The sound stayed on in the ears even when the river was lost from the sight and the environs. It kept on ringing in the minds as if to deliver an incipient thought, which would have otherwise withered away by the stark realities of another day. The mind was also fortuitous to have deciphered the message of this constantly flowing river, perhaps the essence of life itself, peeking inside, rattling the veins with its frankness, bent to offer a sacrifice for the humanity.
The riverbed could be seen at places near the banks and the pebbles and stones shined in the clarity of the fresh water. The color changed throughout the day as the clouds played in the winds and the green surroundings mused to comply with the festivity. The fishes could be seen, but not in great numbers, as some of them paired to explore the flora or whatever little that remained uninhibited by the exploits of the stronger habitat.
The river wasn’t alone. It carried a thousand families of humanity and a few hundred species of fauna along with it, almost nurturing each kind with a difference, caring for everything temporal or otherwise.
There were not one but two rivers, Bhagirathi and Bhilangana. The twosome flow met upstream about a hundred miles from the place where the town, Tehri was situated. The town was the meeting place of these two rivers, born about a hundred and eighty four years ago when the first settlements took place.
The people came from the North, not being able to cope with the strains of the cold and the bitter winter. They came in search of some green place and found the land adjoining the river soft and muddy, which was rare in the places that they had lived. The rivers attracted them and the confluence in particular and the oldest of them all, Bharataram, named the place Tehri.
He almost looked like a sage. His hair, which resembled a twisted rope had turned brown and had faded, was long. He wore beads around his neck like a necklace and there were bangles in his right hand and all this accoutrements rattled as he walked with his huge wooden stick thumping it on the hard rocks to proclaim his almighty presence. The people gathered around him when he sat under the Banyan tree and read from his books that looked more like some prehistoric artifacts unearthed by a penitent archeologist. He strained to read the handwriting but when he explained he was far more vibrant with emotions, his words reverberated more than what the guttural sound meant.
“This land will not last. It will die, it will be washed away…” he predicted in his customary tone.
“It will die two hundred years from today. Nothing will remain in this place. The river will stop here…. ”, he would continue as the crowd would listen in rapt attention.
Someone would ask, “Baba, is there a way out of this?”
Many like him were concerned about this impending tragedy some two hundred years later and wanted to listen to the sage if at all there was a glimmer of hope for the posterity and its children.
“Men will fight it out and women will lead till the very end. But at last the earth will devour them all. But it will happen two hundred years from now.”
The audience did not take these two hundred years as a long time. It appeared to them as if it was the next season knocking at their door and the wind was chanting the premonition with renewed vigor. The pallor in their faces reflected the plight of their future generations confronted by the tragedy.
Someone cried out, an old woman in tattered clothes. She had come with her grand child who was sick. She wiped the child’s forehead as if to comfort him. She said in her soft voice, “ Baba, my child is down with fever. Can you help me?”
Bharatram was confronted with a genuine issue at hand and he condescended from the imaginary problem, the aura of which had a sweeping effect on his self-chosen disciples. He kept his hand on the child’s head. His hand was warm while that of the woman’s was cold. The child immediately reacted by opening the eyes. The crowd around who were almost expecting a miracle to happen cheered. Baba took out some green leaves from his cloth bag. He carefully selected one leaf, which was more purple than green from which he tore a small sample. He opened the mouth of the child and tucked it in so that it stayed on the tongue for a few minutes.
He waited for some time and then he cleared his throat.
The next day the child stood up and a couple of days later the old woman came back to Bharatram.
The people believed the man. The next generation believed him. The small event of a day became history.
It was an overcast day, in October, in the year 2000.
The druggist’s shop had just opened. It was the only shop left after the new one had closed down a year back. Bapu, the owner was a lean man in his sixties, who managed everything with his son, Mahesh. Business was not very encouraging and it was waning, the last two years in particular.
The demonstrations in front of the district collector’s office, had been more violent than the expectations. It was sparked by the police presence and the sudden entry of a large van with masked policemen with AK-47s.
The woman leader, who came from Delhi and the old man, addressed the gathering. The peasants and their family came and the small segment of fishermen. It was not even two hundred people.
The aftermath saw a complete awe-struck neighborhood gather in the valley. The importance of the meeting was felt by one and all.
The first customer to the druggist’s shop was an old man who had been badly bitten by the police. He had been to the gathering addressed by Bhushanlal. He knew nothing about the agenda.
