To­tal im­mer­sion

A mon­soonal cruise on the Hooghly River pro­vides a gen­tle in­tro­duc­tion to In­dia, dis­cov­ers Rosanna de Lisle

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat -

YOU are go­ing to In­dia in July? In the mon­soon? In the months run­ning up to our first trip to In­dia, my mother and I of­ten field this ques­tion. It is asked kindly, but the sub­text is clear: Do you re­ally know what you’re let­ting your­selves in for?

And it does seem odd on the eve of a sum­mer hol­i­day to be shop­ping for a ful­l­length rain­coat that might just be bear­able to wear in 90 per cent hu­mid­ity. But we have good rea­son to be head­ing for In­dia in the mon­soon: we are go­ing on a cruise and if we wait for the dry sea­son there might not be much of a river to sail down.

The Hooghly River, which forks off the Ganges and winds south to Kolkata, ebbs and flows. In the 18th cen­tury it was a vi­tal artery for the East In­dia Com­pany. In 1757, Robert Clive (Clive of In­dia) won the Bat­tle of Plassey on its banks, tight­en­ing Bri­tain’s grip on north­east In­dia from com­mer­cial to po­lit­i­cal.

But in the 19th cen­tury the Hooghly dried up, clogged by silt from the Ben­gal delta. Then, in the late 20th cen­tury, it started to flow again, thanks to a bar­rage built across the Ganges to di­vert some of its wa­ter into Bangladesh.

Now, in the 21st cen­tury, the river is still only re­li­ably nav­i­ga­ble in the wet sea­son, and it’s not ex­actly the Nile in terms of traf­fic. In fact, the voy­age we are join­ing is the Hooghly’s first cruise.

Our boat is MV Sukapha, a 12-cabin replica steamer run by As­sam Ben­gal Nav­i­ga­tion, an Indo-Bri­tish ven­ture launched in 2003. From Oc­to­ber to March, Sukapha and its sis­ter, Charaidew, ply the Brahma­pu­tra River in As­sam, call­ing at tem­ples, tea plan­ta­tions and wildlife re­serves. But in the mon­soon, the Brahma­pu­tra of­ten bursts its banks. Rather than sit out the wet sea­son in a dry dock, Sukapha is tak­ing on the Hooghly, sail­ing up to the Ganges one week and back down to Kolkata the next. The itin­er­ary makes sense for the boat’s own­ers but will it make sense for the pas­sen­gers, too?

Re­port­ing to the deck the first morn­ing, clad in plas­tic mac, rain­hat, wel­lies and neu­rotic lev­els of in­sect-re­pel­lent, I am not sure. We boarded late the night be­fore, wilted af­ter seven hours on a train from Kolkata; so it is a shock to wake and see what a wa­tery world we have washed up in. The river is mud-brown, the trees are broc­coli green and the sky is milk of mag­ne­sia white. It is well past dawn, but could be dusk, and it is rain­ing.

There is so much rain that the boat has not been able to reach the in­tended turn­around point just be­low the Farakka Bar­rage, but oth­er­wise the in­au­gu­ral Hooghly voy­age is go­ing, well, swim­mingly. The crew, young men and women re­cruited from re­mote parts of As­sam and Na­ga­land, brim with en­thu­si­asm. They out­num­ber guests by four to one. There are just seven of us, in­clud­ing a writer and a pho­tog­ra­pher from Mu­nich, a re­tired taxi driver from Monaco, and a con­ser­va­tion ar­chi­tect from Lon­don, who ends up brief­ing us on the bricks and mor­tar of West Ben­gal while Su­mit, the prin­ci­pal guide, tells us about ev­ery­thing else.

Day one is a full-on im­mer­sion in mon­soonal In­dia. The crew checks our life­jack­ets, hands out wa­ter bot­tles and helps us into the coun­try boat for the five-minute chug ashore. On dry land (a rel­a­tive term) we set off in four-wheeldrives for Gaur, the old Mus­lim cap­i­tal of Ben­gal, now on the bor­der with Bangladesh. The road thun­ders with trucks but leads to a place of un­ex­pected tran­quil­lity: a ghost city of red-brick mosques, for­ti­fied gates and tri­umphal arches, sit­ting in a field of hand-scythed grass, be­side a vil­lage where bony cat­tle wan­der among drip­ping mango trees and sod­den hayricks.

