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A River Affair

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Affairs, unlike love, do not begin at first sight. Not the serious ones at least. And when they happen, they happen with a vengeance.

It was not the first time that I had seen any of the three sisters. I was born in Agra, located on the banks of Yamuna. A visit to Haathi-ghat for a dip in Yamuna on the day of Baisakhi was a yearly family routine. Today the ghat has vanished, its beautiful elephant gate destroyed by some land grabber who thereafter took control of the site near the river. Rishikesh and Haridwar were destinations of various family holidays and each such holiday started with a dip in Ganga at Har Ki Paudi in Haridwar. And I had crossed the bridge over Chambal at Dhaulpur many a times when my parents or uncles used to take me to Jabalpur for some of the family functions at my aunt’s place.

The first sight of these rivers did not evoke much in the child that I was or later in the teenager that I was. They were rivers, all the same, at times full of water and at other times dry to the bed.

In 2010 I had headed towards the Himalayas in Garhwal for a trekking trip. A friend of mine, who had grown up in Chamoli (a small town in Garhwal) had advised me to do a stopover at Rishikesh, instead of arriving straight at the high altitudes of Joshimath. Take it slow and it need not be steady either was the mantra. I am wired pretty much the opposite way, but for a change I decided to go against my own grain.

My arrival at Rishikesh was at 4:30 AM and in irritable frame of mind. I had had a fight with the UP Roadways’ bus driver and conductor. They had undertaken to drive the bus from Agra to Rishikesh as my ticket said, but they wanted to end the journey in Haridwar and wanted me to change the bus.

Change the bus? I had a bicycle with me and two backpacks (a mistake as I realized later) and a lot of emotional baggage (a reality that I had reckoned would follow me) and they wanted me to shift all that to another bus so that they could sleep at Haridwar and show the government that they did complete their entire run.

I created a ruckus and they fought with me. I threatened to call the police, and they threatened me back with military. But while all this was happening, on the side, they even kept hollering for extra passengers who were willing to go to Rishikesh. After 45 minutes when they had gathered a few extra passengers the bus moved.

At the Rishikesh bus stand I took an auto that dropped me at Ram Jhoola. My destination was at the other end of Ram Jhoola, Paramarth Ashram, the place I was supposed to stay. I took one of the backpacks on my back, hung the other on my chest and tried to cycle. When that didn’t work I walked.

At about 5 AM I was in the middle of Ram Jhoola. There was no light in the sky yet. There wasn’t a single soul on the bridge, at least not one with a body, only the harsh glow of halogen that was lighting the bridge. Recital of holy scriptures echoed in the air coming from some temple’s loudspeaker.

But the loudest sound on the bridge was of the River Ganga. Elegant. Melodious. I looked down but I couldn’t see her. It was dark. It was like being in the house of a beautiful girl during a power cut. You are sitting in the living room and can hear her somewhere inside the house. Her sound was magnetic.

I reached the ashram at 5:30 AM but the gate wasn’t to open until 7 AM. I took the bags off my shoulders and parked my cycle. I heard the river behind me, closer than before.

I turned around. Far up somewhere in the sky, a tiny patch had come alive with the light. Then some clouds appeared, hanging atop surrounding hills. And then appeared the river. Ganga. I smiled. She was the prettiest, like a woman emerging from her morning bath, her hair still wet and hanging on it tiny droplets. She seemed like a goddess and a companion at the same time. She appeared wise and yet was childlike and she drew one’s inner child out. In company of Ganga you feel alive.

Yet, in this playfulness, Ganga lets you know that she is maturer than you. She is well read beyond your readings and enlightened light-years beyond your fused mind. But she nurtures no arrogance. She’s been in the company of saints and rishis and hermits, the men who wander into her neighboring forests and mountains, seeking high learning. Ganga, the bright scholar, rubs her aura on them.

She’s worshipped every evening but she never lets it get to her head. That could be because in the course of her journey she sees pain and death. She tries to heal that pain and give salvation to the deceased. This philanthropy over the years has humbled her, has made her nobler. And perhaps that is why people revere her so much that they have built temples along her prominent ghats in Varanasi, Allahabad and Haridwar. Ganga smiles, but her eyes always tell you that she has seen a lot.

But Ganga was not the first river that I crossed in this journey. It was Yamuna, whom I briefly saw as the UP Roadways bus crossed the trans-Yamuna bridge at Ram Bagh, Agra. It was twilight. My heart did miss a beat, like it usually does when I see a pretty girl walking on a street while I’m in a moving bus or a train or a Mumbai auto-rickshaw. It’s always a matter of seconds. I see her. I almost freeze. The bus/train/auto moves on. I miss her. But I never forget the impact she’s made.

I returned to Yamuna after coming back to Agra from Rishikesh. I cycled to the same bridge where I had first glimpsed her a few days back. From there I cycled parallel to her course, towards Etmad-Ud-Daula, and reached another bridge that one crosses to arrive at Agra Fort. The left turn here will take you to Taj Mahal and the right turn will take you back where you came from. But on your way from this side of the river you will cross the ruined compound of Johns Mill – a textile mill that had flourished during the British Raj.

