Most of us have a water body in our memory, be it flowing or still like our life. It shows the time, the faces, even our own reflections. Piu Mahapatra had one which she crossed every year at this time of the year, during Durga Puja.
The river is as wide as an ocean here. Grey, muddy filled with silt which settles down every day little by little around the shores of deltas, raising banks, expanding maps. I stood next to him near the jetty.
“What if the islands get connected? Do islands get connected? Do they, O, Babaaa?”
The jetty, known by the locals as ‘৮ এর নম্বরের ঘাট’ (Ghat No. 8) was quiet most of the hours, specially during the low tide. The vessels never crossed the river then and ‘Notun rasta’, even though there was nothing ‘notun‘ (new) about that old bumpy road, took a quick nap before the cycle rickshaws bringing in dozens of passengers from the bus stop drove him nuts. Even ‘মোটার দোকান’ (‘Chubby’s Hotel‘) looked lonely with their army of lazy flies as ‘Mota’ himself rested idly on the thin wooden benches.
Soon the chairs would be filled. The benches would have rows of ‘শাল পাতার থালা’ (handmade dry leaf plates) and little boys, swift and agile, would hurry from one plate to another carrying piping hot rice in aluminum buckets. Four heaped ladles filled with rice for each plate. I could never imagine finishing that amount in two days, forget about the few hours in between the two tides. But they were misers when it came to serving fried potatoes – one spoonful and that was it. A deep look at the boys would make them step back followed by at most another half a spoon. That made my day. There were other things served before and after the fried potatoes, but I never bothered to notice then nor remember later.
Mota’s team knew how to make profit. They would coax the hesitant passengers for afternoon meals.
“Oh the next ferry? There is enough time!! Have your meal. As much rice as you want!! There is none open on the other side though when you cross the river,” he advised and warned.
The one who was not local, would take a seat and have his own sweet time to break rice warmed up with the first two courses. Right when the fish was about to be served, rumour would spread that the ferry was about to leave in a quarter of an hour. Most of the men, half full and half hungry rushed out giving Mota a stern look. Mota never looked back.
“He is mean, right Baba? I am sure he eats all the rice that is left at the day’s end ? He’ll never get thin!! ‘তাই না বাবা?!”
The banks were always muddy. Thick gooey mud. The one in which Amulyo lost his palm shoes in Satyajit Ray’s Samapti (the third part of Teen Kanya or Three Daughters). But unlike that ‘samapti’ (conclusion) here, once a slipper was gone it was lost forever.
The boats were motor driven. Some called them vessels and some named them launch. But they were definitely big with a deck on the top. People swarmed in till one would start to believe the boat would sink in the mud. I, a fifth grader who didn’t know how to float in water, wasn’t allowed on the top. I would stay down in the rat hole to drown with my mom, just in case the boat decided to sink. A higher level logic set up by my mom that had always eluded by comprehension!
The boat glided through the heavy grey water and it’s motor grumbled, gurgled and spitted kerosene. Mom kept on throwing coins at the water before touching it on her forehead. I was always awestruck with her act of faith. The same lady who would shrink two sizes in her own skin to give her own daughter two extra rupees for the savory ‘gulgappa‘ throwing pennies in water like dry flowers!!
“Why didn’t you throw them near the bank? The water was thin there, still had some chance.”
The motor growled instead. I quietly tiptoed up the five wooden steps looking for my dad on the deck above as my mom would busy herself in a conversation with someone, somewhere.
The sky opened up all of a sudden. The wind, salty and sticky laughed and giggled and sprayed water on my face and on my tiny body. It tugged my cotton dress, disheveled my hair and I smiled back at them. The grey stretch of water chopped and lapped around our boat which suddenly looked tiny.
I bent a little toward the water coming closer to the edge. Baba, unlike ma, never warned me of my incapability to float. However he came a little closer. Took his handkerchief as grey as the river and dabbed his forehead.
“There’s treasure underneath, Baba!” My eyes shone like a new quarter. “Ma throws so many coins, I am sure others do too.” He laughed!
“Do you think I will drown? If I wear those black tyres around…will I drown still? What do you say?”
He told me about the dolphins instead. Also about the razor sharp teeth of ‘kamot‘, the tiny sharks, the greenest algae which float in the water to glow at night, pineapple tortoises entangled along with the silver fishes in the fishermen’s nets pulled before dawn. There would be flocks of seagulls as well waiting to snatch a loot.
He told me all these, about the depths of life, not about drowning.
“How far is the other side, ma?”
I hear him now, asking me feebly, in some of his darkest nights !!
(Artwork: Piu Mahapatra)
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