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Last Updated: Monday, 19 April, 2004, 11:59 GMT 12:59 UK
Rocket power on Bangladesh rivers

By BBC correspondent Roland Buerk, on board the MV Mahsud, Bangladesh

Bangladesh Rocket paddle steamer
Paddle steamers sail well in Bangladesh's shallow waters
Paddle steamers, known as Rockets, have been plying the rivers of Bangladesh since the days of the British Raj.

But their glory days are over.

They are being overtaken by more modern forms of transport.

"Brigadiers, presidents, MPs and ministers used to travel in our first class and I served them," says Shamsul Hoque, butler-in-charge of the MV Mahsud on the Dhaka to Khulna run.

"But generally most people go by road now. It takes six hours. The river is filling up with silt so by boat it takes 24 hours."

Brisk business

The MV Mahsud was built in Calcutta in 1928. Instead of a propeller she is driven by two huge paddlewheels mounted on each side.

Every day I sell these books on the Rocket, and I have been doing this for 24 years
Shamul Kumal Darsh
Six times a week the MV Mahsud, or one of her four sister ships, set off from Dhaka as dusk closes in over the Buriganga river.

Third class is still popular. Hundreds of passengers spread out blankets in whatever space they can find to make themselves comfortable.

Hawkers, like Shamul Kumal Darsh, do a brisk business.

"These are Bengali love-story books," he says, a large pile of novels in his arms.

"Every day I sell these books on the Rocket, and I have been doing this for 24 years."

Paddle wheel of MV Mahsud
The steamer is a relic of the early 20th century

On the next deck down a large crowd gathers around Mohambubur Rahman, who is performing card tricks.

Soon he began his real business on board - selling unlicensed medicines.

"These medicines are used for gastric and rheumatic diseases. I can cure them instantly," he claims.

"Even if anyone if paralysed I can cure him. I sell an ointment and if it is applied to the paralysed portion it is instantly cured."

There are plenty of takers for his miracle potions at 200 taka ($3) a time.

Captain's hopes

First class is at the front of the upper deck. A long table runs down the centre of the dining room.

Bow of Rocket paddle steamer
The paddle boats sail six times a week from Dhaka

Small wood-panelled cabins open off to either side.

But the only other passenger is British tourist John Power from Wilmslow in Cheshire.

"I'm travelling from Hong Kong to the UK by bicycle," he says. "But in Bangladesh it's impossible to ride because there are rivers everywhere."

The captain, Idris Hossain Siradri, is confident, though, that the Rocket will be plying these rivers for years to come.

"Paddle steamers are better than normal boats," he says.

"It needs only shallow water and in our country many rivers are shallow."

Mr Siradri expects to be captain of the Rocket for a long time, guiding this relic from the past down the waterways of Bangladesh.

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