he man rowed the boat along the Ganges River; the mosquitoes were still menacing. The sun was half gone — falling below either the horizon or a thin line of smog. The cooler temperature brought the people out to the banks of the river. Children threw mud at each other and then they cleaned themselves using the river as their tub, as their parents, cousins, or older siblings screamed at them for playing with the filthy globs of wet dirt. A few women washed clothes and scrubbed their shirts against large rocks and tin plates while their half-naked husbands stood on the banks and scoured themselves until a fresh layer of skin appeared. Others prayed and threw marigolds into the Ganges, and watched them drift away to the Bay Of Bengal, where mounds and mounds of marigolds had probably formed some kind of dam from their prayers and wishes.
The boat was small and narrow; the wood was chipping — there were holes, and only a few of them were patched. It made a creaking sound as we made our way down the brown river and rocked side to side. The rickety pieces of wood seemed to be cautious and grateful that the river did not swallow the boat as it snuck softly along the surface. The rower, however, did not seem to exert extra energy to keep the boat traveling forward. He wore a tight white shirt and a blue dhoti. He wore no shoes, and his legs looked like the thin pieces of wood that kept the wobbly boat together. Except for his arms and back, his body seemed to be meatless. His biceps bulged at each row, and I could see the muscles of his back tighten with energy as he swung his arm back and forward. He had gray hair and gray stubble on his face. There was only room for one person to sit in the boat. I sat while he stood and paddled. He had not said a word to me nor had he looked at me since I sat down.
"Nice today," I said.
"Yes," the man replied.
I did not think he even moved his lips, but he somehow managed to speak. After he paddled about five more times I spoke again.
"So. How long have you been a boatman?"
He replied without even thinking. It was as if he knew my question before I asked it.
"You don't get tired of it?" I asked. "You've must have been pretty young when you started."
"I have no choice," he said. "My burden came when I was a child, and since then, I have carried the weight of the river upon my shoulders."
"Why did you start so young?" I asked.
He spat into the water. He still had not looked at me all this while.
"I just came to take a voyage on the river," he said. He did not look like he was going to say anything else. He wanted to end the conversation there.
"And then what?" I asked.
"I was a child taking a trip on the Ganges," the man said. "I stole some money from a dog's mouth. I was not sure how the dog came upon the money, and if it was taking the cash to his owner, but I took it nonetheless. The dog did not care though. He went walking along the street as I am sure he would always do every day."
He stopped talking, and again I had to ask him what happened next. He still had not looked at me.
"Well," the man said. "I used the money to pay the boatman so that he could show me where the river leads. He told me that I shouldn't. I asked him why, and he said because it leads to pain. I insisted on going, and the boatman took my money, and I sat in the boat as he rowed."
"And then what?" I asked. "What did the man look like?"
"Oh, he was old," the man replied. "He looked like he hadn't eaten in years. His eyes were dark red, and he only had a few teeth left."
The man paddled a few more times without saying anything. I was not sure if that was the end of his story, so I asked him again to continue.
"Well," he said. "There is not much after that."
The man stopped talking. He looked down the river and took a deep breath. I did not have to ask him to continue though. "He never answered," the man said.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"The boatman never answered," he replied.
"Well what happened?" I asked.
"He tied a brick to his leg and jumped into the river," the man said. "He drowned. His decayed matter is probably still floating around."
"I can't believe it," I said.
"After he jumped," the man said. "I picked up the oars and paddled my way back to my home. But people along the banks kept asking for rides, and so I gave them what they wanted. For forty-five years I have yet to see my home. I cannot go back. This river pulls me in as the sun pulls the earth."
"Amazing," I said.
We both stopped talking. I could not believe that such a thing had happened to him. The Ganges seemed to have some kind of power over him. As the boatman rowed, I noticed that he was in complete harmony with the river. Each stroke caused gentle ripples and made a quiet, peaceful whirring noise that could almost lull me to sleep. He closed his eyes from time to time, and the motion of his arms became his tool of vision. I wondered how many times the man had rowed this boat up and down the Ganges River, for he seemed to be like a fish in total synchrony with the river's current. But with each stroke, he winced slightly. He had become one of Hades' citizens.
As he rowed, and as we remained silent, I continued to observe the Ganges' banks. It was almost dark, and most of the river dwellers had gone back to their homes to eat fish and rice. A few people were still in the river washing themselves, praying, or urinating. Candles with flickering light could be seen inside some houses, and the blackbirds had ceased their cawing in hope of spare fish, banana peels, and bread thrown out after dinner was finished, but they would have to compete with the gangly stray cats and red-eyed dogs for their meals. Somewhere in the midst of a cloud of pollution and people, coming from behind the row of houses set on the banks of the river, conches could be heard blowing to let everyone know about night's arrival.
The man stopped rowing and placed the oars on the floor of the boat. He stretched his back and his legs. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, and then he looked at me.
"Anyway," the man said. "Where are you from?"
"I live in Chennai," I replied. "I came to feel the Ganges."
The man smiled.
"You will never see your home," he said.
He picked up a cement block that was tied to his leg and jumped into the river. The boat rocked side to side, and the water splashed me as he dove into the river. I looked for him through the water, but it was too dark to see. The river had seeped into his blood, into his immune system like a virus, and he had succumbed to its force. He had, finally, given in to his master so that he could be free of it. I shivered as the murky water dripped from my head onto my neck. I picked up the oars to row back to where we had come from. On my way back, I saw a silhouette of a man. He held a candle in his hand and it flickered as he waved it and motioned me to come to him. The man was old and held a cane in his other hand. He climbed onto the boat, blew his candle out, and mumbled something. All that I could make out was that he wanted a ride.
Shome Dasgupta is currently enrolled at Antioch University-Los Angeles, pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Magma Poetry, Quiet Feather, Verdad Magazine, Meadow, Chickasaw Plum, Gertrude Press, Sylvan Echo, Shelf Life Magazine, Fifth Di..., and Si Senor.
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story copyright by author 2008 all rights reserved