River Song

This story takes place in India, the country I presently reside in. It is pure fiction, but is inspired by the cultural traditions I have encountered, and different the people I have met here in this diverse, complex and culturally rich country.

Behind the prayers and sacrifices there is a deity, a collector of souls, lurking in the river that flows from the Milky Way in the sky, down to the earth and the forests where it hides in wait of travelers. You can’t see it, but if you squeeze along by the banks during the Monsoon season, when the river spills over into the forest, you will hear the voices, sweet and treacherous, drawing you into the pit. You can’t help it then, you must answer. Even if you are just a little fellow, playing with peacock feathers and jarred fireflies.

Occasionally a postcard arrives from him. The postcards show rose-studded beach huts and blooming fig-trees, sometimes blue cornflowers by lavishly decorated marble fountains, or wooded hills bathed in amber and gold. I catch a glimpse then, of the child he was, a little thing waving from an open window, and I hear him laugh, making mischief deep in the thickness of our unkempt garden. “May I come to?” I asked him years ago when he left. “No, Janoo, they will like it better if you stay.”

“I think it is the most beautiful place I have ever seen,” said Ayan one cloudy afternoon in late August, while we were fishing for crab in the canal next to our houses. “So, tell me about it,” I urged him. “It is difficult to see, even in daydreams, I don’t think you can.” “Can you show me then?” I asked hopefully. Ayan shook his head, “it is too dangerous for you, you are just a girl, and you haven’t got the gift.” “What gift, Ayan?” The sun had dipped low on the horizon and the shadows were growing fast. The green turf we were sitting on was turning black. “I don’t know,” sighed Ayan. “Have you ever felt like just leaving, Janoo?” I shook my head. “Then you don’t have it. The gift.” “Let’s go home,” Ayan said abruptly and got up and brushed off his white grimy short-pant. “But it isn’t even dark yet, Ayan.” But Ayan had already started walking briskly towards our twin houses. I ran after him like I always did. “Promise me you will never leave me!” I called out. But there was no reply. Ayan had disappeared into the gray misty dusk.

“Remember beti,” said my mother that night as she put the soft cotton blankets around my little body, “nothing is forever.” Then she kissed me and left me in the dark.

Our houses, Ayan’s and mine, stood holding each other in a tight embrace, just beyond the government post office at the crossing between Mukherjee Street and Shankarpur. You could hardly see where one house ended and the other began. Both houses had white chipped paint with green moss growing in the cracks. Gray and blue pigeons lived under the eaves, flapping their wings constantly and diving in intervals to the flat muddy ground to feed. Ayan had been born three months before me, but I had always refused to call him by the respectful Dada, big brother. He was my friend, and none of us wanted to be restricted by family customs in our friendship. “You are still young, “said Mrs. Arora, Ayan’s mother, “I will allow it for now, little Janoo.”

Later that August, Ayan went to the river in the forest again. I wanted to come, but he had already left when I came looking for him. I was not allowed to go into the woods, there were snakes and tigers hiding behind wet overgrown grass, said my papa. But I went anyway. The jungle was full of noises, I listened for feet stepping on dead leaves, but I could only hear the wail of the peacocks and the eerie cry of restless foxes. I must have been stalking through the hot humid forest for an hour when I suddenly heard a voice behind a grove of tall coconut trees. “Ayan, is that you?” I called out hesitantly and quite afraid. No reply came. Perhaps it was the river deity trying to trap me, I thought to myself. But I still followed the voice further into the jungle. “Ayan!” I called out again, and then I saw him, standing very still next to the river, singing. It was his voice I had heard behind the coconut trees. The sequence of melodic sounds, produced by the little boy standing by the banks of the river, composed sentiments and moods I had, in my youthfulness, not yet experienced, but somehow still recognized and remembered.

“Did you hear the river?” he asked me later when he became aware of my presence. I shook my head. “I heard only you Ayan, but that was enough for me. You sing beautifully.” Ayan smiled and shrugged. “It is because of her,” he said, “the river goddess.” I felt a pang of jealousy at that, but soon checked myself and discarded the feeling. It was dangerous to be jealous of a god.

