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DEAD IN THE WATER

So here we all are in the one place at the one time; sixteen Caledonians, six Australians, two Germans and mute Yankee Joe, all poised to cruise away up the Ganges to Varanasi.

There was just one small problem. The Mother Ship was dead.

She’d been floating, immobile in the river for a week while the owners quarreled. Finally, just this morning, the poor swan was tugged in to see the ship-doctor. Yup, she still had that broken propeller she’d had for three weeks. Right now she was high in dry-dock somewhere up-river, surrounded by shouting men and mobile phones – the passengers weren’t going anywhere.

Oh, another minor concern – nobody had told them.

*

Mobile phones at dawn. E-mails and faxes flying. A man called Singh is at the coalface, screaming into his I-phone. Who is this man called Singh? I don’t know. Everybody in tourism in India is called Singh. More Singhs cluster around the stricken ship. Boiler-suits scurry, experts are summoned, secret deals made – something horrible is happening.

By six a.m. it is apparent that, truly, once and for all, the boat cannot sail.  Someone has to tell the passengers. The mysterious man called Singh runs for cover leaving poor Sumit, the guide and man in the middle, to explain. He’s sent off on a breakfast run to announce ‘a slight delay’. We’ll be leaving after lunch. This buys another three hours.

‘Errr… we’ll be Kolkata touring this morning,’ Sumit said brightly, thinking very quickly. Off they go.

There’s no let-up at the dry-dock. A state of full emergency now declared, Mr. Singh is shrieking blue murder into a blushing I-phone. Obviously, he’s the boss. Minions dispatch, taxis arrive, mobiles bleep and rage, men in overalls hurtle up and down stairs as if pursued by the Goddess Kali, a grinder sends up a shower of Shiva sparks; Singh is spewing money, calling his pals in Parliament, pulling every stunt he knows. Whoever this man is, he does seem to come well-connected.

*

Lunch.

‘Yes?’

Twenty-five foreign faces staring.

‘Err…’

The stricken look on Sumit’s face says it all.

I won’t expose you to the relentless horror of the next forty-eight hours. Trust me, it’s boring and you don’t want to know. Just imagine that two days of utter confusion has gone by. Better still, go sit in your bathroom, lock the door and beat your head against the basin till it bleeds.

Go. Stop. Stay. Leave. Now? No? Off? On? Briefing, secret meeting, mobiles shrieking – don’t know. Go? Yes? No. Stop. Stay. E-mails firing – on? Off? Stop? Go? Don’t know. Yes? No. Definite? Certain! Maybe.

Dogster heard a cultured voice hissing into his I-phone.

‘This is costing me a fortune! Just lie. Say anything and get them on the boat!’

He looked around to see who it was. To his complete surprise, there was no-one there.

*

Somewhere in the late stages of the ordeal, the increasingly frazzled passengers and damaged ship were united. We sat fat at Ballyghat waiting, so they said, for the tide. They lied.

Every minute the engines remained idle was a minute less the boat could sail. The less the boat could sail, the less chance of making it to the destination.

Tick tick, tick tick…

In her upper deck suite M’Lady of the Dead Squire’s Manor was composing the first draft of what would soon become a lengthy letter of complaint. Next door her luvvie friends unpacked their stash of duty-free liquor.

The Queen Mother stretched out like a porpoise on a deck-chair, staring blankly at Ballyghat Bridge. She sniffed and turned her spaniel folds to the setting sun. She didn’t care.

Tick tick, tick tick…

‘Bwaawww, bwwa-w-rgh, India-h-h-h,’ one husband brayed, raising his whisky to the Kolkata skyline.

He was on board and as far as he was concerned, the cruise had begun.

Wa wa wa,’ the others muttered,’ very good, bwa-a-ah.’

Brru-u-u-urppp.

At least we knew which cabin Aussie Joe was in.

Tick tick, tick tick…

Below decks it was a very different scene. Mobiles erupted like alarm-clocks, multiple Singhs screeched orders, secret prayers flew into the night. Maybe. Yes. No. Probably. Don’t know. The boat remained trapped at Ballyghat. A launch pulled away in the darkness. I looked out to see the retreating form of a distant Singh. I couldn’t help but think of rats and sinking ships.

It wasn’t just the engine that was broken. So was the company.

Tick tick tick.

At eleven-thirty p.m. on day four of what was once a fourteen day cruise the engines kicked into life. Everybody involved breathed a heavy sigh of relief and had a beer. With the captain and the crew finally in charge, the ship shuddered and sailed into the night. They have a schedule to catch-up – and there lies the nub. They can’t do it. Nothing, not even the petulance of the owners, can make the Ganges shorter.

*

The traditional – and only – tourist excursion in Kalna is a rickshaw hurtle through town to the Nava Kailash temple complex then across the road to the Lalji, Krishnachandra and Siddeswari temples. These temples are covered with wondrous terracotta reliefs. Most groups give up after an hour – I’d like to think they were overwhelmed but that’s not true; not everybody is as into bas-relief as me.

Once sated with terracotta, the punters are scooped up by and paraded back down main-street to be dumped at the wharf, just meters from the ship. They can visit a whole Indian town and not once set foot in it. As far as everybody was concerned, this was brilliant tourism. In many ways it is. The boats swan in, disgorge, wait, swallow and sail off into the evening. Utterly non-intrusive – a tourist purist would be proud.

