A month on the sea, and a captain’s threat.
By Rajan Devadas*
Editor’s note: A few months before his death, the photojournalist found time to share his experiences during his maiden voyage to the United States nearly six decades ago.
ROCKVILLE, MD: A number of my American friends were instrumental in me applying at the Pendle Hill Quaker Center for Study and Contemplation for a one-year degree program in 1954. One of them was Captain Glenna Rummel of the Salvation Army, whom I had met in Calcutta. (Salvation Army had a meeting place near my apartment in Chowringhee Square, where they would hold meetings on Sundays. They would invite me and some of my Indian friends. We used to go. I enjoyed the singing, especially.) Another friend was Edward Hirabayashi, a Japanese American who came to do a master’s at Banaras Hindu University. These two and other friends also helped me get a scholarship at Pendle Hill.
I boarded a cargo ship bound for New York — if I remember correctly, the name was Jala Halli — in December 1954. The fare was $500, but I got a $150 discount because I was a student. There were 40 passengers aboard.
The main challenge during the journey was food. I was a vegetarian back then. The food on board was mainly non-vegetarian, mostly beef. I could not eat at the beginning. After a few days, the chef told the captain that there is an Indian aboard who is not eating any food.
So he came to my cabin and told me: “Son, I understand that you are not eating properly. You know that we have one month to go. If you don’t eat well, you won’t have the strength to withstand the journey. You might die. And don’t die on me — on my boat.”
As he was leaving, after uttering these words, he turned back to me and said: “I can promise you one thing. If you die, I will give you a good burial in the sea, with your national flag.” Those words were meant to scare me in to eating.
Then the captain went directly to the chef and requested him to prepare a vegetarian meal for me. The chef made a dish with cottage cheese. Thus my food problem was solved. Gradually, I began to eat fish and chicken.
As the days passed, I even made some money on board.
My US friends had told me that I would be asked to speak on topics related to India, such as women of India and children of India, among other issues. So I was carrying quite a few books from my personal library. One day, I went to the captain’s cabin to borrow his typewriter to prepare a draft of the speech. He suggested that I work at his office rather than carrying the typewriter to my cabin.
As I started typing, one of the passengers, a Canadian of French descent, dropped by. He said, “Do you know typing? You know English?” When I said yes to both, he asked me whether I could type a couple of letters for him. I typed two letters for him. When I finished them, he was so happy with my work that he took out a $50 bill from his pocket and handed it over to me.
At that moment, I thanked my mother who enrolled me for a course in typewriting after my matriculation years ago.
The first stop during the voyage was Alexandria in Egypt. We reached the port city after crossing the Suez Canal. We also found time to go to Cairo, which was a great experience for me. I went to see the city’s library and also walked around the park.
I remember a policeman approaching me to warn me of Cairo’s pickpockets. He told me the story of a senior British officer who had come to the city to train the Egyptian cops during the British occupation. “The officer gave a lengthy talk to the cops on his first day in Cairo,” the policeman said. “After the talk was over, he looked for his watch to check the time. The watch was gone!” I loved the story!
After Egypt, the ship had two stops in Europe, in London and Paris, for unloading and loading cargo.
Then we headed to the United States. By then, I was getting tired of the journey. This was not my first voyage. I had been to Singapore before, but that journey had taken less than a week.
I was very relieved when the ship arrived in Halifax. We had a four-hour stop-over in that Canadian city, which allowed me to venture out briefly. It was also my first tryst with the North American winter. When I started walking, there were big walls of snows on the streets. It was terribly cold, too. Prior to the journey, I never imagined that I would be experiencing weather as cold as that.
A day later, finally the ship reached New York City, after being on the ocean for a month. I don’t remember the exact date we reached the city, but it was January 1955. Thankfully, New York wasn’t as cold as Halifax. In New York, my friends were there to receive me at the port. I was very happy to see them.
* As told to Asif Ismail.