“I don’t want to be laughed at,” said Ayan when I asked him why he had not told anyone that he could sing. “It hurts.” Ayan was the Aroras’ only child, he was expected to pursue a formal education and become something respectable like a doctor or an engineer. He was not expected to sing. Even at eleven I could understand that. Boys carried the financial responsibility of their entire family, present and future, on their shoulders, and were told so from birth. “Nobody knows me,” said Ayan with rivers of sadness in his dark brown eyes, “ even parents can really hurt you, in your soul, even if they do love you, people forget that,” he continued and kicked a lost pebble on the bare road in front of his feet. The pebble flew back into the soft green wayside bed. “Don’t do that,” I said sternly, “it might hit something. There are so many chrysalises this time of year!” Ayan kicked his foot stubbornly again, but this time there was nothing to meet its harsh impact, only empty gray road.

We grew up, like all children have to do eventually, and by tenth standard, Mrs. Arora’s suspicions were confirmed; she had given birth to a prodigy. Ayan received the best marks of his whole batch in his final exams. “My son will grow up to be a very fine doctor,” informed Mrs. Arora anyone who cared to listen, and even those who didn’t. Ayan had become a handsome young man, and already then, at only fifteen years old, the proposals had started pouring in. Mrs. Arora was beaming with pride. “Goodness! No!” she cried when someone asked her if she was planning to send her son abroad for his further education. “I will never give my beta to foreigners!” she stated sternly, “he is to marry a good Indian girl and stay here with us. We are so proud of our little man!”

“How did it go for you, Janoo?” asked Ayan me as we were having tea together at a little roadside stall on our way home from school. “Okay,” I replied nonchalantly, “I got 71% marks, but that is enough, nothing is expected of me. I am just to marry, preferably someone richer than my father, and then go and live with his family and be the housewife there. Ma says boys don’t like too smart girls, it makes them feel smaller somehow.” Ayan sighed. “Janoo, you shouldn’t listen to all that cultural rubbish, you should be free to make your own choices, to live the life you want,” he looked at me with concern and compassion, then his eyes went to the white clouds above and grew dreamy, spotting something up there I could not see.” Have you never heard your soul whisper to you in your sleep, Janoo, showing you places, real places, waiting for you to explore?” “Ayan, you are a boy, but even you are not free to make your own choices, perhaps even less so than I am.” He nodded and the light that had been there in his eyes when he mentioned his dream went out.

“But you can at least see the girl, beta! Her father has offered us a big dowry, a car and one lakh rupees!” Mrs. Arora couldn’t hide her excitement as she beamed proudly at the young man who was her heart’s joy. “But Ma, I’m only eighteen! How can I marry, I am still in college?” “Ayan dear, it will just be an engagement, to finalize everything; you won’t actually marry and live together until after you get a job. She is so pretty, the girl, sweet and respectful and so fair!” “I don’t care about those things, Ma, I don’t know her, how can I fall in love with a girl I have never seen!” “ Love is not important now, beta, it will come later, if you like her looks you will fall in love soon, that is how it is for everyone.”

“She doesn’t understand, Janoo, no one does. No one.” I had never seen Ayan so frustrated before. But there was a resignation in his voice too, like he had given up. I felt sorry for this enormously gifted young man who was too duty-bound by culture and family to be allowed to follow the voice he interpreted as his real creator, the mother of his soul: the river goddess. “Ayan, what will you do?” Ayan looked around at the dimming landscape, the twinkling diyas of his home, the narrow paths of the familiar garden stripped bare by the heat, and the old fields that had once kept him company as he was allowed to be whisked away into regions of wonderful childhood adventures, free from duties and obligations threatening to take him away from himself. “I will leave,” he said then, but there was no trace of sadness in his voice. “I will leave it all behind and go to her whom I have loved my whole life.” “May I come to?” I asked him, even if I already knew the answer. “No, Janoo, they will like it better if you stay.” Ayan started walking briskly towards the darkening horizon. I ran after him like I always did. “Promise me you will never forget me!” I called out. But there was no reply. Ayan had disappeared into the gray misty dusk.

