Ashis Dutta goes cruising down the Ganges and takes in the sights and sounds of the towns that float by
I walked up the stairs from the jetty to the starboard rim and stepped on to the main deck. John, the Captain, extended his hand for a firm shake.
A smiling receptionist stood behind a small reception desk, giving the illusion of being in a boutique hotel rather than in a ship on the Ganges.
The 55-metre-long mv Paramhamsa with four decks is a small ship, designed specifically for river cruises. Anchored at the Millennium Park Jetty by Strand Road of Kolkata, it was warming up in the morning sun among other small and medium vessels.
My room on the upper deck is like one in a standard 3-starhotel. Air-conditioned and complete with a sofa set around a coffee-table, a coffee-maker and crockery. The large port-side window shows the glistening river with boats, barges and ferries slumbering past. As finicky as I am, I took a fastidious peep at the attached toilet. “Good”, I told myself.
The stationary barge, a part of which I could see from my window, started to drift away. “We have started Sir,” said Manas, the concierge who had chaperoned me to my room. I was startled. I thought we were stationary and the barge beside was moving.
The open sundeck is a great place to enjoy the river cruise. The gothic buildings of the Raj era that line up the Strand Road were slowly moving back as we were moving up-stream. I walked the length of the deck and into the bridge room where the ship is piloted.
Munir was at the wheel. The windshield of the bridge was slowly being filled up, from one end to another, by the majestic frame of the most recognised icon of Kolkata — the Howrah Bridge.
The bathing ghats by the Ganges were getting busy. The masseurs were on their job; the devout were in the river up to their navel, hands folded, eyes closed and lips moving. At the far left, the red colonial structure of the Howrah Station was aglow facing the eastern sun. With sandwich and coffee I rooted myself at the edge of the bow deck.
Half an hour into the cruise, John came up to me. I was watching the fishermen in their dingy boats, some throwing their nets around, others drawing their nets from the river in anticipation.
“In another five minutes, we shall be passing Belur Mutt,” John said. Soon, the dome of the Mutt showed up over the canopy of the trees. Belur Mutt is a symphony of architecture, conceived by Swami Vivekananda and later built combining the architectural styles of Hindu, Islamic, and Christian traditions. I have been to the Mutt several times, but never before have I seen it from the perspective of the Ganges. This was a discovery.
“Our kebab and prawn preparations are much sought after, Sir,” said Sengupta, the steward at the glass-walled restaurant. His disarming smile threw overboard my calorie concerns and with a tinge of guilt, I devoured quite a few kebabs and proceeded to the prawn malai curry.
We were now sailing by the French pavilions of Chandannagar — a French colony till as late as 1950. Our short river cruise on the Ganges upstream from Kolkata would be touching the erstwhile colonies of four European powers — British, French, Dutch and Portuguese. And, the battleground of Plassey, where the fate of India was decided for the next two centuries.
Before long, I was in my room, watching the going-ons on the river and at the bank from the cool comfort of my bed. It was warm outside. The brochure of different river-cruises were spread open on the bed beside me. I was undecided — do I take a siesta or start planning for the next river cruise?