four days down the ganga
Stern, starboard. Stone steps rise up from the water, here broad and flat, here steep and uneven, crumbling into the sandy stretches to either side. Rough concrete buildings and bright canopies stand crookedly on the slope, men talking and children playing in their shade. Our boat’s pink makes it distinctive among the crowd of narrow fishing crafts clustered at the bottom of the ghat, brown-grey wood showing bare in most places, decks open to the sun. Three old women squat by the water, slapping clothing against stone. Shapes grow less distinct as we move away, blurring into loose forms of sun-washed color.
Stern, port. The bank slopes gently back in shades of brown and green, seen dimly through mist; it is raining now, and cold. Fleece-wrapped, we huddle under our corrugated metal roof. Rain bounces up from the river, and Amit boils water and milk for chai on a gas burner; Matt and Noah are asleep against the luggage pile. A sadhu walks along the riverside, his faded oranges the landscape’s brightest color; the staff over his shoulder swings with the rhythm of his stride.
Midships, starboard. Plots of green farmland line the bank, thatched huts standing on the ridge above them, bright cloth draped over fenceposts to dry in the late morning sun. Figures move over the land; they look small and far-away, smudges only, dark and bright. The motor is pervasive, noise and vibration filling the senses and mind, the constant accompaniment of our course down the river—but now it stops, because we are making port for lunchtime. The green has given way to a stretching expanse of sand, pale and rippled and silent like the desert. We eat dahl and rice that the boatmen have cooked for us. Santosh pours a thin stream of ghee onto each plate from a small metal cup.
Midships, port. A little girl walks across a bridge as we approach, skinny brown legs silhouetted against the sky. She sees us and takes the wide, flat basket she carries from her head, crouching to wave between the rails. A ragged blanket falls around her shoulders and she meets my eyes—I can’t stop looking at her. We pass under, and she is still there, waving, when we emerge. The boat keeps going.
Bow. The sun is enormous, almost on the horizon now, red-orange like tikka powder. It reflects in the wake, giving itself back white on the peaks, fracturing rainbow in the troughs. The river is wide here, and shallow. Amit has filled two water bottles—he will take them home for his father. They roll back and forth with the motion of the boat, bumping over the deck. Tomorrow we will be in Varanasi.