I have never been much for rivers, I have always claimed. The first rivers that I saw were the wadis in Oman; they weren't technically rivers, I suppose, pop-up rivers, really, which birthed into existence immediately following the rains and then, swiftly vanished a few days afterwards. In any case, I imagined rivers to be like the way I saw them for the first time in atlases: silver snakes laboriously crawling across the pink, green, and yellow-hued landscapes, in manner of the Nile or the Amazon or the Mississippi.
I kept on bumping into rivers nevertheless. I remember taking a dip in the Ganga's icy, gray waters at Haridwar many years ago as a child. I saw the Thames, Danube, and the Rhine. I sat by the Charles river in Boston one spring afternoon last year with an upset stomach, an unread Marquez, and feeling lost. The river prettily gleamed in the fading light but I derived more comfort from the weeping tree standing next to me, which reminded me of a kind elephant. And then, of course, I lived in a city of rivers, three rivers, to be precise: Pittsburgh. I recall spending one warm autumn night by the river, the city's glittering skyline reflected in its mirror-calm waters; I trailed my fingers in the water, saw it silently embrace the rocks clustered upon the bank. Yet, in all that time I lived there, I could never bring myself to appreciate the beauties and complexities and gifts of the river. Perhaps, I had lived by and loved the sea for too long; I was too accustomed to its exciting tumult, its mercurial color palette, the beach's unique universe, and the vast infinity of the sea, as it married the horizon.
Sometime ago, we took a boat ride on the Ganga in a place called Garmukhteshwar. It would be a new moon night the following day and which would attract scores and scores of visitors, the boatman told us. There already seemed to be so many people around, many of them bathing and immersed in the water: women, fully dressed in saris and salwar-kameez, their heads still nevertheless covered, men, children, young, old, middle-aged, everyone. I saw an old lady set a bowl stitched from dried leaves and containing marigolds and pedas into the water as an offering. People were also filling up large white transparent plastic cans that they had purchased from river-side stalls with the holy water.
I didn't bathe or buy or worship the water; I took a boat-ride instead.
We shakily stepped onto the boat - and the boatman lifted his pole and began the journey.
It was hot, very hot; the heat had bleached the sky almost white.
The river meanwhile was the color of soil: it resembled liquid earth. This was the Ganga. When I placed my palm upon the river skin, it felt like lukewarm tea. The boatman strenuously ploughed through the water. I asked him how long he had been doing it. Ever since I was a child, he told us, I usually take up to twelve people on the boat but there are only two of you today. I thought of one of my favorite books, Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy in which the characters go for boat-rides upon the Ganga in the fictional city of Brahmpur. In one scene, as the city burns following terrible Hindu-Muslim riots, a couple still nevertheless goes for a boat-ride, saying that you can't set fire to water.
If I accidentally leave the boat unmoored at night, it will travel downstream - but there's usually someone to find and bring it back to me in the morning, the boatman says, affectionately, glancing down at both the boat and the river.
I gaze at the heat-enshrouded horizon: the river merges with the sky in the distance until it is difficult to distinguish where the sky begins and the water ends. I am starting to understand a little bit as to why you might want to spend so much of your time on the river: there is something comforting being on this strip of water in the land, the river arguably not as overwhelming as the sea, whose vastness can be simultaneously beautiful and frightening. Perhaps, the best way to appreciate the river was to be within it: I had been looking at it from the wrong end all this time.
Around us, as the sun traced its arc in the sky, the river quietly flowed, as it had done for thousands and thousands and thousands of years.
River-reading: I have so enjoyed following environmental photographer and journalist, Arati-Kumar Rao's evocative pictures and words as she documents the Brahmaputra river basin and powerfully drives home the significance of rivers over here