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DEATH ON THE GANGES

What a scene. Samaria.

A sight from the Old Testament sprawled in front of us; a misty sea of tents, humpies, ramshackle hovels overlaid with drifting smoke; five thousand people – ten, twenty, who knows? Tent city extended forever. On the ghats nine great cremation fires roared into the sky, hell and heaven swirling into an endless Bihar twilight.

This has been a religious site for centuries; a township that grew up around faith. Once a year it mushrooms into this extraordinary prayer-party. The air was full of chanting, the world was full of life – for the first time since I’d left Kolkata India lay before me, all of a sudden, I was alive too. The pastel half-life I’d been living fell into perspective.

‘If you don’t let me off here to explore, I will kill you,’ I smiled sweetly to a Singh. He scurried away.

‘Oh-h-h, no-o-o,’ Lady Bracknell said loftily, ‘I wouldn’t want to go down there amongst them.’

‘Them? Who are them?

She gestured at the scene.

Those people.’

She managed to invest as much loathing in those two words as her theatrical namesake poured into a handbag.

‘They won’t eat you, you know…’

‘Just the same…’

‘Do you think they’ll kidnap you?’

‘I just don’t want to be near them, that’s all,’ she pulled a face, ‘the smell. The hands…’

Dead people, dead people; I’m sailing with dead people. Slow death on the fast-flowing Ganges. Get me outta here.

*

The vista became a sea of candles, the drifting smoke from fires, districts bound together with chanting. Every area seemed to have its own sub-culture of priests of all shapes and sizes, all with a P.A. system and a tribe of acolytes, all intent on maintaining their 24/7 prayer vigil; ram ram, ram ram… ram ram ram-ming into the night. By the time we landed and clambered ashore, it was six-thirty p.m; a dirty orange moon hung low, overpowered by the haze. More tourism in the dark. The Samaria fair was, if not closed down, closing fast as we arrived– it was dinner time for the pilgrims; cooking fires and pungent smells, women squatting over clay ovens dug from the dirt, clustered in front of make-shift homes.

This looked like desperate poverty but actually, it was pure faith gone camping. What seemed like shambolic ruin was really a highly organized pilgrimage. This religious fair lasts forty-five days. They come for the duration.

The briefest of visits was allowed. Two policemen came to find me, crouched slurping chai at a stall, stood patiently waiting till I finished, then escorted me back to the ship. The gangway was dismantled and we slipped off the bank, drifting with the current to the middle of the river to anchor.

From the ship the noise at night was mesmerizing. Chanting and prayers meshed in a magical hum, distant drums, distant drummers, the sing-song of Samaria. I sat with my windows open, drifting away to far-flung Hindi Babel. Smoke belched from the cremation fires, flames and faithful climbing high in the black Bihar sky. Samaria is a very good place to die.

Yankee Joe slipped silently out of her room at one am, padded softly along the deck in bare feet and disappeared downstairs to his berth on the lower deck. His work was done. Another death, live from the Ganges. Long live ‘La petit mort’.

After a while she came out, stood silent, leaning on the rail. Her dress billowed in the night breeze, her hair was down, she was the mad scene from ‘Lucia’ sans gore. By the look of her, our mute American found his tongue. The Great Siege Tunnels of Gibraltar have been breached.

Around midnight the wind changed.

My cabin filled with the sweet smell of burnt Hindu.

At six-thirty am, escorted by a phalanx of khaki muscle, the punters filed through the gathering crowds of curious onlookers and threaded their way up the bank. Policemen beat the pilgrims away. Eyes downcast, bunching together lest they touch an Indian, the group advanced. Dogster was somewhere in the middle of the watching crowd, waving goodbye enthusiastically as the huge black bus drove away fifteen minutes later. On the side, in enormous white letters it said: BIHAR TOURISM.

Nobody knew it, but it was the Bus of Doom.

