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‘Where are the shopsh?’

The Queen Mother’s daughter was completely drunk, a martyr to the daily special. A blush burnt through her make-up, that slur-r-r clung fast to her tongue; those sharp eyes had long lost focus, retreating to safety in a dullard stare.

‘When is the sh-hopping going to start?’

We were moored at Munger, a tiny speck on a desolate flood plain in the middle of the armpit of India. The town’s chief claim to fame is the ferocity of the ongoing Naxalite insurgence; crazed rebels keep blowing things up and decapitating their opponents.

‘Pfft. But are there shopsh-h-here?’

Each evening in the saloon, the barman would present his Cocktail de Jour. Normally this is time for the daily briefing but as there was so little activity, the briefings petered pretty fast. To compensate, the barmen were given instruction to ramp up the Daily Specials.

Today’s was ‘Munger Madness’, a killer concoction of local whisky and Diesel fuel.

‘Well, yesh I will, thank you so much,’ she said, swiftly accepting another one.


Mum sat, entirely unconcerned, squeezed beside her tipsy daughter. She had her hands full with Aussie Joe. Everybody took a turn, even the Caledonians.

Aussie lacked the ability to tell if people wanted him around. He was relentlessly affable, a sweet bumbling giant who would plonk himself down and talk to anyone, riffing on topics only known to himself. In his wonderful simplicity, he assumed that everybody thought the same way as he did, saw the world through his eyes, heard the same tune he had running through his head. He babbled and giggled, never short for words, blissfully ignorant, a figure of fun. The Caledonians rolled their eyes and tolerated.

He was leaning over the low table, spraying his enthusiasms broad and wide.

‘Straya-a-a,’ he was saying, ‘most beau-u-udiful country in the world.’

‘So why on earth aren’t you there then, Joe?’ she hissed, only half-humoring him.

He flinched.

‘Since Janine died…’

Aussie Joe had lost his girl, his sweetheart, pal and life protector. Every now and then a shadow would cross that big open face and you could see him thinking; ‘If only Janine was here right now.’

Alas, Janine was up in heaven and she’d left Aussie all alone. His grief for her was as big as his heart and Joe was a man with a big, open heart. He was guileless, an innocent abroad, a man who had been loved and coddled and fed and cleaned for all his life. Now she was gone and his heart was broken.

‘It’s a big wo-o-orld,’ he said sadly, ‘gotta see it before I die…’


‘Errr… errr… eauh-h-gh…

It sounded like someone straining at stool, but was just a complaint trying to come out. Heads turned to the source of the noise. A wild-eyed woman with thin blonde hair sat forward like a trap about to snap on a rat. If ever a passenger was going to complain, it was Mrs. Melanoma.

A management Singh or two had just announced the company had abandoned any attempt to get to their destination and settled on Patna, two hundred and eighty river miles short. Oh, and there was a six-hour drive to get to Varanasi.

‘We do-o-o seem to be missing rather a lot. This is not quite the cruise we expected to have…’

Here it comes.

‘Speaking for the other passengers…’

‘Ya don’t speak for me,’ hissed Sue.

‘I feel I must say that the last two days have been a lot of sailing…’

‘The last five days, you mean,’ muttered the German couple.

‘There’s not been a great deal to see…’

A murmur of restrained agreement swept the saloon, as if a furtive rat escaped. Out came the piece of paper that every guide dreads: the original itinerary.

‘We’ve covered barely a third of this…’

There was an awkward moment as she waited for the support of her Noble Caledonian peers. A very British silence ensued. Six husbands sat mute, studiously looking in the opposite direction. Six British wives did the same. Only the Gorgons reigned supreme.

‘It’s certainly not the cruise I paid for,’ M’Lady snorted eventually.

‘Nor ush,’ said the Princess.

‘Nor us…’ said The Tent, forgetting she hadn’t paid for it at all.

The actress prodded her husband.

Mah-vellous,’ the old codger chimed in.


