“Row me to the other bank, dear boatswain, and for that I will give you a golden ring,” said little Naini to the boatman, who ferried passengers across the Karnali River.
The sun had just risen, and it was too early for any boatman to find passengers. They had to wait until it was nine for the first band of milkmen to board their canoes. The man had come out, because he had to ferry his wife and little daughter across the river to his in-laws, because they had a feast that day. During the day, he ferried passengers back and forth. Since it was likely to rain, he had taken his family quite early that day.
The little girl, who was his first paying passenger for the day, made him think he was lucky. She looked like his own daughter.
He liked the cute, little girl, but did not believe the ‘golden ring.’
“Why do you want to cross the river?” asked the boatman, who looked quite tired. In fact, the sky was crying all its heart out, and no stars had twinkled for a week.
“Because, my grandmother is sick, and soon she will be on the other side. I want to wait for her, there. She is too old to walk alone.”
“You have gone nuts,” said the boatswain, for he had nothing to understand.
“Nuts or no nuts, I will pay you in gold. Take me to the other bank, quick.”
The boatman had to row. In fact, he never asked his passengers why they needed to cross. But seeing that Naini was still so young to cross such a mighty river alone, he had ventured to ask. But Naini had given him an acrid reply.
As the boat pressed its way across the gusty waves of the river, Naini felt its water with her hand. It was cool. She had her middle finger inside the water and observed the golden ring in it. It looked flowing, like a stream of gold. And as she took the finger out, it was there, quite intact. ‘Interesting,’ she thought, and repeated it again and again, until the boatman scolded her for making the canoe quiver.
Karnali is a long river, you know. It takes ten to fifteen minutes, in rainy days, for a boatman to cross. As he rowed on, the boatman stole time to see if he could see any dolphin, anywhere. Taking the opportunity, Naini dipped her finger back, and checked the gold flow. As soon as the boatman turned his eyes towards her, she removed her finger, faster than a flash, and said, “Brother boatman, do you have your grandmother at home?”
“No, she died long back.”
“O, sorry! I think she crossed the river on your canoe.”
“Thank God, you are a boatman. I am not a boatman, sadly. Had I been one, my grandma would have been very happy. She is so sad now, that she has not been talking with anyone for the past few days.”
“That’s so sad of her. Maybe she is sick.”
“She is, but the worry is, how can she cross this river?”
The boatman, who confirmed now that the girl was crazy, decided to look for dolphins, instead of listening to the girl.
“Brother boatswain! I always sleep with my granny. She says, ever since I was two, I always walked after her.”
For the first time, the boatman thought, the girl was not crazy.
“Mummy says, I caught Granny’s fingers to learn how to walk. She also says, when Mom was sick, granny suckled me her breast.”
There would not be many minutes now before they reached the other bank. The boatswain turned the canoe downstream to take more time, and to listen more to the girl. The girl would never know.
While he concentrated on the rower, the girl dipped her finger in the water, and observed the flow of gold.
“And Mummy says, granny looked like me, when she was young. We have a photograph.”
“Where’s your granny?”
“There, at home, brother boatswain. She is sick and sad; she cannot cross the river when she dies.”
“Nuts,” he said again, and decided not to pay any heed to the girl.
“And when she is sick, she only drinks water I give. I comb her hair, and fan her when it is hot. Last night, I cut her nails with my new, steel nail-cutter.”
And soon they were on the other bank.
“Thank you brother boatman. You helped me thus; I will give you my ring,” said Naini, and took the golden ring off her middle finger.
The boatman thought it was brass, and took it in his hand. But he was amazed; it was pure gold.
“It’s pure gold, sweetie.”
“Yes, but you can take. I will need it no more. I am going with granny; we will go beyond the clouds.”
The boatswain checked it again. Yes, it was pure gold.
“But it’s too big a wage for me; I just need ten rupees.”
“That I don’t have, brother boatswain. I won’t mind, you can keep it. And you can do me one more favor for that.”
“What’s that, little girl?”
“When my granny can drink no more water, she will come to the river. She is too old to cross it. Please bring her hitherto; I will wait for her on the stone there.”
The boatswain thought deep for some time, as the girl sat on the rock. She did not show any worry at losing the ring to the boatswain. She looked innocent, like his own daughter at home. He decided not to corrupt his mind and rely on his labor. What was gold to someone, who had a golden heart?
“I will not charge you a penny, darling. Keep your ring with you, you are my daughter.”
“Please take it. I won’t need it anymore. Moreover, if I did not pay you, God will be sad with me.”
The boatswain thought for some time, and said, “Give me your brass bangle, and keep your ring. That is worth my fare, I think.
So, the girl gave him a bangle, and took her ring back.
