Ramu sat by the banks of the Cauvery River on the rocky, uneven steps of the Bhiksheswara Temple. The temple surroundings were a silent remnant of the ancient past of his home town, Narsipura, dating back to the Neolithic age. His empty coracle spun around gently in the waters of the river. The Cauvery was swelling with energy following the first monsoon spell. Ramu’s job was to take tourists on a hopping tour from one ancient temple to the other alongside the river banks. Another week of incessant rains and it will be the end of the tourist season, at least for a few months. The sun was blazing hot, but Ramu was used to it. He wore a white toweled turban on the head, while his white shirt and dhoti kept him cool. Ramu knew he was growing older by the day, touching maybe seventy, but he never counted. He probably had a few good years left before the coracle could no longer be controlled by him. There were no tourists today. It had been so for quite a few days now. The younger boys from the nearby villages took up this profession and were trusted more by tourists who couldn’t sit without screaming in the tiny spinning boats. Some of the boys used their broken English skills to lure foreign tourists who paid handsomely for a ride. Ramu sat patiently on the temple steps near the banks just like the herons waiting for their meal in the river.
This was the only source of livelihood for Ramu. He lived alone in the village near Narsipura, having recently lost his wife to bad health, while his two sons chose to settle down and work in a garment factory in Mysore. They never showed up to check on him except during the Dussera festival towards the tail-end of the monsoons. Ramu was used to being the less preferred coracle rider, but he had his own tricks of the trade that he unleashed to attract tourists, especially during such lean periods. Unlike the others, he had customers who came back again just for ‘the’ special ride he offered to them!
As a kid, Ramu used to swim in the river, 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 in a day and sometimes the only way he could be spotted in the village was if someone called out for him at the river banks. He spent so much time in the water that it was like the Cauvery knew him like a mother who knows her child. He knew when the crocodiles arrived, at what spots in the river the current picked up and when it was safe to go to his secret place, an island unknown to anyone else, hidden from the view of the villagers, adjoining a forest, and one that wasn’t easy to reach in a boat. Sometimes, the village boys tried to follow him to the secret place but they couldn’t keep up with Ramu’s wily riding abilities. It was no easy game. This secret, Ramu kept to himself for almost fifty years.
Ramu almost dozed off and was about to fall off the steps as he gained back his footing. The waters were much calmer than ever before. Today 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 ragi mudde, which he got packed every day from a local hotel. The hotel owner was an old friend of his and gave the food for free to him. Ramu picked a shady spot below a huge Arali tree and began to have his meal. Hunger drove him to gobble the first ragi ball and he slowly struggled with the second one, the lack of two front teeth making it difficult for him. As he put the ball again in his mouth, the voice of a woman broke the silence of the surroundings.
“Brother! Is that coracle yours?” she asked.
“Yes, I am the rider of the coracle madam! Do you want a ride?”
“Yes! Why don’t you finish your food? I’ll wait here by the side for you.”
“Oh! Never mind madam. This will take ages to finish with the few teeth I have remaining. My stomach is full. We can get started right away.”
The lady was middle-aged, probably in her late thirties, and wore an elegant yellow cotton saree. Ramu never had a woman tourist ride alone in his boat and that too wearing a saree. It was not an easy thing to handle, but he used to take his wife around and knew all the precautions to take.
“Watch your steps around those loose rocks madam! You may want to carry your slippers in your hands.”
Ramu released the rope of his coracle and held it steady for the lady to climb into.
“Madam, sit a little inside and not lean over too much on the sides. I will stand opposite to you and balance the boat. No quick movements please. Where shall I take you? The usual temples?”
“Brother, take me along a path where there is no crowd. I just want to sit peacefully in the boat enjoying the ride. No touristy places please!”
“In that case, I shall take you to this special place I know. I am famous for offering this ride that none do in the vicinity of this entire block of villages. It will be a calm ride and will help you relax.”
Ramu had not been to this place for a long time. He was more excited to go there, a place he named “Nandavana”. 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 places and their history. Resting her chin on her folded knees, hands tied together, she stared into the open world that the river offered as the coracle slowly drifted away from land and humanity.
“Don’t worry madam. It may feel lonely but this is the most peaceful ride you will get. I was enchanted by Nandavana ever since I was a young boy!”
That evoked a mild smile on her face. Once the coracle coasted along a good distance, the duo reached what seemed like a dead-end. The river narrowed down to a stream passing through two giant trees with girth as wide as a truck. The trees seemed to hug each other at the canopy like two sisters embraced in loving affection. Beyond them, the water was still visible and seemed to grow back to its original size as it winded through a dense forest. Only a human or animal 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 that had a sand bank.
“Madam, we get down here and walk on foot to pass through the trees.”
