The boat docked alongside flooded rice paddies gleaming in the sunshine, and we made our way up through a field which a wizened octogenarian was ploughing with the aid of yoked oxen and a wooden share. In Barangar itself, langur monkeys leapt between the rooftops of houses made of mud brick or jute matting, men husked rice, boys sieved sand from the riverbed and women kneaded cow dung, threading it on to skewers and letting it dry, like giant kebabs, for use as fuel.
A half-dozen 18th-century Shiva temples lay clustered around the outskirts of the community, in various stages of decrepitude. It was these we had come to see: intricate structures of terracotta brick carved with scenes from the Hindu epics, housing priapic representations of the venerated god. Typical, that is, of an Indian village untouched by Western armies, diplomats and planners. This was a short hop yet a world away from the colonial influence along a river where the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, the British and even the Danes at one time or another staked their claims and left their mark: the Hooghly.
Europe’s role in this country’s history continues to fascinate Western travellers, 67 years after India gained independence. For the British, who saw off their rivals, the causes are not hard to find. Along with a nostalgia for Britain’s glory days, when India was the much-vaunted jewel in the Empire’s crown, comes a quest — boosted by a resurgence of interest in genealogy — to find the dusty graves of forgotten ancestors, felled by disease while seeking their fortune or in battle while serving their country. Indians, naturally, remain ambivalent about British rule — both under the East India Company after Plassey and then, from 1858, directly under the Crown.
Yet to this day, the British legal and administrative systems hold good, with an addiction to bureaucracy that would leave the Sir Humphreys of Whitehall speechless. Military splendour and precision, first drilled into the fledgling army by Major-General ‘Stringer’ Lawrence over 260 years ago, are still witnessed in the magnificent Independence Day parades, where even caparisoned elephants walk in step and camels are persuaded to present their snouts at a perfectly uniform angle.
It was the birth of empire that our journey would explore, a period dominated by the commercial interests of the East India Company and the rise of one Robert Clive. So we set off from Calcutta.
Founded by the East India Company in 1690 on little more than a bog, the trading centre would blossom into the capital of British India, and into what has become a buzzing 30km tract of markets, ghats (steps down to a river), temples and decaying Victoriana along the banks of the river that made the city’s fortune. The week-long cruise — from Calcutta upstream to the Farakka Barrage, where the Hooghly emerges from the Ganges — was designed to reveal some of the historic yet unfamiliar sights along this lucrative waterway.
A minivan with furry tiger-stripe seats spluttered up the drive of the Taj, where we were staying, and before it could be shooed away a youth with a broad grin hopped out to collect me. Inside this unpromising carriage, fellow passengers awaited, looking vaguely apprehensive. We sized each other up: a predominantly British medley which, it transpired, numbered art dealers, a classic car collector, a musician and sundry industrialists, along with an eccentric French lady doctor who, despite her jeremiads about the food, the drink, the people and — oh là là! — the squalor, holidays in India each year.
Aboard the ABN Rajmahal, however, we were safe from what Madame le médecin feared, in comfortable cabins with picture windows and miraculous showers. With a capacity of 40 passengers, the newest and largest of the Assam Bengal Navigation’s fleet was moored beneath the Howrah Bridge — that marvel of Victorian engineering whose steel cat’s cradle spans 2,115 feet and, heated by the sun, is said to expand four feet by day.
The human chain making its way across one of the busiest bridges in the world, with sundry carts, bundles and cows, stopped to wave us aboard, where the ship’s Indian co-owners waited to greet us. Even they had not banked on quite how new the ship would be.
Thanks to Indian bureaucracy, it had been delivered two months late, just two days before this, its maiden voyage. Any backstage panic to ensure that all was ship-shape was well concealed behind the dark circles of the cruise manager’s sleep-deprived eyes: heroic Kunal, who personally presided over everything, from vacuuming stray insects from cabin ceilings to the lady doctor’s demands for boiled rice with jam.
With our arrival at Chandernagore on day two, Robert Clive entered the picture. In 1757, he temporarily succeeded in ousting the French, who had arrived in 1673 to create an elegant town of riverside boulevards and Catholic churches and plant statues of French virtues in the forecourt of the governor general’s house.
The French would nevertheless remain here until 1950, filling the residence — now a dusty museum — with galling Gallic nostalgia: busts of Napoleon and mezzotints of Marie-Antoinette’s music teacher, Gluck, alongside sepia photographs of Frenchmen gone native in Indian dress and a portrait of Romain Rolland lurking among the likes of Sri Aurobindo, Bose, Gandhi and Tagore.
Clive remained with us, like a ghost at a feast. We visited the site of the Battle of Plassey where, in 1757, he fought the combined armies of the French and the Nawab of Bengal and, in this mango grove, altered the course of history. ‘His forces were vastly inferior, but he won through treachery,’ growled our guide, Udit, whose mastery of dramatic delivery was rarely matched by reliability of content.
Here, however, he had a point. The young Nawab, Siraj ud-Dowlah, was betrayed in a pact between Clive and Mir Jafar, ‘who left the gunpowder in the rain and placed the cannon behind his own men’. Mir Jafar — whose name has become synonymous with ‘traitor’ in Bengal — was then installed as ruler in the Nawab capital of Murshidabad. Here, in 1837, Scottish architect Colonel Duncan McLeod would build the vast neoclassical-style Hazarduari Palace for Nawab Humayun Jah, splendour the consolation for loss of power. ‘It is a most magnificent building,’ wrote Henry Fine in 1842, ‘but, I should think, little-suited to eastern manner and habits.’
There was also the grandiose European-style Katgola Palace — built by wealthy Jain merchants who helped bankroll Clive at Plassey — and whose first floor was reputedly a brothel for the Nawabs and men of the East India Company. The hapless Siraj, meantime, who escaped from Plassey only to be poisoned a month later, lies buried in Kushbagh, a tranquil ‘Garden of Happiness’ where once 108 species of rose flowered, tended by his widow.
Along with the legacy of colonial architecture, Hindu and Jain temples and the magnificent 13th-century mosques at Gaur near journey’s end would fill our days. There was even a stop at the wonderfully awful International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). A huge blot on the landscape, and source of outrage to many Indians, it stands opposite holy Nabadwip, 15th-century centre of the Vaishnavites, on whom IKSCON is modelled.
Said to have cost around $5 million to date, still expanding, and largely peopled by Western hippies, this paean to Mammon exhorts visitors to part with their money at every turn. The temple, with airport-style security, is guarded by men with machine guns. ‘What do you do here?’ I asked one pale, white-robed devotee, shaven-headed but for his ponytail. ‘We meditate and chant “Hare Krishna”,’ came the reply. Dear reader, you too can contribute to building ISKCON’s Vedic Planetarium, a new temple set to be larger than St Paul’s, for just $150 per square foot.
If there was disappointment, it lay in the insufficiency of time to explore the river’s historic towns, the interweaving of different cultures. Danish Serampore and Dutch Chinsurah, for example, were passed with neither pause nor comment. Ultimately, however, it was the time spent on the sun deck at dusk, witnessing life on the river, that lingers in my memory: buffalo bathing, brightly clad women laundering to the accompanying slap-slap of clothes against stone, overloaded wooden ferries crossing, cycle rickshaws waiting, abandoned jute factories, working brick factories, schoolchildren shouting hellos and fishermen hauling brimming nets into their canoes — these last not waving, as I’d thought, but cursing at our approach.
At Farakka, our group disembarked, with some regret, to make way for a new complement of passengers, bound for Patna. Only one of our number remained to journey onwards: the French lady doctor — complaining contentedly, still.