Rafting the Ganges (2000)

Rafting the Ganges (2000)

No artist’s palette could have reproduced the colour scheme as strikingly. On the one side are the emerald mountains – majestic and so steep that they appear to rise almost vertically. On the other, the dazzling white beaches with their fine powdery sand interrupted by stretches of grey rocks of assorted shapes and sizes. Above you is a sliver of the cobalt sky. In the middle is the jade ribbon of the Ganga – limp, serene and content. Don’t let her fool you though. Beneath the apparent placidity she conceals a range of dizzying moods – mostly mysterious and contemplative, at times effervescent, and occasionally dangerous and diabolical. Vestiges of her previous avatars – as the tempestuous Mandakini, the playful Bhagirathi, andthe impetuous Jahnavi are very much in evidence.  But at the moment she seems to have donned her “Ganga mai” ka avatar –  calm, benign and reassuring.

Your raft glides effortlessly with the current, swaying ever so gently. Its inflated sides bounce off the waves playfully and you’re lulled into believing that it is invincible. After all, you’ve donned your life jacket and helmet, and were not daydreaming when the riverguide barked his instructions.  And there are ten others in your raft. And a dozen more in the other two that follow yours. Surely there ought to be some security in numbers?

Even as you begin to enjoy the smoothness of the ride, Riju, your riverguide orders you all to climb on the sides of the raft. You look at him in disbelief and point out that you can’t swim.. But he’s unimpressed and pokerfaced as he urges you on.  You consider mutiny, but then, he’s the boss on the raft and you had agreed to obey his instructions. You had even signed a form indemnifying the rafting company against any claims in the event of a mishap. You realise that your options are rather limited.  Reluctantly  you heave yourself up on the slippery rounded sides, link hands with the others to form a chain and try to balance as best as you can. The raft  bounces about clumsily on the waves. You lurch and sway dangerously.  Riju seems indifferent to your plight as he rows furiously downstream.

And then you hear it before you see it – the roar of the approaching rapids.  By the time you figure out the source of the roar, it’s too late. Terror immobilises you as you’re sloshed over by the frothy waters of Daniel’s Dip, the first of the series of imaginatively-named rapids on the Rishikesh stretch of the Ganga.  Your knees buckle. All you collapse inside the raft, in a tangle of arms and limbs. But you’re grateful to be alive. As you struggle to extricate yourselves, Riju comes to your rescue, but only to push you unceremoniously over the sides of the raft into the swirling waters below. The receding roar of the rapids you just crossed is drowned by shrieks of fright. Your flailing arms miss their hold on the rings attached to the sides of the raft and you think this is it – the end. Your loved ones fleet past your mental screen and you say your last goodbyes.

But then, what’s this? Who’s pulling you?  Some invisible hand seems to be dragging you out of the water. In a moment you’re afloat again.  Of course you still don’t trust the life-jacket which is just doing its job of keeping you afloat. As you bob up, you see the impish smile on Riju’s face. He tells you to lie on your back and enjoy the float. The water is incredibly chilly and it tickles the back of your neck as it makes its way into the crevices in your helmet. You’re too stiff to let go. You abuse and cajole alternately and finally persuade Riju to throw you a rope to which you cling for dear life.

But after a while you to realise that you’re not going to drown after all. The terror vanishes and you soon begin to enjoy the float. By now even your body’s thermostat has adjusted itself to the surrounding termperature and you no longer shiver and tremble. You feel light and invincible. You’re reminded of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez title which you had read not so long ago – The Incredible Lightness of Being. That is what it is now, right at this moment. The afternoon sun sends out comforting rays of warmth. There is a sense of exhilaration that pervades you. This is life, you say to yourself.  Floating on the cool waters and drifting along with the current under the cobalt sky is no less than paradise itself.

The placid stretch of Ganga Mai is but a short one. As the distant roar of ‘Wall” the biggest rapid on this course reaches your ears, the panic comes back. Riju heaves you back into the raft one by one and just in time too. This time, you don’t stand on the sides, but crowd into the well of the raft and lean towards the stern with your feet tucked securely under the partition. The rubber vessel pitches and lurches dangerously close to the mountainside where it takes a sharp turn. And lo and behold, the next thing you see is a wall of white gushing water that storms into your nose, mouth face and over your head. This must be it – the ‘Pralayam” that our scriptures warn us about, the deluge that the Bible talks about. Your senses shut down momentarily as you’re tossed about like pebbles in a rattle, but you hold on for dear life.

