Post 22 – Day 11 ‘Tiger, Tiger’ (Pt 2)

Post 22b Post 22a

On either side of this road, that heads south from Kolkata to the Bay of Bengal, are to be seen numerous fish farms, some ornamented by red flowered waterlilies, all reflecting the pale blue sky above. Small huts, their shady roofs made of roughly thatched straw, stand here and there on the otherwise barren levy banks. At each village are merchant stalls of the most modest construction, their shelves half full, half empty, and always somewhat ambiguous as to what their merchandise on offer might be. A small herd of yellow and black striped autobicycles of a particular box-like design, wait empty and forlorn for passengers, the machines past the better days of their youth, their paintwork flaking away or scratched deep from countless collisions. But they remain taxis of no less import or utility, and are a salvation to clients and owners alike. Behind, where the autos stand, is a sign dulled from sunlight and dirt, extolling the refreshing liquid virtues of ‘Thumbs Up’ soda drink. A young man, hair sleek in the current retro-50’s Western bob, holds a bottle to his lips, his head bent back in fulfilment. ‘Taste the Thunder’ the advertisement proclaims in an attempt to convince. “Hold on”, I find myself announcing aloud to the driver’s displeasure, he mistakenly thinking I want to stop. “Talk about Truth in Advertising!” I officiously continue. Then in silence; Homo sapiens may have made a few grand leaps of punctuated evolution in their history but unless the local human physiology can do something mine patently can’t, how do you actually ‘taste’ thunder? Talk about poetic license. Where I come from thunder is a sound, not a flavour, and given I’ve seen a few violent storms in my days I certainly would have noticed anything they had to offer by way of taste. Sure, I’m aware several pedants of the physical sciences amongst my readership will protest that you ‘can’ taste lightning, but lightning and thunder are two different things. My body has organs and senses of the old fashioned kind, my ears no better at hearing the taste than my mouth is at tasting a sound. “Give us a break please!” I spoke aloud again, “My imagination only stretches so far”.

The passing of a pale blue motorised cart on the opposite side of the road serves to distract my attention, and it is easily distracted I openly admit. The cart’s roof was made of a sheet of old and tattered black plastic, but it served to keep the sun from the driver and his goods so I impose no criticism, and I know from personal experience that the most decrepit coverings of material of any kind serve well against the onslaught of rain, hail and glaring sunlight. A second motorised contrivance follows, this of naked timber, hauling a tall pile of wickerwork baskets. I am so taken by these useful little motor-driven vehicles that I designate a name of universal application to them, ‘trundle’, and so for the remainder of this journey ‘trundles’ they are now ordained. Next in passing I see a rust-red Tata truck sitting dead by the kerb side, its bonnet propped up by an inverted straw broom, the head of the truck’s driver buried deep within its engine. A single hand moves for some reason back and forth in the air, this indicating the man is still alive.

More fish farms, some filled with water, others part empty, come again into view, then a lone stall proudly displaying two signs, ‘Dish TV’ and ‘100% Cash Back’, no merchandise in sight. I couldn’t make head or tail of it, but a single customer leant over the counter, elbow upon its surface, and in keen conversation with the owner. Then my first example of a roadside ‘house shop’. Two shutter doors in front, and inside a powered mechanical device for winnowing grain of some kind, an enormous set of archaic hand scales and weights, and a bench-bed and wash basin, the owner sitting cross-legged on the edge of his bed waiting for custom. Apart from the minor detail that no prospective customers were in evidence, nevertheless I thought his abode of dual purpose was very practical, not least of all that there were no serious distances and transport costs to be incurred in reaching one’s place of employ. You either walk two or three metres to the shop front, or lounge about watching strange-looking Western tourists drive by; the only downsides apparent to me being no opportunity to while away time reading a good book on public transport, and a miserable existence trying to earn no better than a meagre income. But better, I suppose, than that lady collecting cast away plastic bottles yesterday at Gaya Junction railway station. I remember an elderly man of Jewish heritage, happy in the lot of his business pursuits in the Sydney clothing trade, once telling me “that it was better to be self-employed as a pauper, than a prince in the bonded service of a king”. Looking out through my window at the impoverished rural streetscape, I wasn’t quite convinced of the wisdom of his adage. And come to think of it the man who told me owned a very big car, new, and well polished. Nothing ‘trundle-like’ about it.

