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Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

The Last Steamship

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 conclusion of a chapter from the original Heart of the Bazaar, describing my passage from Dubai to Karachi on the RMS Dwarka, which was the world's last regularly scheduled ocean-going passenger ship.

On the last evening the young officers in the bar were discussing women and rugby when in came the chief engineer. I knew it was him — he was a bulky man with great frontality, and a jowly, veiny, much-marked face, with redly exploded nose. Three stripes on his shoulder boards, a big man and convivial; the young officers greeted him with grins and reserve. He bantered with them a minute or so, then turned and engaged me in conversation.
    His speech was steeped in his Scottishness. He had myriad tiny veins in his cheek, and in his remarkable nose. He asked if I’d read an article about the just-concluded Iranian hostage crisis in the British newsmagazine, The Economist. But — did I know The Economist? I hadn’t read the article but said I sometimes read the magazine.
    Well! The Economist! The engineer was delighted. Leaning over conspiratorially, he said, “There is a shortage, you know, of intellect’l companionship on this vessel.” He inclined his large head subtly at the officers, who were paying no attention. I, looking over his shoulder, nodded.
    “Say,” he said — “why don’t you come up after supper? I’ve got a complete set of recent issues of The Economist. Why don’t you come?” I said I would like to, and he, finishing his beer before supper was called, went off.
    Later when I climbed up to the boat deck I reached the engineer’s door alongside a steward who was hefting a case of beer. “Evening, sir,” he said, smiling.
    “Well! Hello!” said the chief engineer, who sat within a well-traveled-looking room. The steward set the beer down, and left. The engineer sat me down and bid me say what I’d have. A bottle of Drambuie was on the table, and as it was also Scottish and I’d never had it, I said I thought I’d like that. He poured me a large glass of the thick liquid, and opened himself a beer.
    We were there I guess for several hours. Though the world would never again be, to the engineer’s mind, what it had once been, nonetheless he followed its events with passion. He brought out stacks of magazines and pressed them all on me, leafing through this one and then another to show which article I had to read.
    He added two paperbacks, a spy novel and the massive War and Remembrance, which two would keep me going halfway through Pakistan; and he kept an eye on the clock, for the hourly news broadcasts of BBC World News and the Voice of America. Would switch on the scuffed Sony four-band at a quarter past the hour for BBC, half past for VOA, and would stem his torrent of talk at once to listen. If I’d comment on something reported he’d wave me quiet and crane his ear to the news.
    My Drambuie was sickly sweet. I’d empty the glass with some relief; he’d instantly refill it, pushing the bottle toward me with both hands. “Have another, have another, please don’t be shy” — and I would take again the glass, which was sticking to my fingers, now.
    Among those elements of the world which would never be the same again, to the chief engineer’s mind, were machines of all sorts, nautical in particular (he had the greatest respect for the Dwarka’s redoubtable boilers and engine, so much so that the flow of words he poured upon me nearly stopped up when he tried to say how much better hers were than any built today); and modern navies, which he believed relied far too heavily on computers and computer guidance.
    He believed the oil boom had, though not alone, altered the world irreversibly. Of young people in the West he said, “There is a lack of commitment, of appreciation ... isn’t there?” There was no use disagreeing, or qualifying — something you’d begin to say would make him think of something else, and he’d be off again. Once the gates of his thoughts opened, you and he were both stampeded.
    “Now you take the young officers on this boat. To a one of ‘em they’d rather be on a cruise boat. A cruise boat!”
    He had been 32 years at sea. Had sailed on all the “D” class ships, and had sailed the Dwarka up the Shatt al Arab, the southern Iraq waterway that brings from the joined Tigris and Euphrates rivers down to the Gulf. He kept returning to that. He had helped ferry crowds of Armenians out of Iraq when they’d reached the Shatt in flight from one of the country’s murderous regimes; had taken them to Bombay and let them off.
    When a British India freighter captain had died up the Shatt and been buried there in a cemetery for colonial officers, he had gone there to take a photo for the officer’s wife. When he got there, he found the Iraqis had dug out the names on the headstones, which had been inlaid with zinc and gold leaf — so we went for some gold-leaf paint and a small brush. Later he delivered the photo in England to the captain’s wife.
    He began to pour another Drambuie — then looked up at me, staring qualmish at the glass. “I’ve never seen anyone drink so much of this stuff,” he said.
    “Neither have I.”
    “A spot after supper and that’s it — I mean generally speakin’.”
    “It is kind of sweet.”
    He looked at me closely. “Would you like a beer?”
    “I’d love a beer.”
    “Good! A beer.” He poured two and we settled back. I was woozy, he ruminant.
    When the Dwarka berthed in Bombay this time, the engineer would fly home to Scotland. He wondered if this trip might be his last. He told me, looking at the wall, looking at nothing, that he knew this boat, and her engine, better than any other man ever had — or, come to it, ever would. He said the old piloting instruments were something the digital readouts could never, not with sanity, supplant.
    “They’re reliable, that’s why. You know they’ll be there.” He said there would never be another ship like this one.
    “She certainly has lasted past her time,” I said.
    “She’s not past her time! She’s just a good ship.
    “Listen,” he said, sitting up and tipping his beer at me. “In every class of ship that’s built, there’s always a good one and a bad one. Of all the ships in this class, the Dumra, the Dara, the Dwarka and the Daressa, the Dwarka was always the good ship. She was a perfect lady. Always sailed perfectly — we never had any trouble with her.”
    We went outside, to the forward reail. We leaned against it, and looked.
    It was late, and quiet. The deck below was covered in wrapped, sleeping forms. A man among them cocked an eye up, lifted his head to look at us, and glared. The engineer didn’t notice. He was looking out to sea.
    The ship’s engine a low steady hum, she was making good time, cutting easily through the Arabian Sea. Ahead the moon threw its brilliance across the horizon, shining on the thousand wavelets. The light narrowed as it came to us — a path that widened if you could only travel into it, and not have it be always out ahead.
    The engineer, looking, was quiet. Finally he began softly to talk. “This is the last one left in the world,” he said. “There’s nothing like it anywhere.”
    Our prow broke the water as he spoke. We were sailing into the moon.

In 1983, not long after I returned from two years in Southern Asia, I was delighted to see the RMS Dwarka appear in the movie “Gandhi,” playing the part of the British steamship that ferries the young attorney from his first successes as a civil-rights activist in South Africa, home to join the independence movement in India. I wrote to the P&O company in London, asking what had happened to the ship. Someone there replied that not long after the filming, the world’s last ocean-going steamship, on a regular passenger-service route, had been scuttled on the coast of Pakistan.
    “She’s probably razor blades by now,” the gentleman concluded.


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