The Ghaghra In Spate

By Keki N. Daruwalla

And every year
the Ghaghra changes course
turning over and over in her sleep.

In the afternoon she is a grey smudge
exploring a grey canvas.
When dusk reaches her
through an overhang of cloud
she is overstewed coffee.
At night she is a red weal
across the spine of the land.

Driving at dusk you wouldn’t know
there’s a flood ‘on’,
the landscape is so superbly equipoised-
rice-shoots pricking through
a stretch of water and light
spiked shadows
inverted trees
kingfishers, gulls.
As twilight thins
the road is a black stretch
running between the stars.

And suddenly at night
the north comes to the village
riding on river-back.
Twenty minutes of a nightmare spin
and fear turns phantasmal
as half a street goes
churning in the river-belly.
If only voices could light lamps!
If only limbs could turn to rafted bamboo!

And through the village
the Ghaghra steers her course;
thatch and dung-cakes turn to river-scum,
a buffalo floats over to the rooftop
where the men are stranded.
Three days of hunger, and her udders
turn red-rimmed and swollen
with milk-extortion.

Children have spirit enough in them
to cheer the rescue boats;
the men are still-life subjects
oozing wet looks.
They don’t rave or curse
for they know the river’s slang, her argot.
No one sends up prayers to a wasted sky,
for prayers are parabolic
they will come down with a flop anyway.
Instead there’s a slush-stampede
outside the booth
where they are doling out salt and grain.

Ten miles to her flank
peasants go fishing in rice fields
and women in chauffeur-driven cars
go looking for driftwood.

But it’s when she recedes
that the Ghaghra turns bitchy
sucking with animal-heat,
cross-eddies diving like frogmen
and sawing away the waterfront
in a paranoid frenzy.
She flees from the scene of her own havoc
thrashing with pain.
Behind her the land sinks
houses sag on to their knees
in a farewell obeisance.
And miles to the flank, the paddy fields
will hoard the fish
till the mud enters into
a conspiracy with the sun
and strangles them.