Drive 3 hours by coach to the ruins of the vast Buddhist university at Nalanda and then after lunch in a local hotel continue on to Bodhgaya, place of Buddha’s enlightenment and a major centre of pilgrimage for Buddhists of all sects from all countries. Return journey from Bodhgaya to Patna is 5 hours. This will be a long, uncomfortable day but richly rewarded by visits to these world heritage sites.

Well, you can’t say they weren’t warned.

Everybody relaxed, settling in for a long day’s driving. They crossed the huge Mokameh Bridge and fell headlong into the chaos of Indian roads. Highway 31 is just a track overrun with madness, crammed with all the detritus of Indian life. Up the front of the bus Andrea and Sumit watched in amazement as their police escort carved a path through the masses, sirens blaring. It was great to be off the boat.

The Bihar Tourist bus was huge, black and probably doubled as a multiple hearse for flood victims when not carrying sightseers. It ploughed along, scattering the cows, trying to break the speed record. They were an hour along the road when death drove out of the Bihar blue.

The screech of brakes threw everybody forward. Andrea caught a glimpse of the driver’s face just as the oncoming truck ploughed head-on into the bus. In slow motion the windows smashed, the floor caved in, glass and metal crunched together in a blast of destruction. He felt a blow, then saw red as blood burst around him. Passengers flew out of their seats, rag-dolls in the cyclone, tumbling about in a mass, crushed and bleeding in the wreckage.

The Bus of Doom tipped over the edge of the road and rolled sideways down a wide bank into a ditch, ending up on its roof with a crash of smashing glass. Ex-Caledonians lay strewn inside. There was a terrible silence…

*

Actually– I made that last bit up.

That’s what nearly happened.

Read Andrea’s remarkable blog for details of this special day. He’s Italian so cut him a bit of slack with his English. That doesn’t excuse anything else. He knows the words ‘duty of care’.

Seven passengers stayed on board including Mr. Dogster who said there is nothing in the world worth fourteen hours in a coach. We left at 6.30 am. The journey was thrilled by an encounter with another bus that almost caused an accident…

I was sitting in the front seat and all of a sudden we were shocked to see another bus just 3cm from our window and on the other side there was just 10cm gap to the edge of the road.

Three centimeters is just over an inch. Now, I dunno about you guys, but that’s cutting it just too fine for me.

It was even more amusing when we ended up being escorted for some kilometers by a jeep with armed Bihar special police force. In order to give way to our bus one of them was using a stick to stop any vehicle coming up.  Innocent people riding bicycles had to put their heads down to avoid being hit by the stick. It was incredible! We could not stop laughing for about 30 minutes.

Hilarious. I’ve always found the mix of tourism and thuggery a heady brew. Andrea continues to gush as he describes their long hard day of tourism. I can’t be bothered repeating it. His published blog concludes with these brief words:

We left at 5pm and after a few near accidents on the way back, finally arrived safely back to the new Patna river terminal at 9pm. I had dinner and am ready to sleep now!

*

Dogster has come into possession of the original report. Don’t ask how. Here is the uncut version.

We left at 17.00 – after asking to the group whether they wanted to stop for dinner in a local restaurant or go straight no stop to the ship – unanimously the group said ‘BACK TO THE SHIP PLEASE!’

We stopped in a liquor shop to buy local gin. In order to alleviate them the pain of the journey and the thrill of driving in the Indian roads we decided to stun them with some Gin and Tonic! It was good choice because in fact we have been close to big accidents for two more times!

The worst was when we stopped 2.5 cm from a big truck – our driver was able to stop the coach avoiding a catastrophic frontal impact! After several less important ‘almost accidents’ we arrived safely but shocked to the new Patna river terminal at 21.00!

*

‘How did it go?’ I asked brightly.

‘They nearly killed us!’ Sue said, sinking into her chair at dinner. They had just this minute returned. ‘Truly, they nearly killed us!’

