Fifty baht was the price the boatman asked to take me across the river and back and we had a deal. This was at a small pier on the Chao Phraya at the end of the road that sweeps past the Customs House, turns left at the big gates of the Bangkok Port Authority and goes all the way past the ships berthed along Jetty No 18 and the oil refinery offices on the left to a little wat (Buddhist temple) by the river.
The ‘boat’ itself was one of those tiny wooden canoes with a motor, rising not a foot above the water with room for two people to sit cross-legged — the boatman at the back and a single passenger in front. All you had to do, once you got in, was put a hand out to touch the water. We shot off across the wide, strong river and the megacity’s skyline from midwater ‘shone bright and glittering in the smokeless air’.
The Chao Phraya was calculated to burst her banks an hour later with the big high tides expected that evening. So going on the river was not strictly required just then and I was a bit surprised to find myself on the water since I’m no fan of adventure sports. Paragliding, jumping off planes or crawling about the Cordilleras are emphatically not my thing. I rest content with having already done my virtuous and mildly resentful duty by outdoor-enthusiast friends.
I’d let myself be unprotestingly swept along by them on the usual treks to Pindari Glacier and elsewhere Himalayan, on the river-raftings and body-surfings in the Ganga, all of which I did, even flinging myself into the rapid when told to, though lily-livered by nature and nurture. There’s always been peer pressure, hasn’t there, and not just about Barbie dolls and play stations? You don’t want to be left out or feel like a wuss and a wimp when you’re teen-ing or twenty-ing or even much later.
So what was I doing keeping private trysts with flooding rivers, with a ‘puang malai’ (phool mala) yet, that I offered her midstream with a high ‘wai’ (namaste)? I’d gone only to look so why was I on a canoe in a current with its mind clearly made up? I can’t think why, except that the river reproached me, she pretty much said, “You drink this water; a little respect, please.”
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture.