Rakesh found some tape from somewhere, and we set about decorating the boat. We hung coloured streamers and strings of marigolds from wire stretched across bamboo poles, finished off with a pink and silver paper star.
Huddled in our coats and scarfs, we ploughed through the chilly fog to Assi Ghat. There we picked up eight oven-baked pizzas and set off again downstream, stopping for a few minutes to collect the chocolate cake that we’d ordered from the German Bakery. Sunita, her mother and two sisters, warmed their hands over the fire that Sunil had built. I love fires on boats. They give off a kind of magical danger. A large boat filled with Asian Buddhists trundled past, surrounded by four smaller boats, floating shops brimming with trinkets and souvenirs like the pilot fish that clean the sharks.
We moored up while Sunita’s and her family went to visit some relatives. Nothing stays a secret for long in Varanasi, and word had got out along the ghats that there was something very precious on our boat–chocolate. Soon we were surrounded by little kids shouting, “Chocolate madam! Chocolate madam!” and occasionally, “Madam, chocolate!” I cut up the rest of the cake and placed a piece into each tiny hand.
“Merry Christmas!” they shouted as one, when we pulled out into the river again. “Merry Christmas!” we shouted back. Merry Christmas indeed.