When we were young children and spent time at our ancestral house, at times we went to the river to bathe. Not on our own, of course, since I was barely five at the time. Mother, her sister or sometimes her aunt whom we called Kochammoomma (little grandmother, she being my Grandma’s younger sister) were the ones who took my cousins, sis and me along on these trips.
Water had to be drawn from a really deep well at our ancestral home. No motor had yet been installed to pump up water from the well. The water needs of the household was met by the elders taking turns to draw water the hard way, with a bucket and rope.
When there were many of us on a visit, quite naturally water consumption went up. So to save time and effort occasionally we were bundled, off along with all the clothes that needed washing, to the Ithikkara river that flowed some distance from the house.
Before leaving for the river, my cousins and us siblings had our face and head, as also our hands and feet, well and truly slathered with coconut oil. We were then handed our change of dress and a thorthu (thin towel) each, and then off we went in a little procession, to the river.
This was an exciting expedition as far as we, who had until then only bathed within the four walls of a bathroom, were concerned. We skipped along merrily, chattering and sometimes even daring to run a few feet ahead of the elders, only to be reprimanded sharply to stay close to them. The sun’s rays would still be slanting and hence mild as it fell on the trees, the mud walls on either side of the path, the roofs of houses behind them and of course, us.
We usually took shortcuts, down a mud path here, behind a house there. Sometimes we met people on the way who’d stop to ask a few questions. After all mother and us sisters were on a visit. While the adults exchanged a few words, we’d smile shyly back at, to us, strangers smiling at us, and their children eyeing as curiously.
We could see the river well before we reached it, through the coconut trees. It sparkled in the morning sun as it flowed placidly, contentedly. Since the property adjacent to the river right there belonged to family it was a sort of private bathing area for us.
We knew the drill and so as soon as we ran down the slight slope to the water’s edge, we started off on it. Walk into the water, wet ourselves thoroughly, lather soap, then wash, change from the wet ‘petticoats’ (yeah, we wore white vests that we called ‘petticoats’ while bathing!), dry ourselves and wear the the dried clothes we brought along. In between we managed to splash around a bit and got told off by the adults for being too noisy. They meanwhile got busy washing the clothes they had brought as also the ones we had discarded before bathing.
I was terrified of the water, especially the way it made you lose balance when you waded deeper into it. So I stayed closer to the bank, only letting the water reach my waist or may be a little higher. However much mother tried to make me take a dip, I would not. The rest of them would hold their breath and neatly disappear underneath only to come up gasping, gleeful. Not me. the moment I bent my head over and the water touched the tip of my ears, I’d panic. In spite, it was fun, this going to the river for bathing.
One day when we reached our usual place, an alarming and awe-inspiring sight met our eyes. What used to be a clean and clear river was now all muddy. It was no longer a lazy and calm river, but one in a fury and in a hurry. It had swelled to double its earlier breadth and was now overflowing the banks. The place where we stepped down a few feet to reach our bathing area was now wholly under water.
We could see driftwood floating. Other unusual and strange objects could be seen being carried along by the current. I remember seeing a reed mat and what looked like cloth or maybe what was left of a pillow. I listened wide-eyed to how the river could be cruel and carry away whatever came in its way when in this mood. Mother told us that sometimes bodies too came floating down in the current and brushed against people while bathing.
That did it. I refused to bathe in the river that day, not even standing at a safe spot. I was not having any cadaver come and bump against me.
The water level remained high and the current unabated the following days. Besides it rained and how. So we did not go back to the river. Soon after that we left for our new home. When we returned I was already eleven and along with the others, able to help with the chores and also the drawing of water from the well. We had no more reason to go to the river to bathe, or renew acquaintance with the river.
©Shail Mohan 2015