This short story was written after I was impressed by a massive cleanliness drive in India undertaken by its Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. I wanted to show the importance of that initiative through a story that talks about the World’s most polluted river – Ganga (The Ganges).
BOOK TITLE: SECOND NATURE
The rickety bus struggled to hold itself together on the bumpy highway. The overnight ride traversed the dull landscapes of sleepy villages. Prakrit sat by the open window seat of the bus watching outside. He was on his way to the temple town of Varanasi. His son, Prithvi, cuddled next to him, the head resting on his dad’s chest. Prithvi always wanted to see the mighty river Ganga. He could not make it in the past. He always became sick when he had his summer break at school. This time he was lucky. However, Prithvi’s mother couldn’t join them. She was fragile and sick for the past several months. A wish for drinking the water of the Ganga to purify her body pushed Prakrit to make the journey to Varanasi. Prithvi was ecstatic that he could see the Kashi Vishwanath temple and swim in the pure waters of the Ganga.
Prakrit was a knife thrower at a local circus. He performed in shows as part of a troupe that toured the big cities of Lucknow and Kanpur. This profession gave enough to keep his thatched hut intact but didn’t provide much for any luxuries in life. Recently, he had to sell his cow to pay for his wife’s medication. With his wife now sick, Prakrit was pinched to make more money. She nudged him to seek the blessings of mother goddess Ganga- the sustainer of life and the cleanser of sins, all made possible with a holy dip in her waters. Prakrit was initially hesitant, not believing in hearsay about magical powers in river water. But, he was desperate and hoped the water would do wonders that life on earth otherwise denied him!
The bus came to a weary halt after passing through the busy markets of Varanasi. The father and son got down the bus and stretched their tired bodies. They walked over to a nearby choultry and managed to get free food. The young boy had nothing to eat for the past twelve hours as the blistering heat made the carefully packed food his mother gave stale. The sun was shining bright and Prithvi was already pumped up to see the mighty river. He was always fascinated by the beautiful mythological tales his mother narrated about the river Ganga descending on this earth from the matted hair of Lord Shiva.
The duo walked barefoot towards the ghats narrowly missing broken pieces of glass on black, dirt covered streets along the myriad tiny shops that busily tended to tourists. Prithvi imagined the temple town to be as clean as the river. It was a disappointment. He kept looking back as he walked hastily along. People seated in shops threw trash wherever they wished. Some chewed and spit betel leave juice on the road. As they went down the flight of stairs near the river’s ghat, Prithvi was in for one more shock. Dark, black waters of a massive river calmly flowed in front of him. The watery body was dotted with crowded, colorful boats with patches of shoddy woodwork done to hide their damaged exterior.
“Papa (dad), is this our Ganga maiya (mother)!!?” Prithvi almost screamed aloud in shocked disbelief at the ghastly sight of the river.
“Yes, it is! Why are you shocked? Now, pull your towel from the bag. We will take a quick dip and head to the temple. It can get crowded very soon,” Prakrit instructed his son.
Prithvi sat down on the wide stone steps laid along the river banks. He didn’t want to get into the water and made a deep disappointed sigh. He expected to see a pristine lively river like his mother described. He was dismayed at the sight of littered flowers, baskets, food and scavengers on the shores of the river and beyond. He saw several people bathe and spit into the river. Far away, he saw some people discard a greyish powdered ash they held in a pot into the water. Deep in the misty horizon of the river he saw what looked like a man floating with his face down, a few pestering crows trying to pluck something from him. It surprised Prithvi as he got curious about the careless man swimming aimlessly in the water. Prithvi tugged his father’s hands, pointed at the floating man, and asked what he was doing, only to be angrily reprimanded and asked to look the other way. Everywhere, there was the sight of people and their careless acts of uncleanliness. Among them, there were a few who conducted themselves with care, but alas it was like a rain drop in the ocean. His village lacked several amenities but he expected a bigger city to be cleaner and better. Staring at the moving streams of water with waves raised by the rocking boats in the river, Prithvi felt sick to the stomach. He did not want to get into the water and refused to take a dip.
“Papa, I will get dirty and sick in this water. It is not even as clean as our village tank! Why don’t the cleaners take care of the filth? Why are they calling the river their mother if they have no love in their heart to keep it clean? I will not step in!” said Prithvi with a pained look on his face.
Prakrit looked kindly, sat down next to Prithvi and said, “We are all responsible for making the river better. If we do our part and help someone follow our actions, we achieve the goal of making the river pristine, as it should be. It is a choice that we make as fellow humans. Did you notice the animals on the street? Even they follow what we do. That is how we used to train them in the circus. We are the elite guiding force for betterment in the World and it all starts with each one of us.”
Prithvi liked what his father said but still refused to budge. He showed his father how nobody cared to look at what the other person was doing in the town. They were all in their hurried pursuit to take a dip and melt away through the crowds. None had the time for learning goodness from another person. Prakrit smiled back. When his son even refused to wash his feet instead of taking a bath, he patted proudly on his son’s back for his honesty, uprightness and deep concern. He sat next to Prithvi ignoring the temple visit and the swelling crowd of people around them. He then went ahead and narrated a story to Prithvi.
