A VOYAGE OUT - How Sailabala Das discovers that the Red Sea is not red

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By Malavika Karlekar karlekars@gmail.com
  • Published 9.08.09

In 19th- and early-20th-century India, for the handful who crossed the kala pani, the black waters that led to the unknown, and wrote about their experiences, a description of the sea voyage was an accepted entrée. Of the few women who made it to western shores, the little-known Oriya educationist, Sailabala Das, travelled to England in 1906 on board the Maldavia [sic, in all likelihood, the Moldavia owned by the P&O company] and narrated at length her 15-day journey in Bilat Prabas (Sojourn in England). Serialized in Utkal Sahitya, her writings were translated by Jatindra Kumar Nayak and then disseminated by the Hyderabad-based professor of English, Sachidananda Mohanty, who has done much to make Oriya women’s writings available to the English-speaking world.

Sailabala, then 32, was on her way to Maria Grey Training College in London for an advanced teacher’s training degree. Her trip and studies were funded by her adoptive father, Madhusudan Das, a pioneer in the cooperative movement and later, a Gandhian. Sailabala’s meticulous documentation of life aboard the steamer would suggest that she was an assiduous diarist and perhaps a committed letter-writer. Mundane details apart, living in a confined space in close proximity to British fellow-passengers, led Sailabala to make tentative attempts at mingling with them as well as to observe differences in life styles — not normally possible in racially-segregated India.

On her sea voyage organized by Thomas Cook, Sailabala had two companions, Saralabala Mitra and Fatima Fyzee, who were also on their way to study. The liner was on six levels, and Sailabala and Sarala were allotted well-appointed rooms on the fifth level reserved for first-class passengers. Sailabala writes, “On every bed lay a soft feather-filled mattress covered with clean milk-white bed sheets...an almirah, cabinet and wash basin”. The two women shared the same cabin and used the other as a dressing room. Fearing the heat when they reached the Red Sea, the enterprising Sailabala soon had their cabin fitted with an electric fan. A tour of the ship “filled us with boundless admiration for the brilliance and ingenuity of the British. On board there were a laundry, a shop selling bread, a dispensary, and a post office” as the vessel was a mail-carrier. The ship’s parlour had musical instruments, a writing desk, paper, ink, chairs and cushioned couches. For those who wanted to read, there were two glass almirahs full of books. However, there were bound to be culinary issues for the few Indians aboard: when Sarala and Sailabala sat down to eat in the oak-panelled dining hall, they found that “many types of animals and birds had been killed and cooked with English spices in order to prepare a proper English meal”. Not unexpectedly, the cuisine was not to their taste and the two felt “discontented”. Nevertheless, “when the passengers entered the hall for dinner, we looked at them trying to find out if there were any ‘blacks’ among them. We discovered two ‘black’ men, but they were utter strangers to us. Even so, we felt happy when we spotted them. After all, they are fellow-Indians”.

Sarala soon suffered from sea-sickness, and when the Indian maidservant assigned to attend to their cabin heard that Sailabala and Sarala did not want to eat, she warned them “if you stay on empty stomach, you will suffer even more”. A breakfast of two bowls of cornflakes arrived and the women forced themselves to eat, after a wash. They were appalled that the English passengers ate lying in bed, “not bothering to have a wash. We are never used to eat anything before brushing our teeth”. The two could hardly suppress a natural curiosity about the Other — and their maid was obviously a willing and voluble informant.

The calmness of the Red Sea that they entered after a brief mail stop at Aden made it possible to make acquaintance with fellow passengers. But not before Sailabala had dispelled an old misconception: “in my childhood, I thought the waters of the Red Sea were red. But I found out that the colour of its water was no different from that of the water of the Arabian Sea”. As room-weary people appeared on the deck, Sailabala established that there were forty first-class passengers on the ship. “These included a few Sahibs, who were highly placed officials in the judicial department. They were accompanied by three White ladies.”

The three women soon befriended the memsahibs and one day, one of them said to Sailabala, “I am curious to find out if women of your country want to talk to us or socialize with us. I get the feeling that they dislike us.” Sailabala replied, “You are absolutely mistaken. Of course, they want to socialize with you, but they hold back for fear that you may look down on them. These days people of your country despise our race so much and treat us so shabbily that we get the impression that they never want to be friends with us. This is why we maintain distance from you.” Not to be outdone, the memsahib said, “Men in your country do not treat their wives well. They shut them up in their houses, and do not let them meet with anyone else! For this reason, men in our country do not respect Indian men and misbehave with them.” Sailabala retorted tartly, “On this matter our views will never coincide. So we should not carry the argument any further.” The topic was changed and “[we] discussed other things”. Thus ended a brief inter-racial contretemps.

The few Indian men on board were all travelling second class, and Sailabala made the interesting observation that though the rooms were no different, as these were in the middle of the ship, they got buffeted more in bad weather. Moreover, “those passengers were served food four times a day, whereas first-class passengers were served food seven times a day. Passengers travelling first-class could visit the second-class passengers, but the latter could not call on the former”. First-class passengers rarely spoke to each other unlike the “ordinary people” of the second class. As “they were not handicapped by the rules of etiquette, they made an effort to know each other”.

Though difficulties with the food were not mentioned again, Sailabala was amazed at the voracious appetite of the British, who did full justice to the ample supplies of the ship. The arrangements for bathing met with Sailabala’s exacting Indian standards: in each of the separate bathrooms for men and for women “there were three tubs, one containing hot sea water, another, cool sea water, and third, cool fresh water. One could take a bath in whichever tub one liked. The time for baths was from early morning to nine a.m.” On a more sombre note, Sailabala added that if anyone died during the voyage, “there were arrangements for giving the deceased a Christian burial”. The ship’s carpenter would make a coffin that would be weighted down with a heavy iron ball to ensure that it sank to the bottom of the sea.

At Port Said, Sailabala and Sarala went ashore and though she fell ill with exhaustion, Sailabala commented “people who have undertaken a sea-voyage can easily share our ecstatic joy at being able to tread on firm ground after sailing for eleven long days”. Back on board, when she took to bed with a severe back-ache, her agitated friends rushed to call the ship doctor who assured them “that there was no question of my being given a burial at sea”. She recovered soon and as “we entered the Mediterranean Sea, into a world dominated by Europe” was able to enjoy the beauty of the Italian coastline. After docking at Marseilles on September 14, it was time to say goodbye and entrain for Calais and a new life. Life on the steamer had helped Sailabala, Sarala and Fatima understand a bit of the culture they were soon to encounter. A not inconsequential advantage for a woman who took little time to observe that “the English in India and the English at home are two different races”.