There were six of us in each raft. Not all known to each other. Swapna and I were on one raft with a group of four others. Saraswati was on the other raft with a group of five Americans. Each raft had a Guide who sat at the rear end of the raft, shouting instructions for us to "paddle forward," "paddle backward," or "relax."
Most of us in our raft (except for Swapna) didn't know how to swim, and even before we could board the raft, the Guide had heard all about it. When one of the girls looked at him anxiously and declared "We don't know how to swim," he looked at her with a straight face and replied "I don't know how to swim either." It didn't help that his response freaked her out even more than she already was, and it took many assurances from all of us to convince her that he was only kidding.
All aboard the raft, the six of us looked clumsy as hell, holding the paddles as though they were weapons that would somehow save us from the treachery that lay ahead. Saraswati and the Americans fared much better. Well, atleast from where we were, it looked like they were going places! They had already completed their practice runs on the water. While we, over here, desperately tried to get our act together, which included convincing certain members that we would not be rowing out to our doom.
When we were finally ready to head out, we pushed away from the river beach. All of a sudden, without so much as a warning, our Guide jumped into the water. He was gone. Just like that. We looked on in bewilderment. I'm pretty sure our horror stemmed less from a deep sense of care for the Guide's well-being, and more from a haunting question that we began asking ourselves: "Is this part of some sort of a practice drill that requires us to follow suit?" A member of our group decided to verbalize the concern. To which we all vigorously shook our heads indicating our extreme unwillingness to ever be party to such a practice drill. We gaped at the point on the water where he had gone under, half expecting him to pop right up. And he did! He popped up and clambered onto the raft, with not so much as an apology for having caused us this unnecessary anxiety. I asked him "Why did you do that?" Pat came his jolly reply "To cool down!" Well, I don't blame him. The anxiety on this raft certainly had temperatures soaring.
And then we were finally off. We did our practice runs, memorized the paddle commands with an alacrity that would be the envy of History teachers trying to make their students memorize the dates of the Russian Revolution and such.
Saraswati and the Americans looked relieved. The party had finally begun! But the relief was short lived. A few minutes into the ride, another member from our raft decided she wanted to "get down." "Get down" didn't mean she wanted to get in the water. She wanted to abandon ship and get her feet firmly on safe land. Putting aside our own trepidations about what lay ahead, the rest of us played pacifier and tried to convince her to "look around and focus on the beauty." The Guide had another response. "You're most welcome to get down right here." I don't recall hearing her plea to "get down" anymore after that.
As we approached the first rapid, I remember my heart starting to beat faster as the Guide instructed us to "paddle forward." The water got choppier and the waves began to swirl around us. Will we make it? We shouted to each other in panicky tones, the excitement was palpable. However, the rhythm with which we were supposed to "paddle forward" went to pieces and the panicked members of our group began to crash their paddles into the paddles of those sitting ahead of them. See that's the thing with paddling. You HAVE to be in sync with those ahead of you. Otherwise it's pointless! But "sync" was not to be. So instead of moving ahead, our raft began to head left towards the rocks. I screamed to the Guide "How do we turn right!!?" Mercifully, we stopped just short of the rocks and floated to safety.
After this close shave, the Guide finally decided that it was time for some tough talk. "When you approach the rapids, you must be quiet and focus on paddling. You can talk later, after we pass the rapid!" We nodded sheepishly and promised to be good children from here on.
The girl behind me, however, took his commandment a little too seriously. As we approached the next rapid, she began to shout "Keep quiet, paddle faster, Faster, FASTER!". As if on que, I began to paddle faster. And then, whilst in the middle of swirling foam and turbulent waves, I asked myself, why on earth is she telling us to paddle faster?? And wait, weren't we supposed to be quiet?
As we paddled against the waves, the river took charge of us. Our clumsy paddles seemed so powerless compared to the might of the river as the raft was tossed up in the air, came crashing down, and then began to rise again on a huge wave. The raft rode the wave and we screamed and yelled and paddled harder, only to realise that it was futile because we were paddling in the air. Never mind the paddling; we were in Mother Ganga's hands now.
For me, this was one of the biggest lessons in "letting go". We were tossed about, drenched with waves, and I nearly tipped over the side into the water. Miraculously, though, it felt like we were dancing with Mother Ganga. She gurgled with laughter, with a joy that can only come from the heavens. The roar was tremendous, and musical at the same time. Adrenalin turned to exhilaration. At each rapid, her arms rose up to meet us in a jubiliant embrace. Water has always been my greatest fear, but all I could do at this moment was love it. After all, my life depended on it right now.
"If you want to go into the water, you can!" Now that kind of statement is bound to make a group like ours jump out of our wits! Our Guide made this declaration after we crossed the rapids and were in clear water. I must admit that all this talk of "getting down" and "getting into the water" was starting to make me a wee bit uncomfy.
Jump into the water? But how? With our shoes on? How deep was the water? Like a volley of arrows. Our questions. He patiently answered each one. Including the one about shoes. We could get in the water with our shoes on. The only catch was that we had to hold on to the rope that ran around the raft, for dear life. Or else, the current would carry us with.
The guys sitting ahead of me decided to take the lead and went over. Swapna was next. I knew she would be. She loves water and she had this gleam in her eyes the moment the Guide so much as mentioned the possibility of getting into the water. I don't know how she puts up with my dread of water! When I saw the gleam in her eyes, I was happy for her, but I thought "Oh Crap!" because I knew then that I would have to go over too. How could I not? I mean, come on. There's something known as peer pressure, people!
So here's what I did. I held on to the rope for dear life, jumped over, and with a huge thud that shook everyone out of their wits, including the raft, landed in the water. Freezing water. Deep water. Flowing water. My fear began to kick in, but I pushed it away. I held on to the rope with every ounce of strength as the current began pulling me under the raft. That's when I realised that it would be impossible for us to get back up on the raft on our own. The Guide would need to haul us up.
My fearlessness lasted all of forty seconds.
I soon began to plead with the Guide to pull me back. He nonchalantly stated "you decided to go in, now stay there." I was like, you have got to be kidding me! After many a plea, he finally relented and hauled me up. It's a good thing he didn't relent to our fears so soon. Allowed us to push our boundaries a little. Heck. Forty seconds in deep freezing flowing water is major boundary pushing for me!
Back on board, as we struggled to get back our balance and take our seats, the Guide mentioned that our adventure would be ending soon. I looked around, at the mountains on either side of the river. Forests clung to them like babies to their mother. A dreamy mist had begun to descend on the river in the distance. The river herself flowed on purposefully, rejuvanated from those bouts of dancing that we had enjoyed with her a few moments ago. So beautiful, so fierce, and so gentle.
All at once.
Today I ceased to be separate from her. It was like a grand reunion. Like the kind between the creator and the created, between the lover and the loved.