The Coracle Rider

Ramu sat idle on the rocky, uneven steps of the Bhiksheswara Temple. The aged granite temple tower, adorned by shapely carved figures of Gods and Goddesses, watched majestically over the banks of the river Cauvery. The modest surroundings of his home town, Narsipura, were a poor reflection of once great prosperity. The Cauvery was swelling with strength following the first monsoon spell. Ramu’s job was to offer rides to tourists in his coracle, hopping from one ancient temple to the other decked alongside the river banks. Each had a story to tell of forgotten kings and scheming villains. He narrated them all to his customers like a tireless parrot!
The empty coracle spun around gently in the waters, tied safely to a tree with the help of a flimsy rope. Another week of incessant rains shall signal the end of the tourist season. The river, she could be wild and ruthless, will soon be in a blinding hurry to reach the eastern ocean. The mid-day sun was sultry hot. Ramu wore a white toweled turban on the head to protect himself from the heat. A white cotton dhoti pant covered his otherwise dark naked body. Ramu knew he was growing older by the day, maybe touching sixty or even more, but he never counted. Probably a few good years left before the coracle could no longer be controlled by him.
There were no tourists in sight today. It had been so for quite a few days now. Younger men from the nearby villages took up his profession. Strong and sturdy, they were trusted more by tourists who couldn’t sit without screaming aloud in the tiny spinning boats. Some of the men used their broken English skills to lure foreign tourists who paid handsomely for a ride. Ramu sat patiently on the temple step. He silently watched the herons fishing for their mid-day meal in the river.
Ramu lived alone, having recently lost his wife to poor health. His two sons left home and chose to work in a garment factory in the nearby city of Mysore. They never showed up to check on him except during the Dussera festival towards the tail-end of the monsoon season. Ramu was used to being the less preferred coracle rider, but he had his own tricks of the trade. He unleashed them occasionally to attract tourists, especially during such lean periods. Unlike the others, he had loyal customers who came back again just for ‘the special ride’ he offered!
When he was a kid, Ramu was deeply attached to the river. Every day, he swam in the waters, resting on the temple steps, catching fish, cooking them to eat by the bushes and then continuing with his swim. He swam aimlessly for endless hours like a fish in water. The only way he could be spotted in the village was if someone called out for him at the river banks. The Cauvery knew him like a mother who knows her child. The river protected him! He knew where the crocodiles lurked in the waters, at what spots in the river the current picked up and when it was safe to go to his secret place- an inaccessible island adjoining a dense forest! The other coracle riders never ventured far across the river to reach the island. They assumed it was a dead-end and there was nothing worthwhile beyond that. Moreover, one needed strength to get that far and none matched Ramu’s boating prowess.
Ramu almost dozed off and was about to fall off the steps as he gained back his footing. The waters were much calmer today. It would be a tourist’s delight, except that there were none around. He walked towards the coracle and picked a plastic bag tied on the inside to the bamboo frame. Wrapped in cloth within the bag was his daily meal, two balls of raagi mudde, which he got packed every day from a local eating shack in the village. The shack belonged to an old friend of his who gave the food for free. Ramu picked a shady spot behind a huge Arali tree and began to have his meal. Hunger drove him to gobble up the first soft sticky ball and he slowly struggled with the second one, the lack of two front teeth making it difficult for him to eat graciously. As he put the ball again in his mouth, the voice of a woman startled him. He stopped eating and looked backwards.
“Sir! Is that coracle yours?” she asked.
“Yes, dear! Do you want a ride?”
“Yes indeed! Why don’t you finish your food? I’ll wait here by the side for you.”
“Oh, never mind! This will take ages to finish with the few teeth I have remaining. My stomach is full. We can get started right away.”
Ramu looked on at his customer. She was middle-aged, probably in her late thirties, and wore an elegant neatly-pressed canary yellow cotton saree. Ramu was well aware of the challenges of wearing a saree for a boat ride. It was not an easy thing to handle, but he used to take his wife on trips in the past and knew all the precautions to be taken.
“Watch your step on those slippery rocks dear! You may want to carry the slippers in your hands,” he warned.
Ramu released the rope of his coracle and held it steady for the lady to climb into.