This side step into old memories aside, we then speed past a stall selling immaculate red and cream coloured bicycles of the ‘Hercules’ brand. There was such a long row of them, two deep at that, that I could readily discern the brand name. Their design was of the long tried and tested type that I remember from my youth, back in the early 1950s and 60s; flat curved handlebars and a rigid cross-frame. You can’t get them in Hometown anymore, the fancy one’s that you can buy come with an expensive obligatory pair of tight Lycra slacks and a safety helmet that looks like a swept-back space helmet. Here, the uniform of most bicycle riders was baggy shorts, grubby singlet and thongs. And they looked none the worse for it, the only risk being skin cancer from over exposure to sunlight. Come to think of it, during my whole voyage in India, I never did see a roadside stall selling wide-brimmed hats and sun lotion.

The memory of bike rides of yesteryear is spoilt by a lone man, of skinny disposition and wearing only a piece of cheap cloth wound round his waist, peddling a three wheel tricycle. It has a flat tray on the back made from old timber palings of some nondescript description. His tricycle does not strictly qualify as a ‘trundle’ as it is devoid of a petrol motor to propel it, the man’s peddle power being solely responsible for the tricycle’s forward traction. Though the tricycle is obviously meant for the carriage of goods, there are no goods being carried by it. At this moment, and at this place, he appears to be without income and gives the impression he has never known much of one. I am saddened by my explanation of his sight, and am shamed by my relative wealth. Just before I departed on this road trip I watched a documentary about the rise of the ‘New India’. Among the 300 million claimed to constitute India’s middle class was a man of portly proportions, flying 1st class in a jet aircraft he owned, who proudly explained and excused his wealth on the basis that no one in India starves. Given his life style and the already-generous size of his stomach, he will probably be dead or hospitalised by his mid 60s. The man peddling the tricycle sported no such sized stomach and indeed, by the nature of his diminutive frame, it was difficult to determine if he owned one. Yet his life style would probably propel him to the grave at a similar age, if not well before, and without the interim option of hospitalisation.

I thought I had delved enough into the maudlin pit of despair when suddenly I looked to the other side of the road. The road and a river, a tributary of the Ganges no less I suspect, had converged. The water of that river was grey enough to legitimately pass as being black. I do not know if a similarly repulsive odour accompanied that colour for the windows of the tour car were closed, but what was unmistakable were the large off-white balls of chemical-induced foam that floated on its surface. It’s not the most articulate of observations, but if the colour of the river left a shadow of a doubt as to the quality of the water, then those heaps of floating foam destroyed any pedantic grounds for indecision and argument. The opening verse of the ‘Hitopedesa’, a Sanskrit work of wisdom and guidance written sometime in the 9th to 10th centuries CE, makes celestial allusion to the brightness of foam on Ganga’s streams. There was nothing divine about it. What I saw was not diluted pollution but was ‘point pollution’ emanating from a continuous toxic outflow somewhere close by. Somebody who was supposed to know, knew about this but had done nothing. The Hitopedesa’s fertile treasure of wise maxims, fables and sayings had been cast onto a barren field. I remember the concluding pages of the H. G. Wells’ novel ‘The War in the Air’. An old man looks upon the waste and wreck of the world that was once Civilization, a landscape of lost opportunities. A little boy asks him “But why didn’t they stop the War?” “It ought to ‘ave ended”. The old man replied “You can say what you like, …it didn’t ought ever to ‘ave begun.” He said it simply, “somebody somewhere ought to have stopped something, but who or how or why were all beyond” them. The central theme concerning Wells’ novel is the senselessness of war, the senselessness of those who wage it, and the senselessness of those who allow war to be waged. The sight and plight of this river was as senseless as the waste of any war, those permitting its destruction as culpable by their silence and inaction as those directly responsible for the toxic flow. I become aware I am starting to rant, that I am on a soap box somewhere pontificating, yet no one is listening, and even my own ears are tiring of words too often heard.

