Natabar’s father was Pitambar and his grandfather,Golaknath. He didn’t know the names of his other forefathers. Now, no one is alive except him. Looking up at the sky he raised his folded hands solemnly to pay his regards to his forefathers. He was not aware exactly how many years back one of his forefathers too was also standing here just like him. Maybe, the Subarnarekha River was then known as Gangini.
Madan Chakraborty used to recite his scriptures rhythmically. Sitting beside him with hands on his cheeks, Natabar used to get totally engrossed listening to his recitations.
Ishwari Patni, the boatman use to ferry people across the river Gangini. One day at dusk Ishwari was sitting on his ferry boat. Suddenly someone called out from the other bank of the river.
“Ferry me across to the other side, boatman”
It was a female voice. He was astonished to see a young, married and respectable woman calling him. He said to her,
“I see that you are all alone at this odd hour. Who are you madam?”
She answered back in a mystical way. Ishwari understood nothing but yet replied wisely,
“I can understand that whenever there is a dispute among the Brahmins (highest caste among Hindus) there are quarrels.”
Ishwari however understood his business and asked the Goddess in disguise,
“How much will you pay for my services?”
The Goddess said, “First of all do your duty and then I will pay you your dues adequately.”
Madan Chakraborty continued reciting, “The boatman is lucky to ferry the Goddess by uttering whose name we can all cross the ocean of life.”
Natabar totally captivated closed his eyes in heavenly bliss. He raised his folded hands in salutation to the Goddess and uttered in reverence:
“Mother as per your wish we wait with our ferry boat on the banks of the river. It is our duty and religion to ferry all who want to cross from one bank to another. Mother also belongs to our Patni(boats man)family. Every one of us eventually have to cross the vast ocean of life sitting on the lap of our Mother and we are all her dependents. We are all her children.”
A sublime joy of divine realization reflected on his face. He felt no pain; no sorrow and a celestial peace and inspiration filled his heart.
Ishwari was blessed by the divine grace of the Mother Goddess when she crossed the river in his boat. Natabar hoped that he would be similarly blessed and the bucket in his boat would turn into gold at the touch of Goddess Annapurna’s feet. Deeply immersed in his thoughts he entered his dreamland. He envisioned the image of Mother Goddess flooding the entire surrounding with an ethereal light. Here she was in a red bordered sari with vermilion on her forehead and a benign smile illuminating her face. Ishwari couldn’t recognize her at first but he would never make such a mistake and would readily identify her.
“Hey Na-ta-bar!” the lingering call sounded like musical notes. He suddenly awoke from his dream. Perhaps he had dozed off, he thought. He yawned, stood up and promptly tied his towel around his waist firmly. He got into his boat and started rowing towards the other bank of the river. It hardly took ten to fifteen minutes to cross the river. But it was different during the monsoons. At that time this small river swelled up and expanded.
When it was windy there would be huge waves. The placid river would become turbulent. Its calmness gave way to ferocity. Then there is no end to his hardship. High waves and a strong current would make it very difficult for him to row his boat to the other side of the bank. He sometimes felt as if he would stop rowing his boat and jump into the river instead to end his miserable life. He was unable to carry on anymore and lost his temper and cursed himself. But this was out of his charcter as he was a man of mild nature. He never interfered into others affairs and kept himself absorbed in his own work and thoughts. Everyday very early in the morning he reached the ferry ghat (wharf) and returned home late at night. In this way he spent his days, months and years. Once when he was a child he accompanied his father to the ferry ghat, started learning to row and ultimately became a boatman. He was young when his father died. Thereafter many years have passed; he got married and had a son. The little boy gradually learnt to walk and talk. He and his wife spent joyous moments with their son and cherished dreams of his future. Their son grew and was sent to a primary school. Days have changed and one must have sound basic education. When their little boy recited rhymes they would stare at him amazed.
If only his son had been alive today, he thought as an acute pain ran through the veins of his arms. He had corns all over his palms from constant rowing which caused him unbearable pain occasionally. Had his son been alive he would have taken charge of his oars by now and he partly relieved would get some rest at his age. But, that was never fated. He was shattered; couldn’t leave his bed for days as he mourned. However, he had to stop crying one day and return to his work of ferrying passengers across the river. But his wife never overcame her sorrow and often mourned and lamented aloud. So many years have passed but still she was inconsolable.
“Mother you have snatched away her only son and never blessed her with another,” Natabar complained silently. “I have stopped crying and forgotten my pain but my unlucky wife can’t forget her loss nor stop wailing. I know you have taken away whom you sent to us. I know one day I would also have to leave and so also my wife and others. Your boat will carry us back to the other bank and we will all assemble at your feet. I understand the truth but my wife doesn’t”.
The earth beneath was bathing under the scorching rays of the sun. It was midday and he usually took some time off to laze under the old banyan tree near the ferry ghat(wharf). But today he wasn’t feeling sleepy and took his ‘hooka’ and smoked it till the entire tobacco burnt to ashes. He then put it down and looked around him.
The sun which rose lighting up the eastern sky was now shifting towards the west. Time was rolling on like the flow of the river; like the wind blowing away the leaves of a tree. The entire universe looked like a wonderful picture of boats ferrying between two banks of the river. He wondered how such strange thoughts could invade his mind. He unfastened his towel from his waist, wiped his face and looked around again.