This was a full-scale revolution. Two whispered comments from the stalls, a bleat from the dress circle. For the British, this is all-out war. The Singhs were pinned to the bar, two squirming dung-beetles, color drained from their faces; all that was left was four desperate eyes – with all the Gorgons boring in on them, turning to stone was just a matter of time. Trapped like twin bunnies in the headlights, they nodded furiously and agreed with everything, lying when appropriate – even, on a couple of rare occasions, telling the truth.

‘Yes, yes, yes, I’m sure everything will be fine,’ one said brightly.

‘Oh, yes, of course, everything will be fine,’ muttered the other, swallowing hard.

The Caledonians were positively ecstatic – another victory for Britain. Mild applause ran through the lounge. Of course, they’d achieved one hundred percent of nothing at all.


All I could hear was luvvie rabbits.

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

Her two companions listened and tsk’d as the Lady of the Manor let rip about the trip, incandescent with repressed anger. No wonder; for the three of them, she’d forked out close to twenty-five grand. That’s a lot of dead squire. Her face was the Rock of Gibraltar.

‘Tsk, I know, my sweet but we’re having a wonderful time – aren’t we, Darling?’

She tapped on her husband’s arm. ‘Da-a-arling…?’

Da-a-arling was already in the grip of a madness of his own. He’d been Munger’d too.

‘Wha…?’ he said, coming back to earth, ‘wha…?’

‘Good time, good time? Are we having a good time, Darling…?’

‘Oh yes, wonderful. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Mah-vellous.’

‘Yoga tomorrow!’ the actress said to the bishop, ‘you’ll be spiritually cleansed.’

Darling wasn’t sure he had a spirit left to cleanse. After eighty-five years it had rotted away. Why couldn’t he just die and get it over with…

‘Madness,’ he said, ‘bring more Madness…’

Yankee Joe sat quietly beside M’Lady, hovering somewhere between the Rock and a hard place. He was strangely attentive to the widow in her distress. His face softened, he occasionally smiled – once, I even saw him talk.


‘It’s really throbbing. The infection is getting worse.’

Sue’s stye had taken on a personality of its own. It was firmly in residence, perched there like a malevolent grape. All the bitterness of the last five days, all the boredom, the disapproval and bile had flowed into Susan’s stye. It lolled in the corner of her eye, a scarlet succubus drawing strength from our misfortune, sullen, swollen – blocking her vision with a blinking, itchy pool of pain.

‘I thought I’d be able to get some eye-drops up-river… ‘

Like all of us, Sue had no idea just how desolate this area was. She gulped down her cocktail and motioned for more.

‘I didn’t know we were never gonna stop.’

Her husband sat beside her, talking to the Alien Lesbians. Neil boasted a bright, round face that became brighter the more he drank – he literally changed color. Tonight, courtesy a particularly toxic batch of ‘Munger Madness’, he was amber.

‘This cruise is as boring as bat-shit,’ he said.

The more we sailed, the less we stopped, the happier the Caledonians became. Today, with nothing to see and no halt even if there was – with nothing to do but stare at the distant bank, the group was positively joyful. The upper deck buzzed with conversation; they chattered about England as if it was just outside the window; of home renovations, of what thatch to put on the barn, of bathroom tiles and curtains – anything but India. No wonder they were cheery: they’d seized control of the boat every bit as surely as the infection had taken command of Sue’s poor face.

‘Some of them are nice,’ said Kim, trying valiantly to put some balance into the conversation.

‘I wouldn’t know, none of them will talk to us,’ Neil said.

‘Not since the very first day,’ Sue added. ‘Do they talk to you?’

‘Not if they can help it,’ said Kath.


Dogster shook his head.


‘Never!’ chorused the Germans from the end of the table. ‘Not one word.’

‘Boring as batshit,’ Neil repeated loudly.

Tsk, tsk, tsk,’ he heard.

‘Ahhh, shuddup, you old hag,’ he hissed over his shoulder.

The gorgons tutted furiously.


‘Who are these people?’ Sue gasped, ‘who died and put them in charge?’