On the way back we get stuck in an epic traf­fic jam. Af­ter 30 min­utes with the en­gine off, I pick my way up the muddy verge to see what’s go­ing on. A lorry has slid into a swamp and a tow truck is try­ing to pull it out. Sev­eral hun­dred peo­ple are watch­ing this op­er­a­tion avidly. I join the crowd, only to re­alise that there are no other women in it and more eyes are trained on me than on the tow truck. I have be­come the in­ci­dent.

When we get mov­ing, scores of grin­ning boys wave us off. It is bizarre to at­tract so much at­ten­tion, but a treat to be in a part of the world where tourists are so rare they are worth a sec­ond glance. Over the next few days, the only crowds we meet are those we draw our­selves. In Barana­gar, a vil­lage with no shops but sev­eral in­tri­cately carved ter­ra­cotta tem­ples, bare­foot chil­dren greet us on the ghat lead­ing down to the wa­ter, show us their lambs and never put a hand out for any­thing.

The real ob­ject of fas­ci­na­tion, though, is the boat. As Sukapha sails past jute fields, dozens of chil­dren run to the banks scream­ing and wav­ing. When we tie up in a bazaar town, 50 men muster on the jetty and gaze at our small ship late into the night.

The ex­cite­ment the boat stirs up is in­fec­tious and we take to wav­ing back

This is the clos­est you’ll get to royalty,’’ Mum says. Sukapha is a sen­sa­tion, Su­mit ex­plains, be­cause the big­gest boats on the Hooghly are the noukas , or flat-decked dinghies that ferry stand­ing pas­sen­gers and their bi­cy­cles from one side to the other. So, while we look at Sukapha and see a hum­bler ver­sion of the ves­sel in Deathon­theNile , the lo­cals seem to see the Queen Mary 2.

Our days set­tle into a gen­tle rhythm of ex­cur­sions ashore, meals on­board and spells on the top deck, where we loll on rat­tan chairs and de­hu­mid­ify in the breeze. Like ev­ery other passenger ex­cept the Ger­mans, who have to con­tend with a lot of colo­nial his­tory, as well as colo­nial-strength (in fact, nurs­ery-mild) curry, I have brought a William Dal­rym­ple book on In­dia, but typ­i­cally man­age only a page or two be­fore be­com­ing more en­tranced by the pas­toral scenes be­yond the ship’s rail.

The river banks are a monochro­matic patch­work of or­derly squares of jute, bam­boo and rice pad­dies and clus­ters of cas­sia, banyan and palm trees. Along the wa­ter’s edge, bul­locks pull carts and women in saris tackle reeds with scythes. Oc­ca­sion­ally a trac­tor trun­dles into view but oth­er­wise Ben­gal’s an­cient agrar­ian so­ci­ety seems un­touched by moder­nity. It is as if the Bayeux Tapestry has been an­i­mated, re­lo­cated and ren­dered in a grey-green ver­sion of sepia.

Sol­diers on horse­back are not part of this pic­ture, but come to mind when we reach Mur­shid­abad. Nearby, the Bri­tish drew the young and un­pli­ant Nawab Si­raj-ud-Daula into the Bat­tle of Plassey. With 50,000 men and some heavy ar­tillery con­trib­uted by the French East In­dia Com­pany to de­ploy against a Bri­tish force of just 5000, Si­raj-ud-Daula should have won, but his great-un­cle, Mir Ja­far, had al­ready con­spired with the Bri­tish to usurp him as nawab. And then, to seal his fate, the French can­nons were caught in a down­pour.

The bat­tle­field has been eroded by the river, but an obelisk marks Clive’s victory, if not the ex­act spot. More evoca­tive is the Khush­bagh (in­apt trans­la­tion: Gar­den of Hap­pi­ness), a ceme­tery in which the tombs of Si­raj-ud-Daula and the other 34 mem­bers of the fam­ily mur­dered by Mir Ja­far lie in Pal­la­di­anstyle mau­soleums, over­looked by an onion-domed mosque.

