Every good story starts with a challenge. A goal which both inspires and spreads fear, hints of danger and adventure in equal measures – unconquered & unfathomed mountains and unbeatable adversaries. For us it was Ganga, a river synonymous with everything Indian, the very reason of existence for over a 1 billion human beings.
But no, the challenge in question today is not spiritual or religious in nature , even though those who seek to unravel the mysteries of “The Orient”, might be interested to know that we were in the same city where once the original flower-children “The Beatles” once attained their smoke –induced Moksha.
Yes, we were in Rishikesh, a quaint little town dominated by small markets, narrow lanes, tourist hotels, between the gorgeous green hills of the Himalayas. And, as the book goes, “a river runs through it”. Our challenge was a 26 Km long stretch of swirling, twisting Ganga, flowing at a very fast pace and cutting across mighty chunks of rock creating rapids all along the way. We aim to tame the elements: we aim to river raft through the might Ganga. Not for profit, nor fame or any such vice, but as the famous mountaineer George Mallory once said, “Because it is there”.
Enter the protagonist: The Hulk, Mr Know It All and Yours Truly. We are at the moment stationed at the start of the course, at a sandy beach cupped among the hills, waiting for our guide to sound the bugle and start the journey.
The Hulk is not his usual self today. Normally calm and relaxed even when solving the most complex (and absurd) issues which haunt his many friends of the fairer sex, today he is clearly nervous, even a touch frightened. “My mom warned me today morning. My horoscope says it’s a very bad day to try something new”, he says, showing after all even The Hulk is a mamma’s boy.
Before I can think of comforting statement, Mr Know It All steps in. “I hope you enjoyed your Last Supper”, he is the guy who always talks in idioms as you might have guessed, “When it all ends, and If you do come out alive , you will have had a life changing experience”. His face is covered with a wise yet evil grin, as he is the only one among us who is already experienced river rafting not once but twice.
“I am not afraid guys, it’s just that I am the only one here who doesn’t know how to swim. Plus waves make me feel puckish” retorts “The Hulk”. I ponder whether telling him that swimming is of no use in the rapids will comfort him or make him more nervous. ‘We are all on the same boat, brother.’
I must say all this talk of danger was making me edgy as well, so I decide to boost my moral by calling my girl and receiving some well deserved accolades and even some pleas of “Please be safe”. “Hey we are just about to start rafting. It’s a 26 km long ride full of rapids“, I said trying to appear casual about the ordeal. “Oh great! Enjoy yourself … you are out having fun and I am getting bored in office”. I guess she didn’t realize the gravity of the situation, so I try again “Yak I will, I am excited, I heard the course is really dangerous and some idiots even die frequently “. “Really? U remember Rita? Her younger brother did the same trip when he was just 14”. Bong girls are very hard to impress I tell you.
“Row, Row, Row your Boat”. Our guide a lean, fit Garhwali with jolly & pleasant personality calls us. “You need to wear this safety equipment’s”, he points to a heap of life-saver jackets, helmets and plastic oars. “Do it fast, we start in 2 minutes”, and in exactly 2 minutes we are seated on the raft, our hearts pounding.
In movies and books whenever the heroes meet their death they do so it with bare chests, and a flowing mane blowing in the wind. Unfortunately for us, we were cocooned in heavy safety jackets which made it difficult to breathe, move or feel glorious. On top of that , err excuse my pun, the Crowning Glory, The Cherry on Top, “Yours Truly” was forced to wear a bright pink colored helmet with 2 strands of hair firmly stuck in front of the eyes . Totally emasculating!
Well so much for a glorious death. Anyways, a few instructions, and off we go, the dingy has sailed. “This trip will take around 3 hours, so pace yourself”. Our guide was telling us, “Most places the flow is smooth, but still don’t go out of the boat as the water flow is very swift, it will pull you away. On the course we will have around a dozen rapids, some more dangerous than others. When you see a rapid, row like your life depends on it. If you fall down in a rapid, try to stay afloat, and we will throw a rope at you. And also Mayan, my aide, is on a kayak to help me” he said pointing to another very jolly guide with a huge grin floating around in a bright orange kayak.
“And whatever you do, “DON’T PANIC”, I made silly joke in my head that our guide must have read Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy. “Do you hear the sound of the rapid approaching”, yes, now that he mentions it we do hear the soft gurrrrr sound. Is it gurgling like an opera singer before a grand performance, or growling like an angry dog waiting for the unsuspecting postman? Well no time for such thoughts lads! Man your battle stations, all hands on deck! We start rowing furiously, eager to overcome the fast of many rapids.
The rapid suddenly zooms ahead of us, it is a 1 minute course through furiously undulating waves going around in all directions, and whirlpools near the rocky sides. Suddenly the dingy starts gyrating, going up and down small waves of water .We row with all our strength, but it’s not that easy. Suddenly we are confused which side to row to, to row or to hang on to the boat which already acting like it wants to be a roller coaster. Worse yet I put all my strength on the rowing , just to realize , that in that split second, this side of the boat is partly above the water and my furious attempt misses the water completely , almost making me lose balance.
And suddenly it’s gone! Just as sudden as it started, the rapid has suddenly ended, putting us on calm waters once more. The guide congratulates us, praising us for the first attempt. After a few more strokes he encourages us to take a dip in the water. “Try it when it’s calm” he says “you will enjoy the water”. My personal motto has always been that if you are not trying something new, you are not living, so Yours Truly is the first to jump in. The water is ice cold! Didn’t expect that surely, but still it is sensation to be enjoyed: much better than the salty sweats that cover your body everyday in Mumbai. Also the water is amazingly clean, turquoise green in colour but pure nevertheless. I decide to take a dip under the water.
Suddenly I become conscious of two glaring mistakes I did. First, I have left the rope at the side of the dingy, and the river was pulling me away fast. But that’s ok, I am quite good as a swimmer, so I am sure I can swim my way back. But the second problem is more serious, I am wearing lenses underwater without the protective swimming goggles, and the fast flowing water has shifted the lenses from the centre making my vision hazy and wait whats that black shape near me in the green water. My somehow conjures up the thought of a crocodile, which I am perfectly well aware is not possible in a flowing river in the hills. That’s one disadvantage of having a brain on steroids, but more on that later.
Anyway the huge black shape was no other than “The Hulk”, who has jumped on the water and the whole team is trying to pull him back to the dingy, and failing miserably. I try to get up, and find it’s immensely difficult to get on board a dingy, once you are in the water. First of all there no solid ground below your fit to kick yourself up, secondly there are no good handles to hold and pull, and the dingy itself, a slippery bugger, is not willing to let you mount her so easily.
We hear the gurgling sound again at a distance. “Get Up guys! Come on! A rapid is coming”, “Mr Know It All” bellows, visibly disappointed at our efforts. We keep scampering like mice on a slippery glass jar, and finally our guide comes and pulls us out with sudden burst of energy.
“No time to lose guys, start rowing! The rapid is here”. And so it continues for 2 hours. Short periods of adrenalin pumping, nerve wrecking moments when we battle rapids, and long periods of calm river when we listen to stories of the region by our guides (of elephants and Maharajas and even one about Brad Pitt), watch the picturesque mountainside pass by us , spot the occasional sunbathing tourist , the saffron sadhu busy with his chillum, trees full of monkeys show their teeth at us , the summer sun sparkles on the clear green waters.
We may be tired now, but we were confident about finishing the trip with a smile. We were calm, we were confident.
We were complacent!
It came upon us with sudden swiftness, a huge black rock in the midst of a very forceful rapid. While all the others rocks so far had thrown us away from them, this one had a whirlpool just below it was calling us closer and closer to it. It was like a scene from Grimm Brothers fairytales , where the more you fight to get away from the dark witch , the more she pulls you closer with her mysterious and dark voice. It was obvious very soon that our rowing was futile, we didn’t have the strength to match this demon. We got steadily sucked in and then it happened.
Even though the water, the boat, everything was flowing at a very high speed, at moments like this your mind plays everything in slow motion. The immense kick from the rock which threw us out must have been fast, but I remember it happening at the same pace and helplessness that Sandra Bullock portrayed in the movie Gravity. I saw the boat start to turn towards the right, and capsize on the top of my head. I am in the water and the boat is on top of me.
Darkens! It is not the ice cold temperature, or the fact that you are under water that woke me up from my slow motion dream, it was darkness all around me. And then suddenly I realized I don’t have anything to hold on to, and the water was pulling me. In a second I was gone, away from the boat. Green water was all around me and the sun-rays were suddenly getting brighter… whoosh I am on the surface, take a gulp of air and turn around, and see a huge wave swallow you down.
Now I used to be quiet a swimmer, you see. Was certified at the age of 9, and have swam in multiple chlorinated swimming pools, algae-filled lakes & ponds and even braved the sea waves farther from the coast than most of my friends have. So I was not worried, knowing soon I would be able to pull myself up to the surface. But this river rapid was different For starters, the water was not dragging you to one side, but seemed more interested in throwing you around all over the place, even when you are deep below the surface. And as more and more waves crashed on top of you, suddenly I realize that even with the life jacket, the current was pulling me down all the time. Such circumstances puts your mind on a overdrive, and while my body kept pushing my legs below like a frog ,my brain was busy imagining an underwater cave , below the side of the mountain , where I might get stuck in a little hole with no way out ,& no one will know of my existence ,alone in a secluded little world. Ah brain ! Your lungs are gasping for air, while you philosophize about existential issues.
Still there was no reason to panic, as I kept coming up for air for seconds before being dragged down again, being carried away by the water like flotsam. I did catch an occasional sight of my team mates, all in similar situation, but they were gone before you can do anything about it.
Then suddenly for reasons unknown I became trapped under a huge body of water. Seconds passed, but still no sign of the surface! I kept trying to go up, holding the breath by inflating my mouth, and in a curious way my mind grew bored. Maybe it was just the tiredness of the body, or the decaying optimism, but I was now thinking not about how to escape the bottom of the river, but how to avoid going on the next rapid after we get back up. In a way my mind was telling me” if it’s so much trouble, then count me out”. It doesn’t make sense now, but it’s curious how your brain functions when you are 20 feet below the water.
Well, to state the obvious, I survived! Just after that incident I spotted the bright orange kayak near me, and a few more minutes of desperation and physical exhaustion, and I was back on the boat and headed for shore. Yes, there was a collective sense of relief, the glorious feeling of victory, the excitement of realizing that we just had what my friend called “a life changing event”, and all the usual bravado which follows. We understood what Queen had felt while writing ‘we are the champions ‘that day. But now , when I look back , it is not the euphoria after completing the ordeal that is most prominent, for that is felt often, in award functions, in drunken excursion, in well developed plots of story books and movie halls. It was rather the curious thoughts in a drowned state, which I cannot explain, nor relate to now, that linger on.
This Story has been written by Guest Writer Somdipto Ghosh and edited by me.