The fog hung, forbidding as a pall, over the Yamuna. The water would be icy today, thought Rashid as he huddled beside Imam Miyan’s rickety tea-stall, chewing a stale rusk. There were few people about at this hour of the morning; just the rickshaw-pullers, the coolies and the beggars. It was so cold, there’d probably be nobody at the river either.
Imam Miyan’s hefty fist clouted Rashid half-affectionately. “Eat up, you swine! Do you want to be late? Better get there before the fog lifts and people start arriving.”
Rashid nodded, his thin shoulder hurting with the blow. Not that he would ever protest; Imam Miyan was the only adult who was even remotely kind to him; and when you were just eight years old and an orphan, kindness mattered a hell of a lot. Rashid summoned up a watery smile, but kept quiet. As far back as he could remember, he had been having breakfast—a crumbly rusk and a cup of tea—at Imam Miyan’s stall. Whether his parents had been friends of Imam Miyan’s he neither knew nor cared; all that mattered was that Imam Miyan was good—sometimes.
Rashid finished the rusk and dug out a coin to pay, but he was lucky today—Imam Miyan refused the rupee.
Bihari, three years older than Rashid, was waiting at the corner, his scabby knees knocking together with the cold. They walked together to the riverside, and Bihari muttered, “Do you want to go in today? It’ll be like ice.”
Rashid nodded vigorously, trying to push away the thought of the chill water, the itching rash on his body and the stench that awaited him. They had reached the stone steps leading down to the water, and he stripped hurriedly, handing his clothes over to Bihari. The river was a swirling mass of sewage, carrying with it plastic bags, wilted marigolds and garbage. A sacred river, they called it- sacred enough for the ashes of the dead, from the cremation ground upriver, to be ceremonially immersed in it. Ashes, with bits of charred bone sometimes, wrapped in red cloth… all of it whirling downriver, somewhere to an unseen nirvana.
It was cold. Cold and opaque, wrapping its foul, grasping fingers about his thin little body, numbing his senses with its rotting presence, encasing him in an insidious envelope of slime. Rashid plunged, deep and swift, down to the riverbed. It was murky and horrible, but he swam around, in widening circles, till his lungs felt as if they would burst, and then he rose, gasping, to the surface.
A few gulps of cold air, and then he was diving down again, into the depths of the Yamuna. Six dives it took before he hauled himself out, shivering and retching. Bihari was sitting on his haunches, sifting hurriedly through a pile of slime, but he rose to help Rashid up the steps, dripping and exhausted. Rashid shrugged on his ragged clothes, watching Bihari through a putrid, shivering daze. After a moment, he said, “Come along. People have started coming; it wouldn’t do to get caught.”
Bihari stood up, and with their sodden, stinking burden, the two boys began walking back to the slums, Rashid still wet. He glanced back once over his shoulder, and saw men, wrapped in white, already beginning to go down the steps to the river. Chanting, breathing prayers, bringing with them flowers and fruit, incense and coins—all to be thrown into this sacred, smelly river. New coins, bright and shining—offerings to the Yamuna, propitiation for past sins—and Rashid’s daily earnings.
(Winner of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association’s Short Story Competition, 2003)