The gorgeous Ganges by moonlight


“Why’s it so dark?” I grumbled, prodding around in front of me with my foot.

“Hey, this is your wish-list,” said my partner behind me, giggling, and then giggling even more because she knew I was getting annoyed.

She was laughing because she had several gins inside her. I also had several gins inside me but I was not laughing because I had just stepped into something not quite as liquid as water but wet enough to ooze up and into my shoe.

Once when I was much younger I listened to a radio play set in India during colonial times, involving some sort of torrid love affair playing out against a dramatic backdrop of political unrest. In retrospect it must have been a pretty feeble radio play, because one of the lines involved the main chap – no doubt crisply laundered and sporting a thin moustache – telling his beloved, “Look! Look at the moonlight on the Ganges! Have you ever seen a more beautiful sight?”

“Oh Henry,” she replied. “How lucky we are! I wish we could stay right here and never leave!”

I was an impressionable boy, perhaps a little romantic, and my head filled with the image of gauzy silver light and half shadows and banyan trees and the quiet rippling of the silver water. I scuttled off to my List Of Things To Do In My Life and wrote: “Number 16: See the Ganges by moonlight”.

The idea of such a list is that it reminds you to add wonder to your life, to live it fully and even foolishly, to follow the prompts of your best younger self, and that’s all good but sometimes your best younger self is a damn fool.

We were in Kanpur and the Ganges was nearby and there was a cloudless night with a good moon. We enjoyed some gin and asked a rickshaw driver to take us to the river. He drove with great intent across town, dropped us off outside a derelict tanning factory and drove away before I’d finished looking round in confusion, scratching my head and wondering where the river was. We asked a passer-by and he pointed in a direction so we set out through the grounds of the tanning factory.

India is in many respects a charming place full of ancient wisdom and all that but in other respects it is a place with not quite enough toilets, so people often tacitly agree to use secluded spots as communal surrogates: alleyways and underneath bridges, for instance, and also the grounds of derelict tanning factories. Here’s a tip from a wily old traveller: if ever you find yourself walking through the unlit grounds of a derelict tanning factory in India, be sure to wear a pair of shoes you want to wear again.

I wouldn’t have minded so much, if only my partner hadn’t been in such a good mood.

“Did you know,” she giggled behind me, “there are so many dead bodies in the Ganges, the authorities introduced carnivorous terrapins to eat the decomposing flesh?”

I gnashed my teeth.

In the course of navigating that unlit hellscape of human waste and broken bottles and rusted drums that catch you just at shin-height, I lost my sense of humour. The more amused she became, the more grumpy I became, which just amused her more. Finally we broke through and stood on a cracked concrete slab overlooking the river. It wasn’t silver; it was kind of grey, like the water leaking from a dishwasher. Something floated by that was probably a dog.

I stood there in a sulky silent rage, mentally cursing childhood and radios and art and my stupid romantic imagination.

My partner took my arm. “Oh,” she said. “I wish we could stay right here and never leave.”

And that did make me laugh.

Getaway, 11 November 2016