Travelling from India by Boat

<Hugo Williams
When the time came I went on board S.S. Rajula, bound for Penang.

What looked like a white man in a Buddhist's saffron robe was strolling round the deck ahead of me.

"Are you from India?" I asked.

"No. I'm Brazilian, but I've lived in India five years. You are English?"

"Yes. Your English is excellent."

"Not really. Did you like India?"

"I'm beginning to. It's not a place you can really like being in. But now I want to go back."

"My visa expired ages ago and the authorities caught up with me. I'm on my way back to Rio for a while."

"But you are a priest?"

"I'm a disciple of Vedanta. A wandering man."

"And you"ve been wandering round India for five years?"

"Four years," he said, and a moonish, slightly embarrassed smile spread over his face as if he had admitted being top of his class at the end of term. He hardly looked twenty. There was a dainty plumpness about him which suggested the Great Indoors.

Nothing could have been further removed from this self-styled Oriental than the cohort of paratroopers we found eating the "Western-style" dinner with us that evening. They were from Birmingham, off on some exercise in Malaysia. They were big, tough chaps with knees like broken headlamps and enormous bull-nosed boots which trampled round the unfortunate decks as on the bones of the enemy.

The nice thing about them was how fascinated they were by my monk. After they got to know him they would seek him out and quiz him about his strange life with all the frustrated goodwill of missionaries. As Swami couldn't understand their woosh accents, I always had to be there to translate. Was he allowed to marry? No. Not to marry, or smoke, or drink, or have any possessions but his begging bowl made of a hollow gourd. Why? Because in order to be completely happy on earth, one had to renounce those things which compromised independent thought. Loyalty to one person, one place, prejudiced one against the rest of the world till one was fighting against loneliness. That was the cause of all the world's weariness. The paratroopers would retreat to muster their values. Once Swami told me how it had all begun.

"Two things my mother would tell me," he said. "First, that since I was born a man, I should try to act like one and not make them liars who christened me. Second, she would get me to stand at the open window in the early morning and repeat into the rising sun: I am strong, I am pure, I am strong, I am pure and all my life I have been looking for that strength and purity.

"When I was seventeen, my father died in hospital. He was in an oxygen tent at the end and once while I was there he became drunk with it, shrieking for more and more till the orderly in charge began to cry because he didn't know what to do. I saw that my father was simply getting too much and told the man to turn it down. Later he was calm, but very weak. He said he knew he was going to die, so where was the use of fighting? I told him there was no use and we even discussed how he should fold his hands.

I think that was the turning point of my life. There was to be a death --- so there must be a funeral. I would have to comfort my mother and try to curb my emotions. I began to realize that depression was just a wilful misunderstanding of things. I guessed there was something more to life than that.

So I went to Paris in search of it. I was to be a painter. I had great ambitions, but I hated the life there. Even the artists were cheap commercialists and they persecuted me. Perhaps I should be grateful to them, for they made me realize that my talent was receptive, not creative. It was about then I decided to go to India. I walked all the way from Paris and I've been walking ever since --- from the Himalayas to Kerala and back again. I've made the journey three times in four years."

"But how did you live?"

"I am a Sanyasin monk of Veda and we are permitted to beg for food. We may ask five houses a day and if we receive nothing we must go hungry."

There was one character on board who took lunatic exception to Swami. This was a poor mad Malay Indian who yelled insults at him whenever he passed him on deck. Swami giggled at him girlishly, but in fact he was rather a sad figure. We would see him sitting in the bar, making strange, silent gestures to absent companions --- probably the Japanese, whom he said he'd joined when they conquered Malaya --- turning down drinks he hadn't been offered by them, or helping himself to people's cigarettes. Then he would mutter something about his imaginary wife and child who had been sea-sick the entire glassy voyage and run off to change his clothes again. One minute he'd be parading in British Army tropical kit with a malacca cane. The next he'd appear in just a sarong, which he'd open and look into like a treasure sack, or occasionally lower as he walked away from one. Once he handed Swami a bible and whispered a text into his ear. Swami looked up the text and read Your life is in danger. But he wasn't in the least afraid, he said, not because the Indian was mad, but because, according to his philosophy, the phrase was a contradiction in terms.

