FROM FAIRLIE TO HOWRAH

And the dawn comes up like thunder, outta China, ‘crost the bay…
– Rudyard Kipling, Mandalay

Travelling is a series of vignettes and coincidences. As you move through landscapes and cross continents, you see things that remind you of home. You see familiar faces in crowds of complete strangers. Doppelgangers appear and disappear on platforms and street corners. Smells and sounds take you back to places long forgotten. Ironic wording on billboards and signs make you smile or snigger or, occasionally, laugh out loud. And coincidences sideswipe you in the most unexpected of places.

The scrolling sign in the embarkation shed beside the Hoogley read “Howrah to Fairlie.” I was watching it as I walked down the ramp towards a scowling attendant guarding the landing stage beside which a battered river ferry was moored. At first I thought it was a mis-print: common in India where English isn’t so much a second language as an add-on to Hindi, able to be mangled and mashed as required.

But there it was, Howrah to Fairle, scrolling from right to left in crimson neon on a rectangular screen fixed to the grubby wall above the attendant’s chair. Fairlie. The small country town in South Canterbury on New Zealand’s South Island. Fairlie. The place where I’d spent so many of my formative years; the place my wife came from and where her parents still live.  During my fifteen years as a High Country shepherd I had worked on farms and stations all around Fairlie. I’d been drunk in Fairlie. I had done my shopping in Fairlie. The Fairlie vet had treated my sheepdogs; the Fairlie garages had repaired my vehicles. Fairlie. It was a place so far removed in space and time from where I now stood, on the left bank of the Hooghly River in central Kolkata, that it seemed to belong to another world. Yet here I was, in Fairlie, waiting for a ferry to Howrah.

I crossed the river. The ferry was almost empty. I stood on the second deck in the cool breeze. The river shone like a strip of burnished copper in the morning sun. Upstream, the Hoogly Bridge stretched itself from bank to bank like a giant grey Meccano model. Water hyacinths drifted in the current, taking all their support and nourishment from the river. They reminded me of another great river, the Congo, deep in the dark heart of Africa, which Linda and I had floated down years before. 

On the south back the ferry nudged against a steel pontoon jetty. The deckhand moored it with a greasy rope, easing double hitches around the bitts welded inboard of the ferry’s forward fairlead. I stepped ashore. The other passengers climbed a covered ramp and disappeared into the crowds of commuters erupting from Howrah Station. I stayed on the jetty. Brick warehouses towered over the waterline. On a tiny concrete ghat, people washed their clothes and bathed. Slender wooden fishing boats, with ramshackle deck shelters of sticks and plastic arched amidships, lay moored to the muddy shore.     

The steel punts of the jetty clanged and creaked in the current. The river’s opaque water, swirling around the hulls with a sibilant hiss, had its source in the snowfields of the Himalayas: as distant in time and space as I was from those far-off days when I was a shepherd in the hills around Fairlie. Soon, the river would flow out into the Bay of Bengal and its waters would return to the endless cycle of evaporation and precipitation. I sat on a bollard looking across the river to another Fairlie, on the far shore. And the sun came up like thunder.    

‘an the dawn comes up like thunder…

FOOTNOTE: I have a 1908 copy of Barrack-room Ballads by Rudyard Kipling which includes his poem Mandalay.

CONFLUENCE

Few things can prepare you for your first sight of the River Ganges…

The driver was lost. Confused by the labyrinth of one-way streets, roadblocks, police checkpoints and conflicting signposts he became disoriented and anxious. His battered Ola cab bumped along a rutted, potholed street running diagonally across a wide, empty expanse of empty ground and was brought to a stop by a barricade of bright orange plastic barriers. He fiddled with the map on his phone. I fiddled with mine. It was obvious that we could go no further. I paid the fare and began to walk.

MY FIRST GLIMPSE OF THE RIVER GANGES.

I knew that the river lay somewhere to my left. I squeezed between the row of barriers, crossed a stretch of bare earth where coloured saris lay drying in the sun and followed a long straight road framed by shady peepal trees. There were tiny shrines around some of the trees: painted effigies, brass symbols, offerings of flowers and coloured rice. Dogs lazed in the shade. I paused at a chai stall beneath a spreading fig tree and drank a cup of hot, sweet, spicy tea. The road climbed a rise along which ran a busy street, crowded with buses and pilgrims. Beyond it lay the river.  

Few things can prepare you for your first sight of the River Ganges. In the course of my travels I have been lucky enough to see many of the world’s great rivers. I have seen the River Thames in London, the Bow River in Alberta and the Murray River in Australia. I have floated down the River Nile in Egypt, the Congo River in Zaire and the Yangtze River in China. I have seen the headwaters of the Indus in Pakistan, crossed the Niger River in North Africa and the Hudson River in New York.  

And now, here I was, standing beside the greatest river in the world: Mother Ganga. She lay brown and wide, her sleek surface rippled by the warm wind gusting downstream beneath the Old Naini Bridge. Her banks were a sea of dried silt. It was summer in India and the river was at her lowest flow. The water was a pallid brown colour. It hissed around the moored steel pontoons of a bailey bridge and eddied amongst the swimmers and bathers on the muddy ghats. Downstream, crouched in the haze, lay the temples of Prayagraj.  

The Triveni Sangam is the place where India’s three sacred rivers, the Ganges, the Yamuna and the Sarasvati, converge. For Hindus it is one of the most propitious places in the universe and to bathe in the waters here is to dispel all the profane sins of the soul and guarantee liberation from the endless cycle of rebirth and death. The Prayag Kumbh Mela Festival, held here every twelve years, is the world’s largest religious gathering. In 2013, one hundred and twenty million people attended the festival. The vast, empty expanses of bare ground I had walked across to reach the river became temporary cities, heaving with the mass of humanity that comes to celebrate at the Triveni Sangam.

I walked across the steel-decked bailey bridge to the opposite bank of the river. Graceful white herons waited in the shallows with endless patience for a passing minnow. Fishermen in rough wooden boats cast their nets beneath the concrete piers of the New Yamuna Bridge. A continuous stream of trucks and scooters rattled across the bridge raising a fine miasma of silty dust. The wire-rope guardrails were festooned with tangles of cotton streamers. Three women in bright saris – one blue, one green and one orange – walked ahead of me.  

Beyond the water’s edge the river flats stretched away, flat and grey under a sky of brass. The wind whipped up the silt into a gritty haze. A sadhu with dreadlocks wrapped around his head like a turban sat gazing out across the water, lost in some devotional reverie. Downstream, I could see the temples of the Triveni Sangam, floating in the shimmering air like the castles of Nirvana above the confluence of the sacred rivers.