A pilgrimage

Never has it been with such mixed feelings that I began a trip. It was not merely that I had set out to track the Ganges. It was more like a pilgrimage few can boast to have done. There was also the added tension of the clandestine nature of much of what I was doing that haunted me through most of the trip.

It was already mid-December when I set out for the trip, not quite appreciating the harsh conditions around Gangotri in the remote north of Uttarakhand. The plan was to begin at the top and travel down the river to Farakka. So I flew to Delhi. Visa was not a problem because of the ‘no visa required’ sticker of SAARC countries. I had made a similar trip along the Teesta the year before but this time it was going to be very different.

I had to keep in mind every step of the way that I should not do anything to attract attention. That overriding concern hung over my head through the month-long trip.

I reached Delhi on December 11 via Jet Airways.

The hotel that I had booked on the internet turned out to be full, which I did not mind since it looked too rundown anyway. And I was not keen about the other hotel they suggested. Instead I settled for a 700-rupee guest house on the main road. I preferred the old town area because it was close to the rail station.

By the time I settled into the room, my nagging headache had become a full blown migraine. I decided not to venture out for the day.

The chicken biriyani I ordered turned out to be quite below expectations and did not help matters either.

It was not till later that evening that I contacted two friends and set up meetings for the following day. But I had to be careful about what I told them. I would not want to get them in any trouble either.

Vijay (not real name) said he would meet me at the Gol Market at noon and Taposh da (not real name) would meet at Khan Market at 5pm.

The vegetable thali I ordered for supper proved much better.

Delhi

The plan was to first get a SIM card with the best internet coverage and get it working before I left Delhi. That was the first thing I did with Vijay when we met at the Gol Market at noon (December 12). The other plan was to get him to put me in touch with activist groups across India along the Ganges. We got an Airtel 4G connection. I did not want to disclose much about this trip so I merely told journalist friends that I wanted to travel the entire length of the Ganges. It would be quite a trip for any environmental journalist worth his salt. So it did not really strike as odd to either Vijay or Taposh da.

The SIM card would kick in within 12 hours they said, which was fine with me since I did not plan to start travelling before that either. In the meantime, Vijay put me in touch with someone from the Ganga Ahvaan and also called one Pooja (not real name) to meet at Khan Market at 6.30 where I would be meeting Taposh.

That afternoon Taposh showed up with two Bhutanese journalists at 5pm. We had an animated conversation about my impending trip with Taposh da once the Bhutanese journalists left.

Before returning to the hotel that evening I bought a train ticket to Dehradun for December 14. Bharat Jhunjhunwala, a river activist had agreed to see me the following morning as he was free till 2pm at his house at Indirapuram of Ghaziabad.

Bihar

Bharat Jhunjhunwala

I had got in touch with Bharat Jhunjhunwala when I found the court documents of a lawsuit in late 2014 where activists including affected parties like farmers and boatmen sued for damages caused by infrastructures on the Ganges. The lawsuit, which is still going on, claimed damages running into the billions due to projects from Uttarakhand to West Bengal. Jhunjhunwala was the main litigant. Although initially reluctant, Jhunjhunwala had later agreed to talk to me in 2014 when I pointed out that I would report on the matter either way. Today’s (December 13) hour long interview at his 23r-storey apartment turned out to be interesting. At least there seemed to be a lot of material to be covered.

As the first effective work of the investigation plan, this was not a bad start at all. He also got me contacts in Rishikesh, Haridwar, and a few other places.

Dehradun

The journey begins on a day (December 14) that is often observed with much solemnity back home. This was the time when in 1971 the losing Pakistani junta activated a horrific plan to cripple Bangladesh. They set out small squads of militia specially tasked to abduct the intellectuals and thinkers and take them to a concentration camp. Doctors, researchers, professors and thinkers were picked up by pro-Pakistani Islamist groups fronted by apparently innocuous bearded men. Some of our brightest minds were murdered in cold blood around this time just two days before the formal surrender.

