The riverbed was full of slush and mud. Even the sandbanks were full of huge hollows because of the plunder of sand. We could see, a little away, two country boats filled with sand plundered from the river.

In the early 1940s, the Periyar river looked alive, especially on a Full Moon day, its waters shimmering like quicksilver. During March-May, the houses, on either side of the river, sheds, deserted shops and even vacant kennels were teeming with people from faraway places. Some came in large sampan-like boats with pullers and oarsmen and those were anchored on the sandbanks.

Men and women and children happily lived in the boats, whose inside was roomy enough for women to perform their chores. Cooking was done on the sandbanks. On one side of the river, there were acres and acres of sand which dazzled under the sun.

My grandfather used to say that the origin of the river was in the forests of Malayattoor and water flowed down caressing innumerable herbs and thousands of rare medicinal plants so that, when it reached Alwaye, it contained in abundance the elixir of life! He firmly believed that this river would give him good health and longevity. But he died at the age of 59.

From March onwards, all coastal villages of Ernakulam experienced extremely hot weather followed by drought and scarcity of drinking water. Most of the wells dried up and those that didn’t had water that was brackish. That was the reason why people from those areas left for Alwaye in boats and they remained there till the onset of monsoon.

My grandfather had a beautiful house by the side of the river, and the view from there was stunning. On moon-lit nights, I used to go to the terrace and look at the river and the vast sandbanks, with the dozens of boats anchored there. From where I sat, the boats looked like some huge primeval predators searching for prey. The river looked serene and even at the dead of night, people enjoyed bathing in it, and you could hear people washing their clothes on the riverside.

In the morning, the cavalcade of bathers began. Grandmothers herding their grandchildren, with oil dripping from their young bodies, and maids carrying fresh clothes, towels and soaps, in tow, was a beautiful sight. By 7 a.m., the sandbanks were filled with people of all hues and ages, oil oozing from head to feet in everyone. Nobody was in a hurry to do anything; and everyone was careful not to do anything foolish.

The river seemed to know everything about each person. I am sure it warned everyone to shed all bitterness and hatred with his clothes on the sandbank and enter the waters with his mind clean. The river was more for the mind than for the body. When you take a dip in it, you realise the truth. You blissfully forget all worldly cares and come out with the determination to take on life with all its malevolence.

The river carried with it a faint aroma of saffron. Its bed was full of pebbles, with no trace of dirt. The water flowed so fast that, if you floated, it would take you 10 feet away in two seconds. The people who lived in the boats were always in the river, I mean the menfolk. The women cooked food, tended the children and gossiped with other women in nearby boats.

From 1970, we stopped going to Alwaye during summer. In 1980, we sold away the house which had witnessed, along with us, so many happy years. For some years, I had no occasion to visit Alwaye and see the river. In 2001, I went there to attend a marriage. As the wedding reception was held only in the night, I decided to bathe in the river. My wife and son were with me. My God, the sandbank was bare and bald. Nobody was found taking bath. Some persons who were sitting around and playing cards warned us, “Nobody bathes in the river now. It is not water that is flowing in the river, but poison.”

The riverbed was full of slush and mud. Even the sandbanks were full of huge hollows because of the plunder of sand. We could see, a little away, two country boats filled with sand plundered from the river.

Even the countenance of the river has changed. Just then, a terrible stench enveloped the whole area. Even the players stopped their card game and were looking at something huge floating in the river and coming towards us. Some crows were pecking at something sitting on the object. The stench became overpowering. Someone from the riverside shouted: “chatha pothu varunneeee” (here comes the carcass of a buffalo)

(The writer’s email: joserosamma@hotmail.com)

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