I didn’t hear from him in years, none of us did. People called it a scandal, but I knew better. Then one day, three years later in a café in Park Street, I saw him. It was just after my marriage had been fixed, my mother and I were shopping for my wedding sari, but she had left me with a coffee and a cake while she looked for bangles. “Hello Janoo,” he said, as though no time had passed at all. He told me that he had saved up enough money to go to London; there he would try his luck as a singer in renowned venues I had never heard about. I wished him luck and we parted. Five years later the postcards started coming. From London, Paris, New York, Sidney, he traveled the world as a much sought after singer. The postcards were signed: From your friend, River Song.

I see them occasionally, his parents; they have aged with sorrow and loneliness. I feel sorry for them, I see how they suffer, but then I remember a boy, who suffered for eighteen years until he was finally free to listen to the song of the river. I am a married woman now, I love my husband and find my own purpose in the day-to-day chores, they leave me free to laugh and talk and dream as I please. But sometimes I miss him, my Ayan, and then I go to the river, and sometimes, if I squeeze along by the banks during the Monsoon season, when the river spills over into the forest, I hear the voice, but it is my Ayan’s voice I hear, sweet and clear and child-like, and I hope he is happy, with the companion that is as much a part of him as his own flesh and blood: the River Song.

The River Goddess

This story is inspired by the myths and legends of the country I am now living in: India. Here rivers are goddesses and are worshipped by all hindus. They are said to have magic powers, cleansing souls and giving the departed easy passage to the afterlife.

There is always the river, and the people crossing it. My grandmother would say that rivers were the black locks of the goddess’ twisting, growing, and winding silky hair; pathways to the valley of the dead, and the lands of the unborn. Chaos and creation came washing down like cold floods from the Himalayas, cleansing and taking, drowning and sustaining. After a good storm my brother and I would search the banks for pieces of debris, be it a washed up fish or the green pieces of a broken bottle. My brother knew the best crabbing and fishing spots, I knew the best places to swim. “Don’t disturb the goddess!” my grandmother would shout after us, waving her fist for effect, but we, young as we were, took no notice. Every morning the ladies released their flower rafts into the river after the men had taken their morning bath. What they prayed for we never asked. “Maybe it is the goddess that makes them do it, ” said my brother. “Or maybe it is the dead,” I grinned and pulled a grimace trying to resemble a ghost. My brother air-boxed me and we started laughing.

The river carries stories, mother used to say. The whispers of the goddess Yamuna and the prayers of millions of people. But for us children, it was all about a good swim. “Look out for the sharks!” my father would say. The sharks came to release the souls of the dead from their bodies. “We aint dead!” protested my brother. My father sighed. The sharks were real enough, we saw them sometimes, lurking in the dark, but it never crossed our minds that they would bother about us living people. One day my brother found a shark tooth in the river. He fashioned it into a good luck charm and wore it around his neck. All the other children were mad with jealousy, why had the goddess favored him and not them? It became his most precious possession. “It aint right,” protested grandmother, “a shark tooth is a bad thing. it can carry black magic.” But my brother just pulled a face and ignored her. We all ignored grandmother, she was too old to matter.

Right at the edge of the river there is a place we call Sarayu, it means tear of the goddess. The river has taken an unexpected turn and carved a pool into the bank, a pool shaped like a tear. Women in saffron colored saris and naked toddlers, darkly tanned by the burning sun, come to bathe and wash clothes here. But after a storm it is always empty, the men say that the walls of the pool can cave in and suck up whoever is in the pool. The currents are always stronger after a storm. The goddess is wild, she cannot be tamed by people or river banks, and she does what she pleases, not bothering too much about the river people. Father says it is our job to respect her, not her job to respect us. It was a day like that, in the aftermath of a storm, my brother and I came to the pool to fish for crabs. From the pool you can see for miles and miles across the bank. The fields are burnt amber by the heat and the sky is grey and misty and colorless. On such days the river is black. The red sun makes no difference. The goddess is moody and throws her anger tantrums as she pleases. But she is often eerily still after a storm. “Don’t let her meekness fool you, ” says father, “underneath she is hiding her other aspect, the rageful Kala, she can pull you in faster than you can say tomato.”