My train to Dehradun was on time and whistled off from New Delhi rail station at 6:45am. I was already bracing for the colder climes that I would invariably get into, the closer I got to the source of the Ganges. The trip ended at 1pm and like most places, the first thing I did was to hang around a tea stall and scope out the scenery to get a feel of the place.

1971 killing of Bengali intellectuals - Wikipedia

In 1971 the Pakistan Army and their local collaborators, most notably the extreme right wing Islamist militia groups Al-Badr, engaged in the systematic execution of Bengali pro-liberation intellectuals during the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971, a war crime. Intellectuals were killed during the entire duration of the war.

The Grand Hotel might have been worth its name a long time ago but certainly not in this century. It was, however, clean and the second floor room would run me a modest 700 rupees. The nagging headache had returned with a cough that threatened to get worse in the cold.

I manage with hot water from the thermos. They said hot running water from the geyser would be available only in the mornings for a couple of hours. I stayed put in the room, not daring to venture out lest the cold gets worse.

Uttarkashi - Tehri

I started for Uttarkashi around 7am (December 15). With the headache still there, I don’t want to risk a ride in the back seat of one of those Tata Sumos. So it was a while before I managed to get a front seat of the next taxi, which is basically an SUV. Booked both the front seats thinking that I might as well travel in comfort, which turned out to be quite a big deal by the reaction of the other passengers. And here I was trying to avoid attention.

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Two-seat dilemma

I finally started at 9 and reached Uttarkashi by 2.30.

But before that, there was this chatty gentleman who asked me where I was headed, where from, and so on. Just the usual chat the friendly commuters might engage in. It must have been because I was so apprehensive that I blurted out: “I am from Bengal.”

Although it would explain my halting accented Hindi, I thought it was quite unnecessary.

What struck me most was that at one point after Mussoorie and couple of other sleepy little towns I discovered a majestic range of mountains along the horizon. I asked the driver what it was. Without even looking he said: “It’s the Himalayas.” As if it was most ordinary thing in the world, not even warranting a look. I of course kept taking photos on the way.

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First glimpse of the Himalayas

It was on this trip that I first saw the Tehri dam.

I called a local contact, Deepak, right after arriving and he showed up within 15 minutes with a friend, which I did not really appreciate. Here I was trying to blend in like an enthusiastic tourist, and there was Deepak excitedly telling his friend about this journalist friend from Bangladesh. So it was only once we finally managed to shake off the friend after a hearty lunch that we went to the river bank and from a rope bridge over the Bhagirathi.

We walked to a hotel that a friend of Deepak’s runs and had a long chat that evening over a bottle of rum. As it happens so often, sharing a bottle really brings on the camaraderie among fellow men. That was what I was hoping for in the first place. So we talked about many things and I got to know that Deepak’s grandfather was a peasant farmer directly affected by the Tehri Dam reservoir. So that was where we would be going the next morning.

Tehri-Devprayag

It was on this day that the Ganges tracking began in earnest. We took a taxi to a smaller town and got another shared taxi to Deepak’s village Badhar Gaon about 5km away from there (December 16).

A former military man, Deepak’s grandfather explained that the reservoir meant a constant presence of a large body of water. The Tehri reservoir with a surface area of 52 square kms gives off water vapour the year round, resulting in constant fog. That has increased precipitation, both rain and dew, which triggered diseases of the crops.

The visit to Tehri was easier than I had anticipated. Although there was heightened security, I was able to take a few photos.

Deepak rented a taxi for me to Devprayag at 2,500 rupees.

On the way, however, I figured we would be driving close to another dam. At least that was what my Google map was showing. So I asked the driver and sure enough the Koteshwar dam was on the way. We drove right on top of it but it was apparently fully monitored and under strict surveillance, said the driver. But still the man took me to a point where I could take a few photos of the dam. However, it was becoming too dark by then. I reached Devprayag a little after 7pm.

Deepak had fixed Jaihari as my next contact. I was like a baton they were passing around. Jaihari would be with me while I went around Devprayag, Srinagar, and Rudraprayag.

