We have been cruising up the Hooghly from Calcutta to Farakka, upstream in time through Bengal’s colonial era, past the Nawabi, to its pre-Islamic capital in Gour. Now it’s time to go home. The Shatabdi Express hurtles south, past acres of paddy radiant in the early spring light. It will cover in four hours the distance we’ve sailed over seven days. A man sits transfixed at his window that bears a large spider crack, his book neglected. He is a former director at Sotheby’s and a serious collector of old India photographs. A lush land rushes by, dotted with wiry men and women, hair-pin bent, magicians all. They fill the immense canvas by hand, pixel by green pixel, clear to the horizon. Is the crack bothering him? “Not at all, it looks like an old photograph!” Over the past week, he and I have seen a panoply of old photographs, of mute ruins and of vibrant immutable life, the river’s gift to us. But perhaps we haven’t seen the same photographs.
We sail from Calcutta on a dreary day, the iconic Howrah bridge shrouded in haze, aboard a luxuriously appointed pleasure boat. North of the city, the river widens, with magnificent homes along the shore. One with white Doric columns, green shutters and deep louvered verandahs suggests loneliness more than solitude. Slim fishing dinghies lay nets crisscrossing the river, buoyed with bits of styrofoam. Our 51m x 11m behemoth snakes up the river dodging these nets.
We anchor at Chandannagore, its illuminated strand bejewelled against a rainy February night. My 25 travel companions are mostly British, some Dutch, and all in their 70s. There is a bug-eyed and jovial British man, a star judge in line for knighthood; a large and warm British woman, a professional harpist who regales us with Mongolian throat-singing one evening; a spirited and sensitive Dutch headmistress who scolds and loves in equal measure. And we have a tour guide, singularly hobbled by the scourge of certainty, whom the British don’t mind and the Dutch can’t stand.
For most of our shore excursions, our ship stays anchored mid-river while we board a country boat that otherwise remains lashed to the ship. After breakfast we go ashore to view Chandannagore’s Sacred Heart Church (c. 1690) with its exquisite stained glass. The pastor is a swarthy rotund man named Orson Welles. Interesting name. “Why?” he asks, evidently not a fan of cinema, then stiffening up, says, “My grandfather was English. He married a Bengali woman as a tribute to their beauty.” The curious mix of angst and gloat in him is a wrenching reminder of our colonial baggage.
As we sail north past Chinsurah, the Dutch are miffed that we are not stopping to see the Dutch cemetery. The British quip: “We’ve heard that you didn’t last long here.” The Dutch respond: “Aren’t you ashamed of what you did to the Indians?” The ribbing is good-natured, but this vestige of colonial horseplay renders me — the colonized — invisible and makes me squirm. I am relieved when we sail under the Coronation Jubilee bridge (c. 1887) and anchor at the Hooghly Imambara (c. 1861), decidedly leaving the river’s colonial stretch behind.
Outside the Imambara, bright-eyed children play barefoot in the cold rain and watch the visitors from bitterly cold countries file past, armoured with layers of fleece and flannel. The Imambara’simpressive clock-tower sweepingly surveys a bend in the river that nestles our ship. After the visit, a British woman bends over to put her shoes on, exposing her pink intergluteal cleavage, as two figures swathed in black burqas sidle by.
The following day breaks dazzlingly sunny, ideal for viewing the magnificent terracotta temples at Kalna. The plaques chiefly depict stories from the epics and the Puranas, but possibly under river hypnosis I gravitate towards those with boats. Krishnachandraji temple (c. 1751) has exquisite boats equipped with enormous rudders, steered by men fighting toothy river monsters. But the terracotta artistry seen here is surpassed later in the week at the Char Bangla temples (c. 1755) at Baranagar. My favorite is a rustic scene: three ladies in a boat, knees tucked under their chins, chatting with the bare-chested and top-knotted boatman.
We float languorously through the ravishing Gangetic Bengal, both shores lined with paddy, maize, mango orchards, and idyllic villages. As we sail north towards Nabadwip, I notice dinghies loaded with alluvium, harvested with buckets hitched to bamboo poles, bound for brick factories whose chimneys dot the shore. The river here is under assault. Inside, the wi-fi in our plush lounge briefly blinks to life, enabling the judge to send in a crucial judgement to London. Outside, a high bank calves; Apu and Durga in a potato field hand out kilowatt smiles and vigorous waves.
Nabadwip’s Poramatolla holds its charm even on my third visit. Angkor-like, a stupendous banyan is destroying a pair of temples while helpfully scaffolding them. But unlike Angkor, these temples are vibrantly alive. Geeta, 74, widowed young and childless, has taken refuge here in a niche. House-proud, she fusses about her dishevelled blanket andmoothes it for me. At 3pm, her begging bowl has Rs 14, she thinks it’ll be Rs 30 by 5pm, enough for dinner. Then she shares something that mystifies her: these foreigners never give anything. Ora hu hu kore ashey, hu hu kore jay. Ki je oder niyom ke jane! — they surge and recede like floods, who knows what their customs are!
As we sail, I hear strains of ecstatic kirtan swirling across the river in the evening breeze: ekbar badon bhore hori balo, bhai. It is mid-week and our travel party has congealed, or rather clotted. I learn that the harpist’s father was an Anglican missionary in Rwanda, where she was born. She is travelling with her friend, born in Lahore, whose father was the deputy commissioner of Punjab. The sun sets as we contemplate the Empire in which it didn’t.
A pale pink dawn unveils a tattered moon on rippled waters. Cozy in bed, I gaze at this scene out the large sliding doors in my cabin that open out to river views. A man glides by in a tiny boat fashioned ingeniously from a bit of corrugated tin. He does not look up, as if our ship has always been part of the landscape.
