The year 1978 was displayed on the calendar when the family of Gopal moved into Bordumsa, then a small town; his father was an employee of the State government in Arunachal Pradesh. Gopal was in the 3rd standard of school under the CBSE board. During the time nursery schools did not exist – he was slightly over 6 years of age.
With the passage of time, new friendship grew in Gopal’s life in the only government school in Bordumsa, and exploration of the small town began soon after he had taken admission. He and his friends would invade orchards, where guava, pineapple or mango trees were grown aplenty. The government Middle School where he was admitted had a Headmaster, who was a martinet of the highest order. Even a faint distant silhouette of the Headmaster would send shivers down the spine of unruly students, and deter them from conceiving any mischievous project. So, despite the school garden abundant with fruit bearing trees and plants, none of the students attempted any misadventure to pluck even a single fruit.
A river flew at one side of the town – entered at Bordumsa village end, meandered behind the Primary Health Center and LC line end (known thus at the time) and exited near the Gandhi School end. The river was dirty: it had murky water, color resembling that of milk tea with less milk, was devoid of stones or rocks, and so either side of the banks were muddy. At some places, a few water hyacinths used to grow and along the bank, long wild grasses were abundant. Gopal and his friends used to bath and play in the river very frequently. Unless in full spate, the river used to be at most chest deep for the kids; during rainy season the water level would increase substantially at some locations.
For Gopal and his friends, a visit to the river was always filled with rapture; they enjoyed themselves in the river – jumping and diving into it, playing for hours, particularly during the hot summer vacation. They would play pomelo fruit (rebabtenga) as football under the scorching sun of June-July, when the elders in the town would not even think of stepping out of their shelter. No sooner the heat of the sun became unbearable, than the kids would plunge into the river and again play for hours.
When the water level in the river rose after a heavy downpour during monsoon, even a few older boys would join the kids in the river. They would take pride in jumping into the river from a tall elephant apple tree that grew at one bank and sometimes, from the wooden bridge with the younger kids cheering them. The older boys would plunge head first into the river, imitating heroes of hindi movies of the time diving into swimming pools. Gopal was always amused to notice that their taking the plunge had uncanny resemblance of frogs diving into muddy ponds.
No parent in the town would allow his ward to bath in the dirty river: if they discovered the fact, a nice beating back at home would take place in the evening. But for Gopal and his friend, the river was nothing less than a high-class swimming pool. Notwithstanding the peril back home, they would stay in the water for hours and return home with conjunctivitis like reddish swollen eyes, which their parents mistook to be the after effects of playing in the hot sun. Once when he and his friend Raju were taking bath in the river, Raju suddenly looked curiously at him and asked what was the brownish thing that had stuck on his chest. Gopal looked down at his chest and realized that it was a jumbo water leech, which had attached itself on to his chest. He had to pull off the adamant leech with much difficulty and effort, holding it with a leaf of elephant apple. The fear of the leech had prevented him from bathing in the river for about a week; however, with time fades every feeling – be it fear, the temptation of the merriment in the river overshadowed his fear and the next week he appeared by the riverside once again. Sometimes, due to the dirty water, some kids would grow furuncles and rashes on their body and the parents were kept wondering for the reasons of their children getting such infections.
If discovered, the parents of a kid would not allow him to go out of home lest he should bath in the dirty river again. However, the kids were always one step ahead of their parents to counter any prohibition imposed on them. Whenever Gopal or his friends were asked by their parents to run an errand, they would go out, take a dive or two in the river, do the assigned task and then only return home. Sometimes, the parents would get suspicious to catch them returning home from an opposite direction, but the ecstasy of playing in the river was worth the risk he and his friends used to take.
In the school, Gopal’s class teacher took inexplicable pleasure in teaching his pupils in the old vedic ways: he would fancy the word guru for a teacher, take his classes under the shade of a tree with the pupils sitting on the ground and would regularly query them about their having bathed before coming to school. Whosoever had not taken bath, would get a whip on their palm with a cane that the class teacher had kept especially for the purpose. Here, the river proved to be godsend! He and his friends would start for school at about 8.15 am which was just a few minutes away from their houses. At 9.00 am, all the students had to assemble at the school verandah to sing the national anthem and take the being an Indian pledge. In between 8.30 am to 9.00 am, he and his friends would scurry to the river, throw away their school uniforms and jump into it. They would enjoy thoroughly for several minutes, then come out of the water, dry themselves in the morning sun and put on their uniforms back. To comb their hair, they would use burr seeds, (a kind of wild prickly seed) which grew along the riverbank. When the class teacher asked about who all had taken bath, Gopal and his friends would immediately raise their hands – and thus told no lies to the guru! The class teacher would fail to discover where his “agyakarishishyas” had taken bath and failed to notice the red eyes of the kids, which were downcast and obediently focused on their textbooks!
Days passed by, weeks turned to months and months to years. With the passage of time, Gopal and his friends learnt to swim - a necessary skill which would not have been possible but for the river. He and his friends entered their tumultuous teenage years and their visits to the river gradually declined; by the time they were in the 9th standard, it was beyond their dignity to bath in the rivulet. But some other kids of primary school level had stepped into their shoes and kept the riparian hustle and bustle alive.
Years rolled by and much water had flown under the bridge of the river - Gopal had graduated and joined a government service. His family had settled down elsewhere and so, he had not seen Bordumsa and the river for nearly two decades. Once he felt the nostalgia overwhelming and decided to visit the town.
He reached the town and then it started appearing as if his memory had played cruel tricks on him – the town seemed much smaller than he remembered, the rows of eucalyptus trees along the town road were still there, looked different with broader trunks and in a few, the top portions had been truncated – probably hit by storm sometime. His school was now of the Higher Secondary level, but the school seemed desolate, or maybe because he had turned into a stranger in his childhood town. He yearned to see the river and started heading in its direction. He walked the faintly familiar road but looked at unfamiliar faces. He reached the river but could not see the water surface; it was covered with water hyacinths and there was no movement - the water was not flowing at all. His heart ached to see the river of his memory – the river where he and his friends had spent much time of their childhood and learnt the art of swimming. Then it dawned on him, the river in which they had played and learnt to swim – that river was not there. It was a drain !
(If men do not stop polluting rivers, it will be just be a matter of time when rivers are converted to drains !)
(Kabang Morang is a senior engineering official of Doordarshan Kendra Itanagar and can be reached at email@example.com)