Along the banks of a river, the India of old

A river cruise on the Hooghly, past Calcutta, reveals the country at its most rural, without a postcard or T-shirt in sight. From the New York Times:

cruiseHowrah Station in Calcutta was packed with travelers as I arrived to catch the 3:30 p.m. train to Jangipur. Passengers and porters charged in all directions, some carrying their suitcases or cloth bundles in their hands, some with their baggage on their heads. One man with a chair; another with a stepladder. At my feet, someone was charging his cellphone on the station’s electricity supply. Our train drew up, and the man next to me suddenly threw himself head first through an open window. With his feet waggling, he was stuck until a friend pushed him through. Luckily, I had reserved seats, so I was able to enter through the door and then settle in for the five-hour journey through eastern India.

A few weeks earlier, I had booked a river cruise on the Hooghly, a tributary of the Ganges that runs south through West Bengal, past Calcutta and out to the Bay of Bengal. I was one of 14 travelers – 13 Britons and one American – who had signed up with Assam Bengal Navigation with the hope of seeing India at its most rural. (I was there in late June, well before the recent attacks in Mumbai, a horrific event that should sadden anyone who loves India as I do.)

It was monsoon season, which promised drenching rains every afternoon, but none of us seemed to mind, and I had come prepared: a raincoat, an umbrella and waterproof shoes were all in my luggage. Plus, the Hooghly is navigable only when summer rains swell its banks.

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