“Look, the monkeys have beat us to it!” shouted my brother angrily, and he was right. A band of five monkeys were gathered by the tawny pool, carefully hovering their tiny red hands over the water. “Shooosh!” we roared, and started picking up stones from the ground throwing them at the monkeys. They screamed in anger and fear, but eventually after sustaining a few hard hitting blows they ran away, climbing hurriedly up the nearby coconut trees, still watching us suspiciously as we approached the pool. “Heeeey!!” shouted my brother as a coconut thumped and landed dangerously close to his head. He waved his clenched fist at the monkeys in the tree, and I had to laugh because he looked so much like grandmother. We quickly understood why the monkeys had been so reluctant to give up their hunting ground, the pool was teaming with crabs! We tried fishing them out with our hands, but many of them got away, hiding in the many nooks and corners of the pool. “I’ll go in,” said my brother. I felt a bit nervous, remembering my father’s warning, but I didn’t want to show that I was scared so I didn’t say anything. As soon as my brother was in the pool I knew it was a bad idea. He seemed to struggle to stand up right, his body was being pulled towards the mouth of the river by invisible hands. But he fought against the anger of the goddess, and by using all the muscles in his arms and legs he managed to sustain his position in the water, and he started grabbing crabs from underneath him. It was an easy game, now the crabs had nowhere to run where he could not reach them. Overjoyed by the prospect of the delicious meal we would have, I failed to see what was about to happen. As my brother reached even deeper into the water something grabbed hold of the thread around his neck bearing his precious shark tooth, and he went under. I screamed. I called his name over and over again. But he was gone. I began to climb down towards the river, desperate to save my brother, but something held me back, it was my father. He had heard my screams and had rushed from his work in the fields to come to my aid. “Where is he? Where is he?” he shouted. “He went into the river,” was all I could say. My father ran for help and soon the river was full of people in small canoes stabbing the water with sticks and calling my brother’s name. But he was gone. Vanished from sight, as though the goddess had swallowed him whole and left not a single ripple to prove that he was ever there.

Three days my father and his friends searched for my brother while the women in the village cried and begged Yamuna to release him. I was left to myself. “They blame me, ” I thought, as they should. Why had I not stopped him, why had I let my pride win over the warning my fear had given me?

On the fourth day after my brother’s disappearance there was a horrible storm. The roof of our hut almost blew into the river and everyone in the village huddled together for comfort. The goddess spat her anger at us, floading our crops and spraying our faces with cold foul smelling water. The women started praying, and for once the men joined them. But the goddess would not be appeased. For two days she raged, until our entire village was left in ruins. Then she calmed down and a sudden inspiration came to me. The debris after a storm like this must be stupendous! I walked on my bare feet down to the messy banks where sand and soil and torn off plants were piled together like a garbage dumpster, and there he sat: my brother, by that messy bank with a coconut in his hands. His face was pale and his eyes glassy. I started laughing and crying at the same time, pulling him desperately into my arms. “She took my shark tooth,” he said weakly. “I fought her for it, but she won. It’s gone, see! ” He pointed to the place around his neck where the chain with the shark tooth had been. “It’s gone!” He started crying bitterly, as though he had parted with his own soul.

There was a celebration in our village that day, to give thanks to Yamuna for giving us my brother back. But my brother took no part in honoring his enemy. He grieved the loss of his beloved shark tooth for a long time, and he never got over his grudge against the goddess, he avoided the river like the plague, but I was happy for it, at least I never had to fear losing him to the angry Yamuna ever again