A lively journey down the Ganges River via off-the-beaten-path destinations and historical moments.
Journalist Black (Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone, 2012, etc.) traveled from the source of the Ganges to its mouth in a series of short trips. The river is known as “Ma Ganga,” a mother goddess, and it feeds half a billion people by irrigating rice and wheat fields. The author’s fascination with the Ganges began at age 11 when he saw a woodcut of a widow throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre on the banks of the river in a 19th-century book he bought from a junk shop. In his quest to discover the modern Ganges and its historical importance, he started in New Delhi before proceeding to the Gangotri Glacier, one of the largest in the Himalayas, and the Rajasthan Desert. From cold, bare lodgings to tourist-trap hotels, Black experienced the extremes of Indian hospitality, and he even learned Hindi insults as a result of some scary rides. Interviews and dialogue enhance the vivid scenes, and the author doesn’t limit himself to high-profile destinations Western tourists are likely to see. His stops included a temple on the border with Tibet and a rickshaw graveyard in Dhaka, and he observed a cremation and joined in the search for a problem tiger. Throughout, Black shows that he is aware of the Western travelers who went before, everyone from Sir Edmund Hilary and Mark Twain to the Beatles and Allen Ginsberg. The most poignant moments come when past and present, or various cultures, meet in surprising ways—e.g., relics of the 1857 Indian Rebellion appear alongside Muslim icons and a squatter colony. Black powerfully reveals the contradictions of modern South Asia by way of this body of water, “a seducer, a magnetic field” that is both “place of worship and…open sewer.”
A worthwhile work that will please armchair travelers and historians.