In this story, Parvathi Ramkumar highlights how we, the human race, mar a source of perennial beauty such as Ganga.
They said later that it was a young priest who saw her first. By the dappling moonlight one summer night, when the arati was in full swing. Lights glowed by the riverside, lamplight glimmered on the rising swells. Music and chants filled the air. Temple bells and puja bells rang and tinkled.
They said the young priest saw her as she stood by the far shore, listening to them, watching their movements. She raised her head slightly to the sonorous harmony of the conch shells, and smiled slightly when little twinkling diyas were set afloat. Not many could look at her directly, not even the young priest…and the moonlight created an aura of shimmering silver around her, illumining lotus eyes so luminous and warm that they sparkled. Her garb appeared to be of silk, flowing, rippling silk of blue-green, trimmed with silver and soft warm gold. Her hair, threaded with jasmine, fell in a cascade to her waist.
But that was all they could see. For some reason, they were forced to shield their eyes each time they tried to look. Adventurous children tried to stare, and looked at their feet and shuffled — partly amazed and partly shy.
Then, she moved away from the gathering. The arati was over, but the river, with its echoing waves and gentle swells, moved just a little faster, keeping in line with her light, aerial footsteps.
The young priest moved swiftly, following her through the night. Not once did she glance over her shoulder, but he knew she was aware of his presence. Some followed the priest, keeping their distance. And he knew she knew about them too.
Silently, she took them along the banks of the glistening river. Sometimes, she waded into the cool waters, seemingly walking on the waves. The young priest dared not attempt to wade so far. He wanted to call out to her, ask her many, many things, seek her guidance, but the words were caught in his throat. She led them further and further away, yet they could still see her, for the enraptured moon showered her with light. Her gold and silver anklets jingled softly each time a wave lapped against her slender feet. A soft breeze caressed her tresses and silken garb. Startled fish leapt around her in glee, dancing on the moonlit river. They jumped at her and she smiled. The young priest watched, fascinated, as a sound touched his ears…slim dolphins leapt at her too. She laughed, dancing with them. Soon, they settled, accompanying her in her walk, eager companions of the water.
A slow, glowing mist rose from their play, rising in swirls above the river. It lingered, gleaming, drawing in the moonlight. It twirled around creatures of the water, playing with them as she did. The young priest watched, mesmerised, but he was dimly aware, somewhere in the back of his mind, that the Varanasi around him had faded. He could still see the outlines of old buildings, the curved domes of rooftops reaching for the sky. He could still hear sounds of people by the river’s shore, strangely magnified and oddly muffled. Lights from windows still glistened, he was sure of that. But now, all he could see, all he could really see, was the radiant, smiling moon, the water creatures, and her.
For she was still dancing, her steps so light. Silver ripples decorated the river as she moved. Sprays of water rose in perfect symphony with her hands, in imitation of her mudras and ethereal movement. Even the stars had momentarily forgotten to twinkle…they watched her, enthralled. For all their wisdom, and their light, she was still older than them. She had seen their nebulous beginnings and fabulous growth. She knew of the life they sustained, of the knowledge they had seen.
From clear, crystal streams in the far northern mounts, where snow and crushed ice make their homes, where mountain streams coalesce into one, she knew her origins. From the foothills and the mountain stream called Bhagirathi, and a glacial cave called Gaumukh. Those in the West called her Ganges. To her own, she was Ganga. Jahnavi. Vishnupadi. Bhishmasu.
Valleys and dells, gorges and canyons, she had seen them all, the young priest knew. She had seen Mathura, birthplace of the divine. She had seen Delhi, its forts and fortifications, the passing of an era of thundering conquerors. Fields and groves, forests and foothills, villages and towns, cities and metros.
She knew too of Bharata and his valour, and of the land that took on his name. How could she not, when she was the river of celestial lands? Bhagiratha too, who had called upon the mighty gods for help, to bring to earth the Akasha-Ganga. There had been a din at her coming, a terrible din, when water fell from the firmament. To take upon man’s burden, and to cleanse him of all sin. Neither the Saraswati, nor the Padma, coursed through this land with such a gift.
