A river runs through it
- In the back of his mind, he knew his ailing mother was waiting for him to return, but today the water refused to let him go
Mar 12, 2017-
It was raining when Sagar was born. His mother, Saraswati, had walked up to the little prairie north of the village to fetch some grass for the goats. Though heavily pregnant, rest was never an option for the 25-year-old Saraswati. Her husband left home every day at the crack of dawn, ferrying vegetables from the family’s farm to the markets at Syangja Bazaar-a five kilometer bus ride away. When he did return at nightfall, his breath was usually laced with alcohol, his clothes drenched with cheap, lady’s perfume; his pockets, more often than not, empty. But Saraswoti never complained; all men, after all, were the same-their minds fickle and their egos easily bruised.
So on the rainy day that Sagar was born, Saraswoti had set about her daily chores. She was eight-months pregnant, and walking had become strenuous of late, but she’d always made it a point to make the ten-minute climb to the prairie every day. The clearing, perched on a precipice overlooking the temperamental Khahare Khola, had become an escape of sorts for her. Her own home was a day’s walk upstream and she often sat on the bluffs wondering how her life would have been different had her father not forced her to marry her aloof husband. Maybe she’d have finished school, gotten a steady job, become independent. Maybe she’d have been happier. But with time, she’d come to accept her fate; and now with a baby on the way, Saraswoti felt even more mired.
The first rains that day had been accompanied by thunder. But as Saraswoti turned to rush back home, a sharp pain ran through her being, bringing her to the ground…
By the time other villagers, alarmed by her sharp shrieks, rushed to the prairie, Sagar was already born--both mother and child lying drenched and helpless on the wet grass.
It was raining when Sagar was born.
Growing up in Odare was not easy. Because Sagar had to help his mother out around the house and the gardens, he never was inclined towards schoolwork. Even on the rare occasion that he did attend the local school at Syangja Bazaar, his mind always wandered. The old Ajanta clock that hung over the blackboard seemed to stall every time he sat down in a classroom-studies, he’d decided early on, was just not his thing.
What Sagar did love was the river. Even as a toddler, he would beg his mother to allow him to join her when she went foraging in the prairie, where he would sit, his head cupped in his hands, watching the Khahare Khola split the mighty mountains in two. Sometimes, his mother would sit beside him and spin tall tales of her own childhood. “See those hills there?”She would say, pointing northwards, “I grew up in the valley beyond. There your beloved Khahare is no more than a stream. Strong, young boys like you can jump from one bank to the other in one mighty lunge.”
“In one jump, Aama?” Sagar would repeat incredulously, looking to the valley below where the stream swelled and drained into a wide basin, “Maybe someday I can do that too.”
“Maybe someday,” Saraswoti would reply, “But first you have to grow up to be strong.”
Strength can be a relative term. Was Sagar ever physically strong? Not really. Born a month prematurely, he had always been small for his age and had always been a sickly child. But he was strong in other ways. By the time Sagar was thirteen, his father’s behaviour had become increasingly erratic. The road that snaked down from Odare to Syangja Bazaar had been pitched, improving accessibility, and he would now return on the last bus, hammered out of his wits, rarely with any money in his pockets. At home, he would be quiet, even more distant, forever waiting for dawn so that he could set out to the bhattis once more.
Then one day, he stopped coming back altogether.
Saraswoti and Sagar had spent two full days at the bazaar trying to find him, but no one seemed to know where he’d gone.
“God knows, where he is,” Maili didi, who smelled of cheap, lady’s perfume and ran the local watering hole, had scoffed, waving the mother and son away, “You never came looking for him before, why now?”
Others sniggered from their homes, whispering. “He’s run off with Maili’s youngest daughter. Tch Tch... Full fifteen years younger...They’ll end up drunk and dead in a gutter somewhere...Tch Tch...”
Since that day, Sagar had ferried vegetables to town instead of his father. On the bus down from Odare, he’d travel with friends who were headed to school in smart navy blue trousers and pristine white shirts always sitting at the front. “Arrey, Sagar ,” they would tease, “remember if you take a left, you get to the market, but if you take a right, that’s where the bhatti is,” before bursting into laughter.
Sagar never talked back and kept his eyes on the road. Sometimes, once he’d gotten off at the bus stop, he’d run into an alley and sob.
“Don’t worry about them,” Samuel, would tell him as they sat with their ankles dipped in river, “They tease me all the time about my name too. If you ignore them long enough, teasing stops being fun and they move on.”
