|Cruising down the Shitalakhya River at Demra, two hours from Dhaka|
But first that knowledge of India, in its north-eastern reaches, required eking out. My imagination needed to be exercised - memories fleshed out, dreams re-run to produce both texture and depth to sustained, yet weak, hopes. Not easy, when the record is so richly confused; when layers needed peeling. The possibility of visiting that remote corner of India - where the Himalayan mountain chain bends to fracture into less substantial hills, where the mighty Brahmaputra must also change direction to flow through Bangladesh before it enters the sea - grew more remote as I grew older. But the bud was there, slowly exfoliating.
|Young boys row out to wave at us|
|Ships at anchor on the Shitalakhya River|
|A hub of activity|
Ken arrived at Delhi airport carrying his majesty of manner rather well. Crippling conditions of fog were as yet absent, considering this was early January. Not so in Kolkata, where we had to spend a night enroute to Dhaka. Finally we flew under lifting mists to arrive very late at a truly luxurious hotel, the Oberoi Grand. We were admitted just before closing time for dinner at the hotel’s fabulous Thai Restaurant. The experience rejuvenated us sufficiently – we needed to re-pack before retiring for the night so that we could leave luggage behind and travel light on our journey into Bangladesh and back.
Packing and re-packing was to be on the agenda and had to be taken seriously. We had, between the two of us 4 bags each. In addition, I carried 2 duffel bags that contained very important items such folding chairs and table, pretty table cloths and napkins, a well-stocked picnic basket, supplies of canned food, pasta, olive oil, Lavazza coffee with a coffee percolator, a selection of Darjeeling black and green teas, flasks, sheets, towels, pillows, sleeping bags… As the need arose, we would buy our stock of liquor – beer, Bombay Sapphire gin and Smirnoff vodka. Getting the tonic water was a problem but with some planning ahead, we sourced enough of that too!
With half the number of bags left at the Oberoi Grand, for we were to re-visit it on five occasions, we left for the airport, optimistically believing that our flight would indeed leave at 5 am. It left at mid-day! Mercifully, the flight to Dhaka was short. It was just the beginning of a long trip and we were already much fatigued. Worse was to follow. What looked like a rehearsal for final chaos awaited us at Dhaka airport. Weather conditions had forced all flights to arrive Dhaka at the same time. This left us no place to stand. Signboards for queuing meant little. The locals queued up in the foreigners’ line because it was shorter! Ken and I split, taking our stand in different queues. Finally we were through. Then the luggage. Anarchy prevailed. Bales of cloth were strewn across every available floorspace. Overburdened conveyor belts did not display flight numbers. For a while we lost each other. Then Ken found me in the general scrum, bent over, hauling bags in an untidy corner. Importantly, we did locate the luggage amongst a hundred others, did meet our escort and all was well in the end.
Our woes soon forgotten, we were transferred to a luxurious brand new Westin Hotel, some 23 stories high! The afternoon was to be spent on a boat – all arranged by Guide Tours, our Travel Agency for the Bangladesh sector. We drove for two hours to Demra, the point of boarding for the cruise down the Shitalakhya River. Our launch looked a lot sturdier compared to what the local people were using as a ferry. Refreshments were provided by the boat’s cook. After the city’s crush, to cruise serenely, waving at kids rowing out to greet us, was a sweet pleasure. But one had to take the reality in.
|Cement factories line the banks of the Shitalakhya River|
|Weak attempts at farming on the river bank show up as squash-growing|
|Ship-building on the Shitalakhya|
|A 200-year-old temple outside Dhaka|
|Courtyard of a 19th century mansion, now used as a school|
Text and photographs by Jennifer Nandi.