Cradled by the River
Short story from Bangladesh
Rivers play important roles in the lives of Bangladeshi people. Through the year, the water ways help them earn their livelihood. Yet, due to over crowding of boats and natural calamities, death is also a sad chapter with rivers and people in the country.
Dark clouds raced across the vast sky over the river stretching beyond the eyes. Badal, a young man in his early twenties was travelling on a launch named Cynthia. Unlike usual open launces, the Cynthia was a covered, large boat with capacity of carrying over hundred passengers.The monsoon was at its peak and it rained incessantly. Sometimes the rain was playing with passing phases and sometimes it was daylong downpours. The world became a soggy place with the wet days.
The soft wind blowing over the river was cool and soothing. Badal stood at the entrance of the upper deck of the launch. His dark eyes held dreams and a smile played on his lips. A handsome young man, he was feeling happy with the daydreams fleeting across his mind. He was going to his village Kaliya, in Barisal. The blue and white, Cynthia was carrying him along the mighty river Padma. Sailing on that waterway at this time of the year was something to be anxious about for the river was full and the current was very strong. Barisal being along the coastal belt of Bangladesh, faced riddles of unpredictable weather patterns in the monsoon season. So the darkening sky and the hint of rain didn’t worry Badal much. At the same time at the back of his mind of the usual rain turning into a summer storm. One just couldn’t tell. With a longer look at the sky, Badal relaxed and predicted a happy anchoring of the launch. The sky did not hold the reddish scowl that shows up before a storm. Impatience strummed notes within his whole being, when would he see his bride to be?
Badal was thinking of a sweet face that will soon have a scarlet round marking, the sindoor, on the forehead. He was thinking of Mishty, his fiancée and wife- to- be. The placing of the sindoor on the mid parting of her hair and the forehead would mark the beginning of their wedded life. Badal was picturing Mishty, beautiful in her red bridal attire and in the jewelry he was carrying for her as a wedding gift.
“Rain cannot be stopped on rainy days,” said Badal speaking out his thoughts to the wind that nudged him every once in a while. There was a low rumbling of thunder as it started to rain. As rain drops fell around him, the “pit…pit..pitter..pit…” sounded like music. And he found himself singing loudly, “….on this rainy day, I feel alone… where my love have you gone?”
His face was radiant and his eyes held a dreamy look, so full of romance. He was finally going to be married! His future father-in-law had not given his consent until Badal was settled with a good job as a supervisor in a garment factory. His lean, handsome features had attracted many female workers who worked with him, but Badal didn’t look twice at anyone. The girl he had grown up loving, his Mishty, came from the same village home. The meaning of Bangla word mishty was sweet and Badal thought it was so true for his Mishty. She was all good and sweet in nature. They had grown up together and she was like a fairy with tenderness written in her eyes. She had a heart shaped face and the pert little nose set above the wide generous mouth gave her face the image of a goddess. The mouth looked so inviting whenever she chewed beetle nut for they became deliciously red. Of course Mishty and he had never slept together, stolen kisses were as far as they could go. Even that if caught, could land them in trouble in the village, romance had to be controlled like a boiler temperature. Uncontrolled, the result could be catastrophic.
With anxious eyes, Badal was looking at the sky, getting angrier every moment. He felt worried as the launch went on sudden lurches on waves that were growing larger. Badal looked at the passing boats, wondering if the passengers on those were growing anxious like him. Most of the large, open boats carried passengers. Some smaller ones were loaded with water hyacinths, water plants that the villagers fed their cattle with. A long, open boat carried piles of earthen wares and their owners, the pottery makers. From one of the boats, a boatman was singing away a river song. It touched his heart and Badal relaxed a bit as he watched the far away villages outlined in the horizon. His heart strummed a different tune, how far was his home, and how long before he can reach Mishty?
Nostalgia stirred his heart on thoughts of the youthful days when Mishty and he used to share long lazy afternoons under the mango trees, eating juicy mangoes. He recalled the days when she would hide some delicious guavas in the folds of her sari and bring them for him. Finally they were going to get together and build a home. Impatience tugged at his soul all the while he was thinking of his coming wedding and Mishty. It started raining harder forcing him to move away from the deck.
Badal went back inside the launch and sat down. He was glad that he had a window seat. He could keep his on the changing sky. His fellow passengers were mostly asleep. They had been sailing together for almost ten hours and some of the children were restless. An old woman huddling nearby reminded him of his mother. She wore a white sari like his mother and had a kind face.
My mother must be looking forward to my homecoming, I will have to buy her a new sari for the wedding. Badal thought.
There were two toddlers wailing as their mothers tried to calm them with some candies. He looked at the children wistfully. Maybe, one day I too will be traveling home with my little son or daughter. He liked children and planned to have a big family. He thought of Mishty and how she too wanted to have at least four children.
Thinking of the coming wedding, he remembered the gold ornaments in his small handbag. He quickly opened the bag to make sure that ornament box was safe. Pick pockets stole everything they could lay their hands on in crowded places like boat terminals. He felt himself relax at the sight of the box, wrapped with some brown paper. He was also carrying the red sari that Mishty was to wear on her wedding day. He didn’t forget to buy the red slippers with high heels that Mishty had secretly told him to buy and the red lipstick too. Modesty for village brides meant silence on what they wore on wedding days. He would not disclose the secret to his mother, of course.