The lady looked nervous for the first time and Ramu understood. He hid his coracle among the bushes and took a stack of dried coconut leaves to cover the boat from sight. He had this all figured out and set up for the rides. The lady reluctantly followed Ramu and passed through the trees. Waiting on the other side, hidden from sight until he cleared the coconut leaves, was another coracle.
“Madam! This is the secret. Only a few select customers of mine know this and they keep it a secret too. Everyone thinks a coracle can never pass through this place and hence declare my secret ride is a sham. My competition never thought even for a second that all that was needed was a second coracle!”
The lady hopped on to the coracle again 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 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, rare, beautiful, some with pink feathers and a red sparkling beak. The lady lost the gloom in her face. The sights of nature made her happy.
“Madam, 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! Sometimes you find peace if all you do is look at a different place, just turn your head away from the pain in front. It doesn’t take much effort. I found mine when I discovered this place!”
“True! I agree. What else is there for my eyes to feast on? This is such a happy place.”
Ramu steered the boat against the direction of the river flow. They now entered a lagoon with the forest closing in behind them as they moved forward. Towards their left was a cave on top of which spring water flowed like a fountain from a crack in the rocks. The musical notes of the water that eventually snaked its way into the river was mesmerizing. The access to the cave was through a row of black stones laid out in a perfect line. White daisies covered the surroundings while butterflies, orange colored with blue-eyed patterns, large and elegant, hopped from one flower to the other.
“What is this cave? Did you make this pathway?”
“Yes Madam! This is where I come to calm my mind…Let go of any pain I face in life…Listen to my heart…Close my eyes and meditate…Seek happiness…Talk to my lost ones…Spend time with them…Chatter about the good times in the past…Then, I leave the place after gaining more strength to go by with my remaining life. Would you like to sit and meditate in the cave? I can stay 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!”
“Don’t worry madam! These creatures never bother us as long as we leave them alone. I see that you are bothered by some thought. Something that is making you look sad! Spend time in this cave and you will be relieved of any pain in your heart.”
“I didn’t know that my face showed what was going inside of me. I will head to the cave and spend some time in solitude.”
The lady stepped out of the boat and walked barefoot on the stones. She headed towards the cave. The steps had to be climbed up and at the entrance of the cave, she had to bend down and crawl inside. The cave wasn’t dark as expected. 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 that she sat on. 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. Made of sandstone, 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. She sat down in admiration of the idol, almost invisible in the dark corners of the cave, the faint light revealing the celestial form as her eyes adjusted more and more to the place. The lady sat hypnotized by the idol almost like in a trance and proceeded to close her eyes.
As she meditated on the beautiful form of the goddess, she could feel her breath slow down, beat by beat, as the hands fell by the sides and the neck slumped relaxed. Vivid images of her childhood, the lost friends, the games she played on her dad’s lap, her doting mother attending to her illness, the festivities and celebrations, the visits to the temples, fairs and the movies, everything flashed like vignettes of pure gold in front of her eyes. She could sense the smile on her face, the joy that comes from thinking about good things. She even realized how much she missed her own smile for ages. As she drifted away in her thoughts, she saw a faint image in the distance that came closer and closer to her. She sensed her eyelids quivering. But, they calmed once she realized it was her mother. Her joy knew no bounds. She immediately started talking to her.
“I missed you so much. Where have you been amma? Life hasn’t been the same since the time you left!”
“I know my dear child! What mother would like to be away from her children. Not even in her dreams. Unless other ideas of God separate us!!”
The two hugged and kissed each other in longing affection. The lady could feel the soft touch of her mother’s hands on her forehead. Tears rolled down her cheeks. It was sheer happiness.
“Why don’t you come back home with me? I will take great care of you as always amma.”
“I know my dear! I am in a peaceful world, confined to its whims, unnatural and impossible to break away from. But, I am always there for you, ready to protect and serve 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. Go back home my child and do the good things you have always been loved for doing in this world.”
The lady watched as her mother turned back and walked away into the faint darkness of the surroundings. She slowly opened her eyes. The cave was now much darker. She lost track of time and took a while to understand where she was. 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 madam! 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 my only true companion. 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 madam! Even I had a touching moment with my lost wife at this same cave. There is something about this cave madam! It lured me to it when I was a boy. Ever since then, it has been like my secret companion. The temple that my mind always longs to visit…The solution to my grief, the path to my happiness, the abode of reason and the goodness of mother nature.”
“Brother! 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, Sir!”
Both smiled at each other and headed back in the coracle towards civilization. They remained calm and silent through the rest of the journey, leaving the secret place, getting onto the other coracle and heading towards the town. As the boat waded in the now stronger currents, 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 have the willpower to take it 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!”