I think the only passenger who wasn't somehow involved in all this moonshine was the only first-class one, a Madrasi called Mr. Lourdes. Mr. Lourdes was seventy-four, the same age as Nehru, but well preserved and immaculate in club tie, white suit, and co-respondent shoes. He was making his thirty-sixth crossing on the Rajula and could apparently remember travelling on her five years before she was launched in 1918. In those days, he said, he would often find a little Indian page boy posted at the door of the bar to turn away Asians if Europeans were drinking there. That was a long time ago, but when, on this trip, he had been invited for the first time to dine at the captain's table, he had had to refuse. He bore no grudge, but it was too late to change now.

I sat in his first-class saloon, listening to his unmarked elegant phrases. Tales of the Vienna Woods came bleary-eyed over the antediluvian speaker.

"The sad thing is they could still be here," he said. "But they never would behave naturally. Like all the other races who've come to this accursed sub-continent, the country spoilt them. The country's to blame in some ways. Everyone's miserable there. It's a losing battle. Of course, there were a few school-masters and individuals who resisted it, as your E. M. Forster says, but they were not Pukka Sahlbs and their own kind ostracized them. The English weren't unpopular. Look at me, I've copied their way of life ever since I can remember. But they would ride their high horse." He shook his white head at the memory and I remembered seeing the statue of a Governor in Madras, stuck about two storeys up on a great plinth, scanning the horizon like a conquering general from his steed. just then the first-class dinner gong sounded and the old Madrasi got up to go.

"But they are gone now," he said, "and there is no one left in the first-class for the captain to dine with."

§     §     §

Later, in the Tourist Restaurant, the paratroopers asked me if I wanted to see round the engine room with them. They had made friends with a Birmingham engineer called "Mush," and he was going to take them round after dinner. Primed with Emu wine, we descended to the lower deck and I became aware for the first time of the two thousand deck passengers, seething in the darkness like the pilgrims on board the Patna. According to Mr Lourdes, the Rajttla had once held a deck passenger license for 8,000, the largest in the world. But in those days anyone could travel who wanted to and people weren't told how much they could put up with. After independence the license had been revoked and now everyone had a piece of deck five feet square and a place in the twenty-four hour queue for the lavatory. So far only one of them had died this trip. No Europeans were allowed to travel Deck, but for £16 there were always some who managed it.

We picked our way among restless cotton-wrapped forms. Then Mush opened a steel door and we felt burnt-out air rushing up at us from a rhythmic crashing far below, a noise which in another world had been a tapping beside our bunks. We entered the engine room on a high catwalk, covered with black grease. Below us the engines like buildings tossed in their interminable sleep. Then down a thin steel ladder into their presence. Within touching distance a piston like an oak tree shot up at one angle and down at another. Everything I touched was quivering and felt like graphite. Grease on the floor. English under-engineers hanging about under ventilators. Bewildering cautions on pieces of machinery made in Birmingham. Mush was mouthing something, but all human sound was obliterated. We went into the boiler room and two of us had the immediate impression of imminent explosion.

It seemed impossible that such a thing could be held up by a ship. We walked along the 75 yd. propeller shafts and slowly the danger and noise receded. The shafts were turning soundlessly. In the rudder room at the back of the ship a charming piece of mechanism waited to construe the movements of the helmsman into hydraulic pressures which every now and then would spring to life to operate the twin rudder pistons. Then back the way we had come and a two-minute walk in the quiet starlight to the bridge. The quarter-master was standing in the dark, steering by keeping a red light on the mast fixed between two stars. We had to whisper, because of the captain. The doctor came on to the bridge for a breath of air. He had just delivered a baby on the lower deck. There had been a death, now there had been a birth, returning the ship's complement to normal.

--- From All the Time in the World
©1997, Akadine Press

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