It was 1992, my father tells me. I was not old enough to recollect the year, or much of what happened. We would spend summer vacations on road trips to the hills with family friends. The usual pack included 4 parents, 4 kids, a tiny car, and a strong belief that we were going to a place where we wouldn’t melt. I was the youngest and sufficiently wild. If it would not have seemed outrageous to put a leash on a three-year-old human (at least back in ‘92…I believe it’s the norm now), my parents might have considered it.
There was no way to curb my zest for life.
The theme for this year’s trip was God. The Dads took turns and drove for hours at a stretch so the Mums could stop and marvel at popular religious spots and temples along the way. One of our adventures included a hike up to a deserving Goddess’ temple. I can’t spell or remember her first name but her last name presumably was/is Mata. One had to prove their allegiance to the said Mata by climbing 400 steps. Remember, this was more than twenty five years ago, so the world’s tumbler of cynicism wasn’t overflowing just yet. We weren’t hardcore pilgrims but more like victims of FOMO, as one tends to be on road trips. On the way up, my Father and his friend found themselves deliberating the existence of God. You can’t blame my Father for bringing it up. He had been subjected to carrying my weight and tantrums on his shoulders. Apparently, I had thrown a fit and refused to walk on my own after climbing 4 out of the 400 steps. Goddess.
At the 200th step (I’m making this up), tired and weary, my Father playfully said that if God really exists, he would find a gold chain on the next step. I don’t believe in miracles, apart from the one time my dog Rafiki refused his favourite treat (he was sleeping with his eyes half-open and probably thought it was a dream and ate it in his dream and missed eating the real thing but anyway this isn’t about Rafa, shut up, everything is, bye.) My Father did find a gold (goldish anyway) chain on the next step. It broke into pieces with the weight of his walking stick. I have seen it. We’ve all seen it. It makes no sense. I imagine the climb up seemed easier after this incident. My Father was not instantly transformed into a religious buff but the debate had ended, and the rest of the journey was made in silence. Sheer coincidence? Perhaps.
With the stage set to expect stranger things, our next stop was a visit to the ‘ghats’ (a flight of steps leading down to a river) of the sacred river Ganges. Ganga means a lot of different things to many Indians. Every year, millions of people visit Har ki Pauri to take a dip in the river and wash off their impurities. This major landmark is believed to be the precise spot the river leaves the mountains and enters the plains. There are thick chains along the banks of the river meant to serve as anchors for those who insist on jumping in to clean their symbolic dirt.
Ganga is known to experience high currents in its upper reaches especially during the monsoon. There had been a generous amount of rainfall the past few days and Ganga was fierce. Not in the least interested in participating in this cleanse, we were simply a curious audience. The Dads tried to discourage the Mums from walking too close to the water but ultimately gave up and decided to let them take a look while waiting a small distance away.
The older kids including my sister walked in tow with the Mums and were free to move around as long as they remained in sight. My track record in disasters had ensured that my movement was restricted. My fingers were tightly secured between my mother’s fingers, my eyes following and yearning to join the older kids.
My father and Uncle got busy talking about humans and their tendency to defy nature’s warnings, all in the name of religious beliefs. Just as they were talking about how it would be impossible to save someone if they were swept away by the currents, chains or not, they heard my Aunt shriek.
“Meenoo, Aanchal’s gone!”
I decided to take advantage of the fact that my mother was distracted for a fraction of a second and let go of her hand. Excited to finally be free and fascinated by the force of the water, I ran even closer towards it. I was smaller than the gap between the anchored chains and the river. I toppled over.
My aunt just happened to catch a glimpse of my pink frock going into the water. It had a baby print on it - my Mother had stitched it for me. There isn’t much to say about how she felt at that very moment. We can’t imagine it, even if we try. The expression of horror on her face was mirrored by the look in my Father’s eyes.
Had they lost me? They had. My parents are good swimmers but unable to keep up with the pace of their heart and mind, they froze.
There was a huge crowd around us now. Nobody dared to jump in and save me. I was a lost cause. People were tense, and some had already started consoling my mother by telling her that this was the will of God.
It was somehow up to my Uncle to make sense of the situation. And we’re glad he did. He asked my Father to hold onto one of the poles along the banks of the river. He grabbed his other hand, and they formed a human chain. My well-built, half-German Uncle steadily dipped one foot into the river and extended his arm out. He knew the temperament of the river and knew there was a one in a million chance that the high currents would bring me back.
Everyone was praying Ganga would reject my lack of experience in sin. Everything was happening so fast that there was no time to reason.
A few seconds later, my Uncle noticed something rushing towards him. It was difficult to see anything clearly in the strong currents. There was not much he could have done but to have faith. After a few failed attempts at grabbing nothing but air, he caught what happened to be my frock and pulled me out. I was breathing. Alive. The eerie silence was broken by the sound of a collective gasp of relief.
Perhaps it was the force of my mother’s silent but sincere prayer — perhaps it was a miracle.
I found myself in my Father’s longing arms. He tells me that I kept complaining that the water was too cold and that we should reprimand whoever had pushed me in. Storytelling is a habit I probably picked up that day.
The next few months were a trying time for my parents. It was as if the episode that lasted all of 60 odd seconds would take place in front of their eyes in slow motion every single night. What if…? My Mother would wake up with cold sweats in the middle of the night. She tells me she still thinks about it. That she feels guilty for being careless. Mothers, God, same thing.
I remember tiny bits from that day. Or maybe I imagine tiny bits from that day. I spent a good minute under water, an entire world above me, people doing their own thing, with hopes and dreams, making sense of the business of life.
So why am I telling you this? It’s hard to explain how it feels when you hear stories about yourself and how you were almost not supposed to get this far. I was only three. But I’m glad it has been repeated to me several times over, it has gradually established a sense of gratitude for every experience I’ve had, in the past and now. I’m also happy to report I’m finally tamed (sure, why not?). It’s just this. At the end of the day, you will emerge from what drowns you and you’ll live, for now.
Oh, and please do your bit to keep our rivers clean, you may never know which pink frock loses in competition to a packet of Masala Lays.