Slowly Down the Ganges, Eric Newby
Earlier this year, when I finally got around to reading Eric Newby's Round Ireland in Low Gear, which had been on my TBR stacks for years, I was instantly smitten. I went on quickly to his book of autobiographical essays, A Traveller's Life, and I started collecting and reading his other books. I was especially interested in Slowly Down the Ganges, an account of a trip he took in 1963 with his wife and intrepid fellow adventurer Wanda. While I knew their trip wouldn't be anything like the Governor-General's tour of 1837-1839 that Emily Eden chronicled in Up the Country, or even Lilah Wingfield's A Glimpse of Empire in 1911, I was looking forward to comparing their experiences of India. But I was as unprepared as they were for the constant mishaps and the miserable travelling conditions that they suffered on their excruciatingly slow journey. Things got so bad at one point that Wanda threatened to leave not just the trip, but their marriage as well.
Had I paid more attention to the title of this book, I would have realized that the Newbys' journey was a mirror image of Emily Eden's. She started from Calcutta, heading up the Ganges on her way to the Punjab. The Newbys started theirs in the far north, as close as they could get to the river's source in the Himalayas, to travel its length down to Calcutta. Eric Newby admitted in the introduction that theirs would not be a great journey of exploration: "This was no uncharted river. Millions lived on its banks. . ." He wanted to explore that river, which he had first seen twenty years before, as a young officer stationed in India during the early months of World War II.
I love rivers. I was born on the banks of the Thames and, like my father before me, I had spent a great deal of time both on it and in it. I enjoy visiting their sources: Thames Head, in a green meadow in the Cotswolds; the river Po coming out from under a heap of boulders among the debris left by picnickers by Monte Viso . . . I like exploring them. I like the way in which they grow deeper and wider and dirtier but always, however dirty they become, managing to retain some of the beauty with which they were born. For me the most memorable river of all was the Ganges.
It took him more than twenty years, but he finally got back to the Ganges. On his forty-fourth birthday, he and Wanda set off on their 1200-mile journey. This was on December 6, 1963, and as with their first biking tour of Ireland, the main problem was one of timing. In northern India, winter is the dry season. When they set out, the water level in the river was falling an inch a day. In the first six days, they ran aground 63 times; with their three boatmen they ended up dragging the boat for much of the first hundred miles of the trip. The boat itself was on loan for only a few days, and there were none for sale, at least that they could afford. The Newbys frequently had to abandon the river, taking trains between towns, at each stop searching for a boat to hire or borrow. Those they did manage to find were small sailing or rowing boats, with little space for the native crews, let alone passengers and their gear. The living conditions aboard were primitive and Wanda, as the only woman, must have found them particularly difficult.
The Newbys being who they were, they still found much to enjoy in the river and in India itself. At one point, Newby described himself,
- a typical traveller in India, at one moment elevated by the splendour of the country; the next cast down by its miseries. The only thing that was constantly agreeable was the river; life on it was sometimes hard, but it was always supportable, and in some strange way it produced feelings that were a combination of elation and contentment which neither of us experienced anywhere else.
The Newbys followed their usual pattern of travel, talking to everyone they met and visiting every temple, fort, palace, and battlefield they could find (or Eric could drag Wanda to). As in his book on Ireland, Newby quoted history and legend and religious epics. Some of the names were familiar from a class on Indian history that I took long ago, though I had forgotten that there was a real Sher Khan, an Afghan invader in the late 1500s. Newby was particularly interested in the holiest sites on the Ganges, the confluences where other rivers join the great mother. He and Wanda were present at one of the major winter festivals, joining the millions who came to bathe in the icy sacred waters.
In his introduction, Newby informed his readers that his book "is not a book about India today; neither is it concerned with politics or economics." It is certainly not a travel guide, but a personal account of a particular voyage, very much off the normal tourist tracks. Even more than Lilah Wingfield, the Newbys immersed themselves in India, in the life of the river and the people who lived along it. I have no desire to follow in their footsteps, at least on those first miserable stages, but as always I am glad to travel in their company.