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Covering an area of 52 sq km, the Tehri reservoir displaced thousands.

Alaknanda meets Bhagirathi

The whole night I could hear the sound rippling waters and I wondered where it was. It was not as if the sound was coming from right outside the window but I could tell it was nearby. So the first thing we did when Jaihari came to see me around 10 in the morning of December 17 (he had brought a friend along too) was to walk to the river.

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Birth of the Ganges

It was the Sangam! This was where the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi meet and give birth to Mother Ganges.

The downside was that the hotel did not have hot water and I could not shower in the morning.

We went to visit another confluence about 50 kilometers up river where the Alaknanda meets the Mandakini at Rudraprayag, made famous by Jim Corbett’s hunting tales.

On the way, we saw the Srinagar hydro-electric dam that began operating in 2013 generating 324MW.

Jaihari said people were against such large dams since the reservoirs put much pressure on the delicate ecosystem of the hilly rivers. They would rather have smaller dams to produce electricity for the locals. “Instead, the government uses the hills to generate power for other states like Delhi.”

The taxi driver from Devprayag had naturally been listening to our conversation and could well guess I was a journalist with an interest in dams. So, as it often happens on these long commutes, the driver chatted on. Dhan Singh said, there were large vegetable patches in the area before the dam was built but not anymore. “It is all under the reservoir now.”

Rudraprayag was outstanding especially where the cool Mandakini gives birth to Alaknanda. After a late lunch back at Srinagar, I went ahead to Rishikesh but Jaihari had to return to his workplace. Night fell long before I reached the town and the driver began to nag because he would have to go back all the way with the empty cab in the dark. So when we finally reached Rishikesh, Dhan Singh almost threw me out of the car and hurtled back home. I barely had time to get the money out and give it to him.

Supper was bread toast and tea after a long shower. With the hotel wifi not working and my Airtel not getting network, I had nothing much to do and relaxed watching movies.

Bihar

Beans and lentils are the order of the day around the hill country.

Rishikesh

I was tired from the past few days of hectic travel and began the day (18 December) quite late at 11am. The man at a tea stall across the street from the hotel said I should take a shared taxi to the Triveni ghat where people bathe in the Ganges, from where I could easily get something for the next destination.

Barely half a kilometre away, the Triveni ghat is a sight to behold with thousands bathing in the river. Shops were selling all kinds of souvenirs. I roamed around the place for about an hour and rented a taxi for Haridwar. But the renting company said it would not be possible to go through the main roads because of religious processions throughout the area as it was one of the many occasions that called for special worship. Instead we would be going through the Rishikesh barrage.

Although I pretended to be disappointed, it was exactly what I needed. In fact I had been racking my brains about how to maneuver the driver to take me through the barrage.

This was the first time I would be in a taxi by myself visiting a dam. I was once again somewhat apprehensive. So I pretended to be a tourist visiting different spots on the rivers or the countryside as we went through Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula followed by a long hearty lunch. I made sure the driver was happy.

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Both Ramjhula and Lakshmanjhula offer views of the Ganges still flowing clean and strong.

As I made to take photos over the Rishikesh barrage, the driver cautioned that it would not be wise as the security was quite tight. However, I managed to take a few photos over a canal where almost the entire water flow is diverted by the hydropower project.

The distance between Rishikesh and Haridwar is only about 30 kilometers. But there two barrages in that stretch -- the Rishikesh Barrage and the Bhimgoda Barrage at Haridwar that diverts water through the Upper Ganges Canal.

Haridwar seemed to be much more frantic compared to the ones I had been to so far. Hundreds of thousands gather for pilgrimage and everyone seems to be perpetually hurrying somewhere as if they are already late.

We stopped in front of the railway station where I took tea by the road. Then I rented a taxi powered by a converted irrigation pump, common in this part of the world, to Hari Ki Puri where most people have their Gangasnan. It is about a kilometre and a half from the place. I was glad I had gone out to the middle of the river as it turned out to be the highpoint of the day actually. There was much festivity all around with thousands bathing. Hundreds of shops mostly made brisk business selling plastic bottles to carry home some holy water of Mother Ganges, dirty though it is.

