Girl on a Steamer

It happened decades ago, but I still remember the girl. I guess if you inspect the walls of my memory you’ll find her there. An icon in a gilded frame.

 

I was then a boy traveling with my father on a steamer from Dubai to Bombay. The purpose of voyage: to smuggle gold to India. I felt insecure. Some fathers take their children to danger zones as if they’re taking them to Disneyland.  I had fears that father would be caught and go to jail and I would end up on the streets of Bombay as an urchin.

 

On the morning of the second day of our voyage we were in the mess room  of the third class, breakfasting on  Keema, Roti and Karak tea. The Keema with its green chillies burnt my mouth and the hot tea brought no comfort. Then I looked up and saw her. In a blue dress that became the sea, she was no older than sixteen.

Father, who had an eye for a pretty woman, did not seem to notice her. I guess she still had the body of a child, but I could see that the body of a woman was emerging.

The squalor of the third class, the burning mouth were no longer problems. Our eyes met, but for no more than a second.  She was looking for something.

 

A man looking like Amitab Bachaan came after her. Perhaps he was her father.

‘Rita, you’ll not find him here,’ he said in a posh British accent.

I didn’t know if he was referring to a lost dog or her kid brother.

 

I spent the rest of the morning trying to catch fish by a hook made out of a paper clip. For bait I used bits of the breakfast Roti. The sea was kind to me and I did manage to catch a fish, but it was small and I decided to let it live. My heart was full of goodwill to the entire creatures of the world.

 

At night we slept on mattresses on the deck. After all, we were traveling third class. I thought I would feel ashamed if Rita passed and saw me. I was sure she travelled first class. Before the sea rocked me to sleep I would free my imagination. There were no icebergs in the Indian ocean, but I imagined our steamer hitting one and sinking like the Titanic.  All the passengers would then swarm in the water. The sea was my friend and would not hurt me. I would save Rita, lead her by the hand to some country under the sea.  Under strange green lights we would find happiness. I would explain to her that it was all meant to happen this way and that only in this green city we could be together.

 

During the three days that remained of the voyage I never saw Rita, though I searched for her. I tried to search the first class areas, but was stopped by security.  From my exercise book I tore a page. I tore the page into ten bits. On each bit I wrote Rita, I love you. XXX.

On a mission of high secrecy I went around the deck and scattered the paper.  I lived in hope but found no reply. When we arrived at Bombay I thought I would never see her again.

 

Father proved too clever for the Port inspectors. They searched our luggage.

‘Did you bring any gold with you?’ an inspector in Khaki shorts asked.

‘Of course, I did,’ Father said.

‘Where is it?’

‘Sold it on our stop in Karachi.’

‘Why sell it there at a lower price?’

‘Because I know you will search me here.’

It seemed the perfect answer and the inspector let us go. I was happy that father would not go to jail. My happiness soon became double fold.

I saw Rita leaving the port with a small dog.

 

By Shakir Hussain

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