“Child, sit a little inside and don’t lean over too much on the sides…I will stand opposite to you and balance the boat. No quick movements please…Now, where shall I take you? The usual temples?”
“Sir, take me along a path where there is no crowd. I just want to sit peacefully in the boat enjoying the ride. None of the usual touristy places please!”
“In that case, I can take you to this special place, an island that I know. I am famous for offering this ride. It will be a little rough at one stretch but otherwise a peaceful one. It will help you relax.”
Ramu had not been to this place since a long time. He was excited to go there, a place he named “Nandanavana (Paradise)”. The lady looked pale and didn’t show much enthusiasm although she agreed to the ride. Something seemed to bother her as could be seen from the silence she maintained thereafter, even though Ramu went about his usual tourist-guide preaching of the nearby temples and their history. Resting her chin on her folded knees, hands tied together around the legs in front, she stared into the open world that the river offered as the coracle slowly drifted away from land.
“Don’t worry! It may feel lonely but this is the most peaceful ride you will get. I was enchanted by Nandanavana ever since I was a young boy!”
That evoked a mild smile on her face. The coracle spun along a good distance before they reached rough waters. Water splashed from all sides onto the boat. The lady held the boat tight with both hands while trying to protect her saree from getting wet. Soon, they reached calmer waters. Ahead of them, the river narrowed down to a stream squeezing through two huge trees. The trees hugged each other at the canopy like two sisters embraced in loving affection. Beyond them, the river was still visible and seemed to grow back in size as it winded through dense forest. No boat could pass through those two trees!
“This seems to have come to an end! Are we going back that soon? That’s a pretty short ride!” the lady exclaimed in surprise, hoping for a few more hours of relaxation in the river.
Ramu chuckled. As the coracle headed towards the trees, he jumped out into the shallow waters and guided the coracle towards a bushy area behind a sand bank.
“We get down here and walk on foot to pass through those trees. Don’t worry, this is a safe place.”
The lady looked nervous for the first time and Ramu understood. He hid his coracle among the bushes with a stack of dried coconut leaves laid on top. The lady reluctantly followed Ramu and passed through the trees. Waiting on the other side, hidden from sight under coconut leaves, was another coracle!
“This is my secret…Only a few customers know this and they keep it a secret too. Everyone thinks a coracle can never pass through this place. Some even declared my secret ride as a sham. My competition never thought even for a second that all that was needed was a second coracle to continue the ride on the other side!”
The lady hopped on to the coracle and they resumed the ride. She was stunned by the views in front of her. The water was so clear, she could see the bottom of the river bed, colored pebbles smooth and round lay scattered around. Silvery green-eyed fishes swam right below their boat. It was a silent ride. They were surrounded on both sides by forest trees that provided shade from the burning afternoon sun. There were birds that were never seen before, beautiful, some with pink feathers and red sparkling beaks. The lady lost the gloom in her face. The sights of nature made her happy!
“This is the most peaceful place one can ever find! Isn’t it an irony that this isn’t far from the noisy towns nearby but none know about it! You can find peace if all you do is make the effort to turn your head and look elsewhere. It is not tough, right? I found mine when I discovered this place!”
“True, I agree! What else is there for my eyes to feast on?”
Ramu steered the boat against the direction of the river flow. They entered a lagoon with the forest closing in behind them. The terrain now became hilly along the banks. On their left, above the nearest hill, was a cave. From its top, water gushed out onto the bottom. The access to the cave was through a flight of black stones laid out in perfect order. White daisies covered the surroundings while butterflies, orange with blue-eyed patterns, large and elegant, danced from one flower to the other.
“That cave looks beautiful! Who made these perfect steps to reach it?” she asked.
“I did! This is where I come to calm my mind…To let go of any pain I face in life…I listen to my heart, close my eyes and meditate, recollecting the good times from the past…I then gain strength to go by with my remaining life. Would you like to sit and meditate in the cave? I can wait here. Take as much time as you want.”
“Sure. I hope there are no snakes or scary insects in that cave? I hate the sight of them!” the lady said.
“Don’t worry dear! By the way, I see that you are bothered by some thought. Something that makes you look sad! Spend time in this cave and hopefully you will be relieved of any pain in the heart.”
“I didn’t know that my face revealed what was going inside of me! Thank you for the suggestion!” she exclaimed.
