I retired, just when I thought I had finally reached the acme of maturity and mental acuity to take life as it comes, and to enjoy every bit of it. In terms of age, I was 63. I had worked for over 41 years. From my point of view as well as of my only daughter, I had successfully raised her, and she was well settled in life.
Thus, there I was, full of energy and clear of mind to think things out, and see them in the right perspective with the best blend of emotion and pragmatism. Or, so I thought, because I had not reckoned with so little to do in all the world’s time on hand.
Somewhat despondently, I took to writing, particularly because the idle hours made my memory leak and ooze with incidents long forgotten. They now came back with all the poignancy and sentimentality attached to long neglected kins. I had to falsely embrace them, and cajole, coax and even rock them back and forth in the arms of my feebly vacillating mind, lest they should leave with a petulant toss of the head. And then I realized that I needed to revisit some of the places in distant memory.
One of the places I yearned to go back to was my father’s ancestral home in a village of India. I cannot remember when I had last visited it, except that it must have been in my early teens. We would visit in the summer months and spend a few weeks. My grandparents -parents of my father – lived in this large house with a number of unused rooms, a vast courtyard and sprawling grounds with all sorts of trees, some fruit-bearing and the rest usurpers. My grandparents lived with their eldest son and his wife. My cousins had left the village for studying in the city.
The trip involved traveling by rail for some sixteen hours, changing the train once. After an interminable journey in an overcrowded bus of mostly rural folks, the last leg was by a chartered boat upstream the river Bhairavi for a couple of hours. I still remember the serene passage, with all of us, my parents, my sister and I, tired and drowsy from the long journey. The boatmen would row and steer noiselessly in the eerie falling dusk through immobile nature ripening under the Midas touch of the setting sun, silent except for the occasional lonely shriek of a bird separated from its flock returning home. The almost hushed rhythmic clap of the oars kissing the flowing river of inscrutable depth gurgling sweetly at the bow of the boat would only accentuate the silence. The journey would end when the night had advanced several hours and the dormant village had entombed itself in the darkness. My grandfather always waited at the landing stage with a lantern in hand, and some men to carry our luggage. We would disembark and walk in somnambulant file to his house through dark lanes, sometimes aided by milky moonlight suddenly appearing in a conspiratorial charade played with the dark shadows of buildings in deep slumber.
This was the river where we would bathe during our stay, though there was a well at home, with clear water cool in summer and warm in winter. Bathing in the river was greater fun, as father could go for a long swim, while we the city children pretended to swim where the water was not deep.
In that distant childhood I had held the river in deep awe, for its silently rushing water, slightly turbid and yet of a soothing temperature that vouched for its pure heart; for its towering bank, always on one side or the other, as it meandered. At each bend the river would have a steep bank on the dorsal side of the curvature, and a very shallow incline of sandy soil on the ventral side. On this side often cultivated, the almost white soil and lush green cultivation would form a pleasant patchwork to cast in quilted memory the plentitude of nature. The opposite, steep bank, rugged and jagged, invited dare-devil village kids who would dive into the deep water on this side, as if to challenge and vanquish an unyielding nature.
That is how I had remembered the river, a mysterious beauty of infinite expanse and fathomless depth that I held in frightened reverence.
When I finally managed to revisit the river, traveling by road one early afternoon on a cloudy day, going over a bridge and driving into the village, I just missed noticing it. Shackled under the bridge, a thin stream trickling past algae over black soil in a crawl before its death, it appeared as a diminutive rivulet. Its banks were still there, but flattened so much that the river appeared as a dip in a rolling landscape where water flowed aimlessly from nowhere to nowhere. The towering banks were gone. Where the bank was vertical, its height was quite tame. I took pictures with a sinking heart, as I realized that there was no other picture to compare with.
Or rather, the pictures I had were in my mind, taken with the lens of my childhood eyes. And those eyes have changed over the years I have aged through, changing the scale of my perspective. I have totally lost the faculty of my childhood of visioning grandness in small and ordinary nature.