Samuel was Sagar’s only friend. Every afternoon, once school was out, the two would walk down to the Khahare and kill time swimming, fishing and smoking cigarettes Samuel would steal from his father’s packs at night. The river brought them together and they’d spend hours going upstream and down looking for cliffs from where they could jump into the river; and once they found one, they’d spend the rest of the day jumping off with different dives, crashing into the river like extinguished matchsticks.
The river was the only place that Sagar felt at home, and it was by the river that he became the most talkative. “You know, my mother tells me,” he would often start, “over those hills this river is merely just a stream that people can jump...”
“From bank to bank in one big lunge,” Samuel would finish, “I know, yaar, tell me another story. Tell me what happens downstream.”
“Ah, downstream,” Sagar would say, his eyes suddenly twinkling. “Yes, downstream it gets more interesting. You see, Khahare is what you call a tree-buu-taaa-ry. I looked it up in a book. Do you know what that means? It means that it goes on to mix into other rivers, bigger rivers after which it takes on a different form, a completely different name.”
“Yes! Different name!” Samuel, who hated his own name, would exclaim, “Tell me again what the names are!”
“Well,” Sagar would continue; his demeanour suddenly proud, “Khahare Khola becomes Andhi Khola. Andhi Khola becomes Kali Gandaki. Kali Gandaki becomes Gandak, once it reaches India. Then, Gandak becomes the Holy Ganga and the Holy Ganga becomes the sea!”
“So you’re telling me,” Samuel would protest, “That if we kept swimming downstream we would reach India?”
“Not just India, Bangladesh! And who knows where else from there.”
“I wish we could keep swimming without having to worry about returning home for dinner.”
“Someday, we will Samuel. Someday, when we grow up to be strong.”
By the time Sagar was twenty, he was the only young man left in Odare. One by one, the sniggering kids from the bus had migrated to Kathmandu and beyond for college or for jobs. Then when the boys were 18, Samuel left too.
Sagar , however, never did. Not because he did not want to, but because his mother, who had fallen in the woods and hurt her back, never really recovered. Bed-ridden, Saraswoti now depended on Sagar more than ever and in addition to taking vegetables down to the market, he cleaned, cooked and hand-fed his wasting mother.
He now rarely made it down to the river. The only time he thought about Khahare was when he was on the prairie, fetching grass. Now, it was the only part of the day that he enjoyed. Away from the village, sitting on a bluff overlooking the gurgling river, he’d reminisce over younger, simpler days when he as a bright-eyed kid devoured all of his mother’s tall tales.
Sagar now looked down the river with bitter nostalgia. How many plans he had made with Samuel to swim downstream, to go see the world; yet where had he really been? Sure Samuel had now been gone for two years and was working in Kathmandu, but Sagar had only been as far as Pokhara. Once. Would he ever get to leave?
On such days, Sagar often tethered on the brink. True, he had remained aloof since his father disappeared, but now that the village had emptied, he had become bitter with the world. On such days, he hated his mother who kept him tied to Odare, he hated the village that never seemed to change and most of all he hated those that had left to go explore the world while he just sat there rooted to the dying village.
When Samuel returned home for Dashain, having had been away for two years, he was a changed man. The once scrawny boy Sagar had known had become fat and intolerably brash. Kathmandu had changed him. And in a way that Sagar couldn’t really put a finger on.
“Array, Sagar, what are you doing with your life?” He said lighting up a cigarette, as the two men were sat by the river banks that they had grown up by, “Kathmandu is where everybody should be...”
But Sagar had already stopped listening. In his mind he replayed the childhood conversations he had shared with Samuel by this very river and all the places they had said they’d explore. Khahare-Andhikhola-Kali Gandaki-Gandak-Ganges-the sea, he repeated in his mind like a mantra, over and over again.
Khahare-Andhikhola-Kali Gandaki-Gandak-Ganges-the sea...
By the time Sagar snapped out of the trance, Samuel was hollering from half-way up the path that led up the village, “Array yaar, let’s go home, it’s getting dark. Remember, we have to be home by dinner?”
But Sagar wasn’t hungry. In the back of his mind, he knew his ailing mother was waiting for him to return, but today the river refused to let him go. All his life, he’d waited for the future but the future had come and passed him by.
He slowly rose up; his eyes fixed on the blue waters, and began to wade in.
Khahare-Andhikhola-Kali Gandaki-Gandak-Ganges-the sea.
Downstream, a lightning crackled into the darkening sky.
And it began to rain.
Published: 12-03-2017 08:24
- A river runs through it