When Shimla’s neighbour Narkanda sailed to Sydney and inspired a Nobel-winning idea
Summer tourists who find #Shimla too warm for their liking sometimes go to #Narkanda. The snow melts late there and the forest is thicker. Nights are always very cold. The #British liked it enough to stock its dak bungalow with expensive #Dresden porcelain. They liked it so much, in fact, that they named one of their ships after it in the early-1900s.
The SS #Narkunda (SS means #steamship) was one of the faster and more comfortable ships on the UK-Australia run. It was a rather fancy ship too. The first-class dining saloon rose three decks high, and it had a frieze painted by Professor Gerald Moira, a noted artist of that age. The double-bedded second-class cabins had two ceiling fans each for their occupants to survive the Mediterranean summers.
At the time the Narkunda was ordered at Harland & Wolff Ltd, Belfast, in 1914, its three-chimney design was novel. But work on it didn’t start as World War 1 broke out. In 1917, it was decided to build it as a cargo liner. A year later, the planners wanted it to be an armed merchant cruiser. Construction finally started on April 25, 1918 and the Narkunda was completed at a cost of £1.5 million (£72 million or Rs 630 crore today) in 1920. After trials on March 3, 1920, it embarked on a 22-year-long eventful career.
The 581-foot-long ship with space for 673 passengers had a very respectable speed of 17 knots or 31kmph. It used to travel from the London docks to Sydney in six weeks, via Marseilles, Port Said, Aden, Bombay (now Mumbai), Colombo, Fremantle, Adelaide and Melbourne.
On one such journey from London to Sydney, in 1921, the Narkunda was bringing home Indian physicist C V Raman. With time hanging heavy on his hands, the gifted scientist started puzzling over the mystery of the sea’s blue colour. The idea that it was a reflection of the sky’s colour did not convince him, and by the time the ship docked in Bombay, Raman had arrived at a new path-breaking theory. That trip on the Narkunda gifted science the ‘Raman Effect’. Nine years later, Raman was awarded the physics Nobel for his discovery — the only Indian citizen to have received the honour so far.
The Narkunda’s good times ended as WW-II neared. On July 16, 1939, a gas explosion followed by a major fire that took more than four hours to put out, wrought extensive damage to the ship in Colombo. On May 31, 1940, it was fired at near Gibraltar. The British government took over the Narkunda as a troopship in April 1941, and then began the last glorious chapter of its life.
In January 1942, it was used to evacuate British civilians from Singapore just before the island fell to the Japanese, and in August that same year, it was involved in the exchange of Japanese diplomats for British civilians at Maputo (then Lourenco Marques), Mozambique.
The Narkunda’s end was drawing near. On November 14, 1942, German planes bombed it off Bejaia (then Bougie), Algeria, where it had landed troops. The attack killed 31 crew, and the Narkunda went down never to rise again.