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Old friend, the river


I came from Delhi to live by the banks of the Narmada some months ago. I can see the river from my window and it is just as I had imagined a river to be - a vast expanse of clean, blue water; slowly, gently flowing by; unbothered, untroubled. Crossing it on a bus I see a neighbour fold her baby's hands in a tiny prayer, touch a coin to them and spin it into the sparkling water.

Very different from the Yamuna, that unhappy sister of the God of Death. There is little sacred in crossing over it in a lurchy, grimy bus. The frustrated panting exhaust of air-conditioned cars added to my sense of suffocation, a dirty pall of death rising over the entire metropolis. The Vedas say that the Yamuna was always dark with silt, but today many deadly poisons add menace to that colour. An aggressive, greedy civilization pours the side-effects of its growth into the silent river. The dark underground secrets of swanky, flashy neighbourhoods emerge bubbling in the open drains leading to the river. A slow but sure suicide.

Into the Narmada, too, go the sins of those who live by its banks. People fragmented into many castes come to wash away their sins into one single river. This, if little else, unites them and provides a sweeping universality to their lives.

A people who refuse to even sit beside each other to eat. But their drains and faeces flow together - to the river. We pollute what purifies us. That is the way.

Sometimes we awake to the pollution and try to rise above it. Fifteen odd years ago a movement had begun here to draw attention to the drains that opened upstream of the main ghat. Worshippers having their sacred dip would surface to see unspeakable filth drift by. One ingenious soul innovated a Narmada Jayanti festival to reaffirm the community's loyalty to the river. To everyone's surprise, the festival became a roaring success.

 On the day of the festival the entire town flocks to the river. As dusk falls, lighted lamps are set afloat to the sound of prayers. Many little lamps combine to make the river one vast blaze of light. It is no longer an Ahir light or a Rajput lamp or a Muslim hand that set it afloat. For once the river is a symbol of all that is universal. The act of sanctifying the river, of loving it, or of just reaching out to it brings a fleeting glimpse of a universality that reverses the Brahminnical model of exclusive purity. Unlike most caste practices, here purity comes from a sense of togetherness, not from isolating oneself from the rest. The divine is mediated through a sense of community - all united in their adoration of something that is so obviously worth adoring. Life-giving, mothering, nourishing, as the bhajans rising up along the river say. Made up of many billions of separate drops, but all flowing into one peaceful stream.

And yet, we can never leave the world behind. The need for the sacred, after all, comes from a heightened sense of the profane.

At one ghat sat a man playing the shehnai, filling the gathering dust with his music. He had been hired by a person known to be hand-in-gloves with the killers of a much loved trade unionist. Beside the shehnai-player, pundits noisily did puja of the river. The women and children of the family prepared diyas for launching, their faces aglow. The sponsor, I am told, is very generous in contributing to any religious occasion.

At the main ghat the rush is unimaginable. Police and volunteers sweat to keep the crowd from stampeding. On a platform anchored midstream unfolds a complex farce of power, religion and community. Prominent citizens preen and elaborately garland one another.  The ruling party dominates and there are only a couple of opposition men on the stage. A bitter-battle had been fought over the presence of the latter, with only phone-calls from present and past CMs bringing about a compromise. They sit there now, grim-faced and ignored, but determined not to withdraw, and calculating opportunities to return the insult.

The crowd takes one look at the platform, immediately sizes up the situation and then proceeds to ignore the games played by the powerful. 

The Narmada is no Shangri-La. Down it are carried many of the same sins that drift down the Yamuna. I continue to be alone and know that there is no escape.

I remember Delhi's festivals of togetherness - its trade fairs flaunting consumerism, its cinemas celebrating the frivolity of ideas, its militaristic parades. But these bring only small sections together in that teeming metropolis. Perhaps that is why they rush about so, struggling to find something stable, something to hold on to.  But even if they ever did find a completely universal, uniting principle, I would probably suffocate and die in the crush.

Yet, in that very rush are people made equal. An untouchable jostles a Brahmin for a seat on a bus. And then happily holds the Brahmin's baby for the entire journey. The city both isolates and unites. But I cannot help feeling a little sorry for Delhi's dark, dirty river. Nobody comes to float little lamps of love across its breast.