As we disembark at the brass artisans’ village of Matiari, we can hear the distant clanging of the craftsmen beating their ware into shape. At the brand new IWAI jetty, a Vivada ship is anchored. Shiploads of foreign tourists troop through this village, sometimes two ships in one day. Does this bother you, I ask Nitin Karmakar, generational brass worker. “No, why should it? They’ve come all this way to see us, it makes us happy. But they don’t affect our business.” Matiari sells vast quantities of brass buckets and large trays used by servers in Bengali wedding banquets. Muscular objects, quite different from the fey little knick-knacks the tourists can carry home.
Near Katwa we are joined by a band of Bauls, the blithe bards of rural Bengal. They perform for us on the breezy sundeck of the moving ship, as if we are feudal lords of yore. Shanti Haldar, group elder, sings in a gravelly voice: nodir bnaao janona keno dharo haal — why grasp the rudder when you can’t fathom the river. As if to prove the old Baul’s point, our guide provides a murderous translation, opening with: “This song is all about Hare Krishna.” The mild-mannered elderly visitors sip their chilled white wine and nod in a spiritual haze.
The British are sombre at Plassey. This is the mythical fulcrum. Some of them have come all this way on the wings of Plassey and the Black Hole, tit and tat. Our guide describes events of the 18th “cent-ssury” when “Byangawl was a ssoklet keck everybody vanted a piss of.” We see the chocolate cake around us, it has taken over the battlefield: acres upon glorious acres of paddy, the river’s largesse. In a mud-thatch home at the edge of the fields, Ruksana Khatun has no time for Siraj or Clive. She has a mustard harvest to tend to, cows to feed, and a one-year-old to restrain.
Back on the river, dusk brings a profusion of birdlife. A large flock of brown-headed gulls fly overhead in a canopy, their wings aglow in the fading light. A gaggle of Brahminy ducks pose on a sand bank in ochre resplendence. Sand martins nest in little cubby holes in the high banks. Swiftsdip and wheel, hunting bugs. Open-billed storks swoop low. The river pales to a film of mauve-grey as the birds come home in the gloaming.
We sail into Murshidabad and the Nawabi stretch. Siraj’s nondescript grave at Khushbagh is anti-climactic. More moving is the soil-topped grave of Murshid Quli Khan at Katra Masjid (c. 1723). Even with a fallen main dome, Katra has sublime acoustics that begs a song. So I sing, a bhatiyali (boatman) song of unrequited love. There, in that damaged mosque, a dam ruptures. A British woman weeps, the Dutch headmistress hugs me, a Dutch man effusively proclaims that bhatiyali sounds just like the Gregorian chants. And I’m sure he’s right. The river has glued us.
At the idyllic village of Baranagar, the children surge around me. They sing songs, recite tables and follow me in a swarm to the spectacular terracotta temples in their village. It is almost surely my Bengali, but flattered, I tarry awhile as the rest of the group returns to the ship. Our country boat comes to fetch me at a ghat different from where we had landed, and we realise that our bamboo gangplank has remained at the other ghat about 200m away. The four boys still with me jump in for a joyride between the two ghats.
In this group is Shubho, 9, a quiet and sensitive boy. As soon as the boat leaves the bank, I see his limpid eyes well up; the ship looms large, he is leaving home. His pals sense his anxiety and tease him mercilessly. The boatman joins in: “They’ll kidnap you! Do you have any idea how far these white people are going?” Warm tears now, but we’re already at the other ghat. The boys scram, all infected with Shubho’s relief. And I am stung by Shubho’s sense of place. My dual-citizenship — in the ship’s world and his — feels gauzy. His taut rootedness discloses my living at half pressure.
The following dawn brings a thin skin of fog on the river. Our palace moves on carrying pale visitors and memories. Pebble sunk, the pond-life settles back. Lithe men in minuscule canoes unfurl fishing nets to coax a living from the river. The luminous women of rural Bengal come swaying down to the water bearing heavy brass utensils and scrub them with alluvium until they turn into gold. A pied kingfisher stalls and dives. On the river, it is just another day.
The Assam Bengal Navigation Company runs 7N/8D Hooghly river cruises, both upstream and downstream, on two luxury vessels, Sukapha and Rajmahal. I was aboard the brand new Rajmahal heading upstream on its maiden voyage. The main deck houses the kitchen, dining area, spa, 4 double occupancy and 4 single occupancy cabins. The upper deck has 14 double occupancy cabins and a charming saloon with its own adjoining open deck. All cabins are air-conditioned, tastefully done, spacious, en suite, and equipped with a private tea/coffee station. The top deck is a vast outdoor lounging area replete with cane deck chairs and a mini-bar. The cruise begins and ends in Calcutta.
The high season rate for a double occupancy cabin on the upper deck is $2,675 + 3.09% tax (about Rs 1, 75,000) per person on a twin share basis. For a complete list of rates check the company’s website (assambengalnavigation.com). Price includes 3 elaborate buffet meals per day and unlimited caffeine. Drinks, laundry, camera fees, and tips are extra.
The company’s well-appointed website, assambengalnavigation.com, has details of each day’s plans for this week-long cruise, information on their vessels, seasons and sailing dates.
All excursions ashore are optional. If you have to opt out (the heat and humidity ashore can be taxing in the summer months), try not to miss the rural stops. Knowledge of Bengali will make a world of difference. The excursion to Gour involves 4–6 hours roundtrip on roads that are often plugged up with trucks bound for Bangladesh. While aboard, you will, in fact, be bathing in the river. There is a water treatment plant on board but it is no match for Hooghly’s infamous turbidity. All drinking water is bottled and supplied free of charge.