Table of Contents
This is a story about a voyage from Liverpool to Calcutta during the British rule in India. It tells how the narrator, and the hero of the story, Hasan, who is the serang of the ship known as Ranaganji, manage a potential calamity, silently and bravely.
The narrator– the physician of the Ranaganji
Hasan– the Indian serang of the Ranaganji
Captain Hamble– the captain of the Ranaganji
Miss Jope-Smith– a high class social woman, a passenger on the Ranaganji
The Ship Sets Sail
A well-bred and smartly dressed woman asked her companion if he had ever seen such an ugly creature. They were first-class passengers on the Ranaganji, about to sail from Liverpool on the long journey to Calcutta, and were standing before the narrator on the ship’s upper deck. They were pointing to an ugly Indian seaman who was the serang, or quarter-master of the ship.
The journey began well. They crossed the Mediterranean and reached the Arabian Sea smoothly. The Ranaganji was a strong old vessel, with white officers and an entirely native Indian crew. The narrator was the physician of the ship. The ship was crowded with the usual tourists and had many Anglo-Indian army officers, accompanied by their wives and families.
Miss Jope-Smith was the woman who had made fun of the serang’s appearance. She was a very social person, although quite boring.
Smallpox Spreads Among the Crew
One morning, the serang, Hasan, brought two sick deck hands to the narrator for a check-up. The narrator was horrified to realise they had smallpox. He informed Captain Hamble of the situation.
Captain Hamble said he could not give the doctor any of his officers because they were overloaded and understaffed. But he would give him the serang. He told him to keep the disease from spreading and to not let the passengers know because they would panic otherwise.
The doctor told the serang they had to isolate the men. There was no available cabin space on board to do this, so Hasan built a large canvas shelter on the afterdeck. The two patients were brought there. Then they gathered the whole crew for a medical inspection. A man who showed symptoms was isolated with the others. Hasan helped the narrator take care of the patients.
But the next morning, they found three new cases among the crew, and four more in the afternoon. So, they had ten cases in the makeshift shelter. It was a difficult situation but the serang tirelessly tended to the sick men.
Colombo, the nearest port of call, was still eight days away. In the next two days, four more men fell sick. One of the earlier victims had gone into a coma, and seemed likely to die any moment. The narrator was extremely stressed by these difficult circumstances, but looking at Hasan meditate under the stars would bring him peace.
Hasan’s Life and the End of the Crisis
Hasan did not talk much, but the narrator learnt a bit about him soon. He was from the Punjab, but his parents had migrated to southern India. There, in the coastal area, he had become a seaman. He had been a seaman for nearly forty years, and fifteen of these had been spent in the Ranaganji. He had no place on shore, no family or friends in India. He had never married. By religion he was a Muslim.
All his life he had no property or money. His few possessions were contained in his ship’s chest and might be worth a few rupees. Hasan thought money was of no use to one who had all he needed. Money had no interest for him. Instead, he had courage, self-control, and faith. Beside his clear simplicity, the narrator was ashamed of his own passionate desire for success and wealth.
The next day, two patients died. Hasan sewed their shrouds, read aloud a short passage from the Ramayana before their bodies which were cast overboard at midnight. No fresh cases developed. A week later, they arrived at Colombo. The sick men were taken to the hospital. Most of them had passed the crisis. But three of them seemed quite helpless. Hasan carried them with tears in his eyes.
The ship soon reached Calcutta. The narrator heard Miss Jope-Smith making fun of Hasan’s appearance again. She asked him whether they had kept an animal like Hasan in a cage throughout the voyage. The doctor, offended, told her that maybe they had, but it was strange that all the animals were outside, implying that it was cruel people like her who were the actual animals.
This story shows us how appearances can be deceiving. Although Hasan is ugly, he is a brave man with high ideals. He helps the narrator get through the smallpox crisis, and helps him learn things about life through his simplicity and bravery. Therefore, we should never judge a book by its cover.