A boat ride in the time of elections can throw up a lot to ponder about

Things seem different from a distance. Sitting in Chennai, I had somehow thought I would plunge into election mania as soon as I landed in Uttar Pradesh and be greeted by posters bearing the faces of Mulayam Singh and Mayawati and others who matter in the State. But I’ve already spent two days in Kanpur, the State’s biggest city, and am yet to find an indication, except when I read the papers in the morning, that the State is going to polls — so strict is the Election Commission about its ban on posters and banners.

And so I have been aimlessly roaming the city where I grew up, visiting places and doing things I did in my younger days. Many of the places no longer exist. In place of Nishat Talkies, where I had watched films such as “Tridev” and “Maine Pyaar Kiya”, stands ZSquare, the newest mall of Kanpur designed by the architect Hafeez Contractor. Many other halls, once important landmarks in the city, are awaiting demolition. Kanpur isn’t complaining: it is delighted with the advent of multiplexes.

Some institutions, however, remain just the way they were decades ago, such as the two dosa shops at Parade Chauraha. Back in college days, I would look at my wallet several times before ordering a dosa; but now I placed my order like a feudal lord. Back then, the waiters would be reluctant to give extra helpings of sambar and chutney, but right now, they kept an eye on me to see I ate well.

This time, however, I did something I’d never done before. I took a boat across the Ganga — something I’ve done in Varanasi and Allahabad, but never in the city I grew up. So at four in the evening, as the setting winter sun left an orange glow in the sky, I climbed the boat of Amit Kumar Nishad — a boy of 14, but who could have been 41 — at Sarasaiyya Ghat.

“Since when have you been rowing this boat?”

“From the age of eight.”

“How much do you earn in a day?”

“Rs. 100 to Rs. 200. Today is puranmasi; on days such as this when a lot of people come to bathe in the river, I make Rs.1,000 to Rs. 2,000.”

If you want to know about the Ganga, boys such as Nishad — belonging to the boatmen community — will tell you all: they are virtually born in the river. On the opposite bank, Amit anchors his boat and urges me to take a stroll. On the vast bed of sand, people sat in small groups, conducting various rituals.

I stood and observed one group, curious to see what exactly they were up to. Three women and two men squatted around a middle-aged woman who seemed to be in a trance. Suddenly, the woman became hysterical. She began shouting, while those encircling her listened to her keenly and nodded. From a distance I couldn’t decipher what she was saying, but eventually she began shouting “Gangamaiyya ki jai” and began frothing from her mouth. Upon this, one of the men helped her get up and led her to the river, where the woman threw herself into the water. When she got up, she seemed normal.

I walked up to them and asked them what the matter was. It turned out that they were a family, from a nearby village. They had fallen into bad times — business was suffering losses, family members were constantly falling ill. They were convinced this was the result of the displeasure they might have caused to the gods. And so they had hired this woman, who had special powers to get possessed by the spirit of devi and become devi’s spokeswoman during those hysterical moments.

“So what did devi say?” I asked one of the men.

“She told us that long ago, we had made a vow at a temple, but we never fulfilled it. All our sufferings are because of that.”

Even as I spoke to him, my eyes wandered across the river and caught the floodlights of the Green Park stadium and the tall chimneys of now-closed mills.

One city, but many symbols — and symbolisms.

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012