Flowing out of the Hirakud reservoir, the Mahanadi flows south for some distance, through Sambalpur and then to Suvarnapur or Sonpur, before turning eastward towards the Buddhist district, passing the hills and forests of Tikarpara and going on to Nayagadh district, and finally to the sea through the plains of Kendrapara and Jagatsinghpur, which are split by rivers running through them. All this comes much later, however. The town of Suvarnapur is drenched in the love of many rivers. The Tel is the longest tributary of the Mahanadi, renowned for being a witness to the archaeological history of southern Kausala. IN addition, the Utei from the tribal land in the south, the Sukhtel – which cuts through drought-seared Bolangir, and the Ang from deep within Bargarh-Padmapur all flow into the tributary. All these tributaries merge with the Mahanadi north of Sonpur; the place where the Tel joins the bigger river is named Vaidyanath. Sonpur was once a subdivision in the district of Bolangir, but it has been a full-fledged district for the past 15 years,
The new district does not appear particularly ostentatious. The town is as rustic and haphazardly laid out as many other sub-division towns. Old and new houses adjoin one another, there are open drains and vagrant bulls. Vegetables sold on the roadside. Lanterns in ramshackle huts turned into shops. When you look at Suvarnapur today, you won’t know how bustling a kingdom it once was, how many histories of victories and defeats have been written here.
But Sonpur has the Mahanadi. Like a decaying zamindar family’s classic sari spun with a single gold thread, the river has brought the murmur of running water to the district and town, to villages and markets, it has brought irrigation with the Bargarh canal system, greening the areas in and around Binka.
Walking down the narrow lane to the ghat at Tentultala, Subal discovers this extraordinary sight – or achievement – almost every day. This river. It is no lifeless geographical landmark, it is a beautiful, magical and distant woman from his own family. There’s some old human habitation in this part of town – the lanes are dirty, uncared for. The stone layers have peeled off, with mud and slime accumulating. The house that Subal lives in is an old, small building, the bricks exposed. Subal and his family cannot afford a higher rent, and the landlord hasn’t bother with repairs. It’s almost as though he wants the building to collapse on its tenants.
There’s just the one room, with an area for cooking next to it, separated by a wall rising halfway to the ceiling. The walls are decaying, untouched by paint for many years. From the half-covered cooking area, Gouri, Subal’s wife, has told him loudly, we’re out of cooking oil. She always reminds of something or the other they’re out of when he’s about to leave – rice or cooking oil or spices or kerosene or daal. Only the absence of rice and kerosene affects Subal’s practised ears, the other shortages do not come in the way of daily life.
Satya sir has been responsible for Subal’s interest in living in a city. Professor Satyendra Pradhan. Subal studied literature in college, where Satya sir taught the history of language. But his lectures effortlessly included geography, archaeology, social history and economics. Even a small town can contribute to the life of an intellectual. Like others, Subal too is attracted by magazine stalls, bookshops, libraries, DTP centres, movie halls and gatherings over cups of tea or coffee. He has neither much money nor many friends – but it is the town that Subal considers his sphere of existence and thought. It is no longer possible to go back to the dilapidated home in the village and live a starving existence with this parents and brother. He prefers his hungry life in the town. His mind, at least, gets nourishment. Yes, there’s the river too. As Subal stands at Tentultala Ghat in the morning, waiting for a long day of unemployment to be born, the blood in his veins begins to agitate in despair. He is not remotely adroit with words; nor does the stirring magic of poetry infect his thoughts. But still, Subal does write some verse these days, alongside his prose. This is the upheaval of the anguish that flows from the bereft feeling which confronting beauty leads to. Subal hesitates even to acknowledge it to himself.
Satya sir is coming today. It takes a lot of time to negotiate the roads crowded with cycle rickshaws and cattle. So the ghat is the best location. Satya sir has retired from teaching and lives in Sambalpur now – he doesn’t care to settle down in a single place. His students, who live in different places in eastern India, keep inviting him, or perhaps an educational institution – he’s happy if his ticket is paid for, he goes wherever he’s invited, to read a paper or give a speech or just meet people.
The teacher loves the Mahanadi. He often spends the night on the large passenger boats moored on the river. On moonlit nights – when the moon is full or soon afterwards, during torrential rains or in spring or in autumn, when the moonbeams and the waves create ethereal beauty – Satyendra loves gazing at the water. Sometimes he asks the students of Suvarnapur to join him, listening to them as they read poetry. Subal has visited him too. Satyendra has taught him with great care the histories of the temples and ghats and kings of Suvarnapur. Such knowledge is of great use for all sorts of research, it even earns money when offered to scholars doing their fieldwork. Satya sir keeps a quiet eye on opportunities for Subal to earn some money. He often initiates these himself, passing on Subal’s address to travellers and researchers.
