The morning air is chilly outside the hut. At six in the morning the sun is not yet out. A deep blue hue is all that has begun to appear over the hills that signals the beginning of a new day. Balu shudders as the cold river breeze hits his barely clad body. He grabs a shawl from inside his spartan dwelling and wraps himself into it snugly. Looking towards the east he then tilts his head in reverence to the gods.
He breaks off a twig from the neem tree and walks down the sand embankment to the spot where a canoe is kept moored in the sand. It is a simple dugout canoe carved out of the haulm of a Borassus palm. The canoe belongs to Ramamurthy garu, Lakshmi’s father. It was a mortgage that was never released. Some fisherman called Kosaraju had taken a loan of fifty kilos of foodgrain from Ramamurthy garu and had not repayed. It is said that Kosaraju had given up his family occupation and instead moved on upstream to become a construction labourer.
“They are building a huge dam across the Godavari. There’s plenty of work there.”
Uncle Bhagyam and Èeswar Raju were discussing the other day. Lot of young people in the nearby villages were leaving their homes lured by a daily paying work at the construction site and life in the city.
“Soon there will be nothing left here for any of us.” Balu had heard his uncle say. “Since twelve generations we have lived off this river. But once this dam gets completed everything will change.”
It is common discussion nowadays that things will soon change and will drastically alter the mother river and along with it the lives of thousands of people like him who are living off the Godavari. Balu pushes the canoe into the water and hops in. He rows himself to the middle of the river. Chewing on the neem twig, he sits and contemplates.
The river is its most passive self in the winter. The surface is very calm. For a long distance on one bank, the vast stretch of sand gives a clue to the frightening proportions it assumes in the monsoons. Across that wide stretch of sand and the treeline beyond it is the temple of the goddess Muthyalamma devi. It is by the blessings of this goddess that Balu had met Lakshmi.
Ramamurthy garu did not have any use for a canoe but on the insistence of his wife Kannamma had not sold it off. Every friday Kannamma crosses over to the otherside of the Godavari to lay offerings at the feet of the goddess Muthyalamma. Now that she had a canoe of her own, she need not depend on the rowdy, foul mouthed boatmen who operated the motorboat ferry. As they didnot have a son and Ramamurthygaru was not much of an oarsman, it had fallen upon Balu to carry out this weekly chore. In return the kind owner of the boat had permitted Balu to use the boat for his own pleasure. But he has been strictly instructed not to take the boat out for fishing.
A smile spreads over Balu’s face as he remembers the first day he ferried Ramamurthy garu’s family across the Godavari.
“Mom, is this dirty fisherboy going to take us across? I cannot bear his stench. Why dont we take the ferry?” That was what she had said the first time they met. The harsh words had stung him as he had looked at the haughty girl defiantly.
“Shut up Lakshmi; get into the boat quick. Be kind to the boatman.” Her mother had reproached her.
Balu had perceived a curious pair of eyes observing him as he had paddled the craft across the river. He had squirmed under the gaze of this arrogant girl and had not dared to look up at her. He had eagerly awaited for the boat to touch the shore so that he would be released from the scanner.
“Do these fellows ever bathe. Look at his clothes, they are so dirty that they could pollute the entire Godavari.” Balu heard her as he was bitten once again by her acerbic comment.
“Let the poor fellow be, Lakshmi.” The mother had sympathised.
Balu had looked up at Lakshmi and found her scrutinizing his face, as if searching for a reaction. Though he was seething with indignation, Balu had managed to keep his emotions secret under the mask of a poker face. He had resolved not to give this arrogant wench the pleasure of seeing her comments affect him in any way.
On the way back, the journey had been more peaceful. Balu had looked up apprehensively at the teenager and had been relieved to find that for a change he was not under scrutiny. Lakshmi had been gazing at something far out in the Godavari. Morning’s arrogance had given way to an unusual depth and calmness on her countenance. He could no longer associate this face with the one that had hurt him repeatedly earlier in the day. She had looked mesmerised by the beauty of the mother river. Her loose locks were flying in the river beeeze and there was a peaceful smile on her face. The mother river, the breeze, the boat and the teenage face infront of him had filled him with euphoria. His heart had felt light, his skin had tingled and it had seemed as if a wave of ecstasy had risen from his stomach and gradually engulfed his entire being. He could not understand what was happening but he had liked the sensation. There was something in the air at that moment that had held him enthralled. He had felt as though time had stopped.
As the canoe had plouhed into the soft sand and jerked to a halt, Balu had jumped out to pull it further up on the bank. Kannamma and Lakshmi had climbed out of the boat and started up the embankment. Lakshmi had looked back at the fisherboy and had said aloud to her mother,
“Mom ask the filthy fisherboy to bathe and wear clean clothes the next time. Dont expect me to get into this boat again otherwise.”
Balu had heard it but it did not hurt anymore. He had looked on as the mother daughter pair had walked up the embankment and disappeared into the village. As he had secured the canoe on the riverbank and walked towards his shack, he had taken one end of his bush shirt and observed. It really did need a good washing. For the the first time in his life he had felt conscious about his attire; he had felt uncomfortable at how he smelt. He had realised that the girl was right.
Balu smiles as he reminisces. But then he remembers that the peddakapu’s son Gangaraju has asked Ramamurthy garu for his daughter’s hand. Anger seethes in him as he spits vehemently into the river. But soon anger gives way to despair as he hurls the neem twig with all his might down the river.
Impending separation from his sweet heart seems to weigh him down like a tombstone. With Laksmi gone his life would have no meaning. How could he ever have dreamt of being with her, he reminds himself it was fallacy.
He starts paddling back towards the shore. The sun is almost up. It is time for work. His uncle must be up by now and ready to haul in the night’s catch.
This post is in response to the Daily post prompt Youth