“In a jungle not far away, a beautiful river, like the one your mother described, flowed past green meadows, flowery trees and rugged mountains. There lived a lion, an old elephant, a pig and two monkeys. The lion was the king, the elephant was the wiseman, the pig was a scavenger and the monkeys were sentries who watched over the forest. In happier days, the river was swollen with fish and abundant water that satisfied the needs of all animals in the jungle. The pig rolled in his own filth and washed himself in the river, never caring that he was polluting it. The elephant drank a lot of water and playfully sprayed on the other animals, never caring about the water going waste. The monkeys watched all the fun and frolic from a tree above the river. Every day, in the evening, the duo climbed down the tree, drank only what they needed, cleaned the banks of the river of the dirt that collected and made sure that the river was always clean. They also dug a pit by the riverbank every day that none knew what purpose it served. This they dutifully did irrespective of the jeers made by the pig. There was a smirk on the face of the lion, who was satisfied that he always got his share of the water first, no matter what. He didn’t care much about what the others got in turn.
For several years the monkeys dutifully did the same job every day while the rest were their usual selves. This continued until things turned for the worse one day. For two years straight, a massive drought nearly dried the entire river and only left a tiny stream of water. The fishes died and not all animals had water to drink or bathe. Several animals lost their lives while the rest rushed to the lion king and pleaded for help. The lion listened to all and realized his mistake. He decided that the animals must keep the river clean and use it only for drinking until the drought clears. However, he also decreed that animals will share the water, will take turns to drink and will do so based on their importance in the jungle.
The lion decided that as the king, he was all-powerful and hence could drink from the river whenever he pleased. Since the wise elephant was considered the smartest in the jungle, he could drink next. The pig made a ruckus about being ignored, but since he was the filthiest of all, he was allowed to drink after all were done for the day. The two monkeys chose to share their water by taking turns at the stream. As usual, they carried on with cleaning the banks of the river to ensure that if rain did fall, the water is retained in the bone-dry soil. They also continued to dig the pit besides the river. Several months passed by with no sign of any rain. As the animals grew desperate, the king became restless. He did not want to let go of his privilege at the river. He decided that some animals would be sacrificed to reduce the burden on the forest. The elephant was wise, but was blinded by the desire to be entitled to the river water. With no solution in sight, he decided that he would pray to God along with a few other animals for the rain to fall. The pig could not survive without his filth. He refused to listen to anyone and secretly drank the water in the night when none looked. The pig blamed God for the misery and cursed the river for not supporting the animals that depended on it. The two monkeys watched this happen for several days. They stopped drinking from the river but managed to get water from nearby bamboo shoots that held water from the morning dew. They continued digging the pit as usual and ensured the banks of the river were well maintained. As days passed by into months, several animals perished. The lion started killing more animals and kept the river to himself. The elephant also died from the dire need for more water to quench his enormous thirst. In his dying moments, he lamented that alas God did not help! The pig cursed God and everyone in sight. He moved out of the jungle. But, he couldn’t let go of his filthy habits. It was later learnt that he met his fate at the hands of some hungry hyenas. The two monkeys built a loyal team of animals, who on realizing the cruelty of their king, sided with the monkeys and helped with digging the pit and tending to the banks.
On one beautiful day, a miracle happened. The pit the monkeys dug nearby the banks was swollen with water oozing from the earth below. The animals who teamed with the monkeys rejoiced in joy on seeing such plentiful water. The monkeys always knew this day was bound to come and had patiently worked towards making clean water available even if the entire river dried up. The lion, who watched what happened, realized his mistake, apologized to the monkeys for his arrogance and lack of fortitude. He then equally shared the water with the rest of the animals and built a stronger bank for the dried up river. Very soon, the rain gods smiled and the river made its way through the jungle again. The careful tending of the banks ensured that the water was not lost, did not break any barriers and sustained life for years to come. The animals kept the water and its banks clean. They also watched out for each other and ensured that everyone shared the water. The river was alive again and so was the jungle and the animals that lived in it.”
Prakrit continued, “A river is blind to the user and the abuser. We people choose to use it for food, to drink, to bathe, for transport and other needs. A river makes no choice; we force our choice upon it. While it is our first nature to survive and sustain ourselves, it is our second nature to protect and preserve what we have.”
“Dear, tell me now. Do you want to be the pig or the monkey?”
Prithvi nodded in approval that he would love to always be the monkey. He held his father’s hand, walked down towards the river and started picking every undesirable trash that he could lay his eyes on. The duo continued doing this for a few hours, encouraging people who were curious or cared to join in to follow their path. Then, they prayed for the health of their family at the temple. Before leaving, Prithvi went to the river, touched the water and poured a little on his head seeking the blessings of the mother goddess. Prithvi headed back home with pleasant memories of a trip that he could never forget in life. The river carried on nonchalant with its own tireless journey.