Slowly Down the Ganges, Eric Newby
Long a favourite of Adventure Literature fans, Eric Newby records his, and his wife’s, attempt to navigate the Ganges via water during the winter of 1964. The attempt falls to pieces in many different ways, but like Newby’s other adventures, the pratfalls are what make the attempt worth reading about.
On his forty-fourth birthday Eric Newby, a self-confessed river lover, sets out on a 1200-mile journey down the Ganges River from Hardwar to the Bay of Bengal, accompanied by his wife, Wanda. Things do not go smoothly as they run aground 63 times in the first six days, but gradually India’s holiest river, The Pure, The Eternal, The Creator of Happiness, lives up to its many names and captures them in its spell.
Traveling in a variety of boats, most of them unsuitable, as well as by bus and bullock car, the Newbys become intemately acquainted with the river’s shifting moods an colorful history. Slowly Down the Ganges brims over with engaging characters and entertaining anecdotes, recoutned in Newby’s inimitable style.
From the Publishers
My first expsoure to Eric Newby was The Last Grain Race, written a decade earlier. I stumbled across the book in the library of a cottage in Georgian Bay. I didn’t finish it, and not having noted the title or author, it became the one book that I regretted not having stolen. Only after a stint at Moraine Adventure Books did I figure out that it was Newby who had split my gut years earlier. That said, this book, Slowly Down the Ganges is not particularly funny, or even witty. It is in fact, ponderous; weighed down by descriptor after descriptor; each evocative but each so foreign and striking on its own, that once strung together, it loses its powers of interest.
Witness the promise in the following paragraph…
The enchantment was diminished by the presence of a party of fourteen men who were attending the burning of a body on the foreshore. They were a cheerful lot, the Hindu equivalent of a works outing to Southend. As we went past they suddenly lost interest in the whole lugubrious business. Laughing they pushed some unburnt limbs into the river and doused the fire with river water, enveloping themselves in clouds of steam.
Otherwordly, very cool images … it leaves us wanting more… here’s what Newby does instead …
While Lalta Prasad and Ram Baba were ashore stealing dung, an immense, amorphous thing rose to the surface attended by tremendous gurglings and rumblings. It was like some monster born of primaeval slime. It remained on the surface for only a few moments; then it sank from view and did not appear again. I asked Lalta Prasad’s son, Jagdish, what it was.
‘It’s the Guanch,’ he said. The way he said it invested the creature with the awful quality of a Bandersnatch.
So what do we have? A merry making party of undertakers and a river monster all in six sentences. And then Newby moves on … What the rhetorical f@#!? Readers of this sort of Adventure Literature expect more.
Herein is the problem. Eric Newby is always moving on. Slowly Down the Ganges, is in fact, a string of such movings on. How does the poor reader distinguish one from the other? Each episode, each vignette melts into a whole. At a point I lost my motivation to even finish. In that, Newby surprised … I did not expect it.
Beyond that, the book is not altogether a failure; it does evoke place, it does evoke time, and it does occasionally transcend its weaknesses. Readers who have visited, or wish to visit locales along the Ganges should read it in the same way that readers wishing to visit the Baja should read Steinback’s, Log of the Sea of Cortez. It prepares.
In the end, what impresses is Eric Newby’s openess to experience. He is the sort of man that defaults to a “yes”. Unlike so many post-modern ironics there is nothing below him. He goes to India with a big heart and applies it broadly. True, he can be wry but within that tone, there is a sense that he would always rather have what is happening happen, no matter how distracting, grotesque or off-putting. He is the archtypical traveller; the sort you and I should wish upon ourselves.
Book Review, Eric Newby, Ganges River, India, Slowly Down the Ganges
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- 01.08.07 / 4pm