A Bend in the River

...Mahabahu Brahmaputra,
Mahamilanar tirtha,
Kato joog dhori ahise prokasi
Somonnoyor ortho ...
Mahabahu ...

– Dr Bhupen Hazarika

In Gauwahati, Assam the water is warmer. There are passenger boats, and the people fish, bathe and do their washing in the river. (Picture by Shahidul Alam)

Awe wouldn’t be the right word if I tried to describe my feelings when I behold the mighty river, meandering lazily in some places and eddying fast in some, past the bustling colourful city of Guwahati, as if it hardly cared for what was happening around its banks. More often than not, I would suck in my breath involuntarily whenever I spied the Red river in the evening sun. Even while driving, I would make sure to slow down near the banks, more so to salute the magnanimity of the overflowing river. People often chide me saying that I sound like a lover pining in unrequited love whenever I talk of the river. But only I can feel the intensity of my thirst for the Borluit, a name more apt and meaningful than any other in the universe.

So, when we received an invitation to spend a night on the river, I almost jumped overboard. It would be an experience of a lifetime, I thought, and no place at the moment sounded more exotic than a ‘cruise’ in the bosom of the river I loved so much – the Brahmaputra.

It was the beginning of June and the fiery sun scorched everything (and everyone!) in its stead. The air was dry and acrid, withering leaves and flowers, the roads were dusty and almost empty. Stray dogs, panting, tried to lap up drops of warm water from the half leaking municipal taps. Though people wanted to escape from the heat, the traffic snarl wouldn’t let them, every car edging forward only an inch at a time. Everyone thirsted for a good summer downpour. But alas, that was not to happen. In spite of all the odds, I was not one to be discouraged easily, my spirits soaring, anticipating the excitement of sleeping in the banks with the river gently lapping the sides of the ship.

We packed small overnight bags, not forgetting to put in an extra change lest we all decided to take a plunge in the river. I of course for one, do not have the faintest idea of swimming. The least I can do is wriggle my toes slowly into the soft sand on the banks and let the water lap up only to my ankles. Even then, the whole idea of spending most of the afternoon and also the night on the river reminded me of the exciting adventures of “The Famous Five”, by Enid Blyton. It was at that very moment that I missed my friends back in school!

Our friend, Arun Da, was another gentleman who was in high spirits, making sure we reached the Pandu Port sharp at 4 pm. Royally would probably be the right word to describe the way the crew members escorted us right from the bank of the river to board the huge cargo ship, Rajagopalachari. As Arun Da took us around the ship, I was tripping at almost all the doorsteps, with my eyes popping at the sight of the gadgets and equipment inside. I felt fortunate to have made it to the river cruise.

After a brief round of introductions, the Master or the ‘Captain’ of Rajagopalachari asked if I would like to take over the wheel of the ship. I was only too eager and soon I was steering the vessel full speed upstream. I felt totally in control, grinning at everyone around as they applauded my endeavour – only the Captain’s cap was missing! The only thing I had to be careful about were the high-tension wires across the river. I was helped while maneouvering the boat to the right and avoiding the tall masts getting tangled in the high tension wires.

As soon as we approached Umananda, I felt the ship pulling and tugging because of the strong current near the island. It was getting a lot rockier than before, with more whirlpools closer to the island than in the middle of the Luit. I decided to hand over the wheel to the master. We all felt that we needed a cup of coffee and a bite. And lo, before we had even reached the deck and made ourselves comfortable on the chairs, steaming cups of coffee and my favourite chocolate cream biscuits were served. This is magic, I thought!

The sky turned a pale grey-blue and tufts of sullen looking clouds slowly appeared in the darkening western sky. We decided to turn around from Umananda, as the propeller of the boat was giving trouble due to the sharp and strong river current. On the way back, I peered through the binoculars and looked at the banks. What beauty, I spoke out loud. We needn’t go to some place else for sightseeing. God has bestowed everything to us in a single platter. But I am sure we were blind not to have seen all this all along. I was ashamed of myself. The North East has such breathtaking landscapes but this is the only region in the entire map of India which gets the least importance when it comes to development of tourism.

We talked about how the banks and the entire river could be used for developing tourism; also how this is the only viable sector which can help uplift the dwindling State exchequer. But we were sure that everyone is blind not to see the treasure trove.

As the sun slowly set behind the Saraighat bridge, we all looked on, mesmerized by the beauty of the Luit glowing gold and red, reminding us of a passionate, yet shy newly wed bride. At that very moment, I wished that time would stand still and we could be held prisoners forever.

As dusk slowly set over the Red river, we were told to shift to another smaller vessel – Subansiri. As we bade the crew of Rajagopalachari ‘goodbye’, we held our breath as the majestic boat steadily steered towards the Pandu Port and as quickly, disappeared into the fading orange-grey horizon.

Once again, there was a round of introductions of the crewmembers of the Subansiri. This time, we were treated to some fresh juice and fruits.

What a difference, I thought. The river looked so much calmer at that moment, as if anticipating a night full of dreams. A light breeze blew over our faces, welcome after the day’s heat. Our boat carefully docked at an island, small in size yet spacious enough for all of us to explore around. In the fading light, we could see the white sands stretching right up to the looming hills, now turning dark in the shadows.