Shopkeepers badgered me to buy something for a worship, which is only natural. Once again, being a Muslim by birth, I could not help feeling a little wary, in case anyone objected to my presence. And I also remembered what Taposh da had said. He had warned me to be cautious here in Haridwar. In fact he had said: “Stay there as little time as possible. Have a look around and leave as quickly as possible.”

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The cremation ground has crept into where the river flowed once upon a time.

So without hanging around the river, I made towards the station and checked into a fancy hotel for the evening. Le Roi cost Rs 2,500 and it was not even close to the rack rates.

Jim Corbett National Park

I checked out by 8am (December 19) and took a taxi at the railway station about 50 metres away.

I asked the driver, Shushil Sharma, to go to Muzaffarnagar. We took the Upper Ganges Canal on our way to Muzaffarnagar and I realised that the entire township of Roorkee was there solely because of the diverted waters. I also wanted to go through some villages here to find out how irrigation worked for the local farmers. This was sugar cane country, although the two main crops are paddy and wheat. But here, farmers grow mostly sugar cane and vegetables. I spoke to a few and they seemed quite satisfied with irrigation since the canals connected almost every patch of land, and so water was never an expensive proposition for the farmers.

We visited Bijnor, home to the Middle Ganges Barrage, which has a cremation ground right where the river would have been. Then I thought of going to the Jim Corbett National Park about 120km because it was only 1:30pm and I would be able to go through Kho Barrage on the way. I reached there around 6:30pm at Ramnagar.

The Aroma Pearl resort was outstanding as was their food, and the waiter’s ability of speak Bengali made it feel almost like home.

Narora

The next day (December 20) I planned to travel by train and took a taxi from the resort to the rail station except that we made a quick detour to go over Kosi barrage close to Ramnagar. My train to Moradabad left at 9:50 and I reached there at noon utterly bewildered. The station was so chaotic I had a hard time getting a taxi.

Once I finally got one, I told the driver, Deepak Joshi, that I wanted to see the Ganges and would like to visit Narora (where there is a nuclear facility also fed by the diverted Ganges waters). On the way he tried to convince me about visiting some other places, especially some special Ganga Ghat near Mukteshwar but I pretended to be a dumb stubborn tourist from Bengal who simply would not take good advice and insisted on Narora, saying that I would go to Lucknow from there.

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The main road goes right over the Narora Barrage.

As we crossed a town called Sambhal, Deepak said we were passing by a mini Pakistan. He called it so because 75% of the people there are Muslims. Turned out, the driver had a very healthy hatred about Muslims. If only he knew, I told myself.

It took over two hours to get to Narora and I only took photos after crossing the barrage where there is little water. In fact almost half the river bed has dried up because water is being diverted to the nuclear project and the irrigation canals.

I had planned to travel to Lucknow that evening but I found out that the buses passing through on their way to Lucknow were not scheduled to stop here. Even if they did, there was no guarantee of a seat. I could also go to the nearby train stop but Deepak said there were only three trains to Lucknow from there and I should not take the risk. So instead, I returned to Moradabad which is the central junction of Uttar Pradesh.

We reached Moradabad around 6:30pm and Deepak taught me something that helped me out several times on the trip. Upon failing to get a reservation on the 7:45pm train, he bought me a general ticket which is almost always available. He told me I could secure the reservation with the TT, which I did not think would work out but later found out, to my pleasure, that it was a perfectly acceptable system to buy a general ticket and get on another train. Passengers had to pay in cash. What is more Deepak got a porter to take me to the TT and he allotted me an AC sleeper ticket on the Anand Vihar going to Gorakhpur that would leave around 9pm. Since my first train was going to be late and it was perfectly fine to ride another train. I reached Lucknow in the middle of the night around 2am and abandoned my silly attempt to find a hotel, after an ill conceived foray through dark alleys and shadowy streets. I did not want to go around with all the cash that I was carrying with me. I decided to stay put at the station till daybreak, resisting the constant badgering of brokers and agents who wanted to take me to one hotel or another.

