November 27, 2022, 8:46 pm


Dr Shamim Ahmed

Published:
2022-11-01 18:54:04 BdST

Travelling by the legendary ‘Rocket’


The “Rocket” paddle steamers have been navigating our rivers since the early 20th century. An improbable colonial relic of the British era, for about 100 years, this was the fastest waterway transportation to travel from Dhaka to Calcutta (Kolkata), Barisal, and Khulna. 

At present, the steamer goes up to Bagerhat, stopping at Chandpur and Barisal and several other riverine ports. Rocket steamers are the last fleet of paddlewheel steamers in the whole world and is still in regular passenger service.

Nowadays, there are more luxurious and faster transports to travel to Barisal and Khulna but there is a certain elegance to having the ride on the Rocket steamer and enjoying the riverine beauty of Bangladesh. And to relish the mouthwatering Continental/Bangladeshi cuisines.

Origin

The steamers no longer live up to their name: They were originally called Rockets because 100-odd years ago they were the fastest vessels on the river. The paddle steamer is named because the steamers move forward with the help of two large paddles. 

However, because of the high speed at that time, the steamers came to be known as Rocket steamers. Today there are numerous launches plying the route and covering the distance in a much faster time.

The paddle steamer is a historic water vehicle. In the past, several British-built paddle steamers used to travel on the Dhaka-Calcutta waterways. Later, as the Dhaka-Kolkata waterways closed, the steamers used to be on the Dhaka-Barisal-Khulna route. 

At present, due to reduced navigability, these paddle steamers are running from Dhaka across the mighty rivers to Chandpur, Barisal, and finally to Morrelganj, Bagerhat. It no longer touches Mongla and Khulna.

Coal was used as the fuel in these 100 year-old steamers. In the early 80s, coal was replaced by diesel engines. The paddle steamers are so old, they are no longer used anywhere in the world. Although old, these steamers are safe and reliable. None have had any major accidents during their 100 years.

We used to travel frequently by the steamer to visit Barisal when we were young. At that time, the steamer service was the most luxurious, safe, and reliable journey. 

It is still the most elegant and luxurious journey -- just not the fastest.

My journey

The last time we availed the steamer service to visit Khulna was with Abba and Amma in the early 90s.

It was Abba's desire to visit Khulna all the way by steamer. Relaxing on the deck, enjoying the beauty of riverine Bangladesh, and relishing the delightful deshi cuisine as the steamer sailed across the mighty Padma and Meghna and anchored frequently at different riverine ports. Simply mind blowing!

The excitement generated on reaching the ports, the rush of the passengers embarking and leaving the steamer, the crazy rush of the coolies in red shirts and gamcha headgear to load/unload goods is something hard to describe.

The first morning at the breakfast table, about two hours after leaving Barisal, the chief chef came to enquire about our comfort and asked if we had any special menu request for lunch. Abba asked the chef what special items he had to offer. 

The chef replied whatever is ordered, he would try to deliver it at lunch. Much to our surprise, Abba ordered two big ilish to be fried and two big ilish to be cooked with mustard (Shorshe Ilish). Moreover, there would be a normal menu in addition to the ilish. Abba said that he ordered to see if the chef could keep his word.

On reaching Jhalakathi after some time, we noticed that the chef disembarked with a bag. We were joking that the chef must be on his way to the bazaar to buy some big ilish.

True to his words, the chef delivered the Shorshey Ilish and fried ilish at lunch. Such is the service of the Rocket steamers! 

I do not recollect how much the additional item cost but we were glad that the chef was able to keep his word. The normal menu is rich enough and contains three courses for lunch and dinner. It covers an array of fish items, chicken, beef/mutton, vegetables and is complete with desserts, usually puddings. 

Lost glory

The 100-year-old paddle steamers continue to operate as public transport in the country. There are five such steamers in service -- three old and two new ones. The old ones are among the few paddle steamers in the world, PS Mashud (1926 ), PS Lepcha (1938) and PS Tern (1950) and the new ones are PS Bangali and PS Modhumoti.

I visited Badamtali (Wise Ghat) Steamer Ghat last week to gather first hand information about the steamer services. I found the steamers lying idle anchored next to one another. The staff were having lunch, some engaged in idle gossip and playing cards. 

I was told that out of the five Rocket steamers, only one is currently operating. The others are undergoing maintenance, and it's unclear how long for. According to the information, the Rocket is operating just two days a week in each direction.

The latest is that the Rocket has ceased to operate since the 15th of September and it is very uncertain when the steamer service will operate again. It all depends on the prevailing electricity crisis.

The Rocket steamers have 12 first class and 10 second class AC cabins. Each cabin contains two beds and is provided with a cabinet and TV. The deck has provision for low fares. There is a tea corner for tea/coffee/cold drinks and confectioneries and of course a TV for entertainment.     

Following the opening of the Padma Bridge and due to increased fare (due to diesel price), there has been marked reduction in the number of passengers. These century old steamers might stop their service soon.

Preserving our glorious heritage

I felt remorse at the thought of the steamer service coming to an end. But these are our heritage that must be protected and preserved. We all should shoulder responsibilities. 

The city corporation, multinational corporations, NGOs, banks, universities, navy, BIWTA, BGB, and concerned and relevant individuals should all come forward to salvage and restore our glorious heritage. 

These steamers may run as tourist vessels at least twice a week with an overnight stop at Barisal and include guided tours to places of interest and of course with arrangements for cultural entertainment. 

These steamers may be used as floating restaurants not only in Dhaka but also in Chittagong and Khulna and Barisal. We used to have MV Anderson at Pagla. But that is now history. Let us try to restore our glorious heritage.

Dr Shamim Ahmed is a senior public health and nutrition specialist, a passionate traveler and a photographer.

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