Part 1: The Port of Mandvi to Muscat
Vatan Se Dur (Away From Home) is a quasi-historical fiction of early Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri pioneers who braved the high seas and the dangers of the then dark and unknown African continent to carve out an enterprising community away from the distant homeland.
The story is about young Jaffer Alloo leaving India with his cousin Sumar and heading for the challenge and mystery that awaits him on the East Coast of Africa. In this first instalment, we recount the journey from the port of call, Muscat, in the Persian Gulf.
Nothing comes easy in this world, Not even for a man to be a man - Ghalib
He walked on the paved banks of Mandvi port and stretched his vision across the ocean. The Afternoon sun was gleaming on the blue sea. "Ah, this is the Maha Darya!… Hindi Maha Sagar! It is an ocean!" he said to himself. All he could see was endless water extending to the horizon. Deep within himself he felt as he was searching for his destiny. The Vast Maha Darya, the Indian Ocean held many ancient secrets in her bossom, and likewise hid his destiny from him. That is how destiny works. There will be many tales to tell later. Ever since the day he saw a dhow speeding across the blue coast he knew he could never be satisfied until he had sailed that ship, followed where it led.
He stood on one of the jettys at the harbour’s edge, and watched as the sweating mazdoors, labourers, loaded a cargo of farm tools, matchets, knives, brass wires, bales of cloth, boxes of beads, spices and food. The vessel was at least 120 tonnes, he guessed. The shipowner’s clerk, Mehtaji, and the captain, the Nakhoda, stood at the gangplank with a clipboard keeping tally of the loading. From watching the ships for many days, he knew that the captain would confirm receipt of the cargo before the vessel set sail the next day.
He discovered from Ahmed, the Nakhoda, that Indians never speak of their ships as "dhows". In Hindi, these vessels were called ‘Vahan’, meaning carriers. Depending upon the shape of the hull, the crafts were subclassified as Sambuk, Booms, Ghanjabs, Kotias, Bagalas, Badans and Zarooks. The Bagala, he learned, was copied from Portuguese design. She was built entirely by eye, blue prints being unheard of, and the cost did not exceed six thousand rupees. Her triangular sail was standard equipment, interchangeable with any other Indian or Arab built vessel. This made it easier to purchase a replacement at any port of call.
Encouraged by the keen interest of Jaffer and Sumar, the Nakhoda continued, "While the Portuguese all but ruined Arab sea power, our ship building thrived. Calicut was one of the greatest shipping centres of the world in the fifteenth century.
The ‘Sagar Samrat’ to which Ahmed was assigned, was a bagala built in Mandvi. She was lean and fast. Jaffer, Sumar and other passengers joined her at the little wharf where she had just loaded general cargo for Muscat and Zanzibar. The ship was over loaded, her midship rail only a couple of feet between life and painless death in water.
Since time immemorial, the monsoon has been regularly breathing back and forth across the Indian Ocean. Between December and April it blew down from the north-east and it is then that the vessels set sail from India. In Africa they call it kaskazi. In the next six months it traces back its invisible path blowing from the south-west and again the dhows would set sail from Africa to India and the Arabian Gulf. The Africans called it Kuzi. This was the trade secret jealously guarded. Until the steam age, the monsoon was the dynamo that drove the maritime mercantile between India and Africa.
Finally having checked the cargo and passengers, Munshi and Nakhoda entered the Port Master’s office and entered ‘Sagar Samrat’ on the outward bound manifest.
The next morning, before dawn, Jaffer and Sumar were woken with the sudden sound of drum beating and music. Mehtaji was ahead of the musicians who played for about half an hour, they were paid and gone. The Munshiji began distributing alms. It was the shipper’s custom, on shipping the first article of cargo to fire guns, beat drums, and distribute rice and Indian corn among the poor and any other person who chose to accept the gift.
At the crack of dawn with wind and tide in favour, all crew and passengers aboard, a gun was fired and the vahan sailed. This manoeuver was accomplished by lifting the moorings and the anchor by hand and then sheeting home the lateen sail which broke out its palm fronds and, catching the air, sent them bowling along. The nakhoda took the tiller, there was no wheel, and slipped silently down Mandvi’s bay. Straight as an arrow it sailed westward, bound towards Muscat.
‘Sagar Samrat’ was deep-laden and stiff and she rolled with sudden jerky motion. Though the sun was blazing no sun shade was erected.
The first day on board was exciting, getting to know fellow passengers. Jaffer was immediately attracted to an elderly Hindu who seemed to stand aloof from the rest. He was dressed in a dhoti, a long shervani-like coat and white cotton cap. Obviously he was a Brahmin, noticing from the tilak marks on his forehead. He had a kind and intelligent face. Jaffer went to him and did his namashkar. The Brahmin was pleased to see somebody friendly. A friendship was struck.
