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A fisher boy with river secrets.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
He is the Narmada's child. Villagers say that Sunil Shankar, the fisher boy, was born on a boat around 20 years ago. They also say he is half-mad. That can be true. But it is not stopping me from taking a ride on Sunil's boat this afternoon.
I met him a few minutes ago when I asked the cab driver to park the car next to Narmada river. We are driving on Gujarat's National Highway-8, traveling from Surat to up north in Ahmedabad, the state capital. I had never seen Narmada before. They say it was a wild river that has been tamed; thanks to a dam.
"No, you'll have to take off your shoes," Sunil says while anchoring the boat. "Sikodar Maa resides inside." Shoeless, I wade into the river, my bare feet pressing deep, deeper into the wet sand. While clambering aboard, Sunil ask me to first dip legs into the river. The water runs through and I turn in the feet and rest them on the fisherman's net.
We are now drifting off the shore. The sun is hot, the water cold. Sunil - dark, thin, all bones, no flesh - is rowing effortlessly. The oars are splashing into the water and making a music that Sunil himself cannot hear. His ears are plugged into Radio Mirchi.
On our right is an old British-built road bridge. On our left: a railway bridge. "This rail track goes to Bombay," says Sunil. "I sometimes go there to have sex and booze." He starts whistling a Hindi film tune. Suddenly, a great whistling sound overpowers Sunil's whistle. A wild clatter in the steel bridge. The train!
Is it going to Bombay?
We both stare at the train. It chugs away leaving behind emptiness. Bombay is gone. We come back to the river. "The heart becomes freer in the river," Sunil said. "Narmada is more mastani than Bombay."
Across is the town of Bharuch but that could be a different planet. Here on Narmada at least, time has stilled. Taking a solitary boat-ride on a river as aloof as this is not very different from flying in a plane. In both cases, you leave the moorings of the solid earth. You belong to nowhere. The plane may crash. The boat may sink.
"Sunil, there's water leaking into the boat," I exclaim.
"Darna nai," he tries calming me. "That's normal."
Sunil usually doesn't row during the day. It is in the night that he goes out for the fishing. "Earlier there were more fishes," he complains. "But after they built a dam, the water has gone down and I don’t catch much." At midnight, however, there are higher tides as the water from the Arabian Sea comes all the way upstream.
By now we have sailed far. My cab is blinking like the pole star. "Look, I'll show you something," Sunil mumbles while getting off the boat – in the middle of the river! Standing upright, the water flowing beneath his ankles, he points to a stone statue. "Naramada Maa," says Sunil. The boat, I'm worried, is still sailing ahead but – surprise, surprise - Sunil and the statue, too, are moving on with us.
"How come?," I ask.
"You're mistaken," Sunil is laughing. "It's the water that's moving, not the boat or me or the statue."
That magic resolved, I start wondering that who installed this statue here. "There was a great flood before I was born," Sunil comes closer and whisper. "The railway tracks were made of iron but they got twisted while nothing happened to Narmada Maa's moorty."
The goddess is smiling.
We are now turning back. But it is Sunil's nap time and we will have to remain in the river a little longer. "No problem," I say realizing that I'm at the mercy of this fisher boy. If he throws me into the river, I'll die. I know no swimming.
I stay silent as Sunil sleeps. A train comes but he is not disturbed. Not long after a trin-trin on Sunil's Nokia mobile wakes him up.
Soon we are back on the bank. While walking up the slope to the highway, Sunil notices the taveez hanging on my neck and asks me where I got it from. "Dilli ki Nizamuddin Basti," I reply. "I don't know that place," Sunil says. That is not stopping his hands from reaching to me. Now, he is taking out the taveez from me, rolling it round his wrist. Now, he is running back to the river and becoming a dot.
You too can take a boat ride with Sunil
Where Golden Bridge, National Highway-8, Gujarat
Sunil's Phone 097236-70516
The old bridge on the old river
Sunil, the fisher boy
Sunil is Sleeping