His boat was tied to a poll at the ferry ghat(wharf). Few other boats full of passengers were sailing down the river. Where were they heading for he thought. On both sides of the bank there were barren fields. The crops had already been reaped.The green paddy fields had turned golden and had been reaped off and removed to the houses of the farmers before being sent to the market. The fields would again become green and new crops would grow. The passengers who were ferried by him in his boat to the other side of the bank would again return but would those who boarded the Big Boat to cross the endless river will never return.
Now he felt really drowsy. Resting his head on his knees he ultimately fell off to sleep. He dreamt that Mother Annapurna had boarded his boat and sat immersing her feet in the water. At the touch of her feet lotuses, white, red and other colours bloomed. He requested Her to take her feet out of the water otherwise the red lac dye that coloured her feet would be washed away. She smiled mildly took Her feet out of the water and as soon as Her feet touched the bucket in the boat it turned into gold.
Ishwari Patni couldn’t recognize the Mother Goddess but he hadn’t failed. His joy knew no bounds. His expectations were fulfilled and his boat reached the other bank of the river. Mother Goddess alighted. He followed Her with the bucket held in his hand. She smiled and asked,
“What is wrong? Do you want your fare? I have already left it in the bucket.”
He shook his head and said calmly, “Mother, I don’t want gold.” She smiled again and inquired if he wanted Her to bless him that his children get enough provisions to survive comfortably in life.
“Children”, as soon as he heard the word he felt as if a hammer had hit his head. He awoke startled from his stupor. An unbearable pain had overtaken him. Tears swelled up in his eyes and he rubbed his eyes and looked at the river, up at the sky, the barren fields below and his empty ferry boat. He found himself sitting all alone under the shadow of the old banyan tree.
“Boatman, Boatman!” he heard a faint call coming from the other bank of the river. Slowly he proceeded towards his ferry boat. The shadows grew longer. Gradually the day was coming to its end and evening would descend and then the night and silence. There would be no passenger at the ferry ghat. He would return home. If only this dream of his came true one day and if Mother Goddess inquired about his desires. He wondered what his reply would be as he untied his boat and started rowing to the other side. He was only a boatman and his duty was to ferry people from one bank to the other. He knew not what had overtaken him. A strange feeling had engulfed his body and mind.
“I ferry people”, he started chanting these words like a sacred hymn again and again. This scared incantations opened the doors for him to an unknown world. He had reached the centre of a vast and open field of a new land overcoming all earthly obstacles. Something had touched his heart and he didn’t understand what but he felt something within.
When the boat reached mid river he silently conveyed his prayers to the Mother Goddess. “Mother, if you want to bless me, then bless me that I can continue as a boatman till death. I neither desire for a golden bucket nor amenities for my children but I wish to continue as a boatman ferrying people.” He ended his prayers; felt extremely relieved and a sublime joy in his heart. He looked up at the sky, at the river, its banks.
Every Wednesday people assembled at the weekly ‘haat’ (open bazaar or fair) at Mohanganj. The ferry ghat remained crowded throughout the day. The shopkeepers and customers gathered at the marketplace from morning to midnight. He would get no time to rest and had to row his boat from one bank to the other all through the day. It was almost midnight; he was dead tired and his body ached with pain. He ferried his boat to the other side of the river were some passengers were waiting. There were only three people and they were all very eager to wait no longer and urged him to start off.
“If some others come a little later on what will I do?” he replied in a tired voice.
“No, nobody will come and we haven’t seen anyone left in the marketplace.” the passengers protested.
“If anyone turns up later on I can’t go back again,” he objected meekly. “No, nobody is left behind and you won’t need to come back again. Start off immediately. It’s already very late and we want to reach home as early as possible.”
He untied the boat and started rowing and after a while as he reached the other bank he heard a faint voice calling out to him. “What will I do now masters?” he cried out in disgust. The passengers didn’t reply; silently got off the boat and started walking homewards. He was extremely angry and uttered in rage, “I won’t go back. Am I a beast?” He tied the boat to a pole at the ferry ghat and started walking towards home through the darkness and tranquility of the lonely night muttering to himself. He could still hear the voice from the other bank.
“No, no I won’t listen .I am not a slave”, he said to himself. When he reached the courtyard of his house he suddenly stopped. He heard his wife sobbing.
“No, there is no peace. This woman still hasn’t stopped wailing even after so many years,” he thought. He felt an urge to revolt against everything but he uttered not a word and stood silently for a while. Then he walked out from his courtyard and proceeded towards the ferry ghat(wharf). He untied his boat and started rowing to the other bank. On reaching there he found no one waiting and stood on the bank and looked around in vain. Nobody could be seen. Had he only gone back he thought.
“I will ferry you to the other side”, he cried out. “I’m Natabar. I am a boatman of the ferry ghat(wharf). Who are you who called me?” he asked. There was no reply. He stood silently for a moment and then called out again and again urging for a reply. “I am a boatman and my duty is to ferry people across the river,” his voice choked. “Who are you wanting to go to the other bank?” he cried out again. “Please reply once and I will carry you to the other side,” he pleaded. Completely exhausted he squatted on the bank of the river and hiding his face between his two knees he started weeping.
The Subarnarekha flowed on under the cover of darkness of the midnight.