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.

The Bridge Across Forever

“When Brahm ceases to dream, the Gods go…”
– Rudyard Kipling, The Bridge Builders

Findlayson of the Public Works Department would be proud. The bridge that he, Findlayson, C.S.I., built still stands after one hundred and  forty years. It’s stone piers, capped with red Agra stone, and sunk eighty feet into the shifting ooze of the Ganges’ bed, have stood up to monsoonal floods and catastrophic collisions. Its carefully engineered lattice of girders and trusses, Findlayson trusses, have stood up to the ever-increasing live load stresses created by the flood of vehicles and people crossing it every day. Its two brick piers, facing each other across the river, “loop-holed for musketry and pierced for big guns”, are as clean and fresh as the day the bridge was opened by the Viceroy.

“Loop-holed for musketry…”

The Dufferin Bridge, also known as the Kashi Bridge and by its official (since 1948) name Malviya Bridge, spans the Ganges at Varanasi, just north of the Raj Ghat. This area of Varanasi is way beyond the tourists. This is workaday Benares. Buffaloes chew their cuds beside a rotting timber boat. The rusted remains of a river steamer, its hull pocked with corrosion, its boiler gaping open like a sightless skull, lies half-buried in Ganges mud. A group of men surreptitiously play cards on the ground beside a pile of funeral pyre wood. And dominating the scene, the bridge steps across the river into the hazy, half-seen forever of the northern bank.

In his short story The Bridge Builders, published in 1898 in his collection of stories titled The Day’s Work, Rudyard Kipling describes a catastrophic flood sent by the Gods to destroy the bridge before its completion. The bridge’s Chief Engineer, Findlayson, gets caught up in the flood along with his Indian serang (overseer) Peroo and, together, they are swept away and are washed up on an island. Peroo gives his half-drowned master some opium to revive him and Findlayson has a vision of the enraged Gods discussing the bridge.

“They have chained my flood, and my river is not free any more,” snarls a crocodile, the blunt-nosed, ford-haunting Mugger of the Ganges. “Heavenly Ones, take this yoke away! Give me clear water between bank and bank.”

The Gods rage against the bridge and against the “fire-carriages”, trains, that were beginning to criss-cross the sacred landscapes of India. But amid the rage there is also reason.

“Let the dirt dig in the dirt,” the elephant-headed god Ganesh says to Mother Gunga. “My people grow rich [with the trade enabled by the roads and the railways] and praise me.

The gods argue to and fro. But the waters are dropping. Mother Gunga has done her best but the “fire-carriages” will still thread their way across the land, each one bearing “a thousand pilgrims” to worship at the altars of the Gods. 

“Be content, Gunga,” the Tigress says. “Neither these men nor those that follow them mock thee at all.”

The flood subsides, the sun comes out. Findlayson and Peroo are rescued and the bridge is completed. But Peroo understands the ramifications of the fire-carriages and the roads. He understands what the new rulers of India, The British, and their single, all-powerful God means for the old gods.

“When Brahm ceases to dream, the gods go,” he says to himself as he and Findlayson are taken back upriver to the undamaged Kashi Bridge.

I thought of Kipling’s story as I explored the southern approach of the bridge. Up on the deck, the traffic on the Grand Trunk Road, which stretches from Dhaka, in Bangladesh, all the way to Lahore, in Pakistan, thundered and roared. In the dank, shady confines below, fires smouldered beside shanties of tin and tar-paper. Dogs prowled the rubbish-heaps and filthy children eyed me suspiciously. On the face of the red-brick bridge tower, beside the railway lines, was a plaque:  

O. & R. R. Co.
THE DUFFERIN BRIDGE
MEMBERS OF THE COMPANY’S STAFF ASSOCIATED WITH
THE PROJECTION AND CONSTRUCTION OF THIS BRIDGE,
IN ENGLAND
SIR JOHN PENDER, CHAIRMAN.
MAJOR-GENERAL C. C. JOHNSTON, R.E., MANAGING DIRECTOR
W. F. BATHO, Esq, M. I. C. E., CONSULTING ENGINEER (UP TO HIS DEATH)
J. W. H. JAMES, Esq., M. I. C. E., DITTO  DITTO (PRESENT)
IN INDIA
AT HEADQUARTERS.
COLONEL J. H. JENKINS, B. S. C. AGENT
H. B. HEDERSTEDT, M. I. C. E.,  CHIEF ENGINEER
BABU RAMGOPAL VIDYANT, ASSISTANT DO
ON THE BRIDGE WORKS
F. T. C. WALTON, Esq, M. I. C. E. RESIDENT ENGINEER IN CHARGE OF THE BRIDGE
S. CRAWSHAW, Esq, ASSISTANT ENGINEER
——————
The following Consulting Engineers to Government held Office
at Lucknow during the projection and construction of the Bridge.
MAJOR-GENERAL R. D. DeBOURBEL, R. E.
COLONEL E. DAVIDSON, R. E.
COLONEL C. H. LUARD, R. E.
COLONEL R. C. B. PEMBERTON, R. E.
COLONEL T  F. DOWDEN, R. E.
—————-
The general features of the bridge were determined
by Messrs. Batho & Hederstedt.
The steel girders and the plant and appliances used in
erecting them, and in sinking the foundations of the piers,
were designed by Mr. Batho.  All the other
portions of the bridge were designed by Mr. Hederstedt
—————-

These were the people that Kipling knew; the inspiration for the characters in The Bridge Builders. There were no tourists here. There was just me, the ghosts of Findlayson and Peroo, and the roar and rattle of traffic on the steel lattices of the bridge across forever.