He asked for an antiseptic ointment. Bapu picked it up from the lower shelf and looked at the expiry date. The bottle had expired for more than six months. Usage of this type was very limited in Tehri, but now the times were different. Bapu noted the name down in his small register he maintained to monitor stock outs. To the old man it hardly mattered what the expiry date was, knowing nothing about medicines.
He sat down on the bench in front of the shop. His arms were bruised and there was a place where the blood had clot. As he was looking at his wound, Bapu came forward and took his seat beside him.
He was born by the side of the river in a small log hut built by his father who was a part time fisherman. His father used to go to the forests to cut down trees and made his living with the earnings on the hourly rate. His mother died when he was just three and he grew up on his own by the river.
He considered the river sacred and worshipped it as if it was his creator, his mother. In his dreams he floated on the river right up to its confluence. The sound of the rushing stream of water was a constant reminder of his early days of life. He worked in the small fields that lay by the side of the river and the Mahajan gave him enough to live on. He married when he was just twenty and had a lone son.
He had seen the coming of the foreigners some ten years back. He had seen them coming in ones and twos and then in numbers. He had seen them tasting the soil, squatting on their haunches, taking measurements in small and large instruments he had never seen before. This had gone on for years when finally a year back the news spread that they were going to build a dam on the river.
He knew not what it meant to their lives. No one had known till one day there was a meeting held where all the people of the town were assembled. The man from the government made the first proclamation that the whole place was to be evacuated for the building of the dam. They were to be moved miles away where a new town was to be built.
There would be no river there, just a barren piece of land.
The lone news reporter of Tehri had a sleepless night. He had been to the gathering and had witnessed the rampage. He had been told to cover every bit of the incidents and take pictures. But his camera was snatched away and nothing remained of his bag.
He had vouched never to take sides. He had followed the events right from the beginning. He had heard both sides of the stories regarding the building of the dam and its utility for the entire Uttaranchal on one hand and the inescapable plight of the entire community who were to be displaced.
He knew that they would be displaced of their livelihood and what it meant to the next generation as well. He stopped on his way to the druggist’s shop.
He sat on the small bench and took out his notes when Bapu asked him,
“What use will it serve when the end is so near?”
Ajit looked up and took time to answer.
“My work is to serve people with the truth. I have learnt that this place is on a zone where earthquakes can take place and I am going to write about it. Imagine someone building a dam on an earthquake prone zone?”
“Baba was right then anyway, whether by the water or by the earth, Tehri will die anyway.”
“But we are still sixteen years away from it. Why will it die now?”
The district collector’s office was beaming with activity.
Bhusanlal was sitting in the corner looking through the window. Gouri sat a few seats away. The two were surrounded by a group of journalists from Delhi. Gouri talked most of the time while Bhusanlal listened. He gave a valedictory address when Gouri finished.
“Our fight is against these multinationals who are going to make billions of dollars from this dam while the people have to be evacuated to places where you have barren land all around with little chance of any livelihood around.
“And what will the dam deliver? Power to Uttaranchal? Water for irrigation?
Come on, there have been twenty three dams built in the last forty years around the country. Have they given water, have they given power? No, most of them are utilized for a meager fifteen percent of their installed capacity for the full year.
“We question the integrity of these decisions? We question such colossal wastage of public money, laundered to foreign hands…
The journalists were tired at the end taking notes. Some of them found the same words getting repeated from the interview taken at Delhi.
Gauri finally exploded with her last salvo.
“The seismic line goes through this place on the map. This place is prone to earthquakes. The last one happened some sixty -three years ago. But can you take chances with investments of this nature?”
The district collector entered with his small entourage and raised both his hands. He requested the crowd of journalists to disperse.
The meeting was brief.
There were only three in the room when the exchanges were sorted out.
The two left in the car, which took them to the station were the train waited for them to board for Delhi. The slogans died down as the engine sounded. The group slowly dispersed through the gates.
Ajit did not leave. He sat on the bench and looked at the tracks.
The sun was low on the horizon. The colours of the trees were dark. The wind blew silently.
He could see the cracking of the concrete, the sudden burst of earth and rock falling incessantly from the majestic heights. He could hear the sound of the earth and brick and mortar, the gushing of the concrete and cement coming down and down. He could see the flash over the water and then the waves hitting the banks like a tidal blow.
He slowly walked home. In that long circuitous route he never remembered what was said in the gathering or in the interviews.
He looked at the almost complete dam rising from the waters from one end of river to the other.
He was looking at a high cemetery.