Slowly down the Ganges by Eric Newby

When I was up in Rishikesh, I bought this fabulous travel book, upon the recommendation of a long term resident there. Eric Newby, a British, was one of the finest travel writers in the world (interesting so many of great travel writers are British). I’ve read his A Merry Dance around the World, a collection of his best travel pieces and loved it.

In the winter of 1963-64, eccentric Briton Eric Newby, together with his faithful wife Wanda and fellow boatwoman, set out on an incredible journey: to travel along the whole length of the holy water from Rishikesh to Calcutta by boat. It covered 1,200 miles. Why? Because the author, born on the banks of Thames, always loved rivers.

Slowly indeed. In the first six days, they got strained six times. But they kept going as they struggled to find boat and boatmen, coped with upset stomach, fended off invading monkeys and other challenges. At times when there was no boat to be found, they travelled by train, bus and bullock-carts. They camped on sandbanks covered with human waste; they stayed in remote primitive villages. The Newbys encountered a vast variety of interest characters and glorious misshapes. The story is told with charm and bone-dry British human.

It’s a joy to read such a beautiful-crafted book, in which many of events and characters still resonate today. As you can imagine, I laughed and smiled from beginning to the end.

Below some fun parts I enjoyed.

In Hardware, close to Rishikesh, author wrote:

Down where we were on the waterfront, limbless beggars moved like crabs across the stones. … Hardwar was swarming with Sadhus. The Namadaris, the followers of Vishnu, had mud-packed cones of hair. …The Sivites also wore long necklaces of rudraksha seeds and their arms and forehead were smeared with burned cow-dung.

Somewhere half of the way, the author saw a madman:

Under one of the last of the forty spans of the bridge, a lunatic was sitting out in the stream on a pillar of silt fifteen feet high. This pillar, which was precariously supported by one of the buttresses of the bridge, was on the point of collapsing into the water. The lunatic was gesticulating violently and singing at the top of his voice. He seemed perfectly happy. How he had got there in the first place was a mystery, how he was to get back alive was equally incomprehensible. No one except ourselves took the slightest notice of him. This was India.

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