Lucknow

I left the station around 7:30am (December 21) and checked into a pricey hotel. I did not mind because I wanted to get a good night’s sleep and also needed to update the last four hectic days of travel. I slept till 12:30pm and showered and got down to the tedious part of the assignment -- putting all the notes in order and uploading all the pictures in the cloud. I was storing them at three places. I emailed everything to Tanim Ahmed back home, kept everything on my cloudstore and also had another set on my Mac as we had discussed as a means of precaution.

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The streets were reminiscent of Dhaka.

It was almost 4pm by the time I got out of the hotel. I would have gone out even later if it was only to get more dollars changed and renting a car as the receptionist had advised. But I had to go see the Gomti Barrage right beside the city.

Sarda-Girija

My car was right on time at 7:30 (December 22) but it took me a while to check out because they could not get a proper printout of the invoice. In the end, I left without it because the computers were not working and the desk clerk promised to send me a copy through email.

I had to go through almost the same rigmarole that I did with Deepak Joshi. When I told him I wanted to visit Sitapur, Rajesh Maura the driver, tried his best dissuade me from such folly. He suggested Ayodhya, only 150km away. I said: “Next time,” and kept being the impossibly stupid tourist who would not listen to good advice.

But the whole point of going to Sitapur was to actually make a detour and visit the barrage about 50km from there. I only brought it up during our second break of the morning when we were almost close to Sitapur. I asked if there were any rivers and Rajesh said there weren’t. But then I showed that there was one according to my Google map and I wanted to go see it.

Rajesh tried his best to dissuade me saying it is really not worth it and there is nothing to see. “Besides it will take much longer and cost you more of course.”

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The streets were reminiscent of Dhaka.

I was fine with that as long as I got to the barrage. There was heavy fog around Sarda barrage when I reached there and the photos naturally came out smoky. From there I managed to convince Rajesh to take me to Girija barrage near the Nepal border. Of course the two large beers I bought him were more persuasive than my pleas, I am sure.

The entire area was covered by sugar cane. There was also some mustard and other vegetables.

Interestingly, the area seemed to have a preference for horse carts as a means of transport.

We got back to Lucknow at 5:30pm with enough time for my 7pm train to Kanpur except that there was so much traffic I could not get to the station before 6:45pm. I would probably have missed the train if Rajesh had not zigzagged through a maze of alleys and by-lanes to get me there.

I had checked into my hotel in Kanpur by 10:30 and all ready to turn in.

Kanpur

The next morning (December 23) I met Rakesh Jaiswal at his home office. The long-time Ganges activist set me up with different people to go around the city. I got to see the leather industry from the inside with all the malpractices and how most of these tanneries, interestingly headed by Muslims, were polluting the river with their waste. We also managed to speak to one of the officials of the tanners associations. The one thing that was going through my head at this point was that this would be a good side story.

I spent about half a day around Kanpur and went to the station for a train to Allahabad. But the 5:25pm train was two hours late and by the time I had checked into a hotel in Allahabad it was well past 10pm.

Bihar

Tannery waste swirls out of Kanpur to meet the trickle that is Ganges.

Allahabad - Varanasi

The first point of order was to visit the Triveni Sangam that Allahabad is so famous for (December 24). It is the confluence of three rivers, one of them mythical and said to be underground, about 6.5km from the city. This is where the Yamuna and Ganges meet and is also one of the major bathing sites on the Ganges.

I also wanted to get some new clothes because the ones I had been wearing all this time had become too dirty. But the shops were still to open. The Triveni Sangam site was going through a major makeover in preparation for the month-long Kumbh mela beginning on January 1. These preparations stretched up to 10km on both sides of the Ganges.