Those who have gone to the trouble to pace its length claim that the Ganges is 2,525 kilometres long, one of the world’s longest rivers. Those who have measured its volume claim the Ganges is ranked among the world’s top 20 rivers by the amount of water discharged. In addition, to these attributes of distinction, the Ganges Basin is the most heavily populated river basin in the world, with over 400 million people and a population density of about 350 inhabitants per square kilometre; for those countries who haven’t yet changed to the French-inspired metric determination of measures, that’s around 1000 people per square mile. Not surprisingly, in 2007, the Ganges was ranked among the 5 most polluted rivers on the planet, and whilst I do not have a clue who the 4 other contenders are, I suspect the Ganges is still on the short-list.

Sewerage, industrial pollution, and religious offerings wrapped in plastic are the main contributors to the Ganges’ polluted state. The bodies of pregnant women, victims of leprosy and snakebite, and those just too poor to be cremated, are thrown whole into the Ganges, there left to rot. These, and a few extra miscellaneous sources of contamination, make up the residue to the total cause.

A good sounding document called the ‘Ganges Action Plan’ was intended as an environmental initiative that was “the largest single attempt to clean up a polluted river anywhere in the world”, a quote I got from somewhere but then managed to lose the reference citation. In 2006 R. Mandel, in ‘Water Resources Management’, described the action plan as a “failure”. David Haberman, the author of ‘River of love in an age of pollution: the Yamuna River of northern India’, also published in 2006, called the action plan a “major failure”. Writing earlier in ‘Engineering Religion in the Quest for a Sustainable World’, but with the same intent, Gary Gardner in 2003 stated bluntly that the ‘Ganges Action Plan’ was a “colossal failure”. Not to be outdone in the world of descriptive expletives Radha Kant Bharat in ‘Interlinking Indian Rivers’ 2006, said the obvious, that the plan was a “widely recognized failure”. I wasn’t going to argue, limited experience of the Ganges that mine was, and 1st-time ‘blow in’ visitor to India that some would readily title me.

So what brought about the failure of the ‘Ganges Action Plan’, so well intentioned, and what sustains the sight I am now driving beside? After all, the Ganges is India’s sole declared ‘National River’, no small accolade and treasure. So, on that basis alone, you’d think a whole lot of people, basically every Hindu, Buddhist and Jain in India, would be out there working very hard to clean it up. Hell, they did it with the Thames, and we even tidied up Sydney’s Parramatta River to a fair degree. It appears not. Failure of the plan has been variously attributed to environmental planning largely devoid of a real understanding of the interactions between humans and the environment, Indian traditions and beliefs, lack of technical knowledge, lack of support from religious authorities, and just plain corruption; apparently lots of the last, and a goodly measure of all the others.

When it comes to the actions of my fellow humans I’m known for a measure of cynicism, but looking at that river, my cynicism is having trouble keeping up with reality. Ted Simmons, a man I have never met and know almost nothing about, is credited with the words “Violation of Nature hurts me as much as evidence of rape. Needless to say, I am hurt quite frequently”. By any definition this river was being raped, a form of violence beyond dispute. Mohandas Gandhi fought against violence, but my knowledge of his work is insufficient to know if his committal to ‘ahimsa’, non-violence, non-harm, extended so deeply to the natural world. The emperor Asoka’s view of non-harm certainly did, post the Kalinga battle holocaust anyway, and that of Henry David Thoreau saw nature equal to humanity in his stand against injustice. It was in large part from Thoreau that Gandhi’s philosophy, teaching and practice of ‘non-violence’, was influenced.

