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'This is the story of a twelve-hundred-mile journey down the Ganges from the place where it enters the Plains of India to the Sandheads, forty miles offshore in the Bay of Bengal, made by two Europeans in the winter of 1963-4' (p. 13).
The two Europeans are Newby and his long-suffering wife, Wanda, who threatens to - but amazingly doesn't - leave him during this seemingly shambolic excursion through the navigable length of the great river Ganges. The pair arrive at Hardwar in possession of a letter of reference from then-Prime Minister Nehru, no less, but without having ascertained that a suitable boat might be available. Consequently, when they finally secure one through more good luck than good management, it proves to draw too much water for the depth of the river, at that time of year, and they spend most of the first several days (and intermittently thereafter) bodily hauling the thing over the rocks.
Fortunately, at least for Newby and his wife, the hired help did most of the work, which is another theme of the book which rings a little discordantly. It is difficult to coax much real adventure out of hiring a boat and then moaning (at length and tiresomely) that the crew do not seem much interested in hard rowing to hasten the journey.
Newby writes well, presumably reworking rough notes from a diary, though it occasionally becomes noticeable that he is conveying composite impressions, rather than anything that necessarily happened:
'At seven the fog was still thick, but now the sun was trying to force its way through. It was bitterly cold. Overhead, a thin sliver of moon was fading in a sky that was becoming, every moment, a deeper shade of blue. ... Then the sun began to come up and everything was tinged a dull bronze.' - pp. 107-108
(Theroux is either better at this kind of elaboration, or alternatively his notes are genuinely exhaustive; I have not yet caught him out in any such clumsy passage.)
Newby assumes a knowledge of Indian history (particularly the Mutiny, in which I became quite interested) and a presumably military terminology, which I do not possess. For example:
'I walked through the Civil Lines, past vast, old bungalows, some of them built before the mutiny in 1857. ... In the six months I had been at Fatehgarh I had never seen [the Degree College]. I had never even visited the Civil Lines.' - p. 156
What the hell are "lines" in this context? My Shorter Oxford does not illuminate me, unless they be a "connected series of field-works." He becomes yet more arcane with this little gem:
'The manufacture of "provision" opium, opium intended for export, began at the end of April and continued until the end of July. What eventually resulted from the various processes was a sphere the size of twenty-four-pound cannon ball....' - p. 242
The reader will no doubt discern how appallingly sheltered my life has been as I am compelled to confess that I have no idea just how big a 24 pound cannon ball might be. I found the following passage rather more intelligible; it is Christmas Day in Kanpur, and the Newbys have gone to church:
'The congregation consisted of some twenty of the British Colony and a number of Anglo-Indians who made brave efforts to look their best; but although we sang lustily and smiled benignly when we thought anyone was looking in our direction, it was no passport to the British colony and although, as the bank official had told Wanda previously when he had cashed her cheque, everyone knew who we were and where we had come from, we walked out of the church without anyone saying a word to us.
'"If they behaved like this with the Indians then they deserved to be massacred," Wanda said' - pp. 182-183
It is this sort of simple, human observation that enervates this book. Certainly the trip itself seems insufficiently motivated and poorly organised, but the reportage makes the effort of reading it worthwhile. Not a pager-turner, but interesting and competent.
Look and Feel: My edition is the usual matt-finish paperback. Photographs are matt b&w, and the reproduction somewhat grainy. There is no index.
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