Racing his paddles, the rickshaw puller began humming an old song. As he pulled fast the rickshaw and his song, Raghu, a 12-year-old boy sitting on the back seat, was gripped by the sight of the river flowing calm under the bridge. The colour of the river changed this morning – a huge sway of muddy edges on the banks was flirting with the algae that had come through the humid summer. It looked like spilt oil paint on the canvas. The river skirted Raghu’s neighbourhood after travelling for miles away from a foreign land. Elders in his village said the river came through the womb of a mountain – giving away something to everyone like a mother to their children. Soon the rickshaw took a swift downwards from the bridge that was lifted at the height and joined together by the rustic iron rods that are ageing, peeling away at the corner, changing the colour, becoming shades of dark red.
Raghu began to think about the lunch promised by his Maa. It was early in the monsoon, and a range of fish had arrived at shops. Most of this new arrival was fished locally in this small town, where most people had found themselves a routine to remain busy. While thinking of a return to eat, Raghu continued his journey on the rickshaw to take his swimming classes at a rather busy and mostly men led school. Swimming pool, oh yes! This small town proud itself, having had one pool in a privately run school open to outsiders at odd hours. Herds of men were drawn to this space – oozing with their uncontrollable display of masculinity. For odds, most men had a low hanging belly and a severely impolite sense of entitlement.
Growing up, Raghu was frightened by the sight of the river. Every time he would have to cross over the river or walk by the banks, an insurmountable fear, an image of mystic ghost laying underneath the deep water would grip him. Fear would bring a disquiet; a raging storm running through his floundering heart would ground him. As with any fear, he also failed to rationalise this – it grew on him as time passed. For he felt drown before the water would have even touched his pale skin, sweltering head and a frantic heart standing far away from the river. He always, unfailing, thought of a river rising into waves – a sort of unravelling of gushing water drowning him at once.
Reign of Fear
Terrifying to this fear was the flood. Floods, as they are, always brought endless trails of miseries – displacing thousands, claiming hundreds of lives, and rendering several homeless. In this tragedy, humans and non-humans suffered the same passage. But it also brought the joy of harvest. It brought to the earth peeled away by the scorching heat, long summer, a hope so thirsty to be quenched after all. Flood was never one thing. Floods are, at best, narratives swaying through seasons of emotions, written on the thin, outer skin of our memories. Raghu, too, had memories. Some were frightening, while others were seamlessly beautiful. His mother, Lalita, often spoke of his wide eyes gazing out the window framed with a wooden layout and glasses designed with flowers drawn in circles. Those windows were not clear, plain glass windows. They were tinted in the shade of blue, refracting into a rainbow – spilling the beauty and, perhaps, hidden desire onto the floor. These windows, she said, were a way for Raghu to imagine water as his fluvial friend, constantly in movement, bubbling up to occupy the last green patch in the field seen from far away from here. For a window would become his friend for months until monsoon took away the unending thirst of earth. Lalita also knew how this unravelling of the flood, waiting to arrive, must feel underneath this excitement of gazing from the window; she could read the innocent fear as Raghu clung onto the edge of her saree, protesting to take his swimming classes.
On his way back from the class, he was dazzled by an uncertain feeling. Men in his swimming class took pride in having swum several rounds as he struggled, trembling through his feet and a pounding heart. His fear had to be committed for more than one feeling. One was to triumph with his paddling feet across the pool over the water, onto the end, while the other was to remain in the heart a silence to commit desire, drowning in shame but racing in love as it were. Raghu had to learn to come out of fear in that swimming class, for water could drown many things brewing in his heart. But as he reached close to his home, he sensed the river had risen to a new height, further upwards from when he saw it during his departure to the class. He could sense the arrival of the flood. Every skin of the body felt it. He did not for one moment require any confirmation – the flood was sensorial in their arrival for him. He was in his most attentive being as he crossed over the bridge – looking at every inch drawn in his mind for limits that were long drowned by the margins of water. He rushed home as a postman had to deliver an urgent mail – some arrival long waiting to come.
Lalita had just had a shower after a long day of quibbling with her husband, locked in an unhappy marriage; her long curly hair was covered in a towel as she rubbed them through to dry. Maa, maa, a call for his arrival was made clear to her. She spread out her jaw, stretching lips to end with a bright smile to attend to him. Lalita was a fierce woman who was difficult to be written away in a house and an extended family that gave her dispassionate and unloving life. She was a character from Baldwin’s novel – struggling but pushing away every end of life to discover into something anew. Frantically, Raghu explained how he saw the river rise. He said, “it’s coming, Maa. We must be prepared”. Some fear in life has no language. She understood and hugged him, saying, “I am here, don’t you worry, Golu”. Mothers always have a secret name for their children. These names travel through lives – making it a pronounced feeling as you age. Without any delay, Raghu spread over his arms across her neck, feeling the warmth, the unusual smell and touch, the comfort and safety that rested the world of fear underneath the floor. This moment of embrace was most fearless - resting Raghu's raging heart.