I admit to a certain fondness for Thoreau. Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862, was an American author, poet, philosopher, freemason, abolitionist, naturalist, historian, development critic, transcendentalist, surveyor and tax resister. He is best known for his book ‘Walden’, in which he describes and considers his experiences living in natural surroundings on a small farm allotment and woodlot. Of equal note is his essay ‘Civil Disobedience’, an argument for the resistance of the individual in moral opposition to an unjust state, to a contemptible, if not corrupt, government. His lasting contributions are his writings on natural history and philosophy. In these Thoreau anticipates the later methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, these constituting two sources of modern day environmentalism. His style of writing interlaces observations of the natural world, personal experience, unashamedly sharp rhetoric, and historic lore. He strongly advocated abandoning waste and illusion in order to discover the essential and true needs of life. Thoreau’s philosophy of civil disobedience not only influenced Gandhi but others such as Leo Tolstoy, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Ernest Hemingway. There was a touch of anarchy in his writings, as for example and possibly most famously: “That government is best which governs not at all, and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”

Born in Concord, Massachusetts, he was described by the American novelist and writer Nathaniel Hawthorne as “ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with an uncouth and rustic, though courteous manner, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty.” Louisa May Alcott, the American novelist best known as the author of ‘Little Women’ wrote that Thoreau’s facial hair “will almost assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man’s virtue ‘in perpetuity’”. For me Miss Alcott’s barbs cut too close a personal wound for I see she and I, if she awakens from the grave for a second stab at a writing career, will much differ as to our appraisal of the manliness of beards. Consequently, given her disdain for hirsute growth, I doubt that there would have been an American Civil War officer that would have found her favour, and our own Australian founding father Sir Henry Parkes would have been shorn by the first town barber coming into her sight, if not by the hand of the lady herself.

Thoreau, at least in part, was a ‘world renouncer’, and like those of the Hindu kind he went to the forest because, as he said in ‘Walden’ “I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived….. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.” Thus, in July 1845, he commenced a life of simple living, an experiment that lasted two years.

Thoreau had refused to pay taxes, six years of it in fact, an obligation the government deemed delinquent. His refusal to pay was because of his opposition to the Mexico-American War of 1846-48, and his opposition to slavery. For the arrears of taxes he was gaoled, but was released after one night as the taxes were paid by an aunt, an action undertaken much against Thoreau’s own wishes. This experience had a strong impact on him and led to his campaigning for the rights and duties of the individual in relation to government. From out of this he wrote the essay ‘Resistance to Civil Government’, better known as ‘Civil Disobedience’. In this Thoreau takes up the principle of resolute non-violence, even in the face of oppression and death, earlier espoused by the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in the 1819 poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’. Thoreau argues that individuals should not allow governments to hold power over their consciences, to avoid the dilution of their conscience in matters they know are patently unjust, and that they have a duty to resist government making them agents of injustice. Thoreau asserts governments are typically more harmful than helpful and therefore they cannot be justified. He sees Democracy as no cure as majorities, by sole virtue of being a majority, can overrule an individual of just conscience and wisdom, and the judgement of an individual is not necessarily inferior to the decisions of a political body or majority. Thus the only obligation to which an individual should attend was to do at all times that which the individual feels is right. I’m assuming here that Thoreau trusted individuals to make unbiased, objective decisions well founded in fact, and that they actually had a fair understanding of what ‘right’ was.

He goes on to exhort people not to just wait passively for an opportunity to vote for justice, since he considered voting for justice was as ineffective as wishing for justice. What you need to do is to actually be just, and not give injustice your support. Thoreau notes that if all just men withdraw by peaceful means their support of the state, then ultimately the state will be obliged to change. His arguments so impressed Mohandas Gandhi that in his ‘satyagrapha’, ‘insistence on truth’, campaign in South Africa in 1907, he wrote that Thoreau’s writings and personal example were exactly applicable to the Indians of the Transvaal. In ‘For Passive Resisters’, 1907, Gandhi writes: “He [Thoreau] went to gaol for the sake of his principles and suffering humanity”. His essay ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’ “has, therefore, been sanctified by suffering. Moreover it is written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable”.


I had neither dreamed nor wandered from my thought of the black river, distant somewhere behind me, as it now was. Thoughts of Thoreau and the concept of ‘non-harm’ had simply helped pass the time. And so it was that, at last and intact, we pulled into a waterside town I recorded in my diary as ‘Gadkhali’. There I looked for the first time in my life upon the waters of the Bay of Bengal.

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