I rented a boat to take me around the Sangam and where people were bathing. It is also a sanctuary for migratory Siberian birds and it appeared to be customary for devotees to feed the birds as well. There were several shops selling food for birds at Rs20 per bag. My boatman suggested we buy two bags too.

The Ganges has very little water at this point. It is a muddy trickle at best while the Yamuna is dark and strong flowing swiftly. It is in fact the Yamuna’s waters that replenish the Ganges here. It is also the Yamuna’s waters where people have their sacred Gangasnan.

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The Triveni Sangam hardly has any water from the Ganges anymore.

On my way back there was not enough time to go around and buy clothes. I took one of the regular hourly buses to the eternal Varanasi. I reached there around 5:30pm and got off the bus to be welcomed by complete chaos. Everyone seemed to be offering me something all at once. I was accosted by scores of brokers hawking hotels and what not. Must be working on steep commissions, I thought.

There was a medical representative who came out of nowhere and helped me in this dire plight. A fellow smoker, I helped with a light, and as it happens the world over, smokers develop an inherent trustworthiness within themselves.

So he took me on his bike and dropped me around the Ravidas Gate in Lanka, which is where Kapindra Tiwari had agreed to meet me. He took me to the Assi ghat. The two rivers Varuna and Assi lend their names to Varanasi or more popularly Benaras.

It was a sight to see. The Ganges was alight with lamps and lights on the boats as they floated past us. We walked along the river and chatted about different issues. Kapindra introduced me to a longtime boatman called Virender Nishad. He said this was the man who rowed the Prime Minister Modi’s boat when he was here to inaugurate the clean Ganga project.

What is more Virender also runs a guest house renting out first floor rooms of his two storey house. I needed this man to talk to me about the Ganges and open his heart out as he did so. So although it was not that comfortable it struck me as a good idea to stay at the guest house and get him out to the river first thing in the morning and get him to talk his heart out.

I began to regret my decision as soon as I went in for the night. Mosquitoes did not let me sleep a wink. There was no towel. I did not even bother to shower in the morning (December 25) and got Virender to row me out on his boat around 6:30.

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The Assi Ghat remains a hub of activity.

We spent time on the river roaming about and taking pictures and we had breakfast at the same restaurant where I had bought dinner last evening. By then of course Virender had spoken about all things close to his heart.

Kapindra came by around 10:30 to show me the Assi river, which was more like a canal carrying sewage into the Ganges.

Later that day, we headed for the train station but I realised I had lost my lighter at some point which kept giving me a bad feeling. I bought a box of matches before getting to the station. Kapindra had arranged for a ticket to Patna on the Kumbh Express that would leave by 1:10pm. We said our goodbyes after a cup of tea there and although I should have been in Patna by 5:30, the train turned out to be late and I finally reached the capital of Bihar at 8:30pm.

Patna

Although it looked tolerably clean around the station, Patna had other disappointments. Most of the hotels refused to let me have a room because I was a Bangladeshi. This was the first time this happened to me. I only realised that when at the first hotel they declined to let me check in only after seeing my passport because before that point the hotel staff were fine. They did not accept four nationalities — Bangladesh, Pakistan, South Africa and another country I could not care to remember.

Almost half a dozen hotels declined to give me a room. And at that point it was beyond annoyance or anguish. I was desperate to just get a room. So when the manager of one hotel suggested that I try another establishment close by, I could not help thanking him profusely for helping me out.

My local contact Imran Khan came round to meet me at noon (December 26) and we went around town snapping photos of the expressway being built and infrastructure projects going up on the river splitting it into several smaller channels.

All the while that people did this to the river with complete nonchalance, the answer to this irresponsibility was standard. “Oh Ganga Mai will figure this out. It would not have happened if she did not want it.”

I lunched with Imran at a local restaurant run by Bihari Muslims. The taste of beef was novel after more than two weeks. I returned around 4pm but went out of the hotel in the evening for a shave. My two-week stubble was beginning to itch violently. At Rs 300, I thought it was terribly expensive.

