Kevin was not happy. We had met several days earlier in Kolkata and were looking forward to joining a cruise upstream on the Hooghly and Ganges rivers in India onboard a luxury cruise ship, quite a momentous occasion, since almost no foreign tourists had taken this route since the1940's. It was our welcome dinner at the gracious Oberoi Grand Hotel in Kolkata. I had entered the dining room late, having made a quick dash to collect my new shirt from the tailors. Seated with Kevin were two English couples. "You know what gets up my goat,"said Kevin, "Its people like that. You know what she said? And where do you come from Kevin? Australians how very unfortunate!" Then I recognised her. It was Lady S whom I'd met earlier in the lift who gave me such a disapproving look as I stood covered in the pink dye that is so liberally tossed about during Holi, a festive occasion in India, which was why I was so much in need of a new shirt for dinner.
Next morning we departed Kolkata in a cramped bone rattling bus, the English tour group of 24 having departed in a hurry after securing the superior bus with air conditioning and 48 seats while ours had an inside temperature gauge that swung between 32 and 37degrees Celsius or just below 100 Fahrenheit.
When asked to walk down a meandering pathway to the jetty for the short ride to our boat, a large Englishman with a booming voice called out to our onboard Naturalist. "Come here. Now lift up your arms."And with that, he uploaded him with several large duffle bags on each arm. When I asked him what hewas doing, he replied "He is an Indian you know a Pukka Wallah, a servant, but let me tell you, you don't know what you're talking about, you come from a land of prisoners. I've been polite to you so far, but I'm not going to be anymore!" And he was true to his word.
I realised how important social acceptance is, when I witnessed the consequences of having it denied, in a confined space shared with 50 other passengers. Lines were drawn and as Australians, many refused to acknowledge us. Some nationalities chose not to speak to each other. Reserved signs appeared on dining tables, towels and books were placed on deck chairs, many sought preferential treatment. The beauty and enchantment of the journey we were on was overshadowed by the dramas onboard.
This year I simply had to return to undertake the journey once more, in good company,on the Assam Bengal Navigation's Sukapha, which I find not dissimilar to travelling with friends. This is how such a memorable experience should be, in the company of Germans, Americans and the nicest English couple one could ever hope to meet.