The lady stepped out of the boat and walked barefoot. She climbed the wet steps and reached the entrance to the cave. The cave wasn’t too deep. It was just a big cavity in the rock. The roof of the cave had a small opening from where rays of the sun passed through like a white streak of light. In a corner of the cave was a platform made of stone. She sat on it with hands to the side. She took a few deep breaths and looked straight ahead. She failed to notice it the first time, but in front of her, right across the other end of the cave, was a stone sculpture of an unknown goddess. It was carved intricately with the features of the face evidently beautiful; large eyes, a nose ring and the lips closed in a delicate smile. The faint light in the cave revealed the celestial form as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. The lady was hypnotized by the beauty of the idol. She proceeded to close her eyes and meditate. The noise of the waterfall in the background calmed her senses.
As she meditated on the beautiful form of the goddess, she could feel her breath slow down, beat by beat, as the hands relaxed and the neck slumped down. Vivid images of her childhood, the friends, the games she played on her dad’s lap, her doting mother attending to her illness, the festivities and celebrations at home, everything flashed like vignettes of pure gold in front of her eyes. She could sense the smile on her face, the joy that came from thinking about good things! She even realized how much she missed her own smile since ages. As she drifted away in her thoughts, she saw a faint image in the distance coming closer and closer to her. She became alert. She sensed her eyelids quivering but didn’t open them. She looked on and realized it was her mother! Walking towards her with outstretched arms of affection. Her joy knew no bounds. Her heart beat faster.
“I missed you so much!! Where have you been amma!? Life hasn’t been the same since the time you left!” she exclaimed, unable to contain her excitement.
“I know my dear! What mother would like to be away from her children…Not even in her dreams! Unless, God has other ideas!!” her mother said in a serene voice.
The two hugged and kissed each other in longing affection. The lady could feel the soft touch of her mother’s kiss on her forehead. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
“Why don’t you come back home with me amma? I will take great care of you as always.”
“I am in a different world, confined to its whims, unnatural and impossible to break away from. But, I am always there for you, ready to protect you, hug your kids, bless your future…anything I can do to make your life brighter. You and I came together here for that very reason! Now, go back home my child and do the good things you have always been loved for doing in this world.”
The lady saw her mother turn back and walk away into the darkness. She slowly opened her eyes. She lost track of time and took a while to figure where she was. She realized it was just a dream after all! She slowly stepped out of the cave. It was evening and the sun was setting down in the distance. Ramu was sitting by the boat, lost in his own thoughts.
“It has been a few hours child! That is what happens when people meditate in this cave. I hope you liked the experience?”
“Oh, liked? I loved it! I met my mother. You know, I was distraught and broken on the inside as I couldn’t meet my mother on her deathbed. She was everything to me. We led a lonely but joyful life together. But, on a day when my duties as a government school teacher took me away to a faraway village, I lost my mother to an illness that no doctor could cure. I couldn’t be near her when it mattered the most. Such is fate! But, today, I am finally at peace with the loss and have come to terms with the separation. I am like a free bird now. Ready to fly again in this world!”
“It gives me a great sense of pleasure to learn about this…Even I had a touching moment with my lost wife at this same cave. There is something about this cave! It lured me to it when I was a boy. Ever since then, it has been like my companion. The temple that my mind always longs to visit…The medicine for my grief and the path to my happiness.”
“Sir! I cannot thank you enough for this beautiful day! You put a smile back on a child who lost her dear mother. You gave reason for a lonely woman to go back into this world, stronger and happier. I am now more than ready to further pursue my teaching career, and lead a life of fulfillment. Thank you!!”
Both smiled at each other and headed back in the coracle towards civilization. They remained calm and silent through the rest of the journey. As the boat waded in the river, wobbling and dancing to the beating waters, the lady made a final parting statement.
“Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and question papers are not set. But, once you overcome your fear, your grief, the weakness holding you back, you will gain the willpower to take it head on. Unseen forces bring along people, circumstances and opportunities to move step-in-step with you. The exam is passed with flying colors as the answers reveal themselves in front of you. Today, I had the unique luck of passing one such exam!”
Ramu smiled back with deep satisfaction on making yet another customer happy. That is all that mattered to him in his humble life.
*The End*

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