As the launch continued to progress on the choppy river it gave out occasional blasts of its horn. Trying to keep worries off the weather outside, Badal became engrossed with plans for his wedding day. But the launch started to sway harder than usual. Badal looked out. The river looked rough with waves getting stronger. The sky had become very dark indeed. And on the western sky held an angry, red scowl. A touch of unknown fear stuck in Badal. He recalled hearing a night owl hoot on the previous night, they were supposed to bring bad news.
Why thought Badal, only short while ago there was only the rain in the sky but now the sky looks so angry?
He looked at the far away coconut trees lining the villages on the riverbank. The trees were tossing and turning crazily. The wind must have picked up force and the storm was getting worse. Somehow, Badal’s earlier pictures of a happy wedding day became blurred. Just at that moment the launch started to heave up and down.
The storm must be coming down in full force! Badal whispered to himself. The wind was howling madly outside and from somewhere an eagle screeched loudly. The bird’s call penetrating through the howling wind seemed so ominous. Was it announcing its own end in the storm? Badal remembered that eagles were birds of prey and they called when death was near. Fear clutched Badal’s heart.
And then hell broke and the storm struck with lightning and thunder, furious and scary. Outside a wall of rain and wind covered the launch and everything became dark. The wind, screaming like an angry witch, started lashing against the launch and it started bobbing crazily. The sleeping passengers were all awake by then and all were praying loudly to the Almighty.
“ Save us Allah, save us!” Their voices rang loud.
“How can there be such a storm? The day didn’t start out so bad.” Like a confused child, Badal asked the passenger beside him. His voice was hardly audible against the roar of the wind.
“Do storms these days give warnings? Weather has changed.” snapped the man. “Here I was going to visit my sick mother and only God knows if I can find her alive.” The man’s bearded face was bleak with worry and his eyes filled up with tears.
Badal thought of river disasters he had heard of so many times, launches, trawlers and boats caught in the storms and capsizing. He thought of the hundreds of people who lost their lives in the catastrophic storms. His heart seemed to stop beating as the launch gave a violent lurch. The vessel was moving like a zombie on the water. Badal took another look outside. Through the glass he could see the huge waves crashing against the launch and it was pitch dark as if the day had suddenly gone into hiding. The angry whistle of the wind mingled with the screaming of the passengers. Children and adults cried for help. The launch rocked like a toy. The belongings of the passengers and the people themselves were pitched from side to side like tossed balls as the launch moved against crashing waves and the ferocious wind.
The idea of jumping into the river suddenly flashed in Badal’s mind. He had heard that some people could be saved from the river. He had to take the last straw and made a mad rush for the deck. He could hardly move for other people too had started rushing outside to jump into the river. Everyone was frantic for a last chance to escape certain death before the launch capsized. When Badal finally reached the deck, the force of the storm hit him full in the face. The raging wind was set on taking the launch to the bottom of the river. Badal heard a voice warning him of coming sure death. Blindingly he reached for the railing of the launch and jumped into the swirling madness.
Fighting for life in the heaving waters, momentarily Badal had a vision of Mishty in her red sari, she was waiting for him with her arms opened wide. He felt the cold water hit his body and knew that he was quite below the surface water. Then he felt something against his bared skin. He thought of holding on to the solid form, perhaps a tree trunk. But and then, he shrank with shock, for it was a small body, a dead child. Badal started crying, the tears mingling with the river water as he fought to keep his eyes closed and keep breathing. He tried to resurface for air but something was pulling him down, a drowning passenger or the water current?
As the tremendous force in the water kept pulling him downward, Badal recalled that he was in the arms of the mighty river Padma. Then he thought it was Mishty pulling him closer to her. There, his mother were staring at him with all the worldly love that he had known. He tried to swim against the mad tides of the mad river, but the force of the water, the wind and the rain: all were too strong against his failing strength. Badal kept hoping, was there something to cling on to while the storm was over? Then, he was screaming for help. Only the shrill cry of the wind seemed to answer him.
The storm raged on, howling and scowling like an evil spirit. Badal continued to thrash around the water, going up and down. By then, the launch had started to sink and he caught glimpses of shadowy figures of people from the launch jumping into the river. Human cries filled the air above the shrill of the wind. Extreme fatigue caught on as Badal’s hands and feet fought to keep his body above the water. He was caught in a tug of war, the water was pulling him down and his body was trying to keep afloat. His eyes were closing but his senses still wondered, will he ever see his Mishty with a scarlet sindoor on her forehead? Suddenly the sindoor was washing away from Mishty’s forehead and it settled on his heart. It was a huge, scarlet mark on his heart. The color from the sindoor made the water all red and the blood- red water was pulling him down.
It must be Mishty calling me to her arms, thought. Badal as he let go of himself to the arms of his beloved. The mad river was calling out to him, come to me, come to me my love, here is Mishty…
Tulip Chowdhury writes from Massachusetts, USA.