It took some genuine compulsion from my cousin Manu to pull the lazy me for a swim in Periyar. The water seemed so untainted. The Aluva manalpuram (sand banks) and the Shiva temple which lie a stones throw away were almost deserted, quite unlike what it is during Shivarathri. In the dawn, the manalpuram would have many people who come to do the final rites for a deceased relative, by breaking and immersing the mankudam (sandpot) with chithabhasmam (ashes) into the river. I could see the stones through the sparkle clear water near the kadavu of the manalpuram, and it all seemed so alluring. I walked through those steps and was soon immersed in head deep water. There were some boundaries marked with boulder pillars, beyond which the waters are supposed to be dangerous. People who knew swimming were venturing near those columns and the amateurs were sticking nearer to the steps. I started floating and swimming around, sometimes throwing the plastic balls back to the kids who were playing near the steps. It’s been a real long time since we got a chance to enjoy a quiet bath in the river, with the fresh evening breeze negating the otherwise humid weather. I was quite surprised when a young kid hardly 12 years old, dived into the water and started swimming beyond the stone pillars. He kept on swimming, and to the amazement of all the people in the kadavu (shore), easily managed to carry on and cross the river, which was around 400 meters wide, through that brawny current.
As night started to prowl in from the horizon and shadows set in, the crowd started dispersing, leaving only a handful of people in the river. Sinister clouds were gathering around from the west, and the menace of shower loomed around in the horizon – the monsoon in Kerala was predicted to be earlier this year. The reflections of the gloomy sky darkened the clear water that was flowing around me. I must have floated around for a while, facing the dark skies above watching the clouds move by swiftly in the gushy wind and abruptly, the torrents from heaven started pouring in tons. The river that was flowing like a beautiful country lass started to scuttle profusely like a model on a pageant. I watched the lights inside a train starting to move in the railway bridge at a distance, through the hazy weather. I could hear the rhythmic rattle echoing through the subtle surface of the river, and noticed that the train looked like a stretched snake moving rapidly to catch its prey. As I fell in love with this vicious flow of the river, as I was energetically swimming against that surge almost like a challenge, as I started to dissolve in that looming obscurity and silence, as the chilly gust started to freeze my mind into a single photo frame, I felt myself gripping my toes on a piece of sand pot which would have carried the ashes of a deceased body (chithabhasmam). In the shock, I started to move away, but I was too late. A hand grabbed me from the darkness of the water below. As I tried to scamper my way out, I saw the smile in the cold boyish face of my friend who had drowned in that river 12 years back. I instantly recognized him with panic, I felt the weight of his hand on my shoulder just like he used to do in school, I sensed the world shrinking, and my mind was dazed in that thunder. When I broke free and swam frantically for the steps, I noticed through the darkness and heavy rain that the distant yellow lights from the train were disappearing and the rattling sound was fading out. Panting heavily as I stood on the soggy sands of the manalpuram, I noticed the yellow boards on those boundary pillars with poems written on them. Through the downpour, I read those chilling Malayalam lines. ‘Little do you know about thrill and enjoyment! Little do you know when you take pleasure by going beyond boundaries. Little do you know how the serene tranquility can turn into brutal vigor. Little do you know about the tears that have flown into this river. Little do you know what you lose, unless you suffer. Little do you know the pain and void that death creates. We know it more than you. We are the souls that sank into this river in a small pot. We have seen it all’
I was poignant in that depressing silence. I walked back with Manu to my car as the heavy rain evolved to a light drizzle. It was a bit late into the night, but the lamps in the Shiva temple were still burning hazily in the gust. As I drove through the ‘Marthanda Varma Bridge’, I glanced down at the manalpuram - The leaves of the banyan tree in the temple which were lashing against the fierce gushing wind was flagging around peacefully, the wild flow of the river had turned into a calm walk and I realized that the unruffled beauty of that maiden named Periyar was luring me again. The traffic signal ahead indicated green. I kept going, I could not turn back. And underneath the bridge, even now, quiet flows the river.