The Alien Lesbians tried to shoosh her.

‘No, bugger it,’ Sue said, ‘I’m sick of being disapproved of…’

‘Brru-u-u-urppp,’ said Aussie Joe.


The word Baul means ‘afflicted with the wind disease’, not unlike our lonely Joe. Seven of them were delivered onboard for a compulsory cultural event. Bauls are ‘minstrels, uncaring travellers, selfless wanderers – lost in search of their souls.’  Charles H. Capwell, the ethnomusicologist noted that ‘the Bauls of Bengal are are folk heroes , strange people who forsake all comforts and binds of the family and choose streets as their home, austerity as their way of life’. They sing of love and life and politics, question and provoke without fear, ‘carry with them from village to city the soul of Bengal, perhaps of India…’ 

One Baul played the drums rather well and looked wistful, one Baul on the floor and tootled a flute, one sat serious and rattled a thing, one big orange Baul sang his heart out in his own private Paralympics of sound. Sometimes he made it to the finish line, sometimes he didn’t. A single Baul-ette sat silent, sang one song rather badly then sat down again and yawned. One Baul sat there and didn’t appear to do anything at all. The leader of the group was the last to perform. He passed over the strange box-accordion he had been playing and stood, a little uncertainly, to sing. It did occur to me that the Bauls of Bengal, as witnessed that night, may have had a passing acquaintance with the divine fruit of the Ganja tree on their way to work.

He held his head back; his voice rang pure and clean and loud, sent shivers up my spine. He was doing a little jig, his bum held out, a shuffle-dance round the deck and as he sang the air grew quiet, the engines stopped, the hum of the boat fell away – it was just him and the Hoogli and that song… ahhhh, that song…

Then Joe let loose from the darkness.

‘Mmph-h-h-h!. Ooooh-h-h! Aw-a-a-a-agh-hh!’

This was a terrible explosion of misery, a grief that could not be contained.


I looked around. Six of the Caledonians were fast asleep,  yawning mouths, all pretence of interest abandoned, gone directly to God. The rest discretely ignored Joe, who was howling his eyes out. Struck blind, deaf and dumb at a stroke, they looked down, they looked sideways, they looked up – anywhere but at Joe. Only the two alien lesbians went to his aid.

‘Mrrr-g-g-h-h-h! Wao-o-o-o, if only Jani-i-ine… smr-r-r-rpfh-h-h-h!’ he said.

‘Sh-h-h-h-h Joe-e-e-e’ said Kath, my favorite.

Kath was sixty-three with bright purple hair, growing old disgracefully. I don’t mean purple in the ‘purple rinse’ sense – I mean purple as in, well… purple! She was a great gal with tons of style and an outlook on life that belonged to a woman thirty years her junior.

‘Shh-h-h-h Joe-e-e-e…’ said Kim, her companion.

‘Mmmr-o-o-o-o-o!’ sobbed Joe, ‘If… only… she’d… been… h-h-he-e-e-re…’

‘Shhh-h-h-h Joe-e-e-e…’ they both said at the same time

He knocked over his bottle of wine. Luckily it was empty.

‘Argh-h-h-h,’ he said, ‘I’m sho sorry… I’m s-h-h-ooo sorry-y-y…’

He noisily sucked in a lung-full of air.

‘Snor-k-k-k! Oh-h-h-h…’

Poor Aussie Joe couldn’t finish the sentence. He was really ‘tired’ and extremely emotional, bellowing out his grief with a passion that surprised even him. It certainly surprised the Bauls of Bengal. A swift despatch had to be sent to assure them that yes, this was an unhappy man and yes, he was really drunk – and most importantly no, it wasn’t their fault…

There was more Bauling, from both sides, then the evening crumpled to an end with the presentation of enormous tips from a still-emotional Aussie, now looming passionately over the band, ungainly hugs all around as confused Bauls tried to wrap themselves around his enormous belly, a huddle of the few sober Caledonians left awake and an escort of crew to get him to his cabin lest he fall headfirst down the stairs.


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