Satya Pradhan’s hired car will reach the ghat at Tentultala along the road that leads into the city, running parallel to the river. This is where the town begins, and, along with it, the traffic congestion.
This time the teacher has told Subal, I want to travel on the rive by daylight, hire a boat. That is what Subal has done, telling Gandaram the boatman to make himself available, although he has paid no advance, which is why he has felt a stab of anxiety at dawn, what if the boatman does not come?
How beautiful the expanse of the river is in the morning. Across the water stretching to the horizon, the golden hue of the sandbank on the other side is visible. The clouds are reflected in the clear water. Near the bank the water is dark green – is it green or emerald – lightening gradually to sky blue. Rocks rise out the water, large or small, enormous at some places. Although not visible here, strong rock structures can be seen in the north, where the Tel flows into the Mahanadi. Satya sir says the rocks on the river-bed at Sambalpur are much narrower and steeper. Why? Is the current stronger here, tormenting the rock, cutting into it deeply? Water cutting into rock is an unusual image, a strange thing to happen. Water was force, rock does not, rock is helpless. Long, narrow dinghies lie in parallel at the ghat. The boatmen take as many as forty or forty-five passengers across on them. It might look fragile, but it needs four people to row these ‘Kausli’ dinghies or ‘dinghas’ when the river swells in monsoon, and the current becomes sharper. Even slimmer dinghies ply in the Mahanadi – they’re called ‘Huli donga’s. The boatmen cup their hands to use their fingers as oars, which is why these small craft named after fingers, the local word for which is ‘ahuli’ or ‘huli’.
‘Ho…oi Sobalbabu!’ It’s clear from the sound of his voice that the boatman Gandaram Nayak is drunk out of his mind. He drinks even in the daytime, for he cannot row otherwise. He is dressed in a short-sleeved banyan and a dirty dhoti, with a gamchha with a pattern of checks wrapped around his waist. Hereabouts people wear rings and amulets made with nails from boats. When people need them they turn to the boatmen. These rings are certain to solve difficult, even impossible problems, such as a daughter who can’t be married off because she’s too old. Where does this power come from? From the fact that since the boats go across the river, the iron on them can help overcome problems.
Getting out of a wheezing Ambassador, Satya sir crushes Subal in his arms. Gandaram is staring with a frown, not sure whether to smile or not.
Let me introduce you, Satyendra says after Subal had recovered his joy, this is Smita Khujur, from Jharkhand. She teaches in Delhi, having heard of our beautiful river she’s come to see it.
Subal stares at Smita in astonishment. She’s as dark as he is, tall, her hair piled high on her head. Not a trace of jewellery anywhere on her. The coarse handspun sari she’s dressed in suits her beautifully, on her left wrist she wears a watch with a broad black band. Smita is gazing at the river, charmed. Then she extends her hand to Subal. His palms are perspiring in embarrassment. Smita says, I’ve seen this river even more beautiful in Chhattisgarh, where it is born, but here it looks completely different.
The Kosli donga takes a slight turn and begins to move northward. Gangaram sits at the prow, his helper at the stern, Smita on a plank in the middle, with Subal next to her, forced to sit there by Satyen, who’s facing both of them.
The water is green, the river flows pleasingly. There are fast currents even near the bank, giving rise to waves. The gurgling of the water is soft but constant. A bird is calling in the distance, a continuous, metallic sound with occasional pauses. Leaning to her right, Smita really dips all her fingers or ahulis in the water. The green water flows over them, the sunlight making dappled patterns on the surface. There aren’t any crocodiles, are there?
Before Satyendra can answer Gandaram exclaims, crocodiles, here? You can find them to the south of Satkosia, there’s a crocodile project there.
Smita turns to look at him. Gandaram has unhealthy puffiness beneath his eyes and on his cheeks, induced by alcohol. His forehead is wrinkled, though his jet black hair makes it difficult to guess his age quickly.
This isn’t his real name, Satyendra tells Smita with a smile. He speaks so softly that only Subal should be able to hear him, but because the boatman’s attention is on everything except rowing, he speaks up loudly.
My father’s name is Neelkantha. My parents were filled with fear after losing two children in a row, a daughter and a son. So my mother sold me to a Ganda or an untouchable when I was a baby. I have been called Gandaram since then. I was sold with the faith that death will not summon a child touched by an untouchable. There is even the practice of passing on a child to a washerman in this area.
Smita laughs. A water partridge flies past simultaneously, calling out, twaang twaang.