In the Arms of the River
Dark clouds raced across the vast sky. Badal, a young man in his early twenties was traveling on a launch towards his home in Barisal. The monsoon’s rain was at its peak and it rained incessantly. Sometimes the rain was playing with passing phases and sometimes there were downpours. The world seemed to be a soggy place with the frequent wet days. The soft wind blowing over the river was cool and soothing.
Badal stood at the entrance of the upper deck of the large launch. His dark eyes held dreams and a smile played on his lips. A handsome young man, he was feeling happy with daydreams fleeting across his mind. He was going to his village Kaliya, in Barisal. The blue and white launch, Cynthia was carrying him along the mighty river, Meghna. It was one of the biggest rivers in Bangladesh. Sailing on that river was in that time of the year was stressful. With heavy rainfalls, the river was full and the current was strong. The rain didn’t worry Badal much since the sky was a bit cloudy only on the day he was traveling. The occasional gusts of wind reminded him of storms but the sky did not have the reddish scowl that comes before a storm breaks out. The weather was gloomy but there were no hints of a storm or heavy rain.
Badal was thinking of a sweet face that will soon have a scarlet bindiya on the forehead. He was thinking of Mishty, his bride to be. The placing of the shindur ( vermilion color) on the mid parting of her hair and the bindiya ( round spot on the forehead) would mark the beginning of their wedded life. Badal could imagine how beautiful Mishty would look in her bridal attire with the forehead marked with the round scarlet color.
“Rain cannot be stopped on rainy days,” said Badal speaking out his thoughts. As it started to rain and raindrops fell around him, he was humming a happy song. When the rain drops struck the deck the sounds of “Pit…pit..pitter..pit…” sounded like music, a sweet song in his heart.
Badal’s face was radiant and his eyes held a dreamy look He was finally going to marry Mishty. His future father-in-law had not given his consent until Badal was settled with a good job as a supervisor in a garment factory. His lean, handsome features had attracted many female workers who worked with him at his factory in Dhaka. But Badal was firm and never yielded to anyone. Mishty lived in his village in Barisal. The meaning of Bangla word mishty was sweet and Badal thought it was so true for his Mishty. She was all good and sweet in nature. They had grown up together and she was beautiful beyond her looks. There was tenderness written in her eyes and her face was heart shaped. The pert little nose set above the wide generous mouth gave her face a look of extreme sweetness.
As the launch sailed, the occasional heaving from the waves grew in frequency and were higher. The waves, Badal noted were growing larger. He looked at the passing boats. Most of the large, open boats carried passengers. Some smaller ones were loaded with water hyacinths that the villagers fed their cattle with. Two large, open boats carried piles of earthen- wares. From one of them, a boatman was singing away folk songs that touched the hearts with their sweetness. Badal felt happy as he listened to the songs as he quietly watched the far away villages outlined in the horizon. His thoughts wandered. How far away was Kaliya and how far was his home? And how long before he can reach Mishty?
A gentle smile played on Badal’s lips every time he remembered his bride to be. Nostalgia stirred his heart on thoughts of the youthful days when Mishty and he used to share long lazy afternoons under the mango trees, eating juicy mangoes. He recalled the days when she would hide some delicious guavas in the folds of her sari and bring them for him. Finally they were going to get together and build a home. Impatience tugged at his soul all the while he was thinking of his coming wedding and Mishty.
Badal went back inside the launch and sat down. He was glad that he had got a window seat. He could pass his time while he looked out at the passing scenery. The fellow passengers were mostly asleep. They had been sailing for almost ten hours and the small children were restless. An old woman huddling nearby reminded him of his mother. She wore a white sari like his mother and had a kind face.
My mother must be looking forward to my homecoming, I will have to buy her a new sari for the wedding. Badal thought.
There were two toddlers wailing as their mothers tried to calm them with some candies. He looked at the children wistfully.
Maybe, thought Badal , one day I too will be traveling home with my little son or daughter. He liked children and planned to have a big family. He thought of Mishty and how she too wanted to have at least four children.
Thinking of his beloved and their wedding, he remembered that he was carrying gold ornaments in his small handbag for the Mishty. He quickly opened the chain to make sure that the red box of the ornament was there. Things got stolen so quickly on public transports. He relaxed at the sight of the box, wrapped with some brown paper. He was also carrying the red sari that the new bride was to wear on her wedding day. He didn’t forget to buy the red slippers with high heels that Mishty had shyly told him to buy and the red lipstick too.
