The Brahmaputra Crossing

No matter how often they are sighted, river dolphins, or ‘sihus’ as they are locally known, always manage to attract attention. Even the most taciturn of passengers would point a finger, albeit in a desultory fashion, towards where they were spotted. Admittedly, they are a bit difficult to catch sight of. One moment, a flash of a greyish snout, next moment, barely a ripple. And unlike their cousins in the sea, river dolphins don’t do the touristy let’s-swim-alongside-the-boat act. The murky water full of sediments also doesn’t help. Seeing me swivel around restlessly trying to catch another sight of the ‘sihu’, the aforementioned passenger nodded at me and said  ‘Sit down or you might fall into the river.’

I was atop an overladen ferry across the Brahmaputra, the only male river in India.  An alpha male river at that.

The Brahmaputra originates as the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet, streaks through Arunachal Pradesh as the Dihang, bifurcates Assam as the Brahmaputra, enters Bangladesh as the Jamuna and ultimately flows into the Bay of Bengal. A total distance of over 3500 km.

I was on my way to my ancestral village in Lakhimpur, a far-flung district of Assam, bordering Arunachal Pradesh. During my schooldays in Jorhat, a quiet town fringed by verdant tea estates, the annual trip to visit my grandparents in Lakhimpur was an eagerly anticipated adventurous mission. I was recreating the journey after almost two decades. Nothing much has changed. The
 trip is still very much a bus-ferry-bus-ferry affair. Bus from Jorhat to Nematighat (ghat means a river port), ferry to Majuli Island across the Brahmaputra, cross the island by bus and then another ferry ride across a tributary of the Brahmaputra to reach Lakhimpur.

Ferries are the only way to reach Majuli - one of the largest river islands in the world formed by the shifting courses of the mighty Brahmaputra and a couple of equally powerful earthquakes. The island is famous for its sattras (monasteries) established by Srimanta Sankardev, the 15th century Assamese scholar, playwright and strong proponent of neo-Vaishnavism.  

Legend has it the great Sankardev could swim across the Brahmaputra even when it was in full spate. I guess this was the reason why the passengers waiting for the ferry at Nematighat are quite impatient. They know they cannot swim across the Brahmaputra in any season. And have to depend on the ferry every single time. Which is why the sight of an approaching ferry would be the cue for passengers and vehicles to start jostling. Cups of tea would be flung disdainfully. Lit cigarettes would be puffed out furiously. The coconut vendor would briskly scrape out the last scraps of juicy flesh from the tender coconut. Drivers would stride purposefully towards their parked vehicles. This is irrespective of the fact that, unless and until, the ferry is docked and a landing plank is flung across, nobody could board, or disembark. So, after the initial hullabaloo, in face of the irrefutable logic mentioned in the previous sentence, some semblance of normality would be restored. Albeit, a bit grudgingly. Vociferous shouts followed by muttered curses were the norm.  

The swift swirling currents are known to have swept away the strongest of swimmers. A good enough reason for me to take my own sweet time to avoid the initial rush to clamber aboard the ferry. With a couple of cars, bikes parked in neat rows on the roof and passengers everywhere, the ferry of modest dimensions now looked even more modest. I decided to head straight to the roof for the open-air experience instead of the packed environment of the lower deck or the ‘cabin’ where passengers sit facing each other on wooden benches. The luckiest ones are those who manage to get seats near the panoramic ‘windows’. The not-so-lucky ones are those who get seats opposite the lucky ones and have to endure sights such as watching a man exploring his nose at leisure with the index finger of his left hand while thoughtfully taking in the sights. The extremely unlucky ones are those who get seats near the enclosure that houses the heart of the ferry – the diesel fume spewing motor that valiantly propels the ferry surely but sluggishly to its destination. There have been instances of people turning a sickly shade of green by the time the journey gets over.

The roof, corrugated strips of iron bound together by a framework of wood, is a far more pleasant space to be in. You can take part in low-stakes card games, join an impromptu debate on which politician is the most corrupt, watch sly egrets try to steal fish from the fishermen’s baskets, look out for shy river dolphins or simply soak everything in. Which is what I did till I got a gentle poke in the solar plexus by a man who beamed at me in a friendly manner and without much ado started a conversation. Naren Bora, a lecturer in a government college in Majuli, is originally from Golaghat (another district). He was returning to Majuli after a trip home with two of his colleagues. On learning that I make my living from advertising, the trio displayed a sense of humour by cracking several jokes based on popular commercials. Quite good jokes too. It was more than a bit sobering to see how highly-acclaimed-resulting-in-gargantuan-egos commercials become fodder for jokes.  

