Monday, July 13, 2015

Across the River

Riku is eight, and he loves the breeze on his face when they get onto a steamer to cross to the other side. The river is pretty wide at this time of the year, but he has heard his father talk about a river that has no banks on either side, is covered with ominous clouds carrying rain, where the sun abandons your boat, and the night advances stealthily bearing rage and fear.

"At the mohona the river knows no bounds, and I was only five, holding my mother's hand,  praying for the night to pass." And every time his father told him the story, Riku waited for the reference to the morning, in which his father's uncle appeared, admonished the family for having undertaken such a perilous journey with a kid, and took them to the comfort of home, in Khulna. It was a wedding in the family.

Riku is only eight, and he loves to cross the river on a steamer, from the side of the tall buildings to the stark contrast of the rows of abandoned factories on the other bank, with their redbrick chimneys gone dark with moss and decades of neglect. 

There is a wedding in the family. There will be a river crossing. But it isn't a steamer this time. It is a yellow taxi, rather stuffy and uncomfortable inside, with the springs coming out of its seat, and they will take the bridge to the other side. Riku loved the smell of diesel fumes, but he longed for the breeze on the river. To see the bride, you had to go in a car, and hence the two yellow taxis. The yellow ones ply outside Calcutta, his father explained. Riku and his elder brother Sujan got into one, and although it was a squeeze and the traffic was slow, he was in a car. 
In the dingy by-lanes of the other side, most of the houses were abandoned too. The taxi stopped in front of a hundred-year old house that had green shuttered french windows and trees growing out of the brick folds. At the end of the street, sat some people with blank faces, as old as time.

When the bride gingerly stepped into the living room, Riku first saw her feet on the red-oxide floor with a black skirting all around. There was a nail driven into the center of the floor where all the lines seemed to meet. And there were her white feet.

Riku looked up, and couldn't believe his eyes. He hadn't seen anybody more beautiful in his life. She was like Shuyo Rani from Thakurmar Jhuli, with long eyes, curly hair falling on her back, and red lips slightly parted. She was in a white sari. Everybody around him was speechless, and he heard Sujan murmur, almost to himself, "...smooth as monumental alabaster. Yet she must die..."

The groom was their uncle, and the elders stayed inside as Riku and Sujan came out with Riya, a wiry little girl who seemed to appear like magic from behind the green curtains that covered the door to the bedroom. The three of them walked to the riverbank. Come back for the singara, someone said.

Riku shyly wished he could be the groom instead. He was so mortified by the thought that he never could ask the name of his would-be aunt. There was a longing for the breeze again.

There were steamers plying on the river, the sky was clear, and somebody remembered to switch on the lights in the buildings on the other side as the sun slowly set.
"Will your uncle marry my mother, do you think? I have always wanted to go to the other side of the river."

"Yes, of course. Of course he will." Riku was positive.
"But they say she is a widow and men don't like to marry widows."
"I will marry her, then," was Riku's valiant answer, and they all laughed.
"Do you know anything about keeping ghosts away by driving nails into the floor? My dad really loved me, you know?"
"He is here, somewhere, watching you," said Sujan. "And if he loves you, a nail on the floor cannot keep him away." 
Sujan somehow always seemed to have reassuring answers. 

The uncle didn't marry her, eventually. He married someone else, who wasn't previously married. And Riku could never find out who Riya's mother was, or her address. 

Since then, he has only longed for a river with no banks on either side, of the mohona, for ominous clouds and a tornado tossing their boat high up in the air, but there was no boat, and someone seemed to have stopped the breeze on the river too.

All that remained were memories of diesel fumes.