As the launch continued to progress with occasional blasts of its loud horn, Badal’s thoughts became engrossed with plans for his wedding day. But the launch was swaying harder and harder. Badal looked out. The river looked a bit rough with waves rolling rather angrily. The sky had become very dark indeed. And on the western sky an angry red scowl had appeared. Badal felt a touch of unknown fear in his heart. For that red sky was a hint of a brewing storm.
Why thought Badal, only short while ago there was only the rain in the sky but now the sky looks so angry.
He looked at the far away coconut trees lining the villages on the riverbank. The trees were tossing and turning crazily. The wind must have picked up force and that meant a storm was coming. He felt little concerned. Just at that moment the launch started to heave up and down as if a demon was shaking it.
“The storm must be blowing fully!”. Badal whispered to himself, shivering with anxiety. The wind was roaring and from somewhere an eagle screeched loudly. The bird’s call penetrating through the howling wind seemed sounded ominous. Badal remembered that eagles were birds of prey and they called when death was near. Fear clutched Badal’s heart.
Then suddenly the storm broke out with lightning and thunder crashed loudly. Outside a wall of rain and wind involved the launch and hell broke loose. The violent wind started lashing out against the launch and it started swaying crazily. The sleeping passengers were all awake and all started praying loudly together, calling out to the Almighty.
“How can there be such a storm? The rainy season does not have these sudden storms called the kal boishakhi” ( summer storms in Bangladesh). Badal asked the man beside him. His voice was hardly audible against the roar of the wind.
“Do storms these days give warnings? Weather has changed.” snapped the man. “Here I was going to visit my sick mother and only God knows if I can find her alive.” His bearded face was bleak with worry and his eyes filled up with tears.
Badal thought of river disasters he had heard of so many times, launches, trawlers and boats caught in the storms and capsizing. He thought of the hundreds of people who lost their lives in the catastrophic storms. His heart seemed to stop beating as the launch gave a violent lurch. The vessel seemed to be dancing crazily on the water. Badal took another look outside.
Through the window he could see the huge waves crashing against the launch and it was absolutely dark as if the day had suddenly gone into hiding. The angry whistle of the wind mingled with the screaming of the passengers. Children and adults cried out for help. The launch rocked crazily like a toy. The passengers and their belonging were pitched from one side to the other as the launch lurched viciously on the stormy river.
The idea of jumping into the river suddenly flashed in Badal’s mind. He had heard that some people could be saved from the river. He made a mad rush for the deck. He could hardly move for other people too had started rushing outside to jump into the river. Maybe that would be an escape from certain death before the launch capsized. As Badal finally reached the deck, the force of the storm hit Badal full in the face. The mighty wind seemed to be set on taking the launch to the bottom of the river. Badal heard a voice warning him of coming sure death. Blindingly he reached for the railing of the launch and jumped into the mad river.
Fighting for life in the heaving waters, momentarily Badal had a vision of Mishty in her red sari, she was waiting for him with her arms opened wide. Badal felt the cold water biting his body since he had taken off his shirt that was clinging and making moving difficult. Then he felt something against his bared back. He thought of holding on to the solid form but then shrank with shock, for it was a small body, a dead child. His thrashing hands groped for something to hold on to.
But a tremendous force seemed to be pulling him downward. He recalled that he was in the arms of the mighty river Padma. But then again he thought, no, it was Mishty pulling him closer to her. Then the eyes of his mother seem to stare at him with all the worldly love that he had known. He tried to swim against the violent current of the stormy river. But the force of the water, wind and the rain, were too strong against his failing strength. But he kept hoping. He might find something to cling on to and might still be alive when the storm was over. He screamed out for help. Only the shrill cry of the wind seemed to answer him.
The storm continued with its tremendous force. Howling and scowling like an evil spirit. As Badal continued to thrash around the water, the launch had already started to sink. He caught glimpses of shadowy figures of people from the launch jumping madly into the river.
Drowning voices crying for help filled the air. Badal felt weak as his hands and feet fought to keep him above the water. He seemed to be caught in a tug of war with the water. It was pulling him down and he was trying to keep floating. His eyes were closing but his senses still wondered, will he ever see his Mishty with a scarlet bindiya on her forehead? Suddenly the bindiya seemed to be washing away from his bride’s forehead and settled on his heart. It was a huge, scarlet bindiya. The blazing vermilion from the bindiya made the water all red and the swirling mass was pulling him down, down. It must be Mishty calling me, came his thoughts.
Badal let go of himself to the arms of his beloved, it was not the river but his Mishty. She took him in to love and cherish forever.