On the Ganges: Encounters with Saints and Sinners on India’s Mythic River by George Black

‘You have to understand,’ a friend had told me once, only half-joking. ‘In India, there are no facts.’

George Black’s On the Ganges is a sweeping travelogue that both reflects on the genre itself in Indian history as well as furthers the writing style with decisive insight into contemporary issues in the country. The author looks to answer several key questions but ultimately: Why have people travelled to India and what have they found? Organized roughly by geography, from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, the book follows the path of the river, and the footsteps of the early chroniclers of the land and its culture.

Black doesn’t discriminate in his reportage. He documents adventure travel, historical tracks, and spiritual awakenings. From Twain to Ginsberg to The Beatles, there’s a purpose and a discovery behind every departure into the subcontinent. Black gives us the medicinal (cow urine soda), the artistic (Dear Prudence), the economic (cremation graft), the ecology (tannery pollution), and the cultural (mustache world records!). This list doesn’t even start to scratch the surface of his related findings.

The book is written in short chapters that follow the traveler through the many hamlets, villages, and metropolises. Some are connected in topic, some are not, but they are all easily digestible. The writing is filled with smart allusions and funny quips, and I particularly enjoyed the times when Black wrote in the first person. Granted, there is a difficult balance that has to be struck between the writer and the subject, yet at times I wanted a little more of the story of his journey, and less of the history and background information.

For me, a good travelogue is one that allows the reader to escape to another place with an experienced tour guide, one who provides a little history, perspective, and cultural nuance. On the Ganges does just that. I enjoyed traveling with Black for a bit and learning about a part of the world that I have been somewhat unschooled in until now.

4 out of 5 stars

Releases on July 17th

Thank you to NetGalley, St. Martin’s Press, and George Black for an advanced copy for review.


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