Requiem for a river

What greeted me there was a much-polluted, stagnant, shallow, sluggish stream.

My village in Kerala was riparian, and most people living there knew swimming as it was essential for them to acquire this skill. Swimming had, in fact, become second nature for them. Having been born and lived there for the first 17 years of my life, I took to swimming swimmingly.

While young, we learned the rudiments of swimming from elders in the house. In those days, modern swimming aids like floaters and other paraphernalia were alien to us. Our swimming aids were a pair of coconuts with strips of their husks ripped off and braided together. One kept one’s midriff on it to remain buoyant. Though naïve they served as flawless floaters.

During monsoon, when the river would swell and burst its banks, it was dangerous to bathe or swim in it. But we did not remain idle during those months. There were two ponds — one in our own curtilage and the other a little away at a neighbour’s house.

Our pond was ill-maintained. It had broken and chipped off steps. It’s sides  were covered in algae and other aquatic plants. The latter, though, was well maintained. So everybody preferred it. It had flights of steps made of white stones on all sides and one had to reach the edge of the water by descending them. When heavy rains filled the pond to its brim, we dived into the water, clambering on to the high wall surrounding the pond on three sides.

Once, a Brahmin boy drowned in it while swimming. Credulous people believed that his ghost or a Brahmarakshas (as the ghost of a Brahmin who died unnaturally was called) haunted the pool. Thereafter, nobody dared to enter the pool alone for fear of being drowned by it. However, human memory being short, people forgot it soon and began to indulge anew in swimming.

During my frequent sojourns to Singapore, where my daughter and her family live, I swam in the pool in their condominium. Swimming there always sparked off flurries of memories of my mirthful days of swimming in the flowing river in my boyhood.

Recently, on a visit to my village, I had a surprise — an unpleasant one at that — in store. I went to the river eagerly to swim on the very first morning of my arrival. What greeted me there was not a flowing river, but a much-polluted, stagnant, shallow, sluggish stream that had lost its flow. It was chocked by weeds and garbage — cellophane bags, plastic bottles and so on. The river was not merely overused for industrial and agricultural needs but abused too.

Much water had flowed down the stream since my earlier visit a few years ago. She had then followed a sinuous course through several villages. Mother Nature’s retribution had visited on her for man’s folly, leading to the river’s inexorable doom. No wonder, people no longer went to the river to bathe. Instead, they did so in their own houses. Alas, the river’s best days were behind her.

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