Floating down the Hooghly River

With Future Hope I got the opportunity to float on down the Hooghly river to Dakshineswar Kali Temple and to Swami Vivekenanda’s ancestral house, which is today a museum and cultural centre. There were about 30 of us on board, which included boys and girls from the homes, teachers, volunteers and crew.

The Hooghly is a distributary of the holy river Ganges, or Ganga, as it is known locally. The Ganges is a trans-boundary river flowing through Bangladesh and Nothern India. An ice slope on the southern side of the Himalayas is where it begins and it represents everything I love and hate about India.

Rivers give life, especially in poorer countries. People fish them; wash in them, live by them. The Hooghly is a river that is well used. Its murky brown colour hides a multitude of sins, untreated sewage being one of them. Even the great displays of the Durga Puja festival get thrown in it symbolically as a sacrifice to the gods. Near to the start of my trip to India I took a trip around the art district where they make these amazing temporary statues made of clay and straw. The sculptors were dressed in white tank tops and blue patterned wrap sheets, which seems to be the standardised uniform for this type of work. I was mesmerised by their skill – mostly using their hands to work with the material. Forming the God Ganesh’s large rounded stomach by large sweeping motions, I looked on in amazement.

There were no women working as sculptors, or not that I could see anyway, and it is unlikely that women would be involved in this sort of work. In terms of societal roles for women, and the amount of power and freedom afforded to them by Indian culture – it’s pretty limiting. From what I saw there was a lack of opportunities for women and a consensus from society that a women’s ability to contribute economically was far behind that of men’s. And, like most things, the further down the social spectrum you go the worse it gets.

On the boat we had some fine momos for lunch that were sourced from a stall in a local market called New Market; set up by an ex Future Hope boy. Momos are a type of steamed bun made typically with either meat or vegetable filling. They originate from Tibet and Indian’s like them spicy – like most things then!

Another snack that is popular in India and was available in endless quantity aboard the boat is called Nimki. This fried flour and ghee snack grew on me throughout my time in India and by the end of my trip it was impossible to resist. It wasn’t always that way however, and my first time looking around the school I was offered plenty of this fried snack, lovingly referred to as tiffin, and quite frankly I didn’t understand why it was so popular. After a few months I was using cups, bags and even books as containers for this irresistible snack.

It’s these rich cultural flavours that linger on. I hope the sweet memories stay with me a life time; opening your eyes to another culture is enjoyable because your frames of reference change as you begin to experience more and more new things – you become a baby once again – eyes wide. It’s like your view expands, you drop judgement and expectation as you slowly come to terms with the fact that things aren’t always how you’re used to them being. We see the world through our own lenses and when we travel; we are forced to reassess the hue on our glasses.

Boat trip

On the day I was with some of the other English volunteers; we got a lift to the platoon and jumped in the back of an open jeep. It was the middle of winter so it wasn’t too hot, although certainly not cold. When we got to the platoon we had to cross a rail track, a very normal experience in India. We are so hot on health and safety here it really is a bit overwhelming when you get back; I was used to children running around on motorways, living next to them, the doors of trains and buses being open and 6 people and a washing machine being lugged around on a 15 year old moped.

We walked down the rickety wooden pontoon and was fronted by really quite a magnificent looking boat with lots of material draping’s and white chairs round the outside of the upper deck. Indian’s have this amazing talent of making something out of nothing. With some flowers, a bit of material and a huge amount of imagination, even a car park can be turned into the most extravagant party location.

However, to my disappointment and amusement the boat was not for us. Our boat was being moored next to this one and we walked over the deck of the large boat and onto our smaller, rather more modest rickety looking thing. I must admit, it was much more in line with my expectations. I was blown away by the first boat not because of its luxurious stance but because it looked a bit safe – an unusual yet comforting experience that you don’t get to encounter too often in India. The toilet on board was a hole in the floor with a wooden shell around it. The waste dropped straight into the river, where people washed at the banks. We waved at many of them from the deck of the boat; there is something quite delightful about getting a stranger to respond enthusiastically whilst passing.

We arrived at the Dakshineswar Kali Temple and it was shutting for lunch. We had about 15 minutes to have a frenzied look around and were herded round faster than I could understand what it was all about and steered back onto our boat, which I was starting to warm to. At this port, weirdly, one of my most vivid memories is of a dead dog that was visible in the silt/sewage of the river bank. It looked a bit like a whippet, because of its protruding rib cage, but no doubt it was just emaciated and I couldn’t help but stare at that dog – dead and right in your face.

Stray dogs are definitely a problem in Kolkata – they are everywhere! One night, whilst returning from having supper at one of the homes, a stray dog that was circling came and jumped up at me. I was terrified because I didn’t have any injections before I went out there (not advisable) and all the dogs look so mangy and rough, with great bald patched all over from fleas and fighting in the streets.

Before we got to Vivekananda’s ‘house’ we visited an area known for having monkeys swinging around. Everywhere was so packed with people sitting and perching on every possible surface – it was like entire Indian families came to this place to eat lunch and watch the monkeys. They were putting on a great show, playing with bottles, swinging from trees and trying to snatch food. But for me, the most interesting part of our time on the Hooghly river was the last stop at Swami Vivekananda’s ancestral house and cultural centre. Surajit, one of the Future Hope boys had told me a lot about this amazing man and given me a book to read, which I was engrossed with! Vivekananda was a Hindu monk known for his spirituality and for introducing Indian philosophy to the western world.

“The world is our great gymnasium where we come to make ourselves strong.” Swami Vivekananda

We took part in a mass meditation, which many people wriggled around in and felt uncomfortable with and then got a chance to visit his bedroom, a very personal and insightful experience into the world of a guru. It was a simple space with all the basics; bed, wardrobe, writing desk. Such a great man who was a role model and inspiration to millions of people and yet his life was not filled with materialistic items and superficial things that we all crave and strive for. It reminded me of when I had visited Mother Theresa’s missionary, so simple and yet the legacy she left is still going strong in her name – the amazing work she begun and lived for continues.

On our way back to the boat for the last time we had time for a quick chai stop. Chai is Indian tea and I fell in love with the sweet, spicy concoction, the way they serve it, make it and everything the act of drinking tea together represents.

Howrah Bridge, Kolkata, West Bengal

It was dusk and the sky was a heavy grey colour when we journeyed back to the port, the looming frame of the Howrah Bridge was a reassuring sign that we were nearly home. This day on the Hooghly was a special experience and it created a beautiful backdrop for talking and bonding with the Future Hope children.

Namaste!

Photo of Hooghly River: Hamza Hussein

Photo of Howrah Bridge: Dilip Muralidaran

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