Naren asked a fisherman intently observing a card game – ‘What fish have you got?’  The fisherman lifted the lid of his wicker basket and replied – ‘Common carp’.  Naren snorted – ‘Salani?’ The fisherman closed the basket, replied – ‘Yes’ – and got back to watching the game. From Naren’s tone, the fisherman knew he wouldn’t really buy fish that’s ‘salani’ or fish that’s imported all the way from southern states such as Andhra Pradesh. Naren explained the economics of the flourishing fishing trade in Majuli. Local fish from Majuli fetches good rates in Jorhat and then gets transported to other districts of Assam. This results in a majority of the fish being sold in Jorhat without gracing the frying pans of the locals. The fishermen than get ‘salani’ fish from Jorhat and sell them at Majuli. Fish, a staple ingredient in the Assamese diet, has to make its appearance in some form or the other during lunch or dinner. Those who can afford the Jorhat rates of the local fish grumpily pay for the privilege. Those who can’t (or won’t) pay the high rates go for the ‘salani’ option. Again, grumpily.    

Once, a herd of about 50 elephants was spotted on one of the many sandbanks that appear when the water level reduces considerably during the winter months. Apparently, an elephant herd comes from Arunachal Pradesh through an ancient elephant corridor that extends through Assam to Nagaland. One part of this hike involves swimming across the Brahmaputra, foraging for food in Majuli and taking a well-deserved break on these sandbanks before they continue on their way to Nagaland.

I really hoped to catch a sight of a herd. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that time of the year.

Almost an hour and a half later, Badatighat at Majuli came into view. People snapped out of their comatose state. Planks were thrown across and people rushed towards one of the waiting buses in a manner reminiscent of the migration of wildebeest. I never did really figure out the reason behind the rush; there were always plenty of seats. A roller coaster ride on roads ravaged by the yearly floods engineered by the Brahmaputra began. The bus journey was enjoyable. I greedily drank in views of lush wetlands, storks patiently stalking fish, swaying mustard fields, people fishing in small ponds in front of their houses, houses built on stilts – an identifying factor of the Mishing tribe - and the occasional disoriented cyclist pedaling away furiously, challenging the bus driver. The bus clattered through the island’s small towns and villages stopping at the slightest of waves of passersby. Some would climb in. Others would tell the driver that they were merely scratching their heads. Or swatting a fly.

Everybody heaved huge sighs of relief as the bus wheezed to a stop at the port at the other end of the island. The last leg of the journey is in sight. Lakhimpur is just across the river. This journey across the Luit, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, that separates Majuli from Lakhimpur, is a much shorter one though. About half an hour or so.

Once we made this entire journey from Jorhat on my father’s trusted scooter, Bajaj Chetak. We took our own time in Majuli and by the time we reached the port, the ferry had made its last trip for the evening. My father told me that when they were students, they didn’t wait for the ferry. They used to just swim across. I was at an impressionable age, but even then seeing the expanse of water, I had my reservations. ‘Were you really that strong a swimmer?’ ‘The currents look really strong.’  Hearing my slightly disbelieving tone of voice, my father had said, well, in the unlikely case of them getting too tired to complete the distance, they could always depend on the river dolphins to lend a helping fin.

There was a small country boat that was getting ready to leave for the other side. Against my better judgment, my father asked the boatman whether he’d be able to transport us to the other side. Along with the scooter. The boatman readily agreed. For a small fee, of course. I remember asking him whether the scooter will fit. Or more importantly, whether the boat will be able to bear our combined weight. The boatman smiled reassuringly and said he has transported fish on this boat that could have swallowed me in one gulp. We crossed the stretch in absolute darkness. Without making any distress calls to dolphins.

This time, I did catch the last ferry to Luit-Khabolughat, the port on the Lakhimpur side. And once again, I opted for the open-air experience. I’d recommend it any day. Chances of spotting an elephant herd are not good. Spotting dolphins, meeting interesting people and falling into the river are.