Since I could not find any cars to rent for the next day, the manager suggested that I avail Uber or Ola. So then I had a crash course on how the app worked since I had never used this before.

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Major expressway under construction along the dry riverbed.

Confluence of Ganges-Ghagra

The next morning (December 27), I called an Ola cab at 6:45am saying it would be an outstation trip and the taxi was there by 7am. But by the time I was done checking out, the trip got cancelled as I did not show and after that I simply could not get it to work. So then I decided to go to the rail station and rent a car there. It turned out that I did not need to go that far, as I found taxi willing to take on a ride to Revelganj and back for Rs 2,200.

Although the distance was only 78km, the driver said it takes around 3 hours because roads are congested and there is a lot of traffic. “Plus, the roads are terrible.”

We took off. This was mostly agricultural land with wheat and mustard dominating. I found out from farmers that although water is not so available, the lands are mostly flood prone and most of the lands around remain submerged for several days every year. I suppose that is how the Ganges struck back if you messed too much with her.

I also spoke to fishermen in the area where the Gandak meets the Ganges. They said the fish catch are declining every year.

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On the way to the bank of Ganges on Imran’s bike.

Although I had made an appointment with the vice chancellor of the Nalanda Open University for 2pm, I knew it would not be possible to make it in time. So I called to let him know and he kindly deferred it to 430pm but when I showed up at his office 15 minutes early, I found out he was in a meeting. So I went out for lunch and came back around 5pm. I spoke to the biodiversity expert at length for almost an hour. He was keen to hear about my experience. He also spoke about his experience of the last 30 years that he has been working on the Ganges. It was very helpful.

He offered to give me his book the next morning before I left Patna. Although it was very early, he said we would see me after his morning walk.

Confluence of Ganges-Koshi

The driver of the day (December 28), Sunil, called me sharp at 6am and I told him to meet me an hour later at the hotel. I went around to Dr Sinha’s bungalow for his book. We chatted for another half an hour over tea before I took my leave.

There was heavy fog on the way to Bhagalpur where the Koshi, another river coming down from Nepal, meets the Ganges. The narrow and broken down roads slowed our trip even more and it took me seven hours to reach the Ganges-Koshi confluence just over 20km from Bhagalpur.

But since there were no roads or anything, the only thing I could do was walk about 4 or 5km through the bush to reach the river and I could not find anyone who could guide me there either. I was disappointed and exhausted. I got dropped off about 2-3km away from the spot at a place called Kursela from where I took a bus to Kathihar. Although only 50km, the trip took two hours.

I saw crop-fields and farms all along the roadside. They said this year the entire area had been damaged by the monsoon floods. The abject poverty is obvious in the area.

I got off at Katihar and took a train to Raignaj only 60km away. But it was well after 10pm when I reached there. I was supposed to stay at my cousin’s, and they were expecting me, but I was getting worried as it was getting darker and since these were rural areas.

My cousin had given me detailed instructions so I knew what to tell the auto-rickshaw that I reserved one for 400 rupees for the 22km trip. But I also let him take on more passengers thinking that there would be safety in numbers. Better travel with some locals than by myself. Finally, I reached Ithar at around 11.

I met my cousin after many years. She was very excited and had cooked all kinds of food. I, on the other hand, wanted to have a good night’s sleep for now. That is what I did.

Bihar

The rural countryside of Bihar has unmistakable signs of poverty.

Farakka

After spending the next day with relatives around the area, I managed to break away and visit the Farakka Barrage site with a young cousin. That was on December 30. We also stopped along the river at a few places to talk to people or just take pictures. I took the night train to Kolkata.

Bihar

A last glimpse of the Ganges before it enters Bangladesh.

I was relieved. I had managed to get to Farakka from Uttarkashi without incident. The sight of Farakka was immensely satisfying. It had been hectic and taxing. But in many ways, however, the hard part was still ahead. I would have to piece together the data, information and anecdotes to build the story.

The following day (December 31) I spent at a hotel speaking to a number of people including Nilanjan Ghosh before getting a plane ticket to Dhaka.