Soon you’re again on another placid stretch where you amuse yourselves throwing buckets of water on each other. This time you don’t wait for Riju to order you into the river. To a man everyone is out on the water and all the three rafts are empty, but for the oarsmen. The banks are dotted with beaches every few yards and there is a neat row of colourful tents in each one of them. There are other rafts that come into view. There is much shouting and water-throwing. A few kayaks pass-by and you tell Riju that you want to try one too. He seems to be in an indulgent mood. He stops a passing kayak, tells the occupant – apparently another river-guide – to jump into the water and holds it for you with a flourish. Very confidently you slide your sizeable bulk into the narrow space and grin triumphantly. But before you could even strap yourself in place, the kayak overturns and you find yourself in the nether regions of Ganga Mai’s belly.  She rushes in to check your nose, ears, eyes, mouth and you gasp for breath and flail your arms helplessly (your poor legs are packed so closely into the kayak)  Riju’s demonic chuckle sounds ominously far away. You wiggle your legs out of the kayak somehow.  A few seconds of this agony and the life-jacket reasserts itself to bring you back to the surface.

Some distance away you have your brush with Ed, the villain of the river. As you float away from the raft, he stalks you from behind and drags you screaming. You’re vertical for a few seconds, and however much you try, you’re unable to extricate yourself from his vice-like grip. You’re dizzy, as he swirls you round and round. This time Riju doesn’t laugh, but transforms himself into a knight in shining armour. He, and Harish from the other raft swim furiously towards you and drag you by the lapels of your lifejacket. In a few seconds you’re back in the safety of the raft, thoroughly chastened by the experience. Your mates mock you about your date with Ed – the vicious eddies that gobble up unsuspecting victims – but the concerned looks on the faces of the river guides tell you that you just had a close shave.

You are taken through a series of rapids which come one after another like rapidfire – in fact that’s what your rafting company is called – Camp Rapid Fire – Sweet Sixteen, Crossfire, Return to Sender, Three Blind Mice, Roller Coaster, Golf Course, Double Trouble and even one called Black Money because it happens to be near a cottage built by an industrialist! After the first few, you get the hang of the drill on how to negotiate them. There are five of them which are Grade IV (expedition level) and the others, Grade III.  At the end of the third day, you’ve toted up six hours of rapids-rafting in three phases – from Kaudiyala to Marine Drive, from Marine Drive to Shivpuri and from Shivpuri to Rishikesh. That’s impressive. You are patted on the back and told that you’ve been very brave and can now go on to expedition level on the Bhagirathi or Alaknanda run and then on to Kali-Sharda, Beas and even Brahmaputra!

At that time, little did you know that  the real test of your courage was not the rapids. Later that evening, back at your tent-camp on the sandy beach, you savour a hot dinner by the camp-fire and recount the day’s thrills. A full moon floods the valley with lumniscent light. Suddenly, you hear a blood-curdling scream from the opposite bank.  A white figure in flowing robes seems to float on the mountain side across the river.  Even in the light of the full moon, you can barely make-out its contours. An eerie silence envelopes the camp which only moments ago was agog with merriment. Riju and party whisper some ghost stories to an already terrified audience. All eyes are fixed on the opposite bank, but the figure seems to have vanished.  No one seems to be in a hurry to go back to their tents. Perhaps everyone was waiting for someone else to take the lead. Fear hangs thick and palpable.

Your heart misses a beat when moments later, a kayak pulls up on your beach.  Even as you’re contemplating dashing up the mountainside and away from the river, out jumps Tarun, one of the camp organisers. As he takes off his life-jacket, you notice he’s wearing a white shirt. He pulls out a white-sheet with a flourish, wraps it loosely around his shoulders and mimics the blood-curdling shreik of the ghost on the other bank. Then he breaks into peals of laughter. He’s joined by his colleagues from the camp.  You realise that your hosts have spared no effort to give you an absolutely thrilling time.

(Published in The Tribune dated May 25, 2003)



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