“But, brother boatswain, do not leave my granny ashore, because I did not pay you well. I will give you another bangle, when granny arrives.”
“Sure,” said the boatswain, and rowed west. Soon he was out of sight. The girl sat on the bank for the river, dipping her finger in the water, and checking how it looked inside. The sun, all set to slant westward, fell straight into her eyes, and she stopped. Once again, she stood upon the rock, and started looking west. Far away, beyond the river, she could see her home only as big as an anthill, and people crawling like ants. She could not make out who they were.
She looked at the mighty river. On the other side, she and granny had collected driftwood last winter. The hazels along its bank bore beautiful seeds, and they roasted them during the festivals this autumn. At the priests’ near her home, they always claimed to have seen dolphins, but she had never herself seen one. So she thought, the priests’ sons always mistook lizards for dolphins. ‘They don’t have books, so, they can’t tell a lizard from a dolphin,’ she thought.
It was afternoon and the sun was descending. A yellow bird with a red girdle on the neck sat on a stone near her, made a shrill ‘shee-sheet!’ in the air, twisted its tail on seeing her, and darted north. She observed it till it got dissolved in the dazzling light, far away.
‘If it was bigger, perhaps, it could bring granny on its back,’ she thought. But she knew only too well, how unworkable the idea was.
It was a cloudy day. Perhaps it was raining in the Himalayas. The Karnali was gathering water, trickle by trickle. Up there on the mountain, thick heavy clouds could be seen. On such days, no boatman would come out to the river. Naini looked everywhere to see that the old, good boatman who rowed her across could be seen. But he was nowhere. For the first time, her loneliness frightened Naini.
Still, she needed to go. White birds flew in a group from the other bank to this. She looked at them with some vague hope that did not work up to anything.
“Did my granny drink water?”
“Little bird, did you come past my home? Who combed granny’s hair?”
“Little bird; did you see my granny’s nails? They must not be long; I had cut them only yesterday.”
“Brother boatman; do not betray. I paid you a bangle, and I will pay you one more. I will even give you the golden ring.”
But, all of her words flowed down with the Karnali River, there was no one to hear them.
Naini jumped, hopped, cried, shouted, skipped, slid, knelt, slipped and woke up on the riverbank all day long. She painted on stones the face of an old woman, and by its side, painted the face of a little girl. She would scribble, delete again, and then scribble again, and in that wilderness, talk to the figures she drew on the stones: “Granny, you look beautiful. Mummy says, you looked like me while young. She has a photograph.”
“Granny, do not cry; I am with you.”
“Granny, God will not be angry with me. I paid the man in bangles. I even gave him my ring, but he did not accept. For getting you here, I will pay him another bangle. What need are brass bangles in heaven? Does God like me in bangles? I don’t think so. God likes bangles of butter, or smoke. You told me a story once.”
“Granny, our way will be very long. Do tell me the story of the golden-haired princess. I like her so much. I think, she lost her golden hair in the Karnali River.”
And suddenly, the west looked yellow, and the rest of the world dark. It occurred to Naini that the sun had set. A sudden terror besieged her heart. There was no other human being to be seen around.
“Mummy!” she shouted from a stone. The same boatman, who was going to fetch his family, overheard her.
“You still here?”
“Granny did not come. Do take me to the other side, brother boatman. I will pay you in bangles.”
“You don’t need to. I am going there to take my son; I will take you.”
So, the girl got into his canoe. This time she did not talk much. Once or twice, she said “Granny!’ and shed silent drops of tears. Soon they were on the other side. The boatman had hardly anchored his canoe, when it started raining pitter-patter.
“My home’s there, very near, brother boatman. Will you take me home under your umbrella?”
“I will,” said the boatman, and the two went to Naini’s.
On the way, the boatman stole time to ask, “Why did you go to the other bank, darling?”
“You know, granny is sick. They say, when she dies, she will have to cross a big river to reach heaven.”
The boatman opened his eyes wide open.
“But I know, that river is this river. It is so big, you know. And since granny loves me so much, I don’t want to leave her. You know, daddy won’t allow me to go. So, I had run away to wait for her, there.”
The boatman stood speechless. He stopped walking, knelt on his kneess and took the girl in his lap.
“Sweet my child,” she said and wiped his tears.
When they reached home, the girl’s mother came rushing to receive Naini. She did not care to ask anything to the unknown boatman.
“Granny opened her eyes at eight. She called ‘Naini! Naini!’ All day long, we searched for you. When Thulaba said you could have been down in the river, Grandma broke down, and died.”
“Grandma!” shouted Naini, and rushed inside. The lonely boatman, whom no one cared for, kept the girls’ bangles on a stone everyone could see and returned, wiping a few more drops of tears.
(Source : Grey Sparrow Journal – Issue 30, July 31, 2017)