Crossing the River

Initially published in The Indian Express.

When I was 25, I consigned my grandmother to flames on the banks of the Kangsabati River. A few months later, I left that town, with my belongings in two suitcases. I crossed the bridge over the river, leaving behind my ageing parents, the home where I had planted trees and footprints, and the woman I loved, for a country on the other side of the planet.

Over the years, I have crossed that bridge many times. When I crossed the river six years ago, I did not know that I would be seeing my father for the last time. When I returned two years later, a profound emptiness greeted me instead of him.

In my office in Washington DC, I have a framed photo of a giant peepul tree with the Kangsabati in the background. As a child, I used to ride a rusty bicycle to this place just outside of town. As a grown man, I fantasise about returning, to turn back into the boy who had no calendar reminders and flagged emails.

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I can relate to the sentiment of Jibanananda Das pining to return to the banks of the Dhanshiri river, perhaps in another life and as another form, in his poem, Abar ashibo phire. I nod in agreement with Rabindranath Tagore gazing by the Padma River: “Humanity, with all its confluent streams, big and small, flows on and on, just as does the river, from its source in birth to its sea of death — two dark mysteries at either end, and between them various play and work and chatter unceasing” (Glimpses of Bengal: Selected From the Letters of Sir Rabindranath Tagore, 1885 to 1895).

Early on in Ritwik Ghatak’s masterful Subarnarekha (1965), an itinerant minstrel’s plaintive voice floats above an overcrowded post-Partition refugee camp, “Dehotori dilam chariya, guru tomari naame. (The boat of my body I have let afloat, Guru, in your name).” Like a boat on a river, I, too, have floated from one country to another, a willing exile, unsure of where I would finally tie myself to a riverbank. “Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river,” declared Borges.

The river is my metaphor for love, sorrow, longing, and death. I was born in the metropolis by the Yamuna, I live in a suburb by the Potomac, and in the intervening years, I have lived almost my entire life near one river or another.

If the Kangsabati is my river of familiarity, then the Subarnarekha is my river of rejuvenation. Over the years, I have traveled to many places in different countries, but the river immortalised by Ghatak is where I find solace. It is the river of the land of my ancestors; it has changed course over centuries.

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What is it about this river that sets it apart from others? Subarnarekha, which means “golden line”, threads through Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha. Goethe asked for more light on his deathbed, to which Tagore added the aesthetic requirement for more space. Imagine then, an expansive river shimmering like a precious metal, flanked on both sides by wide sandy banks with tiny specks of gold. Here there is both light and space. This is the Subarnarekha as it reveals itself to me.

When I was in high school, acting on an impulse, my father decided that our family would go to Ghatshila for Durga Puja. We took a local train that same day, and arrived later that evening. It was the day of Nabami, and no hotel rooms were available. On that trip, we stayed as a guest in a stranger’s house. Early the next morning, we visited the home of Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay, right next to the Subarnarekha, from where he must have watched many sunsets. That was my first sighting of the river.

The river widens as it flows east, and soon its rocky features are interspersed with wide banks of golden sand. It continues flowing eastward to the point where Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal converge. In this frontier country, signs are in Hindi, Odia, Bengali and English, and a large portion of the locals speak Santhali.

Tired from transcontinental travel, I came here with my family a few years ago. After passing over roads indistinguishable from soil, we arrived at an inconspicuous village straddling the Odisha-Bengal border. We checked a map and started walking in the direction of the river. We passed a forested area and then reached a clearing. Suddenly, the wide river was visible all the way to the horizon. Cranes pierced the sky. The landscape was achingly pretty, and desolate. We promised to return.

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Downstream of the Jharkhand-Odisha-Bengal border, the sandy banks of the Subarnarekha widen. Extending from the banks and as far as the eyes can see are verdant forests. Villagers celebrate Makar Sankranti melas by the river, much as they have for centuries. The wide, sandy banks are perfect for picnics; villagers carry rice, vegetables, spices, large pots and pans, poultry, glasses made of clay, plates made of sal leaves, and loudspeakers for music. In the month of Poush, unmarried Santhal women sing folk songs. Steamed pithe, made of rice flour, coconut, and jaggery are prepared and devoured.

During the rainy season, a combination of dark clouds, bright green forests, linear sandbanks, and a well-fed river instills a sense of awe. Near the village of Rohini, the only way to cross the wide river is over a fair-weather bridge made of wood and bamboo. When monsoon rain washes the bridge away, the river must be crossed by boat, packed together with other passengers, livestock and bicycles.

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When I last visited the Subarnarekha, there were dark silhouettes of boats against the shiny backdrop of the water. I asked a fisherman, “Khuro, did you catch anything today?” Without looking up, he shook his head before casting his net in the water with one graceful swoop. I sat by the edge of the water and reflected, until it was time to go.

The Subarnarekha renews me because it connects me to an idyllic world that I will never know. I live in a city. I jostle with people to get on trains that take me to work. I wolf down fast food from drive-ins. Where I live near Washington, there are no paddy fields and boats. Stars are seldom visible in the sky.

Nietzsche wrote, “No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life.” This is true, but once a bridge is built, a river can be crossed many times. I return to the Kangsabati and the Subarnarekha to cross back into the realm of memory and imagination. As I lie in bed, I imagine that I am on a boat. I am listening to the lapping of water. The ceiling of my room swirls with black clouds. Awake until the early hours of dawn, I cross to the shore of the morning.

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