Was she being serious? She was looking very tired.

‘They nearly killed us!’

She kept on saying that. An angry, monkey’s bum of an eye stared wildly at me. The boiling slug was breeding. The stye was bright purple with a hint of blue, an art installation growing on her face. Behind it a bloodshot pupil peered out, like a naughty schoolgirl caught with the coke.

‘Ga-a-a-awd, where’s that waiter? Gimme a drink! Quick!’

The Great Stye of Bihar had sucked up all the fate, enveloped the poison. If they but knew it the Caledonians were in her debt. Without that stye they would probably be dead.

‘We were sitting up the front of the bus! Gawd, it was THIS close!’ She held up thumb and finger. ‘Bee’s dick! Gawd, I thought we’d die.’

She downed a brandy. Poor Sue. She carried a heavy burden.

Neil rocked up.

‘Did she tell you?

I had no idea of what had transpired.

‘Truly, mate, we’re lucky to be alive.’

*

Yes, we are.

Dog sat outside his cabin late into the night. He spent a long time staring into darkness, trying to recapture his purloined soul. The longer he spent on the water in the company of these people, the harder it became.  Dog was feeling kinda strange, a little bit sad. Every mosquito in Bihar came to visit and keep him company, knowing that if they sucked his blood he would feel better.

He could hear the zoo around him. They were packing.

‘Tsk tsk tsk, da-a-arling, tsk tsk tsk tsk tsk…’

‘Bwaawww, bwwa-w-rgh, India-h-h-h…’

Mah-vellous!’

Tick tick, tick tick…

Dogster had no blood left for the Patna mossies. He’d been sucked dry by the simpering silence, cancelled out by that cancerous calm. Those Caledonians had hoovered up his spirit and eaten his heart. Gorgons rule. The limp chorus of British disapproval won the day; they were served the insipid Ganges Thali they demanded.

‘No spice’

‘Not hot.’

No flavor, no excitement, no sound.

Aaheli’s had it absolutely right.

They’d been served the bestest, blandest West Bengal, a sanitized Bihar with no Biharis, a tasteless tourist Thali with all the crap and none of the fun. Here’s a tang of Kalna, a sniff of Murshidabad, a run-thru Rajmahal, the merest hint of Bhagalpur, a touch of Munger madness, a sleepy village reeling in shock and that accidental Samaria seasoning – all served up in seven little bowls arranged around a vast pile of rice.

Ninety-three percent rice, seven percent flavor.

The stats were in. We spent a total of one hundred and eighty-four hours aboard as passengers, of which precisely thirteen were spent ashore.  Eight of those glory hours were spent in Bihar; twelve for those passengers who went to Bodhgaya. In total we went to Bihar for about half a day – all that fuss for less time than it takes to digest lunch.

‘Bwagh-h-h-h. Bring more Madness!’

I think we’d already had enough.

*

Aussie Joe stood at the railing, looking out over the Ganges. He was alone on the top-deck, just his thoughts and the Milky Way for company. His huge hands gripped the rail as he rocked back and forth.

He appeared to be singing. It wasn’t until I got a bit closer I realized he was rocking in pain. A man in pain doesn’t want to be seen. Dogster hung back.

Poor old Joe.

Joe thought he was dying. By the look of him, maybe he was. He’d cashed in his assets, sold off the house and, before he lost it, set off to see the world. I thought this was entirely to be admired. I watched from a distance as he bent forward over the railing, leant back and moaned.

‘Errr-r-rr-ah-h-h-hhhh!’ he whispered softly, ‘oh-h-hhhh…

Then he let out an enormous fart. It was the fart of the century, a meandering, bubbling aria of a fart, a fart to spark a tsunami alert.

‘Ah-h-h, that’s better,’ he said to Mother Ganga.

Mother Ganga chuckled back.

A small bird fainted on the far bank, falling insensate into the current.

Death on the Ganges.

*

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