A tryst with River Narmada

Sneha Choudhury

Bharuch is a small port town in Gujarat. The river Narmada empties itself into the Arabian Sea from the Gulf of Khambhat at Bharuch. Four years of my childhood, from 1966-1969, were spent in Bharuch. People living in Bharuch share a perennial bond with the Narmada and the name strikes a warm chord in the hearts of those associated with her.

As children, my sisters, brothers and I spent many happy hours on the high wall built along the river bank. Often, we walked to the end of the wall, which ended in the jetty. We watched with the awe and curiosity that children have, as the traders and fisher men brought in their boats at the end of the day, to unload their wares.

Once, we stayed in the jetty longer than usual, the flock of cranes that signalled the time for us to return home had long since flown by. It was twilight, the din at the jetty had ceased, there was a sudden hush in the air and in the azure stillness, saw the tide rise. The waters lapped the jetty steps gently at first, the waves staying on, and then in a sudden swift stroke, the entire jetty was submerged. It was an awesome sight! That evening we returned home from the road, demure thoughtful and reflective, and also got sounded ticked off for staying out long past evening.

On a rare day, when we could sneak out of the house in the afternoon, we made our way to the wall, and pretended to gather the diamonds that lay strewn on the river, sparkling reflection of sunlight on the rippling waters of the river. We bartered the mangroves and orchards on the other shore with the ‘wealth’ that we accumulated, and dreamt of enjoying picnics on the inviting lush green that was visible from this shore. The dark shadow cast by the sailing cloud was greeted by us in glee!

Every year, the Narmada got flooded, with the inflows that spilled from the Vindhyas and Satpura ranges. The happy rollicking friendly river then turned a roaring violent, vengeful bull that struggles to free itself from the tethers that bind it. Bharuch bears the brunt of the river’s fury, the jetty and the low lying areas are totally inundated and out of bounds for the town. Much before the oncoming flood, warning sirens sound from the town tower, high on the road, near the jetty, cautioning people to shift to safer ground. Haleema and her family would move bag and baggage to the second floor of her house. Some families would make the town hall or mosque or temple their place of refuge. Every year, the story was repeated and the entire exercise would follow. People would store enough provision to last the days of isolation; sleepless nights were spent watching the rising levels of water. When the rest of the town was cut off, these people used boats to stay connected, and go about their duties. Once, I forced Haleema to take me along with her for the boat ride to her house, and never did understand then why my mother was so angry with us, for that!

‘Tanna’ and his gang of volunteers were people to watch out for, on such days. He was the town Messiah, whether true or not, it was a whispered fact that Tanna would jump into the raging storm to save a life! The entire town would gather near the tower to see the river in full spate, and many eyes would moisten, at the sight of floating bodies of men, cattle, uprooted trees and sometimes a poor man’s dwelling.

After the waters receded, cakes of clay and layers of debris would take days to dry and clear. Water was a major problem for all. During the days that followed, I would accompany Haleema to the banks of the Narmada, braving the slush and oozing filth. Water could never be filled directly from the river, which was still agitated and contaminated. A small pit would be dug alongside the river, and once the water seeped into the hole, we would fill our pots. The muddiness would settle down once we stirred the water with ‘phitkari’, then it was boiled and made usable.

It has been forty years since our family moved away from Bharuch, a decade since I have set foot there. Whenever I’m on a train journey, and the train passes over the bridge on a river, my thoughts take me to Bharuch and to the river side which has filled my early years, with joyous and precious memories.

The author can be reached at [email protected].

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