It was a beautiful evening, perfect for romance. The monsoon sky was colorful and somehow the noise of traffic around Old Agra did not rise above the beauty of Yamuna.

While Ganga keeps company with sages and scholars and spends most of her time around temples and ashrams, and that too probably with a book in her hand, Yamuna on the other hand is a high-profile socialite. She was born with an air and grew up to befriend the elite – the likes of emperors and queens. She’s been a friendly conspirator in their romances and she must have played Cupid’s part sometimes because the Mughals built gardens for their romantic evenings along her banks. The palace gossip did fall upon her ears through careless courtesans and at times, for fun and a good laugh, she must have solicited such spice of royal-life. She’s witnessed many tumultuous affairs, sometimes incestuous too. As a high-society partygoer she must have seen the best of conversation, poetry, and wine flow. And at other times she’s even seen princes planning fratricides and imprisoning their fathers, while she stood as a silent spectator.

Yamuna has been through all this with the ever-prevailing wisdom in her head that nothing lasts forever. Dynasties and empires have come and gone, but Yamuna flows. Today I see her in her elegant evening gown, looking ravishing and fashionable as always, and she’ll always be around, with an ear and a shoulder to lend, respectively for the high-society gossip and friends’ tears.

After I had been close to the eldest and the middle sister, the youngest pulled me the hardest. Visiting Chambal or any of the places that she flows through was not on my itinerary. But Chambal conspired. Something or other kept happening that brought in front of me images and pictures of her. Although after all this conspiring I was aroused enough, I could not make an opening in my schedule to visit her.

Then Yamuna joined her sister in her fair games.

The day I was to travel to Delhi, the Delhi-Agra highway got blocked. The reason was Kailash Mela, which is held every year at the temple of Kailash. Situated at the river Yamuna, the temple lies close to NH 2 that connects Agra to Delhi. The mela draws a huge crowd and makes it impossible for any traffic to pass through the highway.

My plans of reaching Delhi halted, I decided to utilize the day and visit Chambal.

Dhaulpur, in Rajasthan, is an hour’s drive from Agra. Just after the city of Dhaulpur lies the bridge of Chambal. The bridge is divided in half between the states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Parallel to this road bridge is the railway bridge from where I used to glimpse Chambal in childhood.

Today, below the bridge, I see Chambal is in its full monsoon sway. She passes through some of the roughest terrain and hangs out with some of the meanest characters. Dacoits, both male and female, have inhabited the ravines that Chambal flows through for ages.

Chambal could easily be a girl wearing a bandana over her head and wearing jewelry that, unlike Yamuna’s classy pieces, is mostly handpicked from flea markets or filched from someone just for fun. She prefers to roam around in rags and is a true hippie-on-a-highway in every sense, and if you dare to rummage through her rucksack you might find a weapon – a country-made pistol or a knife. If you’d find Yamuna smoking a lady’s cigarette in an elegant holder, Chambal would be seen rolling a joint somewhere. Ganga, of course, is away from all this but she never judges her sisters.

It is not surprising then that Chambal has a legend. It’s rumored that she sometimes evokes an energy that is ‘opposite of god’ in people who stay around. Perhaps the terrain that she flows through or the past existence of characters like Phoolan Devi or Vikram Mallah have given rise to this legend. This energy, it is said, makes people do crazy things like plunder, rape and murder. But perhaps it is not true and she bears the blame for the deeds of others that have been committed in her ravines or ‘beehad,’ as locals call it. It could even be her vagabond character that has made people misunderstand her.

Whatever people’s stories may be, hers is that she doesn’t give a damn, for she knows that she has kept life going in this harsh countryside for ages.

I turn away from there to return to Mumbai and tell the story of my affair and Chambal moves away, inching closer to her middle sister, Yamuna, whom she’s scheduled to met in Bhareh, Uttar Pradesh. As Chambal bids farewell to the harsh country behind her, Yamuna takes her through the fertile terai lands. Together they will reach Allahbad and join the eldest sister, Ganga. From there on, hand in hand, the three sisters will travel to the Bay of Bengal telling each others stories of their odyssey.

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About Atul Sabharwal

  • brij khandelwal

    beautifully written, maza aa gaya. thanks so much. good to know you are from agra. i share your concern about the yamuna ghats. keep in touch
    [personal contact info deleted]

  • Gyanesh Pandey

    Oh Lovely! Loved the characterisation of the rivers. Truly a River’s affair. Somehow the way you characterise Ganga & Yamuna made me think about two singing legends – Lata & Asha. Though I must say that I missed your “Emotional Baggage”, no mention of it after the bus incident. Did Ganga or Yamuna lighten it for you? Or even Chambal for that matter!

  • manchale

    “An affair to remember!”(A River Affair).