The young priest wanted to call out to her, but he knew he couldn’t. His voice caught in his throat, and he could barely remember his own name. Perhaps it was just as well. Because if he did call out to her, and she acknowledged his call, what would he say to her? Foolishly, he had left behind his puja offerings. He could have given them to her.
He wondered where he was. Time seemed to slow around him, and the echoes of the night faded.
Then his heart clenched. This is 2012, his mind screamed. Devi Ma, I beg you, go no further…And it appeared only a second later that she stopped in her tracks.
Suddenly, the waves grew sober, the dancing fish and dolphins sank silently into the depths. By the moonlight, now so cold, the young priest looked where she looked…and he blanched. Drifting down by the river were weird shapes — barely recognisable as human or animal. And she gazed at them as the water churned. The young priest noticed her glittering crown — how muted it appeared when she did not smile.
The tannery at Kanpur? It had to be Kanpur. Like a projection, he saw before his mind’s eye the great buildings, the machines and the workers, the sickly glow of yellow light. He thought of the clumps of garbage, and rotting heaps of stinking rubbish, and the drains.
The drains! Where putrid, sluggish mass caroused their way through to…he swallowed. Had they really come so far? Was this a dream? He could barely look at her now. Images of grime and slime coursed through his fevered mind.
Everything was so still now. The once cheery moon watched on, grim. The stars twinkled rapidly, as if with bated breath.Slowly, she reached for the water, brought out a handful, and allowed it to fall in a stream. Even in the night, the young priest saw the raw murkiness of water that did not reflect the moonlight. Instead, foam gathered by her feet, and she raised her brows.
She sighed, taking a step forward. Fear clutched the young priest’s heart, but he followed her again. Swiftly she moved, downriver, passing the silent shores. Even the crickets were silent.
But it wasn’t anger, they said later. She wasn’t angry.
Little greenish bubbles burst around her, and she simply stared at them. The young priest wanted to warn her to get out of there. Because greenish bubbles usually bode ill. A mere touch could cause disease. And yet, she did not heed his call, and he was sure he called. Her eyes were transfixed on the foam and bubbles. By now, it was clear that the river water flowed lethargically, carrying with it unidentifiable mounds and layers of slimy
She walked on still. In the distance were the twinkling lights of a township. The young priest blinked. He couldn’t tell. Time was on hold, so was distance. She could take them to the end of the world — in a few minutes.
Light to the east suggested morning. The sky lightened, pale gold and crimson, waiting for the glow of the sun. The moon withdrew gracefully, sinking slowly into the still horizon.
A knot of people stood by the shore. They did not see the priest, and they certainly did not see her. The young man clenched his teeth. Revellers. He saw them laugh — drunkenly? — and toss bottles and plastic plates. They landed on the water and bobbed. The revellers laughed, and tossed more. Ahead, a fishing boat chugged along, and the young priest saw them cast their nets. He wondered, briefly, what they would catch. More bottles, probably. If not, something far worse.
She simply stared. At the fishermen and the revellers. Still further ahead, a cloth-bound figure was being lowered by the grieving…the priest looked away. How could you condemn them when they had lost so much? How could anyone intrude upon their grief? But a lump rose in his throat when he looked back at her. She was still watching, calm and expressionless. Her lotus eyes wandered to the far shore. A pile of rubbish, tossed carelessly among the reeds. Plastic, and more plastic. The priest did not have to strain his eyes to identify it. Bags and broken signboards, bits of paper and even…furniture? A cow surveyed the rubbish, wondering.
From afar, sounds of a temple bell echoed over the river. Instinctively, the young priest raised his eyes to the eastern sky — and caught a faint, very faint, glimmer of gold. Sunrise, he told himself, was well on its way. In a matter of minutes, the sun would rise, and a new day would begin.
He saw, stricken, that she had turned to him, and those following him.
He watched, horrified, as a single tear, clear as a diamond drop, fell from her eyes, creating a soft, swirling ripple in the
water.Then she was gone.