He was also going to Zanzibar on a contract to the Bhatia community there. He was contracted by a leading Bhatia merchant, Jairam Sewji, who was a Custom Master in Zanzibar and advisor to Syed Said, the Omani Sultan of Zanzibar. There were not many Bhatia women or families in Zanzibar, but death did occur and there were festivals to be celebrated and the account books to be blessed annually at the Chopra Pujan festival. His name was Haricharan Acharya, a Gujarati from the port of Mandvi. Clearly he seemed to have old and strong ties with the Hindu mercantile community in Mandvi. Otherwise he would not have undertaken such a hazardous trip. Jaffer asked him if he may call him Hari-Kaka. "By all means son," said Hari benevolently putting his hand on his head.
There was this Baluch, Meer Ali Khan, about 20 years old. "Call me Meeru" he said to the boys. He was going to Zanzibar to join the Sultan’s army. He said that he had an uncle in Zanzibar who held an important post in Syed Said’s army. Meeru had a job as a bodyguard to one of the princess.
Most friendly of all and a bundle of joy was Eboo Chacha, the helmsman of the Sagar Samrat. Though only 44 years old, he looked ancient, the effect of the sea, the sun and the wind guessed Jaffer.
Sumar was his usual electric self. He was everywhere in the boat observing and talking to everybody. Every hour or so he would return to Jaffer and report.
"Jaffu Bha, you should meet Karim Yar Alaya, the ship carpenter. He is the engineer and the soul of the vessel. He is a sight to see. Over six feet tall, muscularly built, thick black beard and a turban loosely wrapped around his head. His arms are made of steel, muscular, you can actually see the veins. And you know Jaffu Bha he is friendly. He gave me a smile showing his bright white teeth. I can tell you whether a man is good or mean by his smile. He is good."
Next hour he would be back and say: "Jaffu Bha, babarchi – the cook’s name is Archad. He is originally from the isle of Diu. He has been the cook of Sagar Samrat for the last ten years. He must be good or the Nakhoda would not have tolerated him so far so long."
"We have to be friendly to him, you know. We need him to take care of us during the rest of our journey." He pulled Jaffer’s shirt sleeves and said "Let’s go and meet him."
Sumar Rawji was Jaffer’s cousin; second son of Alloo’s only sister, seventeen years of age and three years older than Jaffer. He doted on Jaffer since their young age and all the time it would be Jaffu Bha, Jaffu Bha. Jaffer reciprocated the affection and was always considerate to Sumar.
It was the decision of Jaffer and Peera, Sumar’s elder brother to leave Munra and seek their fortunes in the open world. Peera, two years older than Sumar, decided to try his fortune in the newly created presidency of Bombay, while Jaffer decided it would be Africa. Sumar threw his lot with Jaffer for an adventure to the dark unknown continent.
One late afternoon, on the third day of the voyage, Jaffer was standing on the deck railing and looking far away into the horizon. The realities of being away from home were gradually dawning upon him. He seemed so vulnerable and going to the unknown world. What did he know about Africa or Zanzibar? He had heard only tales about wild animals, big lions, bigger than Indian lions of Girnar in Gujarat. Of people who were rings on their lips and necks instead of their fingers or ears; who smeared themselves with blood of cows; who wore entails of animals as ornaments; who instead of eating meat licked their lips over bleeding living flesh. He heard about crowds of human beings and huge animals retreating in terror before an army of little flies and ants.
What else did he know about Afica? He had heard about ‘vahans’, vessels, drowning in the sea with men and cargo lost and owners filing bankruptcy in distress and disgrace which at times ended tragically in suicide. He had heard that indeed very few returned to India, once they left the shores. Some were never heard of by their families and it was not known whether they were dead or alive.
In a lighter vein he had heard of some Indians who had taken African female slaves and to have cohabited with them and produced mulatoos, a new race of Indo-Africans, whom the locals called ‘chotaras’. They said it was strange to see and hear them. They looked like Africans with toned down negroid features but spoke the Indian language fluently.
"What troubles you mind, son?" he heard a voice from the back. It was Hari-Kaka smiling at him, "The sea will tell you no story, no secret. The sea is the greatest keeper of secrets. So ask me son and maybe I will find an answer for you. That is what the Brahmans are for." He put a kindly hand on Jaffer’s shoulder.
"Kaka, Sumar and I left home and our parents don’t know where we have gone. After sometime when they don’t hear from us, they will think we are dead. I regret leaving home." Jaffer said sadly looking into the eyes of Haricharan.
"Jaffer, in India, these are usually hard times. Many families have lost their dear and near ones. Your parting with your families is only temporary and you are going to meet them again. Jaffer, you are karma-yogi. You are man of action. In Shastras of the Puranas, it is mentioned that the Karma yogis believe in purshatan, in action. You have acted and let no regrets envelope you and may God protect you". He smiled at him and added "You write a letter to your parents and we shall send per first vessel we come across sailing towards Mandvi".
