We drove along a track of corrugated mud towards the river. Manjit, our driver, parked the car in a fog-bound clay pit, and disappeared into the wasteland with promises of an early morning chai. It was still dark. My partner, Jamie, wandered off in search of the ferry terminus, and was soon swallowed up by the gloom.
A chicken bustled out of the mist and scuttled past. The damp silence came as an eerie relief from the incessant clatter of everyday India. Huddling in the back seat, I pulled my shawl tighter and squinted through the windscreen at the undulating landscape. There was no sign of a river.
An Indian pye-dog ambled by.
Manjit reappeared with sweet cardamom masala chai for all of us. Then Jamie tapped on the window.
'This is it.' he said.
'What do you mean, “This is it”? There’s nothing here but mud.'
From inside my cocoon I noticed an improvement in the visibility. I got out. A broad sweep of churned up earth, interspersed with more ramshackle sheds and groups of monochrome figures, appeared through the shadows. Then India’s wide and sacred Brahmaputra river revealed itself.
We walked down to the silvery water’s edge, where a makeshift ramp, slightly wider than a car, had been excavated through the clay. Further on, a couple of old barges, about 20 metres in length, leant against the riverbank.
'You don’t suppose one of those is the ferry?' I said.
'Too small,' said Jamie, “look at that noticeboard.”
A blue sign read:
Light vehicle like Jeep, Ambassador with driver 634.00Rs
Bullock and cart (loaded) 104.00Rs
Elephant with mahout 821.00Rs
Wild animal like Tiger, Lion etc 82.00Rs
There were a further 26 categories.
An hour later – among the usual hullabaloo that accompanies any kind of tricky operation in India – Manjit manoeuvred his car down the ramp, across two wooden planks and onto one of the narrow barges. Jamie and I staked a claim below decks among 150 or so other passengers.
With a flurry of engine noise and staccato shouts from boat and shore, the barge reversed, then slid sideways to be snatched by the fast-moving “son of Brahma” on its 1,800 mile journey from Tibet to the Bay of Bengal.
Earnest salesmen, nervous women, raggedy goat herders, stoical monks and well-to-do Indian tourists with unruly children wedged themselves into the six rows of wooden benches that stretched from bow to stern. Those who couldn't bag a seat stood. Another 30 passengers found room between the bikes, buffalo and cars above us (there were no elephants, tigers or lions on this crossing). Two red and white life rings hung from the walls.
Open windows stretched the length of the cabin, admitting the orangey-pink light of an Assamese dawn. To stop people from falling out, horizontal wooden planks were nailed through the middle of the empty spaces, reducing the height of each gap to less than a foot.
I wondered what would happen if the boat capsized. Could I squeeze through that narrow opening? Jamie wouldn't have a hope, he is far too big. I scrutinised the other travellers. Perhaps the children and even some of the adults would fit. I imagined the pandemonium as the boat tipped over and filled with water. Our only exit, a two metre wide staircase, would quickly clog with people clambering to get out.
'How long would we have?' I wondered aloud.
How many of our fellow passengers could swim? How fast would the swirling water drag us down? Could we wrench off the window planks? I pointed at the nails.
'I would kick out the wood,' said Jamie, whose fears were beginning to mirror mine.
Our instinct for self preservation took over, so we gave up our seats to join Manjit on deck. I felt guilty, but consoled myself with the thought that if a catastrophe occurred we could jump free and might be able to save at least one passenger each.
Six months later, safely at home, I read a news headline: “Indian ferry capsizes drowning more than 100 in Brahmaputra river”. I saw the women's eight metre sarees strangling them in the current, the clinging robes of the monks tangling with thin limbs as they sank; they wouldn't have stood a chance.