“Don’t you dare take the lazy way… Whatever you do, it will be you who do.” – John Steinbeck
I push through a bamboo grove to the river and sit beneath a teak tree. I write my diary and study my map, a computer print out of a survey from 1912. It’s the best map I managed to find for this area. Having a river to follow provides a tangible, constant thread to the route. It automatically gives purpose and direction to the walk. My river is small and boisterous now. The contours are tight and curling. Earlier I passed a magnificent waterfall, the noisy blast an invigorating change from the usually sedate flow. Upstream from this wide, gentle bend is a red and white striped temple and a deep gorge jumbled with gigantic boulders. Cormorants dry their wings on the bank. Tucked amongst the tangled tree roots are small shrines to Shiva and flame-blackened statues of cobras.
There is a low babble of chatter from people bathing and washing clothes. A girl is singing. Old, paunched men with worn bodies are praying. They bathe then bow their heads. They lift their arms to the sky, muttering all the while. A beautiful young woman stoops to collect water. She strains to lift the full container. Shaped like an amphora it fits snugly into the curve of her hip and I watch the bones in her back ripple as she walks away.
This scene has played out, virtually unchanged, for centuries. It has taken place every day of my life without me ever being aware of it. India’s enormity reminds me how small the sphere I live my normal life in is. It alters perspective. The ageless river reminds me that my own time is fleeting. This tableau will take place again tomorrow when I have walked out of it and on thousands of rivers that I will never see, right across India, on every day of my life.
I find myself wondering whether any other tourist has ever sat here before. I doubt it. I ask not as a member of the Lonely Planet generation boastfully ticking off experiences and trumping others’ tales. I ask because I had wanted a journey far from the picture postcard views and picture postcard sellers. I wanted to feel that I was discovering places for myself rather than following a prescribed path. And I am delighted how easy that was to achieve. I am really enjoying my own slice of India. It is fresh, exotic and unfailingly fascinating.
My river has changed so much since I began walking. The meandering delta near the coast, its agricultural irrigation canals and religious bathing ponds (kalyani) feel a long way away now. I’m getting there. I look down at the water flowing in the direction I have come from and imagine how long it will take to flow all the way to the sea.
“Take your time,” I urge the river. “Enjoy it. I did.”