Deep down, it’s brilliant
Gagandep Singh Ghuman

Along the Ganga: To the Inner Shores of India
by Ilija Trojanow. Translated by Ranjit Hoskote. Penguin. Pages: 184. Rs 250.

Successful travel writing depends on the writer’s ability to "show rather than tell". If the travelogue can "transpose" the readers to the unfamiliar, acquaint them with the sights and sounds, smells and rhythms of that world, give them a feeling of vicarious "get-away" to that unknown, it has achieved its purpose. Some writers like V.S. Naipaul, Norman Lewis and Pico Iyer have done it with dazzling virtuosity, with the latter even making a living out of it. It would be unfair to club Ilija Trojanow with the high priests of travel writing; nonetheless, his travelogue Along the Ganga, holds promise.

Accompanied by his friend, Pac, Trojanow begins his journey from the icy Gaumukh, source of the mighty Ganges, passing through Hardwar, Kanpur and Varanasi, till he reaches Gangasagar, where the river finally becomes part of the sea. On Ganga’s trail, he gives the reader nuggets of spiritual wisdom, insights into the mythology surrounding the river, journalistic ramblings on social and political issues, quotidian scenes from everyday lives and small talk with ordinary men.

All through this, the leitmotif remains the Ganges, the river piously venerated, but blatantly abused by millions who claim to worship it. In a rather interesting narrative style, the book opens with the myth of Ganga’s origins from the hair of Lord Shiva, followed by Trojanow’s own encounters with hideous urchins and mysterious sadhus, rapacious god-men, who pester him for donations, and corrupt officials, who misconstrue his foreignness as sure sign of his naiveté.

The most gripping part of this travelogue, however, is Trojanow’s journey on inflatable boat from Hardwar to Garhmukteshwar. With the fading sun as guide, they paddle past half-destroyed villages and curious bystanders, making their way through rough marshes to reach Gamkutshwar, where they find themselves surrounded by incredulous people, surprised at the fearlessness of the foreigners.

His journey then takes him to Kanpur, where tanneries, unclaimed corpses and effluents from industries have relentlessly vitiated the Ganges to make it one of the most polluted rivers in the world. It is in the congregations of the believers, the Mahakumbh, that he witnesses scenes that are as amusing as these are bizarre. He describes the cacophony of the loudspeakers, the frantic, often violent conduct of the Naga sadhus, the trans induced by religion in the followers with remarkable élan.

He notes with a rather studied delight, the collective uprush of the sadhus as "they fly down the dunes, into the river, hopping over the water, splashing each other". Then he proceeds on to Varanasi, where on the ghats, the travel guide explains in clinical detail the cycle of life and death to the entranced foreign tourists. His journey then takes him to Patna and later to its apogee in Bengal, where the Ganges has "formed the plains of Bengal from her own sediments".

The prose in the book is limpid and is able to draw the reader effectively into the scene. There are some brilliant descriptive paragraphs, but these come only in patches, to be swept away by many ordinary ones. The abrupt shift in narration is jarring at times, but all in all, Along the Ganga is an interesting read.