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P. Guy (Sydney)

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Slowly Down the Ganges (Picador Books)
Slowly Down the Ganges (Picador Books)
by Eric Newby
Edition: Paperback

21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Himalayan Foothills/Bay of Bengal Express, 26 April 2003
Unlike his grounded colleague, the river traveller can indulge his bent for distraction only so far. His route is more or less fixed; certainly his destination is final. And so it is to Eric Newby's credit for eliciting from this journey 300 pages worth of erudite and witty observances, for it is essentially a procession of waterborne shuttles, one ghat to the next, punctuated only by the occasional onshore foray, the function of which mostly being to secure boat and crew for the succeeding leg. I suspect, though, that Newby could glean 300 pages from a dinghy ride in a swimming pool, and that that too would be immensely readable.
The archetypical harrassed traveller, at every turn events conspire to defeat or, at the least, humiliate Newby. The atmosphere of the journey is established during preparations which smack of the comical: "I had even bought an immense bamboo pole from the specialist shop in the bazaar as a defence against dacoits whose supposed whereabouts were indicated on some rather depressing maps which G. [their sometime native companion] had annotated with this and similar information, in the same way mediaeval cartographers had inscribed 'Here be dragons' on the blank expanses of their productions." In any case, these maps proved unserviceable. Because of hostilities with China, Indian Defence Regulations of the time (1963) were so stringent that it was impossible to buy large-scale maps of India of any kind. (At any rate, many maps of the Ganges are unashamedly indecisive of its course owing to the shifting alluvial bed.)
Typically, arrangements that had been made in advance proved to be anything but arranged. The vessel intended to provide passage through the upper reaches of the Ganges was discovered to be in such a state of disrepair that use of it in a bathtub would have endangered lives. Attempts to procure another led Newby on an endeavour which he describes thus: "What we were doing in this instance was the equivalent in Britain of waking a fairly senior officer of the Metropolitan Water Board at a quarter to seven on a Winter's morning, in order to ask him to wake a yet more senior official and request the loan of a boat from one of the reservoirs in order to go down to Southend." Of course, the acquisition of another vessel appeased their troubles only momentarily.
The journey proper was fraught from the outset: "It is difficult to describe the emotions that one feels when one is aground on a twleve-hundred-mile boat journey within hailing distance of one's point of departure." When not stranded upon a shoal Newby is confounded by the various tributaries shooting off this way and that. About this he consults the only man in India worse off than he: "There was only one person to ask the way from, an old man sitting alone on the shingle, but he was not very helpful. 'I don't know where I am,' he said."
When defeated by such circumstances Newby must, to advance his journey, venture ashore and seek out assistance. This demands the infiltration of the interminable mores of Indian society, a kind of mystic bureaucracy under which the populace shuns reason in favour of the myriad allegorical incarnations of the pantheon of mythic figures. He says of making even the most innocent inquiry: "But I knew that this was not the kind of question that can be asked in India -- it was too logical and would therefore cause grave offence." He shortly arrives at the conclusion: "In India it is possible to win every battle but the last one."
During such battles Newby often retreats to his arsenal of introductions, formal letters written by state officials and the like, the ace up the sleeve of the traveller at tether's end. Not surprisingly these missives of officialdom are met by the Indian everyman with bemusement or else total indifference. His choicest letter, that from the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, is singled for particularly devastating apathy.
Newby's travelling companion, his wife, the long-suffering Wanda, is rendered something of an enigma in SLOWLY DOWN THE GANGES. Apart from delivering Newby from the dire gastric consequences of provincial Indian foods ("Wanda had produced [white radishes] artfully from a mysterious-looking bag.") her reason for being appears mostly to be for materialising at inopportune moments, usually the apex of some maddening asperity, in order to scorch the occasion with some withering remark. This surely had Newby tearing at his hair, but the narrative is infused with a rich vein of self-deprecating humour because of it. (Their courtship, which was borne of hardships much graver, is recounted in another of Newby's titles, 'LOVE AND WAR IN THE APINNENES')
Newby's own wit is deliciously dry. Unlike many contemporary travel writers he does not over-reach for a laugh or rely on out-and-out ridicule. However, his capacity for a descriptive turn of phrase is tested here. Certainly there are scapes that would arrest the senses of even the most impassive observer - shores lined with crazed sadhus and puja-devoted villagers, a river strewn with the pungent remnants of funerary pyres - but there is little variation on this theme for 1200 miles. And if the scenery is unchanging, then the characters - those folk along the way who lend a travel narrative its colour - are positively inanimate. Newby does admirably though, adroitly drawing from the cultural abyss the idiosyncrasies and personality interplay of guides and boatmen.

And so, his route may be fixed and his destination final, but Newby never fails to appreciate the telling advantage he holds over his grounded colleague: "The only consolation about being lost on a river is that if you go on downstream you are bound to arrive somewhere different, unlike being lost in a forest, where you are quite likely to end up where you started at the beginning of the day."
****1/2 stars.

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