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India’s Titanic tragedy that killed 700 also marks 75 years

The Times of India logo The Times of India 12-08-2022 Vaibhav Purandare
© Provided by The Times of India

It was 8.05am on July 17, 1947. As a loud horn went off at ‘Bhaucha Dhakka’ or Ferry Wharf in Mumbai, the last few passengers scrambled on to S.S. Ramdas, a Scotland-built 406-tonne ship. For five days a week, Ramdas, a passenger ship, ferried between Mumbai and Goa. On Saturdays, though, it made trips from Mumbai to Rewas (in Alibaug) and back. This morning it was unusually packed, with 800-plus passengers. The month of Shravan, marked by abstention, was set to begin, and many wanted to be home for ‘gatari’ -- the evening of indulgence before Shravan – for sumptuous chicken and a glass of ‘taadi,’ the local brew. About 700 of the passengers would be dead in half an hour, consumed by the raging monsoon sea.

As India gears up to celebrate 75 years of Independence, perhaps the country’s grimmest maritime tragedy and certainly the worst in passenger shipping, has sunk into oblivion.

It had rained heavily the evening before, but according to the official version, the skies were clear when Ramdas left Ferry Wharf. Soon heavy rain lashed the coast, and the ship was caught in a massive storm. At 8.35am, when it was 7.5km off Mumbai’s coast, the vessel was struck by a gigantic wave on the starboard or right side, and as it listed, all the panicked passengers ran to the port or left side, resulting in the ship going down in a minute and taking them all down.

Ordinarily the ship took 1.5 hours to reach Rewas, so when it didn’t reach in time, staffers of the Indian Cooperative Steam Navigation and Trading Co, which owned the ship, got worried. There were no wireless transmitters, no one knew anything and Mumbai harbour too couldn’t be informed in time due to lack of radio communication. Hours later, a coastal patrol boat near the Gateway of India spotted a child in the waters. Barku Mukadam, barely 12 years old, had slipped into the waters like the other passengers but had luckily got hold of a life buoy, which had drifted towards Gateway. He was rescued, and it was after he narrated the story of the sinking that rescue and search ops were launched.

The rain impeded the rescue, so not much progress was made for hours. Bodies of many passengers were washed ashore, at Elephanta Island and Butcher’s Island off Mumbai, and along the city’s harbour. One was of a 13-year-old French girl, Miss La Bouchardier, who had taken the ship with her parents and 14-year-old brother. While her body was found at Butcher’s Island, bodies of her parents and brother were never discovered. The wreckage of the vessel too was never recovered though the spot of the sinking was identified as Karanja-Kasa.

More than 90% of the victims were middle-class, lower middle-class or poor. Most of them were Marathi-speaking people from Girgaum and Lalbaug with families in Alibaug, and Muslims, either with families in Alibaug or those headed to the island of Janjira, which had Muslim settlements. One of the Muslims had apparently saved up money for years to take his mother on a pilgrimage to Janjira. They both perished.

Among the lucky survivors was a Jew, Rubin Sassoon, and at least two Britishers, Francis Drying and M G Mall. The ship’s captain, Sheikh Suleman Ibrahim, and other staffers too survived, sparking allegations, largely unfounded, that they had monopolized the life buoys instead of trying to help passengers. The incident shook India, and The Times of India’s editor at the time, Francis Low, launched the paper’s own relief fund for survivors and victims’ families; the money collected was handed over to the government.

But Independence was close at hand, and the probe by a Maritime Court of Inquiry itself began two months after the tragedy. The result was the sacking of a few shipping company officials and the recommendation that wireless equipment be fitted out on all ships. Voyages by passenger boats in the monsoons were stopped. No memorial was ever set up for the victims.

Because of the arrival of Independence less than a month after the tragedy and the horrors of Partition, the sea disaster soon faded into the background, revived only by memories of a generation who referenced it to indicate their own age and location at the time the Ramdas sank – a bit like how people in the 21st century refer to their age and location when 9/11 or 26/11 happened.

Yet, for several years, a street singer in Mumbai’s Girgaum used to move around the locality with his harmonium, trying to keep the memory of the titanic catastrophe alive. He would sing in Marathi, ‘Gele tey bichare, jeev darya-tali gele’ (Gone are the helpless souls, to the bottom of the sea.)

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