On the Padma river

On the Padma river

Illustrations: Paul Aitchison
Illustrations: Paul Aitchison

Every night her father would sit in the cane chair on the balcony, light a cigarette and look out into the night.  "It grows darker each day," he would say. She would finish her homework and, with her mother safely tucked away in bed, creep to the balcony and sit at her father's feet, her back to the railings. This way she could see the night reflected in his thick, soda-water-bottle- glasses. Then, he would start telling her stories.

In all her father's stories about the land he came from, there was always water. 

"There was incessant rain for a week at a stretch and the whole village almost drowned. I remember running away every afternoon to catch catfish in the channels of water next to our paddy fields," he would say, absentmindedly tapping ash next to the ashtray. 

Or he would tell the story of crossing the river in a rice-boat to visit the neighbouring village where his cousins lived, and then staying up all night to watch the water shine and shimmer in the moonlight. 

"On our way back from school I would throw the muri (flattened rice) I saved during lunch into the waters to see if the fish would come up and nibble on the floating white morsels," he would chuckle.

After every story he would pause and sigh and take a deep drag on his cigarette. Most days there would be just the one story, after which she would have to go straight to bed.  With school the next day, her mother was very particular about this routine. 

But she would lie awake in bed and listen to the eleven o'clock local, chugging through the field behind their house. She would imagine the train heading straight into the distant land of her father where there was lots and lots of water.  In those few moments between wakefulness and sleep, she would float into a deep dream – water all around her, gurgling, chuckling, growling water, alive and restless, churning itself into a frenzy, and her sinking deeper and deeper into it. She felt an intense, painful longing inside, a longing she did not quite understand, perhaps for something she was not destined to have. In the mornings, as she touched the dampness on her bed, she wondered where she went in this dream, which recurred night after night. She wondered what she longed for so much at night, and why the longing disappeared like an apparition at first light, leaving just a sliver of heartache. The rest of the day she would stare at that ache – touch it, poke it with her nails, pinch it to see if it was real. Then she'd wait, impatiently, for another evening of storytelling, another night of her river. 

On weekends, her father would often go on talking, telling her one story after another. 

"Once, after it had rained for many days, a whole family of snakes came to live under the altar of Ma Durga, in the chandimandap (sanctum of the temple), next to the courtyard.  Montukaka, my father's younger brother, called the snake-charmer from Madhukhali who knew how to talk to snakes. He came and sang to them and when they came out of the altar, he picked them up kissed them and put them to sleep," he mumbled into the night.

The story of the ancestor who was a notorious river pirate, a Robin Hood type who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, whose name made the coconut trees shiver and whose voice thundered up and down the length of the river, made his eyes shine with pride. He laughed when he talked about how his teacher at the small village school always managed to slip and fall into the slush on the banks of the river. "We would clap so loudly from the shore and laugh so much that our hands and stomachs ached for hours," he would say. 

There were stories of his mother and aunts worshipping in the river, fasting and chanting the brata katha beside the waters. There was the story of his aunt who had no children, and adopting the river as a daughter, drowned red saris in the water during every pujo. There was the village madman too (every village had its share) who, when he had his weekly fit of screaming and cursing, would only quiet down when made to take a dip in the river. Or the story of the local mendicant who spoke chants into a bowl of water and caught thieves, or cast away ghosts and demons who frequently inhabited the bodies of young girls. Her father said he would often steal the bowl of water afterwards, and drink it quickly. Then he would try to see his face in the river, to make out if a demon had entered him. 

But when he spoke of the many moods of the Padma, he always seemed disturbed. He referred to the river as a woman, a woman he couldn't decide whether he loved or hated. He talked about the floods and the drought that the river brought to its shores, the lives it made and ruined. As he spoke, the Padma swirled around his words, casting a spell, making him lose sense of time and place. The stories of the Padma would always break midway, halt at the edge, pause, unfinished.


Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian