The boatman pushed against the banks with his oar. Reflexively, I held onto the edge as the wooden boat rocked gently. Soon we were in the middle of the Ganga (Ganges).
It was the 17thof August, 2018 – the day before I left for the United States to start my college life. I wanted to feel my city in all its rich simplicity one last time and so I was doing the quintessential boat ride on the Ganga. I was alone, other than the boatman, soaking in the bliss of solitude and the last rays of a dying sun.
The dark Kolkata skyline stood in stark contrast against the evening firmament that was celebrating twilight with a million colors. The city had not yet woken up to the glare of its artificial lights and was enjoying its short evening siesta. The iconic Howrah Bridge loomed ahead in the distance, dazzling in the sunlight reflecting off its steel body, and behind me the relatively new and gigantic second Hooghly Bridge soared up into the sky. I could recognize the outlines of several famous buildings along the banks, including the headquarters of the State Bank of India where my grandfather used to work years ago. To my right, I could see the green moss-covered steps of the Ghat where I often used to come as a child to see the Bishorjon, that is, the immersion of the idol of Goddess Durga into the river after the nine-day long Navratri or Durga Pujo festival. I could feel myself smiling as I collected bits and pieces of my childhood from the banks of the river and weaved memories; it was almost like I was shaping them out of Ganga Mati, the sacred silt of the Ganga used to make the deities. We rowed past that Ghat and up ahead, along the same bank, I could see the Ghat where the ashes of many of my friends and family members, with whom I had celebrated Durga Pujo, were immersed.
The sounds of the city were distant and faint. The only thing that could be heard was the gentle sounds of the muddy yellow water as the oar cut through it. I leaned against the boat canopy and closed my eyes, enjoying the soft, cool breeze, when suddenly out of nowhere, I heard a familiar tune: “Khidki theke singhaduar, Ei tomader prithibi. Er baire jogot achhe tomra mano na, Tomra nijei jano na….” It was coming from an old and almost broken radio that the boatman had turned on at a low volume as he stood rowing at the other end of the boat.
Fleeting images of my childhood crossed my mind. These were some of my earliest memories that the song had stirred – memories that, up until that point in time, I did not even realize existed. This was one of the songs I used to hear my mother sing as she closed the windows before evening to avoid mosquitoes. A very specific song associated with a very specific task. I had perhaps once asked her the meaning of the song. I don’t remember asking it. But I am pretty sure it was she who had explained the meaning of the lyrics to me, just like she had explained everything else. The song was popularly associated with women’s empowerment and the lyrics roughly translated to “Your world extends from the window to the main door. You fail to acknowledge the world beyond it. You don’t even know the existence of a world beyond it….”
People are right when they say that you need to discover a song at the right time in order to unravel a layer of hidden meaning in it and perhaps keep rediscovering it in order to reveal all the nuances. (Or is it me saying that?) Taken out of the context of female empowerment, the familiar song that was buried deep within me explained itself in a whole new light.
I remembered that I always used to sit in the middle-row first-bench in the classroom of my school because the seat had the sort of position that makes the occupant feel like a leader. There was this one day when that seat was occupied and I had to sit in the middle-row middle-bench. That was a seat I absolutely hated. It was right in the middle of the crowd, a position that was least desirable to me.
But suddenly the significance of the middle became very clear to me.
So many people have their worlds limited, maybe not confined within the four walls, but still bounded. I looked at the gaunt figure of the boatman, his rough fingers with broken fingernails, clasped around the oar, speaking volumes of his struggles over the years. Here he is every day, in the middle of the Ganga, in between the twin cities of Kolkata and Howrah, while the sky spreads above him and the river flows beneath him to places where he perhaps would like to sail to. But he can’t because his life is trapped in an endless loop between desires and duties. He is caught in the middle of what he wants to do and what he must do. For him, “middle” is the trap – just like the courtyard extending from the window to the main door in the song.
Sailing between the two Ghats that are of contrasting significance to me, one reminiscent of childhood and the other of death, I realized that I am in a “middle” as well – in the middle of two phases of life. But for me, the middle symbolizes transition. The main door does not loop back to the window; it extends to the world beyond. And I suddenly became aware of my responsibilities, the ones that come when you are endowed with privilege, the privilege of being able to live and not just survive.
The boat gave a sudden jerk and I was knocked out of my trance. We had arrived at our destination Ghat. I thanked the boatman, paid him and cautiously lifted myself off the boat and onto the bank. I looked up at the sky and sighed; the sun was not celebrating its demise, it was celebrating being given the chance to come back for a new day, the chance to loop through the “middle” called night and end up on a new beginning. Lucky her. She gets to do it every day while for some, their entire lives are an undesirable “middle” they have to loop through to end the old and begin anew.
This thought had crossed my mind. And like every thought that ever crosses an introspecting mind, wandering along the banks of a river, it had been a poem first, and then a thought – a poem addressed to the moment and one that I thought would be best left there in the middle of nowhere and consequently everywhere, without a source or destination. And I hope that the readers discover it on their own journey across the “middle” called life.