The Subarnrekha cascaded down with all her might, a turbid streaming powerhouse, threatening to wash away all that came in her way. As the water crashed on the boulders below, it rebound skywards, fragmenting into tiny little droplets showering the banks. Nature?s own shower bath and this one came with a perennial rainbow too; one that began atop the knoll and faded into the far end of the banks.
Further downstream the foamy torrent had settled into calm in a natural reservoir. Thousands of white water-beetles boogied in circles, relentless in pursuit of the other. A few schools of colorful young fish swam at the bed, nibbling at and smooching all they could. We love this place and we love each other, they seemed to be telling, in a language of their own. Nature beckoned in her pristine glory, inviting all those who loved her. The Subarnarekha, oblivious of her milieu, slithered ahead lazily in search of the ocean. Virgin and untouched now, she was sure to be ravaged soon by nature, to be defiled by dead and rotting carcasses, exploited by man and his idiosyncrasies; a slavish destiny that defined her journey on planet earth.
We, my little brother and I were all of six & eight years respectively. Our thin skeletal frames rattled in the chest-deep icy cold waters. Our teeth chattered and our juvenile spines froze. We had refused to enter the waters, but were shoved in unceremoniously by our paternal uncle. He stood guard at the banks watching our every move, our sentinel from hell. How we hated him that day!
The Puja-Panda (priest) who stood next to us resembled an Ogre of my Amar Chitra Katha comics. His clean-shaven head had ended in a forgotten tiny tuft of hair. He would have looked better if he had only one eye right in the middle of his endless forehead. His was a wobbly mass of ostensibly feminine flesh that curved without a rhyme or reason at the most discerning places. The vermilion and sandal-paste anointed on the forehead, the diamond ear-studs also heightened his feminine appeal. Is he a Man I wondered, feigning to close my eyes in prayer. Brother’s eyes meanwhile were soul- searching, following the little lemon-yellow butterfly that drifted inanely in the light morning air.
Clad only in his skimpy wet loin cloth, the Panda continuously cupped the water from the stream, in a namaskar, letting it flow down with a religious vehemence. He incoherently chanted in the language of the Vedic Gods- Sanskrit. I hoped and prayed the Gods followed his rambling.
I bent backwards with a reason and Brother followed suit. We looked almost awestruck at his elephantine posterior. The enormous gluteus mass was wet and made quite a sight. I giggled, while Brother guffawed. His laughter echoed in the wilderness pepping up the sobriety of the occasion. The Panda looked at us forebodingly; I quaked this time in fear and my feet nearly slipped on the pebbles in the waterbed.
Many more shlokas (Sanskrit verses/ hymns) later, he turned to us and gestured irately shutting his eyelids. Close your eyes, his eyes seemed to scream. We understood. Our silence was now punctuated by the sounds of the rivulet flowing past and the guttural droning of the Panda.
Together they drummed a fearsome beat- Of death and its proclamation, of the soul and its eternal pursuit for salvation, of life and its irrevocability.
Dad loathed this mantric breed; ‘Charlatans, Vultures’ he called them. They live on the gullible and feast on the dead, I remember him saying.
To have them intercede for the repose of his soul was the last thing Dad would have wanted. But there we were, two small lads bound by the proverbial noose of the social fabric, Uncle playing Jailor and Panda the hangman. We were no match for these beasts; submission was our best bet and our only one.
Panda then handed me a small earthen urn, his chanting had now reached a crescendo. Stop yelling, I wanted to tell him. The pitcher felt tepid as I hugged it with all my life, I needed the warmth. I peeped into it, the ashes still smelt fresh. I cried despondently as I let it glide on the water and at the Panda’s orders, I let it go. It floated on its round bottom for a distance and then tumbled headlong into water. Brother’s butterfly had hovered in the vicinity of the urn before it flew away. Brother wouldn’t know why but he cried, as if to keep me company.
Just two days earlier, we had lost our beloved father (we called him Papa) forever. We had all cried aloud, a young lady in her late twenties and her four small children. Amazingly, it had rained that summer morning, a rare meteorological occurrence in Ranchi. A concerned and mournful neighbor had remarked that the Gods had cried as well at this unfathomable tragedy.
That summer I had kept my cricket-kit ready to play with Papa, the stories he would read for us, the kites he would teach us to fly and those rides on his milk-white Vijay Super. The lovely summer picnics to be planned at Namkum army base with the Morases and the sumptuous Chinese dinners at China Garden in downtown Ranchi. Someone up there had played party-pooper and put paid to an innocent child’s summer plans.
Twenty-seven summers later, my heart longs to go back to Ranchi. Just once.
To be one with nature, right there at the banks of the Subarnrekha and to experience Papa again. The last time was sheer innocence; this time it will be reverence. That unforgettable summer of 79!
Author: Amarnath Bantwal- Kuwait