Saturday, March 28, 2020
SLOWLY DOWN THE GANGES
Eric Newby (1919-2006)
Partly because he'd been stationed in Fatehgarh along the Ganges river when he was a junior officer in the Indian army in 1941, and partly because he was a born traveler and curious about everything, he and his wife Wanda decided to take a trip down the river to familiarize themselves with the native culture and to examine some of the historical monuments and artifacts of the area. The Ganges rises at the foot of the Gharwal Himalayas in north-western India and trends south-east and east until it reaches the Bay of Bengal. But for all practical purposes only the lower 1200 miles is navigable (it's 1600 miles long, more or less) because that's where it ceases plunging down and into mountain gorges and becomes a meandering waterway suitable, supposedly, for boat traffic. In point of fact, though, the depth of the river varies greatly with the changing seasons, being shallow during the dry season and flood-prone in the wet one.
The intention was to float down the river in some sort of houseboat, so after the pair's arrival they looked around for a suitable craft and settled on an 18' double-ended affair that was made out of tin and had a lot of rusted holes in it. They had it fixed up and set off with four helpers and grounded out in 200 yards in 16" of water. The bottom of the river was covered with large boulders and in order to progress at all, they had to move them by hand, making a sort of channel for the boat to float in. All six worked until sunset, shifting rocks and pushing the boat while being stared at and commented on by herds of cows lined up along the bank. The river was about 70 yards wide at this point so there wasn't a lot of choice between channels. Sometimes they'd suddenly reach a deeper spot and the boat would accelerate, precipitating itself over a series of cascades or falls. Inevitably some damage to the vessel transpired, but through dogged persistence, they managed to keep up the work for a week until they arrived at Raoli where the river bottom sediment load finally turned to mud, sand and silt. They had traveled 35 miles, grounded the boat 63 times, coursed down 36 rapids and pretty well trashed the boat. They were about out of food and running low on funds so they abandoned travel on the water and took the bus to a small village named Bijnor, 10 miles away.
A Newby quote: "It is better in India to say you will do a thing and not do it, rather than say it is impossible".
Eric had in his possession a letter from Jawaharlal Nehru that he had hoped would smooth some of the difficulties he knew were inevitable, but whenever he tried showing it to local authorities they either didn't know who he was or didn't consider it very motivational. At any rate, Eric and Wanda took the train to Garmunhtesar and later to Bareilly, experiencing in real life some of the unpleasantness of lower class travel: sleeping on concrete floors with rats and over friendly Hindus and riding in overcrowded, stinky boxcars. The stove which allowed them to eat on board whatever boat they were traveling in was stolen at one point and Eric dashed to the local market to buy one before the next train left. He couldn't get what he wanted right away and frantically ran from one storekeeper to another, agonizing over missing the train and worrying about Wanda who was sick at the time. When he finally managed to acquire a satisfactory substitute he ran back only to discover the train had been delayed several hours. This incident epitomized to some extent much of their experience in their haphazard, peripatetic journey.
All along the river, once it's navigability increased, the banks displayed old ruined temples and mosques, villages every few miles, lots of cows, millet, rice and wheat fields, and lots of garbage. Fairly often dead bodies floated by. The river itself changed channels frequently and unpredictably, the bed itself shoaling and making sandbars that made their presence known whenever the passengers relaxed a bit. When they reached Farehgarh at last they were able to rest for several days, as it was a military station with which Eric was familiar. The bungalows were clean and the food was edible.
Back on the river they rowed (with help) 90 miles down to Kanpur, where they were snubbed by the Anglo-Indian enclave but heartily welcomed by the Indian Officers Club. They spent six days at the Circuit House, another well maintained military establishment. Their next interesting destination was located at the junction of the Ganges, Jumna, and Sarasvati rivers, a very holy spot in the Hindu religion, a place where millions of Hindi pilgrims aspired to bathe themselves in the holy waters, especially at the Sangam (a Hindu holy celebration), thereby receiving forgiveness for their sins and guaranteeing their eventual entrance into a better incarnation. "Ghats" are the stepped formations leading down into the water that enable easier access to the muddy river for the eager worshippers. Eric and Wanda toured the area for several days, visiting the Well of the World, a magical source of miracle-working water, as well as more temples and mosques.
All along the banks, bird-life was riotous, with every variation from cranes to ducks, flying and fishing in the waters. There were fresh-water dolphins and crocodiles and other sorts of fish unfamiliar to the travelers and lots of large turtles. These all became more evident as they made their way to Mirzapur in an 18 foot boat. They saw bandal builders: bandals were channel fences made of bamboo stalks paled close together, the purpose being to establish permanent channels for the meandering sands and silts. As a side-note, Thomas Love Peacock, the English author, lived in the area for a few years, and was responsible for introducing steamboats as a means of transport on the river up to the port of Mirzapur.
At Benares, Allahabad, Patna and Bankipore they played tourist and had more adventures. After a very cold trip on top of a sort of grain ship called a "bhur", Wanda become upset with the ongoing lack of food, the poor sleeping facilities and the unsanitary food and told Eric that "I'm leaving you and I'm never coming back". But she soon changed her mind in spite of their situation continuing to be pretty much the same. Actually she went to all the trouble to cook an enormous dish of lamb Baffat for Eric and the crew, a sort of onion-spiced curry, and was chagrined when none of them would eat it because she'd left out the onion, which she didn't like.
In Colganj, Eric inspected more old ruins while being followed around by about 60 school children all yelling "What are you looking at" repeatedly. Here they had their first taste of fried fish which was delicious; they hadn't been able to find any up to this point as it was a marketable item and not for personal use. Statues, carvings, caves, lots of jackals, rats, dead bodies, and loud booms as sections of the riverbank fell into the water. They toured the Italianate Palace of the Nawab Nazims
of Bengal in a jeep: it reminded Eric of Buckingham Palace. Old abandoned factories, mostly for indigo production were common. They drank cocoanut milk directly from the palm with a sort of tubular affair built by a native.
Finally, though, they reached the lower part of the river (actually the Hooghly) and paid too much for a boat to take them to Calcutta where they arrived just in time to board the S.S. Jalavijaya on which they experienced a hair-raising trip, playing tag with lots of bends and shoals, down to the Bay of Bengal.
I read Newby's "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush" a couple of years ago and liked it a lot: it seemed like a kind of parody of Himalayan mountain climbing and was quite funny. So i tried this book but while it was informative and startlingly amazing, it didn't have the same nonchalance that the previous book did. But Newby knew how to write. He was a journalist for the London Observer for almost thirty years and wrote mostly about travel, which he devoted most of his spare time to... he published a lot of books, some of them sounding attractive, so i'll probably read more of his work.