“This is a game of danger and courage,” the boat-master says in Hindi.
Does he mean “… danger and daring?” The word he uses, “saahas”, walks a tightrope between the two meanings.
We are navigating up the Brahmaputra and the boat-master is reading the river.
The Brahmaputra is a moody river. The path we used in the morning has changed by the evening. Sandbars now rise where water flowed just hours prior. What was deep is now shallow. What was shallow is now deep. With this river, nothing is as it was or as it will be.
The Brahmaputra suffers from short-term memory loss.
“The river was not here ten years ago,” a Mishing man told me as we stood in his sandbar island village. This braid of the river has moved 2 km closer, in ten years.
Driving along the north bank of the Brahmaputra you see futile bridges riding high over fields. The river used to once run there, but has moved away since. Over the years the nature of the Brahmaputra itself has changed. Prior to the 1950 earthquake it flowed deep and spanned just 2 km. Now it runs shallower and sprawls across 20 kms.
Navigating this maze is nothing short of art.
I am on “Akha,” meaning “hope,” — a boat with a crew of doctors and nurses and lab technicians with boxes of vaccines, pills and potions. We are heading to remote villages on sandbars in the far eastern reaches of the Brahmaputra in Assam. This “Boat Clinic” is the brainchild of Sanjoy Hazarika, the man behind the Center for North-Eastern Studies. Funded now by the National Rural Health Mission, the boat will go nine hours upstream to the first medical camp and then another four hours further up, before it docks for the night. The next morning, the medics will jump on a smaller boat to reach a distant Mishing village and conduct a camp there, before returning home.
These far-flung sandbar dwellers depend upon this monthly clinic for diagnosis and medical supplies. The Boat Clinic’s trip the previous month had been thwarted by the monsoon. So it is crucial that we make it to these villages this time.
The weather is bad again. Clouds bulge with rain, smudging into the river. To navigate the river and find deep waters means reading its depths in fifty shades of gray.
Kapilash, the boat master, is in his 60s, with a 56” barrel chest that sits atop short bowed legs with calves of steel. The power in his frame is evident when he hauls heavy equipment aboard with ease. He trots everywhere, reminding me of a rhino. Born on the Brahmaputra, and having lived all his life on a boat, this son of a Bihari boat builder reads the river like no other. He, according to his peers, is the Master of boat masters.
I sit in his cabin, up high above the prow, fascinated by his art. The cabin holds his bed, an assortment of fishing nets (Kapilash loves to fish), net-shuttles, twine, a box of betel nut, another box of beedis (local-rolled cigarettes), his cell phone, blankets, and lifejackets. It is a cozy room, with the best view.
I peer over his shoulder, trying to see what he sees, and fail miserably. He yanks left, the steering wheel wailing in protest, a heavily greased chain rumbling its acquiescence to the rudder aft. The boat turns slowly into a deep grey channel of current, avoiding a channel barely a shade lighter. About half a kilometer ahead I see that we did that to avoid a sandbar, shaped like a crocodile, just hidden from view.
“So darker shades mean deeper water?” I ask, trying to reduce his art to a formula. He grunts. “There are no rules here. It is all experience.” We are near the shore now, the boat straining upstream against an eddying current.
“You see that water boiling?” I look to where he points and see the middle of the river bubbling – breaking into round ripples, spreading, and bursting. “It’s shallower there.” But the middle is not shallow for long. Soon we snake over to the middle because the sandbars are now by the shore.
The wind picks up and alternates between humid blasts and a sticky nip. A mist on the horizon turns into a dense fog and begins to billow towards us. Kapilash mutters under his breath. “You see that kohra? That fog? That is a killer.” He calls to his co-boat master and they discuss the situation, in Bhojpuri. To be engulfed by fog on this unpredictable river, filled with roiling eddies and hidden sandbars, is deadly dangerous.
We have to dock. Kapilash guides the boat off course, towards the shore. But the midstream current is strong, the engine is ineffective in fighting it and this renders the rudder useless. We are pushed backwards.
This boat has no brakes. Pulling brakeless upstream against a current is hard; being pushed brakeless downstream against our will is a potential disaster.
And then there are the logs. The river rushes massive fallen logs from the dense forests of Arunachal Pradesh all along its course. “Put one brakeless boat carried by a willful downstream current in the path of such a log,” Kapilash shudders. He yanks left, upstream, with renewed vigor.
We continue to be taken downstream, but the engine is gaining, the current weakening. Kapilash is half off his seat and all his bulk is behind the wheel. Turn left, turn left, turn left. He points to a mid-grey sliver of current that is imperceptibly brighter than its surrounding waters. The boat catches it, turns upstream again, and chugs on. The Master relaxes. The fog floats away like an apparition and the medical crew heaves a sigh of relief.
We find the village just as the clock holds three-thirty. We toss the anchor and disembark. Kapilash, his fishing nets in tow, goes off to catch us our meal.
We are at a Mishing village, called Phansidiya — a Hindi word which translates to “gone to the gallows.” This was where the British executed folks, I am told. The crew of ten gets off, sets up a tent, and brings out the vaccines just as a line of Mishing women, babies slung over their backs messenger-bag style, troop towards us.
Coughs, colds, fevers, a plethora of skin diseases troop in and out of the tent. Polio vaccines, Vitamin A syrups, measles vaccines, allergy medicines, and tetanus shots are administered on babies, women, village elders. Antenatal checkups are carried out, folic acid tablets handed out.
Three hours on, just as a ‘rosy-fingered’ twilight descends upon us, we move again.
“Fog and Darkness,” says Kapilash. “Two reasons you should never be out on this river.” In a game where you have to read barely discernible shades of grey to survive, Hoods– white or black – are best avoided. But today, to reach Camp Two, we continue to play a game of Daring Courage. The Dark Hood is minutes away now and we are still on the river.
Manoj, a helper, and his 25’ bamboo pole are hollered for. Standing above the prow, Manoj patiently, slowly, methodically prods the river, pushing away shallow lurking sharks of sandbars, periodically calling out to Kapilash to yank left, turn right.
Kapilash peers into the blue-grey-darkness, reading, reading. Does he enjoy this? “I’ve grown old doing this. What’s to enjoy?” he says, throwing his weight behind the wheel again. Right, right, left, right.
We zig slowly, then we zag. We find Camp Two, and anchor at a cove.
The river fades to black.