"But, Kaka, the fact that I just left home makes me homesick and I miss my family. That does not frighten me, it only makes me sad. What frightens me is that I know nothing about Africa and Jangbar. I have no friends or relatives there. If someone showed me a map I will not even be able to find Jangbar".
"Jaffer, you still have much time in your life. Life also has much to teach you. You will learn if you have an eager and willing mind. I could be your teacher for the duration we are on board. Thereafter God knows better".
"Would you be my guru, teacher, Acharyaji?" Jaffer asked in disbelief. Briefly they talked about how other vessels travelled in companies because of the pirates who were safely nested in Ras al Khaima. There were also known nests of Jasrami pirates in Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf and in the Seychelles. Better safe than sorry.
As he pulled shetranj over him and watched the starry skies, tomorrow, Jaffer decided, he would write to Alloo-Bapa.
For the next sixteen days the routine was the same. They sailed day and night and there was no sight of the land.
From the start Jaffer tried to learn all he could about shipboard routine and for a while he was surprised not to discover any. The wind blew and the ship sailed. They were at Allah's mercy. The ship had no marine instruments. Nothing to measure the force of the wind or to determine its direction.
Food was mainly from the fish who trailed over the stern. For cooking there was a small sand box and a 'sagdi', clay box. Camel's thorn firewood was on board and more driftwood were collected from the sea. For days they survived on 'kichri', dates and fish. Cooking arrangement was not any better. Fresh water was kept in two wooden tanks into which all hands dipped at will. Haricharan was glad to see that they seemed clean and healthy. God will forgive for the 'abad-ched' of water touched by non-brahmin.
Jaffer was to learn later that water was taken in the cheapest possible manner, from streams and mosque wells, and dumped into the tanks which were never cleaned. A castiron stomach was a prerequisite for any dhow sailor.
On the sixteenth day the headland of Matrah Muscat, the Gulf of Oman came into sight. Nakhoda brought his charge smartly into anchorage. From the dim cockroach-ridden recess beneath he brought a fresh set of clothes. In these he received the boarding officers who were dressed in stately white gowns and white turbans. They were given permission to disembark.
Good! Jaffer liked Ahmed, the Nakhoda. He treated them well. Young and nuisance as they must have seemed to Ahmed, he accorded them with every consideration. For his crew and his descrepit little ship he always did his best. He was a good sailor.
A few stray dogs on Ma'ala beach barked at themselves hoarse. Across the harbour, sand shimmered under the Arabian sun. Behind them the pock-marked mountains, burned and bare, shut in the settlement. A beduin child with a camel who was hauling firewood, shuffled passed them. All along the beach the Arab shipwrights repaired dhows and sailors sewed lateen sails. Some ships were hauled up dry on Ma'ala beach for bottomscrapping and painting with camel or other animal fat, tar and lime. Sumar, Jaffer, Meeru and Haricharan was well equipped with introduction letters and wandered in the township before they found a ready host to house them for three nights while the ship unloaded its cargo of ghee, oil, teak timber and textiles for Muscat and loaded fresh cargo of dates for Zanzibar.
They were aghast to discover that the Nakhoda cheerfully left his ship and went to the city. Merchants as well as Nakhodas had to purchase and sell cargoes and look for passengers. The ship carried her own goods for sale in the highest market of the moment. It was impossible to forecast all ports of call. Not even the Nakhoda knew precisely where he was bound.
"Well, if it suits the owners", equipped Meeru, "it should not worry Sumar".
In Muscat, Haricharan Acharya was warmly received by the Hindu community who organised a special 'Pujapath' and katha in his honour where he presided and delivered a discourse.
Meeru had no difficulty in locating his kith and kin among the Baluchi regiment. Sumar and Jaffer went to Khoja mahalla and Khana where they were directed to the shop of Kamadia Khoja Umedbhai Rattansi where they were well received at Umedbhai's residence.
There were about 1200 Indians in Muscat including some 500 Khoja's who lived in their closed wall quarters, and a regiment of Baluchi soldiers in service of the Omani Kingdom. Syed Said's eldest son, Syed Thuwaini, who had been Vali, Governer of Muscat while Syed Said was consolidating his domain in Africa, was now the Imam in Muscat. Syed Said, they learnt, had been in Muscat only two years ago and while returning to Zanzibar, accompanied by his son Bargash, died at sea near the Seychelles.
They learnt that Bi Ghanniyeh, the aged mother of Syed Said was still alive and much pained to witness that brothers Thuwaini, Majed and Bargash were contesting the division of inheritance and that Thuwaini, being the eldest, was aspiring to inherit the domain of Zanzibar. East India Company's director and Governor General of India, Lord Canning, was appointed to mediate between the brothers.
On learning this, Haricharan said sadly, "God, have mercy on Oman and Zanzibar. It is the same story again like India. The Kingdom will be divided to the advantage of the Brittania.
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