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Slowly Down the Ganges by Eric Newby

Slowly Down the Ganges (1966)

by Eric Newby

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I really enjoyed reading this book, yet another great travel narrative from an excellent writer, and, once again, Eric is accompanied by the indomitable (even by India and its casual and common berri-berri) Wanda, his wife and fellow adventurer. It turned out to be a very slow journey indeed, fraught with those difficulties that only India can create – but that just gives us, the readers, even more details, stories and evocative descriptions to enjoy – in fact you can find yourself wishing it slower.

The idea was considered easy and enjoyable by the then Prime Minister, Gandhi – who armed Eric with a letter of commendation that did not much help – as it was the Ganges itself, that was the problem, a river without much water for the first 100 miles. They ran aground 63 times in the first six days and, frustrated, turned to train to bullock cart, bus, hiking, portage and back to boat again.

Eric’s ‘motive’ for returning yet again to India is his simple like for the country and its people from his time as a “very junior” officer in the British Army - he never was an elite, plundering member of the Raj. One lyrical chapter covers their visit to Eric’s old Army Post, now an Indian Army centre with the original mess hung with the records of two Sepoy who won the VC (Victoria Cross for Extreme Bravery) and a letter, rightly framed and accorded a honored placing, from another who, despite being a Prisoner of War in Germany writes back to his Battalion and requests that seven Rupees a month be stopped from his accumulating pay and donated to the International Red Cross.

Far from reflecting condescending attitudes or trashing the endlessly varied and fantastic cults of Indian religions and their sometimes bizarre rituals, Eric finds time to see, hear, record, and appreciate it all, and finds everything fascinating. Thankfully, when he does start to get a little too detailed about these extraordinary Kings that are a mile high and fight battles lasting a thousand years, we can rely on Wanda to add some pithy comment.
Rather than reflecting the perhaps expected 1980 Euro-Christian viewpoint, Eric contrasts one modern Indian mall, with its up-market restaurants, US Baptists Church and vendors of Christmas Cards and Scotch with the narrow lanes of the old ‘native city’ where “here the atmosphere was friendly and there was an air of excitement and animation lacking in the European part”.

How this talented pair of travelers manage to counter the frustrations and infuriations of India that I experienced I can only wonder at, admire and applaud and I look forward to reading more accounts of their ever-readable journeys together.
1 vote John_Vaughan | Jun 12, 2011 |
In the end, what impresses is Eric Newby’s openess to experience. He is the sort of man that defaults to a “yes”. Unlike so many post-modern ironics there is nothing below him. He goes to India with a big heart and applies it broadly. True, he can be wry but within that tone, there is a sense that he would always rather have what is happening happen, no matter how distracting, grotesque or off-putting. He is the archtypical traveller; the sort you and I should wish upon ourselves.
added by John_Vaughan | editOpen Critic Review (Jul 15, 2011)
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To Wanda - my fellow boatwoman
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I love rivers.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
Dit is het verhaal van de bijna 2000 km lange tocht die Eric Newby en zijn vrouw maakten over de heilige Indianse rivier, vanaf Hardwar, waar deze de grote vlakte binnenkomt tot aan het punt waar het water van de Hoogly ten tenslotte uitstroomt in de Golf van Bengalen.

This is the story of the 1200-mile journey made by Eric Newby and his wife down the holy river of India, from Hardwar where it enters the great plain down to where the waters of the Hooghly finally flow into the Bay of Bengal.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0330280236, Paperback)

Eric Newby has never been bedeviled by practicality. Hence this 1,200-mile journey down the Ganges River, which the author undertook in 1963 in the company of his wife and an ever-changing crew of Indian retainers. What moved him to take the trip? Partly it was the memory of his military service in India more than two decades before. And as he confesses, Newby has a lifelong and perhaps congenital love of rivers: "I like exploring them. I like the way in which they grow deeper and wider and dirtier but always, however dirty they become, managing to retain some of the beauty with which they were born." Few rivers grow quite as dirty as the Ganges, which also goes by such nicknames as Atula ("Peerless"), Savitri ("Stimulator"), and Bhinna-brahmanda-darpini ("Taking pride in the broken egg of Brahma"). And few accounts of this mighty waterway could possibly be as acute and hilarious as Slowly down the Ganges, which Newby first published in 1966.

As always, the author finds human comedy everywhere he looks. Take his initial departure from beneath the Balawali Bridge, where a highly emotional crowd has gathered to see him off:

Two hundred yards below the bridge and some twelve hundred miles from the Bay of Bengal the boat grounded in sixteen inches of water.... I looked upstream to the bridge but all those who had been waving and weeping had studiously turned their backs. The boatmen uttered despairing cries for assistance but the men at the bridge bent to their tasks with unwonted diligence. As far as they were concerned we had passed out of their lives. We might never have existed.
And so it goes, even as Newby and his crew run aground 63 times in the first six days, or switch doggedly from boat to train to bullock cart and back to boat again. His patience in the face of continuous disaster is superbly entertaining, as are his attempts to mollify his increasingly impatient wife, Wanda. Still, his gift for the farcical slow burn never keeps him from relishing the terrain, or from recording it in lyrical yet laconic prose: "At about six the sky to the east became faintly red; then it began to flame and the moon was extinguished; clouds of unidentifiable birds flew high overhead; a jackal skulked along the far shore and, knowing itself watched, went up the bank and into the trees; mist rose from the wet grass on the islands on which the shisham trees stood, wrapped like precious objects in their bandages of dead grass." Slowly down the Ganges is packed with such time-lapse portraiture, along with plenty of casual wisdom about history, humanity, and (last but not least) conjugal life. It's one of those rare voyages we only wish were much, much slower. --James Marcus

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:03:58 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

TRAVEL WRITING. 'Slowly Down the Ganges' is seen as a vintage Newby masterpiece, alongside 'A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush' and 'Love and War in the Apennines'. Told with Newby's self-deprecating humour and wry attention to detail, this is a classic of the genre and a window into an enchanting piece of history. On his forty-forth birthday, Eric Newby sets out on an incredible journey: to travel the 1,200-mile length of India's holy river. In a misguided attempt to keep him out of trouble, Wanda, his life-long travel companion and wife, is to be his fellow boatwoman. Their plan is to begin in the great plain of Hardwar and finish in the Bay of Bengal, but the journey almost immediately becomes markedly slower and more treacherous than either had imagined - running aground sixty-three times in the first six days.… (more)

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