terminal.
Jibanananda's diary also mentions steamer journeys many times. The poet used to travel in a third-class deck.
Steamers used to have cabins reserved for the postal department. It was like a mobile post office. Post staff would be sorting the letters round the clock and dropping the letter sacks at terminals.
"Now people do not send letters anymore as mobile phones have revolutionised communication. Once the government used to transfer money and documents by ship. That is rare too nowadays," said a sailor.
He said an 8-member police force still guards the steamer during the trip. The team changes its members at each terminal.
The authorities said they are preparing documents to claim a place in the Guinness World Records over the remaining steamships. Is the museum now the last destination for the paddle steamers?
I think the boats should be allowed to run since they are still strong and the engines are up and kicking too. The ships have a glorious past and the crews love to take pride in it.
Let Mahsud, Turn and Lepcha cruise for at least a few years more.