The old man knows the river well.
He has lived on its banks for some time now.
"Men think they understand rivers," he comments
as I rest in the shade of his mango tree.
"I know better. You must have some tea."
Before I can protest, he is swallowed
by red clay walls and a chipped slate roof.
Downstream, the clear, cold waters of the Chamalya
are engulfed by her hot-blooded sister, the Mahakali,
and the two begin their journey southward
to meet Mother Ganges.
Wood smoke seeps from beneath blackened eaves,
and green rice ripples in the afternoon breeze.
The old man, squatting in the yellow sunlight,
fingers his sacred thread, as if the twists and kinks
contain some kind of coded message.
"The young need to conquer and posses. They
are not content to risk a few paddies along a river.
They build dams to keep her back, divert
her waters and farm her soils."
He clears his throat loudly, and spits.
"The river charts her own course;
she answers to no one.
She will play along for a while, feigning subservience,
only to lash back at her captors when they least expect it."
The Chamalya’s hypnotic verse is no match
for Mahakali’s thirsty roar. These rivers
measure time not in minutes and seconds,
but in centimeters of eroded bedrock,
and bridges built,
and bridges swept away.
A steaming glass of tea is thrust into my hand.
The old man balances a glowing ember atop his clay pipe,
cups it in his callused palms, and inhales deeply.
Smoke billows from his mouth;
the smell of home-grown tobacco stings my nose and eyes.
"Each of us, young and old, rich and poor,
must one day return to the river;
our ashes will mingle with her silt,
and will be cleansed from the earth."
(Note: The Chamalya and Mahakali rivers merge in
northwest Nepal, close to where the borders of Nepal, China and India meet. I
wrote this poem following the 1993 flood that killed hundreds of people in
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