Monday, July 2, 2012

Nostalgic account of Big Indian ocean liners called at Penang

NOSTALGIC: Long before flights became affordable, the journey between Malaya and the Indian sub-continent was largely undertaken on ocean liners such as the S.S. Rajula and M.V. Chidambaram, writes A. Shukor Rahman


When ocean liners such as S.S. Rajula, its rival, The State of Madras, and much later their illustrious successor, M.V. Chidambaram, used to call at Penang fortnightly on their 'Straits Service' between Madras (now known as Chennai), Penang, Port Klang and Singapore, there was certainly a lot of excitement on the island.
Two or three days prior to the ship's departure, the port area and "Little India" -- the Indian enclave of Penang Street, King Street, Queen Street and Church Street -- would discard its humdrum existence and take on an exuberant festive atmosphere as passengers and their relatives from Selangor, Perak, Kedah and Perlis converged here for their shopping.
According to V.S. Narayanan, who used to live in China Street, the popular items usually snapped up were mengkuang mats, jamakallam (thick cotton sheets), pillows, tins of biscuits and Milo, gold ornaments, Raleigh bicycles, perfumes, nylon sarees, veshtis, lungyis, children's clothes, baby products, toys, transistor radios, cameras, watches, clocks, luggage trunks, bags, shaving items and tins of cigarettes.
There were many lodges in Church Street, China Street, Penang Street, King Street, Queen Street and Chulia Street to cater to India-bound passengers and their relatives who came to send them off.
Up to 1980, handcarts (or kereta gadi to the locals) were much in demand to carry goods and luggage to and from the port area whenever the Rajula was in port.
Penang-born Narayanan, 63, who now lives in Petaling Jaya, said the Rajula was certainly far more popular than its rival, The State of Madras, "perhaps because she was owned by the British India Line while The State of Madras was owned by the Eastern Shipping Corporation of India".
"Even now, the old-timers still remember only the Rajula and the Chidambaram," he said.
The Rajula , a stately lady of the seas, proved to be a most remarkable and long-lived ship. It was built in Glasgow in 1926 for the British Steam Navigation Company Ltd (British India Line) and their "Straits Service" from Madras to Singapore.
She gave the shipping line a very long and loyal service, even during war time when she served as a troopship.
Narayanan made his first and only trip on the Rajula together with his mother, C.S. Saraswathy, and two siblings to attend the wedding of a close relative in November 1960.
They travelled by third class bunk.
"When we boarded the vessel in the evening, each of us had a straw mat, a type of rug or durry known as jamakallam which was made of thick cotton and to be used as a mattress, a pillow and a blanket.
"Our garments and personal effects were in steel trunks and canvas holdalls."
A few days before the sailing date, George Town's "Little India" would be in a celebratory mood as passengers and their relatives would converge to do their shopping.
"Among popular items usually brought by India-bound passengers were National transistor radios, Titoni watches, Big Ben alarm clocks, gold chains, bracelets and rings, tins of saffron and biscuits such as Huntley & Palmers Marie biscuits and Jacob's cream crackers, perfumes such as London Night, 4711 Eau de Cologne, Nacet razor blades and Tiger Balm.
He recalled that the bunks were dark, dank and warm due to the engine heat from below and the kitchen above.
The only ventilation came from the portholes and this, he said, was hardly sufficient.
"Our consolation was that when coffee, paratha and chapattis were being prepared, the refreshing smell waft down to us.
"We only had a decent bath through the kindness of a family friend who took us up to the second class.
"Otherwise, we would have to make do with sea water which would leave your body sticky."
The journey by sea took six days to reach the Indian port town of Nagapattinam.
Narayanan's friend, V.V. Sarachandran, recalled taking the Rajula to Penang from Madras in 1956 to enable him to study in Standard One at the St Xavier's Institution the following year.
In 1973, Sarachandran made a return visit to India -- this time on the fully air-conditioned MV Chidambaram and things were certainly much better. The journey, he recalled, only took three days.
The 17,000-tonne Chidambaram was originally the MV Pasteur and was built in Dunkerque, France, for Messageries Maritimes' South American services and served in this capacity from 1966 to 1972 before she was sold to the government-owned Shipping Corporation of India and renamed Chidambaram in honour of Tamil Nadu shipping pioneer V.O. Chidambaram Pillai.
Retired Customs officer Sudin Saad of Bakar Kapor, Seberang Prai Utara, remembered the time when he and five brother officers had to inspect the Chidambaram.
"We were pleasantly surprised when we were invited to join some of the ship's officers for lunch on board. It proved to be the most delicious banana leaf rice I had ever tasted."
Former Penang Port Commission checker Sulaiman Ibrahim, of Jalan Perak, also had the experience of carrying out his duties on both the Rajula and the Chidambaram.
"I remember that the Chidambaram was originally a French vessel. The first time she came to Penang in 1972, the entire ship smelt of French perfumery. Security was rather strict on the Chidambaram and passengers were not allowed to wander all over the ship.
"When the ship carried a cargo of mangoes, I could get the best malgova mangoes for only RM2 each from a crew member. For the same amount of money, I could also get a generous amount of chapattis from the cook in the pantry," he said.
Unfortunately, the Chidambaram was to last only 13 years in the Straits Service. On Feb 12, 1985, she was carrying 702 passengers and a crew of 186 when she caught fire 500km off the Malabar coast of India.
The stricken liner was a heart-rending sight when she finally limped into Madras harbour with bodies floating on her water-logged deck. The toll was 34 dead with 13 Malaysians among them.
It proved to be her demise, too, and the once majestic Chidambaram was sent to the breakers and ended up as scrap in Mumbai. It also proved to be the end of the Straits Service.

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