Soon after, his father broke the news that a flood may arrive. How unsurprising? Aren’t a father’s honesty is always directed in moments of love and intimacy between mother and child? Some sort of jealously wrapped in the sense of masculinity. His father said he overheard at the shop nearby that sold old glazed lados dressed in foil, dipped in Dalda imported over the borders from Nepal, resting behind the glass door kept at the front of the shop, ideally for months. Many came over there for quick chai, piping hot samosa and a world of social gossiping. These places were neatly gendered, with a rare sight of women, and if drawn inside, they are unfailingly covered with long edges of the sarees over the head leaning below the eyes. Masculinity rose only in moments of the display to these arrivals of women; otherwise, it ran a show of rumours and gossips.
If gossip had it that the flood would come, Raghu already began to imagine a house circled with water, burying inch after other in the river that once seemed so far. He had a vivid, most enthralling imagination – for one which was of little or no use to his classroom. He struggled in the most basic conduct of education. He found himself at odds with most things. His school succeeded in one thing: failing him. Most of his classmates found him odd, and the only he was made to exist was ‘cute’. Most boys in schools, who fail to conform with desired body size, performative masculinity interlaced with sports and things, render those not as residual bodies. These residual bodies often occupy corners or groups as either desexualised ‘cute’ or a funny friend we all have, who hides their pain with self-deprecation. Raghu was just all of it – tossing around to fit anything given at the mercy of the day. Education meant nothing to him. He read books not prescribed, shows not of his age. His dolls, money as gifts he received from relative’s seasonal arrival, and a whole world of feelings were locked safe somewhere in that house. For even his fear had never reached this corner.
Raghu was drawn to the river because it flows. It moved, circled, skirted, and meandered – like his heart, wallowing over with desires unheard in his small town. The flood brought this river too close to him. He and his fear could not bear to meet. One would hold the mirror to the other - drowning was just a metaphor. The shame was real. Flood was many things in this town.
As dusk took hold of the day, the river came close to the margins of his main gate. He very unexpectedly rode on his swing in the garden to see across the boundary wall as it reached the zenith. He looked for how the river was unfolding itself close to him. He looked at it obsessively – thinking it might engulf him. Night brought the darkness with it, making the river, which is now climbing up his staircase inside the boundary was making itself heard. The noise of wrestling water against the fortified cement walls, potholes and trees can be heard. The river was here. Lalita drew him close again, trying to suspend his fear so gripping that it was evident in his forehead. She said, if it comes inside, we will shift upstairs, Golu. This was indeed a revelation for Raghu. He could never come to accept that the river would enter his house, his room, touching his skin under and over his feet. The thought of it shook him. He declined this possibility readily by remarking I am sure it will not come. He could hear the denial in the lower drum of his ear, refusing to accept his own speech. Past midnight, his father rushed out to him: Raghu, wake up, Raghu! He woke frantically responding to his father. What happened, papa? Father said, we must draw out books from the lower shelves and throw them over to the loft; the water is here.
Those words: “water is here”, hit him as the storm uproots the tree from the ground, swinging around with bald branches laying bare naked before tossing them back into the floor. He jumped over from the bed and felt a thin layer of water like a cold winter carpet spread over on the floor underneath his feet. After that, the family moved most things in safe places as the water rose through the rooms, objects began to float, and dawn started to set. By 5 a.m., the family had managed to secure things and began to move upstairs. As Raghu crossed over from one room to finally reach towards the back gate leading up to the stairs, he spotted a wild yellow with black-spotted snake racing towards him. He froze for a few moments before screaming, Maa, where are you? Maa, I think the flood will have me now drowned, bitten, and buried. Maa, I will drown. Silence took hold of the room.
Of long wait for words to arrive, memory must always take a life to write. How do you find memory so colossal a voice? What would you call it? Memory touches and squishes your life-like feet buried under the sand on the shore of a sea. Memory has no language; it has fewer words. It recedes and reclaims like a river on the bank – building a heap of hope on the land with silt and eating it up next as a shark. Fluvial memory of river is always folded in the incommensurable spectre of surprises – failing the words to capture seamless flow. Impression of the river is so colossal in our lives that it makes language simply a tool in the world of memory. A memory of flood, then, is one of fluvial past oscillating with fear and harvest, festivals – resisting any definition. Every flood is a season of grief and grievances. It waters our life as a plant longing for rain. It also drowns us as an object of the past.
Rahul Ranjan is an aspiring writer.