A monsoonal cruise on the Hooghly River provides a gentle introduction to India, discovers Rosanna de Lisle
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
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.
All smiles: Youngsters wave at the boat from Serampore ghat