‘My family never gave up building boats since they built the ark of Hazrat Nuh!’ Ghulam Arabi did not so much as bat an eyelid making this startling disclosure. Then he went on to tell me that before the time of the prophet who saved mankind from the Deluge, ship-building was unknown. As irrefutable finality of that statement, Ghulam Arabi cited the Quran.
For added authenticity he said even his great-grandfather was a boatwright. I did not point out that between his great-grandfather and Hazrat Nuh there must have been several thousand years. Quick to see the doubt in my eyes, he said that since his family knows only this craft, it has long been suspected that they go back to those biblical times. That was arithmetic at its simplest, and I could hardly quarrel with it. At forty Ghulam Arabi, having learned the trade at his late father’s knee, himself had twenty-five years of boat-building experience.
He said that he was a Mughal and his sub-caste was Gharu. This latter, he said, derived from the Punjabi or Urdu word for shaping wood. I asked him if his family was called Gharu even in the time of Hazrat Nuh and he looked at me as if I could scarcely have asked a more imbecile question. That, then, was settled: he was a Mughal of the sub-caste Gharu whose family history of ship-building went back to the great Deluge. And so we moved on to less exciting but rather more plausible aspects of his profession.
There were thirty-six different kinds of boats in Pakistan. These included the several types of flat-bottomed punts on rivers and lakes that could either be rowed, poled or fitted with outboard motors. Then there were the large sabot-shaped houseboats (different sizes) of the Sindhu River and Manchhar Lake and there were the different types and sizes of keeled sea-going vessels of the coast. Ghulam Arabi, his brother, two sons, a nephew and a maternal uncle who all work together, could build any of those boats. And they were not the only boatwrights of the country. There were a few dozen other families engaged in the craft.
But they never employed drawings or measurements. There was nothing on paper. Ghulam Arabi and his team had everything in their heads. All that was needed was a photograph and the desired length of the boat and they could produce it. Chaudri Munir, a well-known industrialist from Lahore, brought a catalogue of boat designs complete with measurements and drawings to Ghulam Arabi. He wanted a boat copied and had tried several carpenters in Lahore. But nothing worked. After wasting much time and even more money, Munir turned to Ghulam Arabi.
When our man was offered the catalogue to study, he refused. He simply looked at the picture of the boat, asked how big Chaudri sahib wanted his vessel to be and got his team working. In six weeks flat, Ghulam Arabi had the boat ready to the great delight of his rich client.
We were sitting in the sand of the once great Sindhu River at the ford of Bungla Ichha near Jamaldin Wali in Rahim Yar Khan district. Ghulam Arabi, a native of Chachran fifty kilometres upstream, was taking time off from repairing three or four boats that were soon to be hitched in a boat bridge. Every year between November and March when the river runs low, the boat bridge is strung out and all motor traffic passes over it to Rojhan on the west bank.
The rest of the year, the river being far too wide and with a greater flow for this arrangement, crossings are affected by smaller engine-powered punts. Since these can at most carry a couple of motorcycles and are mainly for passengers, vehicular traffic is routed over Guddu Barrage about thirty kilometres downstream.
Business was good, said Ghulam Arabi. The going rate to build a new vessel was six hundred rupees per foot and a typical twenty foot-long punt took about a month to finish. Charges for repair work, on the other hand, were variable depending on the scale of work. All materials, the timber (always deodar cedar), as well as the nails and other items, were supplied by the client. Ghulam Arabi and his team came with the tools of their trade and their expertise.
The typical work day for them began after the morning prayers and ended with sundown. But though the work day was some five hours longer in summer, daily output tended to be the same throughout the year. The reason according to Ghulam Arabi was the debilitating heat of summer that reduced efficiency.
At the fishing village of Ibrahim Hyderi in Karachi, Ghulam Arabi had learned the science of building keeled marine engine-powered boats. Thereafter he had worked there a full eight years to master the craft. Subsequently he moved to Gwadar where he remained another couple of years working with another ustad. He worked at the two places in order to learn the subtle differences between the Baloch and the Sindhi design.
Time was when there were only single-masted sailboats plying the several fords on the Sindhu between Dera Ghazi Khan and Kashmore. Ghulam Arabi and his team built the last of those sailing boats in the later 1990s. Now there are only these small boats with the diesel engine that for some abstruse reason we call a ‘peter engine’ in Pakistan.
‘The sailing boat took five hours to cross the river. These little powered boats take three quarters of an hour. Now everyone is in a hurry and they just want to get wherever they are going.’
Ghulam Arabi said he had no complaints. Business had been brisk and there were still orders in hand for the coming months. I pointed out that one day a bridge will span this part of the river adversely affecting his business. What will he do then?
‘The fishermen of the Sindhi lakes as well as those of the seaboard will never go out of business. If it comes to the worst, we’ll have to move either to Karachi or to Gwadar. But we will carry on the profession we have followed since the time of Hazrat Nuh.’ Ghulam Arabi, the boatwright, was spot on. He and others like him will never run out of work.