In Mur­shid­abad we tie up next to the Palace of the Nawab, a mus­tard-yel­low whop­per of a pile built in the 1830s to flat­ter the dy­nasty long af­ter it lost mean­ing­ful power. It’s now a mu­seum, full of paint­ings of dash­ing nawabs in er­mine and Bri­tish of­fi­cers in full mess kit. We swel­ter just looking at them.

Cen­turies of colo­nial his­tory are played out along the Hooghly and, as we near Kolkata, we zig-zag across the river be­tween Bri­tish, French, Dutch, Por­tuguese and Dan­ish set­tle­ments. The Dutch left a ceme­tery full of pi­o­neers at Chin­sura and the Dan­ish a church, based on Lon­don’s St Martin-in-the-Fields, at Ser­am­pore, but only the Bri­tish and French in­flu­ence is tan­gi­ble to­day.

Chan­der­nagore, a trad­ing post es­tab­lished by ad­mi­ral Du­pleix, provider of the can­nons that got wet at Plassey, re­mained French un­til 1951. Du­pleix’s very grand house is now an Indo-French cul­tural cen­tre, and around the town about 1000 peo­ple speak French. Bar­rack­pore was the coun­try res­i­dence of the Bri­tish gov­er­nors-gen­eral. The present gov­er­nor of Ben­gal spends his week­ends here, in an el­e­gantly por­ti­coed bun­ga­low with a gar­den planted with as many stat­ues of em­i­nent Vic­to­ri­ans, un­wanted in Kolkata af­ter In­de­pen­dence, as pomelo trees.

The cruise is billed as a his­tor­i­cal tour, but it is also a jour­ney through present­day Ben­gal, in it­self a trip back in time. Amid the scythes, bul­lock carts and houses built with cow dung, we see next to no sign of the tech­no­log­i­cal revo­lu­tion sweep­ing other parts of In­dia into the fu­ture.

The up­per reaches of the Hooghly are a lit­eral back­wa­ter and it is no sur­prise not to spot In­dia’s bal­loon­ing mid­dle­class there, but nei­ther do we come across any ab­ject poverty. What we see are primeval work­ing con­di­tions: near-naked brass­work­ers crouch­ing just cen­time­tres from blaz­ing fur­naces and skele­tal old men ped­alling rick­shaws.

By em­bar­rass­ing con­trast, we don’t have to lift a fin­ger. Sukapha is not swankily fit­ted out — cabins are clad in sus­tain­able bam­boo, fabrics are wo­ven by a col­lec­tive in As­sam, the din­ing-room feels a bit like a re­fec­tory — but the at­ten­tive­ness of the crew is qui­etly lav­ish. Ev­ery time we go ashore, a fleet of 4WDs or cy­cle rick­shaws waits. Ev­ery time we come back on­board, in­vari­ably drenched by rain or sweat, five crew mem­bers are on deck with fruit juice and cabin keys. We are in­vited to kick off our wel­lies; later they turn up out­side our doors, gleam­ing. White T-shirts don’t scrub up so well: ours come back a Hooghly-beige.

The Hooghly cruise is an ex­pe­di­tion, but we never have to be in­trepid. In fact, the boat proves a gen­tle way into In­dia. Sukapha is a haven in which we un­wind and are nan­nied for a week without be­ing her­met­i­cally sealed from the world around us. We walk through gory wet mar­kets or rat­tle along bumpy lanes in cy­cle rick­shaws, but al­ways have the warm bath of the boat to re­turn to. And, thank­fully, it does a mean cold shower. Tele­graph Group, Lon­don

Check­list

The Hooghly cruise in­cludes seven nights full board on Sukapha; pack­ages in­clude two nights at the Oberoi Grand Ho­tel in Cal­cutta and trans­fers. The only ex­tras are al­co­hol, laun­dry ser­vice and Ayurvedic spa treat­ments. De­par­tures late July to midSeptem­ber. Book­ings through Ac­tive Travel in Can­berra or Syd­ney. More: (02) 6249 6122 or (02) 9264 1231; www.ac­tive­travel.com.au.

www.as­sam­ben­gal­nav­i­ga­tion.com

Pic­ture: Rosanna de Lisle

All smiles: Youngsters wave at the boat from Ser­am­pore ghat

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