It’s hard to imagine now that in my days at Delhi University, I could go for a boat ride on the Yamuna (for Rs 10 ) or that I went to her banks to eat thukpa and momos at the Tibetan Monastery. We sometimes hitched a ride down Ring Road on scooters driven by respectable-looking men; you could, those days. We were possibly among the first lot of girls who wore jeans to college and cut our hair. I remember that a classmate with a short, smart ‘bob’ was sympathetically asked by a rural lady,“Kes jal gaye?” (Did your hair catch fire?).
But while we did these ‘modern’ things, we saw the river as a special ‘someone’. We considered ourselves killingly cool but cooler still was the thought, imbibed from childhood through song and story that the Yamuna was a dear and beautiful ‘person’. As a child, I was greatly charmed by the ‘bath prayer’, ‘Gangecha-Yamunechaiva Godavari-Sarasvati Narmade-Sindhu-Kaveri, jalesmin sannidhim kuru’ (O waters of our sacred rivers, give us sanctuary). Consequently, even a balti-bath of boiling hot water in summer was special because the water was the Yamuna’s. And ‘Jamuna ke paani’ was what we drank, whatever our religion, reportedly about 57 million of us.
This was no mere ‘substance’ bereft of rich, layered context. When I was driven over the Yamuna or taken to the Okhla Barrage to see her in spate I did namaste and had a 10 paisa or four-anna coin ready to throw in as an offering. I probably learnt these small graces on long-ago train journeys from Bombay to Madras when we clanked over a big river, perhaps the Tungabhadra.
Over the years I built up an impression of a charming, wistful sweetness about the Yamuna compared to her grand sisters. The strong, confident, unswerving Narmada, for example, really seemed to laugh at piffling humanity. The austere Ganga was thronged by far too many ascetics who seemed to own her in a way I never could. But the Yamuna seemed a more simpatic a personality than those regal rivers. She had changed her course, jumped here and there, run away from saints and kings alike and cared nothing for ‘Cities and Thrones and Powers’.
She seemed curiously childlike but somehow spiritually liberated, a true malang or fakir by temperament who was least interested in ‘maintaining her position’ as a royal river. That’s how she appeared to me and it seemed to go a long way back. For instance, although she should have just quietly made way, she had leapt impulsively to touch the basket with a baby in it that a man had carried on his head across her waters that rainy night in Shravan. She had consoled even Shiva when he was mad with grief for Sati, absorbed the Great God’s sorrow, grown dark with it. Whereas proud, unwilling Ganga had come haughtily to earth and dealt impersonally with human frailty, ‘free-spirited’ Yamuna was invested by myth-makers with an affectionate nature and loving-kindness. Other rivers seemed respected, Yamuna seemed loved.
Clearly that culture of appreciation is long over. Dear Yamuna, you deserved better from modern India.
(The views expressed are personal)