In early 1981 I took passage on the last ocean-going, regularly scheduled passenger ship in the world: the RMS Dwarka, running from the Persian Gulf to Karachi and Bombay. I had just left my newspaper job to travel in the Muslim world and write my first book, The Heart of the Bazaar: A Journey Into Islamic Asia. That book was rejected 75 times and never published — but years later it became the basis for my newest book, Street of Storytellers. Here is the fourth part of a chapter from the original Heart of the Bazaar.
The first evening as supper was finishing, I was sitting alone noticing the napkin rings were numbered when a steward entered the dining saloon and, bending to me, whispered that the captain would like, after coffee, to have me up. (He’d gone up already, from his place at center table.) So later I climbed, first the staircase and then a steep metal stair-ladder in open air to the boat deck up top. The captain’s quarters were fitted in closely behind the bridge. We hadn’t yet left Dubai, which sat off behind the darkened harbor area. I knocked on the captain’s door, hearing communication equipment inside.
It was a television. A Sony color portable sat on an oak nautical desk with framed photos and mementos. The screen showed a splashy variety show, in English, girls dancing.
“It’s from Dubai,” the captain said. “There was a program showing on Islam that I thought you might be interested in, but it finished a few minutes ago. Now we have this.” He gave it half a glance. “A drink?”
He knew I was coming, that I was writing something or other; I thought this as he stood to pour a scotch. I had spoken to, more or less interviewed, an official of P&O in London, a mustached, pinstripe-suited Englishman named Mr. Bickford, about the Dwarka. So the captain was let know. Still he did not ask what I was doing, or ever mention it straight on.
Yet he was direct of manner. Long-limbed, he looked angular as he handed me the drink and sat down on a couch piled with stacks of newspapers and magazines. He wore his clean white captain’s shirt, four gold stripes on the shoulder boards. He smoked a pipe and his long, ravelly, gray-scattered beard contrasted with the trim of his uniform, even with the jacket off. (Jackets were required at dinner, on gentlemen. I’d had to smooth out my U.S. Air Force surplus cotton tropical, bought at an Army-Navy store on the Lower East Side. I fingered it now, nervous, as we chatted.)
The captain chuckled at this morning’s uproar as the ship had loaded. Oh yes it was that way always, he said; sometimes it was more so. He told funny stories at table, I’d noticed — seemed to relish, and conversation came easiest when he retold, the quirky comedies of a life spent mostly in and out of Asian harbors.
Now he was spare with his information. But he said he had come out first in 1948 and spent 14 years mastering this and the Bombay-Africa run. He and his wife had lived then in Bombay, and loved it, then. They’d since brought home to Kent an adopted Indian daughter (Mr. Bickford had told me that; the captain did not mention her). After a decade on other assignments the captain had finally returned to the Dwarka, but he had left his family in Kent.
The two English masters on the Gulf route had alternated, but the other was ill and home indefinitely. This one was to go back at the end of this trip, for a long-postponed leave. He did not know, he said, what would happen then. No other ship’s master knew this run, or this type of ship.
Conversation flagged and we looked, as people will, at the TV. The captain, warming, began to discourse about television around the world — about the three different systems of color, American, British-European and French-Soviet, and he appraised each one’s tint with fine discrimination. As he ticked off which remote nation had which kind of color, and which few still had only black and white — and which tiny, impoverished states in the Indian Ocean, in Africa and Asia had television stations of their own, I was astonished. They do, he said, knowledgeably nodding. They almost all have it, now.
I liked the captain. He had a way of clipping up authority when he had to, or when it suited his story. He could flare and his eyes flash a quicksilver indignation that kept you, despite his geniality, a little unrelaxed. In manner he was straightforward, yet he modulated the air around him. The young officers, I’d noticed, called him the Old Man.
My scotch was finished, and I knew I’d have to go. I asked about the ship. Mr. Bickford had told me she would go up in two years for a drydock ship’s survey; it was “a bit iffey and buttey right now,” he’d said, whether the corporation would put into the Dwarka what the survey would determine she’d need. The Financial Times had written that the ship would “probably go” — that in a few years “all that will be left of the famous British India line will be a few fond memories of women in purdah and mullahs leading passengers in prayer at sunrise and sunset.”
The captain had his own memories. “I don’t know whether she’ll make it through,” was all that he said. “If she doesn’t, it’s the end of an era.”
And that was that. I had overstayed, I could tell, my invitation to watch a television program, and I got up to go. Outside I stood at the high rail and looked off at Dubai, and considered how in the cabin behind me sat the last of the coal-steamer captains, sailing the Eastern waters, tuning his TV.