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.