This is the third time the Dog has been to Kalna. This time he decided to walk. After a long, interesting street in which Dogster was easily the most interesting object, after a lengthy chat and a cup of chai with his latest, bestest Kalna friends, by the time he got to the temples his viewing time was up. Poor stupid sod didn’t know till a kindly sweeper tapped him on the shoulder.

‘Go! All go!’

They’d left Dogster behind.

Bwa-a-a-awpp-p-p, Bwa-a-a-awpp-p-p. 

Hurtling along the main street of Kalna in a rickshaw, laughing like a drain, Dog could hear the ship’s hooter.

Hu-u-urry U-u-u-p-p-p!

Of course, the Caledonians were lined up at the railing on the top deck, tut-tutting at his vulgar tardiness as he turned up ten minutes late – just another reason to loathe him.

Don’t look at them Dog, you’ll be turned into stone.

We’d been ashore for exactly ninety minutes.

‘Quick, quick, rush back! Hurry, hurry! Tsk tsk tsk.’

We sailed on up the river for the rest of the day, continued all night and didn’t stop till after lunch at Murshidabad, one hundred and forty kilometers away. I was in the Doghouse all day.

In my absence, a very curious phenomenon had taken place on the top deck.

Two lines of deckchairs faced the river bank on either side. In between them was a nest of couches for conversation and coffee tables, a kind of non-reserved space. By some unspoken agreement each Caledonian couple took charge of two deckchairs. The singles were slotted in between them. No words exchanged; no towels nailed to the furniture, everything understood, the Claiming Of Chairs was accomplished. The same couples went to the same deckchairs every day, without fail. If they were not there, the deckchairs remained empty.

The prime spots were two sets of chairs either side of the captain’s cabin, the only ones facing forward. The Lady of the Manor spread her ample behind on two of them, piled the table high with books and settled in for the duration. She had her throne. Her luvvy pals did the same on the other side. The Australians and the Germans hovered down the back or in the sun; out of sight and out of the Caledonian mind.

The Nobles took their rightful place in the dress circle, limply surveying the passing scene. They beckoned a colored lad to bring them libation, patronized him gently with a distant sniff of encouragement then settled back into the silence, positively bovine, a symphony in pastel. Lined up like exhibits in a wax-museum, the Caledonian circus waved languidly to the packs of screeching children lining the banks.

This is a new occurrence along the Hoogli. Every village we passed became a scream of ‘Bye bye! Bye bye!’ chanted by every child in the village. We were their signal to run riot. They’d appear in marauding packs on the riverbank screeching this single phrase over and over again.

‘Bye bye!’ shouted the tourists, ‘bye bye!’ and waved as hard as they could. The flesh under their arms wobbled ferociously, like the gobble under an angry turkey’s neck.

‘Bye bye,’ screamed the children.

‘Bye bye!’ shouted the tourists, ‘bye bye!’ and waved as hard as they could. Wobble, wobble, wobble.

‘Bye bye, bye bye, bye bye,’ screeched the children. It’s only cute the first dozen times. One little boy ran down to a rock, dropped his pants and wiggled his brown arse at the tourists.

‘Bye bye bye bye!’

‘Oh,’ said M’Lady.

Behind him another ten or so lads were holding the forefinger of each hand in the air. ‘Bye bye, bye, bye, bye bye!’ they screamed, dancing with feral joy, all the time giving us the multiple finger.

‘Oh,’ said her friend, ‘dear, oh dear.’

They went back to their books and refused to look up, ever again.

*

We pulled away from the river bank at Matiari with scarcely a shudder. The small crowd on shore drifted away. I didn’t hear the splash.

I looked back and saw two men on the bank, beating at an animal down below. There was a sheer drop of a metre, maybe more in parts, carved away with the relentless force of the river. Trying to clamber out, trying to claw its way to safety was a huge buffalo. It would lunge up, the men would beat at it and then inevitably the beast would fall back into the water.

Poor Mr. Buffalo, I was thinking. Why are these people hitting him? Swim, buffalo, swim…

Now, I don’t know if buffalos can swim. Generally ‘swimming’ and ‘buffalo’ are not words that live in the same sentence – but what do I know? Evidently this one was not a particularly aquatic buffalo – he didn’t last very long. I watched for another lunge, saw the frantic paddle, heard the whack, a bellow and then it was all over, red rover. Two grey horns sank quietly beneath the muddy waters of the Hoogli. I watched and waited but they never came up.

Now, I thought, that’s something you don’t see every day.

‘Killer buffalo,’ said the manager from over my shoulder.

‘So they drowned him?’ I asked, still searching for those horns. ‘He is a monster buffalo. He killed two people. He had the evil eye.’

‘Now he is an ex-buffalo,’ I said seriously and wiggled my head back at him.

The manager laughed and laughed and laughed. He’d never heard that before.

The killer buffalo of Matiari tumbled over and over in the current, plunging down the river on its way to the ocean.  Wide buffalo eyes stared blindly into muddy water; great grey buffalo horns carved a path downstream through the soft Hoogli mud. The ship ploughed on up. They were both dead in the water.

*

 

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