Slow Boat Down the Ganges Update 63
Today was a watershed day. The final push to Calcutta to end what has been a fantastic journey. The excitement was coursing through my body through the night, sleep was sketchy, and when I woke up it was still dark outside. I was up and ready to hit the water.
It would be a tough day’s paddle today. High tide at Calcutta was around three in the morning and by the time it reached Chandannagar it would be about five ... still dark. I planned to hit the water around seven. But, by the time I reach Jora Ghat from where I was launching, some reporters landed up and that took some time. I could see that low tide was well and truly under way and that I would get a bit of help from the current that was taking all the water out to sea, more than two hundred kilometres downstream. But I had already lost a couple of hours of the tide. A few hours later, paddling was bound to become a lot more challenging.
Nevertheless, I was ready put my all into this last stage, the home stretch, to paddle under the Howrah Bridge in Calcutta. I was certain to hit high tide and paddle against it. Low tide would be at Calcutta a little before noon, and there was no way I was paddling to Calcutta before that time.
One thing I noticed immediately on the river was the amount of floating vegetation on it. This was something I have not noticed throughout my journey. At places, it became a maze and I had to virtually negotiate my way around the debris. But vegetation is one thing, trash is quite another. As I paddled closer and closer to Calcutta, the amount of trash increased substantially. Plastics of all forms and shapes, including cups, plates, bags, etc. What is particularly distressing in to find flowers wrapped in plastic bags and thrown into the river. Why, I ask myself.
I was passing through an industrial belt and there were factories on both sides of the river. Possibly the shift was changing, since I heard loud sirens blaring all around me. There were also quite a few water pumping stations I came across. And ferry boats. The number of jetties increased substantially. There is no bridge to cross the river between Chandannagar and Calcutta, a distance of some forty odd kilometres. The main mode of transport for people to go from one bank to the other is by boat, and the ferries were doing brisk business. This also adds to the pollution on the river and I could see a clear film of oil floating on the surface. I paddled on, the tide still in my favour.
My plan was to reach the Dakshineshwar Kali Temple by noon. This is located right on the fringe of Calcutta and if one were to ask the locals the name of the town, they would say Calcutta. It would no longer be a fact that Calcutta was still a few clicks downstream. As long as I could manage to hit Dakshineshwar, I would consider the expedition a successful culmination. I paddled with renewed vigour and soon spotted the Bally Bridge in the horizon. I was getting close to home. When I reach the Dakshineshwar Temple, it was still not noon, and the tide had not yet decided to work against me. I decided to paddle on and try and reach the Howrah Bridge.
Soon enough, the river started to swell and I could see the tide turning. I was still about ten kilometres from Howrah Bridge and I knew this was going to become very difficult indeed. A few kilometres down, through the haze and the mist, I could see the grey silhouette of the Howrah Bridge. This was a really exciting moment for me. I yelled in jubilation. There was no one to share this moment and I was revelling in my own company. The Bridge was still a fair way away, about four or five kilometres, but that was the final four or five kilometres of my journey. Despite my now joyous mood, the arms were starting to feel the pain.
The Bridge was around a couple of bends in the river, and every once in a while it disappeared to reappear again. I was within touching distance now. The merging of the grey bridge with the hazed out sky was diminishing and slowly but surely the Bridge started to showcase it distinct shape. As I crossed the Ahiritala Ghat, the Bridge was right in front of me in all its glory. I could not yet hear the cacophony of the traffic on it, but I could see cars and trucks plying on it.
The river had started to work against me by now. With a vengeance. I was right in the middle of hight tide and the debris was passing me by at a decent clip ... upstream. I paddled hard and fast, the bridge did not seem to get any closer. Yet, it was. Tantalisingly close, it remain ever so far away. I could not afford to stop paddling even for a second, lest I get pushed back upstream. If it was even possible, the power of the tide became even stronger. As the tide would near its high water mark, around three in the afternoon, I should have completed my expedition. But I was at a time when the flow of the current against me was at its strongest.
I inched closer to the Bridge, destination Babu Ghat, one of the more well known ghats of Calcutta. The paddle became even more difficult. What added to my degree of difficulty were the ferries and steamers plying on the river. These guys are big and their wake leaves fairly large waves. Apart from having to contend with the tide, I was also having to ensure that these waves did not hit my boat broadside. That could result in a capsize if I was not careful.
I could now see the Bridge in its full glory, could even hear the traffic, but it did not come closer at a pace that I would have liked. The last three kilometres till the Bridge took me more than two hours to negotiate, and my arms were literally falling of their sockets. It was very very tough.
As I neared the bridge and was less than a hundred feet away, I could see curious onlookers standing and waving out to me. A couple of time I stopped paddling to wave at them. Barely a couple of seconds, and I found myself thirty feet back upstream. Such was the power of the current. Just crossing under the Bridge took me fifteen minutes or so, something that should normally have taken a few seconds.
Finally I was under the Bridge and I heaved a sigh of relief and congratulated myself on a job well done. Bad idea. In this state of euphoria, I missed the reality of the river. I was back before th Bridge and had to paddle under it all over again. I could see Babu Ghat a couple of hundred metres ahead of me. Destination in sight, journey’s end in sight, DON’T STOP PADDLING.
I had to capture this moment for posterity. But just as I was crossing under the Bridge, the camera batteries had died. I had to change the batteries. Meanwhile I used my phone to take a picture of me in the canoe, framed by the Bridge behind me. The post I put up just said one word “DONE”.
Then I changed the camera batteries and found myself under the Bridge once again. This was getting frustrating. Despite all the effort I was putting in, I was not moving forward. That is the way the tide works, and I was witnessing its sheer power. For the next hour or so, the tide would be strong, slack water would come after that. I could not make use of the next low tide since I hope to land the canoe before that. Babu Ghat, here I come.
Another few hundred feet or so, I knew I would not be able to reach Babu Ghat. The current was just too strong and I could not even stop to breathe. The muscles I have developed over the last few weeks were no match against the tide. I had crossed under the Howrah Bridge and I had nothing else to prove. I saw a jetty a little bit ahead, about a hundred metres short of Babu Ghat and decided to head for that. The journey was over. About half and hour later, I managed to somehow paddle the last hundred metres and landed the boat below the ferry ramp. I got off the boat for the last time as part of A SLOW BOAT DOWN THE GANGES.
My friend Rajiv Das was visiting Calcutta and he met me at the jetty. We hugged, he congratulated me, a couple of local policemen became good friends, we had some tea, while we waited for the cab to arrive. There was a massive traffic snarl and after about half an hour, the cabbie decided to unilaterally cancel the ride, without even informing us. The policemen had become good pals by now, and they stepped forward and told us they will organise something. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later they had commandeered a taxi, we loaded up the gear and I was off to the house of my brother-in-law.
A SLOW BOAT DOWN THE GANGES was a wrap. The last three kilometres were the toughest in the entire journey, as well as the most fulfilling. It was the culmination of not only a journey, but a dream realised. Despite the naysayers, I had managed to complete an arduous expedition. It was a physical journey, a mental journey, a journey which brought me closer to the very roots of the Gangetic Plain, meeting people, making friends, understanding the nuances that make India what it is. I thank the entire Universe for conspiring to make this come true, turning a dream into a reality. Thank you.