We were at the foothills of the Kamakhya Temple, Arun Da told us. I was overexcited. Even before he proposed we go trekking the next morning. I voiced his thoughts. If we walked up the path, we would reach the temple. What an adventure, I thought to myself. I almost started to think I was Nancy Drew. Wow, this was an experience of a lifetime!

As the moon slowly rose in the horizon and the stars appeared one by one, the lights of the Guwahati city too sparkled like diamonds in a necklace in the distance. Arun Da decided we had to have the traditional bonfire, to get the feel of the ‘cruise’. So we had one. Imagine, in that stifling June summer, we had a happy fire crackling to the rhythm of the Luit’s water, while we sat around in our red moulded chairs and sipped on our ‘fizzies’! Someone told us that we shouldn’t venture out too far across the island, as a leopard was on the prowl. Though the thought did send shivers up our spines, yet we preferred to laugh it off by saying that we probably would offer the leopard some of the tasty dinner from the chef’s kitchen. What if he decides to eat one of us, we laughed nervously!

It was 9.30 pm and ‘Apa’, our Man Friday, after considerable coaxing for the umpteenth time by the chef, Jiten, politely asked if we could be served dinner. The last time around, we were more than eager to oblige. We had an early start the next morning and the crew on board needed their rest after a hot, gruelling day. We left the dying embers and made our way back to Subansiri. We walked down the steep ladder, to the quaintly set-up dining room below the masters wheel cabin.

Dinner was sumptuous, with delicately spiced prawns, a steaming dal fry, mixed vegetables, salad and piping hot chappattis. Just the meal for a hungry bunch of adventurers, like us. Dinner over, I decided to take a walk on the deck. It was refreshing!

It was a warm night but we had to make do without a fan or an air-conditioner, as the generators of the boat had to be switched off. Anyway, we were so tired that we fell asleep the minute we hit the bed.

Next morning, I woke up first. I peeped through the porthole to catch a glimpse of the first rays of the sun glistening on the surface of the placid waters. Everything was so calm. It was a pleasant welcome to hear the sound of the Brahmaputra lapping the sides of the boat. In the distance, a bunch of colourful wild ducks flew past, flapping their wings as if to acknowledge my presence. This is paradise, I thought to myself.

We quickly changed into our tracks and sneakers, gulped a cup of tea, with a dash of lemon; we skirted a small distance to reach the foot of the small hillock going up to the Kamakhya Temple. It was a strenuous walk up, made more so because of the gradually rising mid-summer temperature. But what a walk! As we tread the small briar surrounded path, which had unevenly cut out steps, we saw all kinds of birds amidst the tall trees and shrubs, from wagtails, woodpeckers, colourful kingfishers to bushy-tailed squirrels and impish looking monkeys. Halfway through, I also caught the strong whiff of a canine. May be it’s the one from last night, I was starting to think. Beetles, ladybirds and insects of the widest variety were everywhere. We stopped now and then to observe and understand what Arun Da had to show us. Medicinal plants were abundant in that area, he told us. Really, the man has tremendous knowledge about almost anything!

Most of the time, I looked through the binoculars and was awestruck at the beauty of the surroundings. Greenery all around, with the gently flowing Bor Luit, spreading out like the wings of a giant bird, trying to protect all in its stead. We climbed onto a small rock, big enough to have ten people standing on it, and looked around at the amazing bounty of Nature. Which other place can boast of such a beautiful natural ambience in the heart of the city? There will be, I am sure, but not as beautiful as the one we have in our very own Assam.

A little ahead was a temple dedicated to Shiva. The priests had got down to work really early, painstakingly arranging small, wild, white and yellow flowers on a stone idol of the deity. A few other priests chanted incantations of the Supreme, while a young boy, clad in a saffron dhoti swept the courtyard with a half-broken bamboo broom. We bowed our heads for a few seconds and then again made our way up. This time, surprisingly, we walked up some roughly constructed cement steps. Probably, some worshippers do come down to this temple to offer prayers, we thought.

After walking for a few more minutes, I was really tired. The steps got steeper and in spite of it being only 6.30 in the morning, the sun simply scorched our skins through our clothes. I told the others to go ahead, while I sat on the steps and waited for their return. Nothing doing, they said. They didn’t want to go back and report that the leopard had eaten me! That made me jump and start once again on my journey up the hill!

Finally, we reached a point where there was another temple. This temple looked ancient. The best part of it was a pond, surrounded by walls and steps leading down to the water.’Though the water was green with algae, yet it had a mysterious and eerie look about it that really kept me spellbound for sometime. It was so cool and quiet in the shade of the huge trees that I simply wanted to lie down on the cool steps and take a nap.

Sadly, that was not to happen. Everyone vouched we go back early, as they had some chore or the other. This time, we quickly walked down, as we already knew the road back.

We arrived at the boat a little exhausted but a lot happier and wiser for having taken the trek up the foothills of the Kamakhya. If we hadn’t, we probably would have never known there existed such an enchanting place right in the middle of the city.

That day, after breakfast, when we went home to the city, I decided to tell others about this exciting adventure. I was sure everyone would love to be in my place. But more than anything else, I feel that some Nature lovers should join hands with some organization to transform this beautiful area into a tourist paradise. There will be others to follow. After that, what else does the State exchequer need? And the Brahmaputra has always been a giver. It only needs the takers!

-By Tinat Atifa Masood on The Assam Tribune.