Friday, March 21, 2008

The day I almost drowned

What I did last weekend is something everyone must try at least once in their lifetime. For those with weak hearts and even weaker stomachs, I promise you, there must be less dangerous alternatives. But it's a thing to be done- to set a part of yourself free, to take a risk, to appreciate the force of nature, to brag about having done it or simply put... just for the sake of the experience!

Yes, I went white water rafting last weekend. It might sound banal at first- I mean, so many people we know or who others know have done it before. They all came back saying they loved it. It looked fun, adventurous. Wasn't too far from Delhi- so what the heck, was worth giving a shot!

Lucky to get a double off on a weekend, like normal people do, my friends and I were bent on making the most of it. The Ganga at Rishikesh was to host us on our mission. After checking into our lovely hotel at Muni ki Reti, unsuspecting visitors like us headed straight for Shivpuri, the base camp from where our rafting trip was to start. We were told we would be joining a rafting trip that had already set off from Marine Drive- a stretch of the river some kilometres away. So we played in the sand, next to a largely serene-looking aquamarine Ganga... waiting for our ride to come. And that's where we were wrong- it was not meant to be a ride at all. It required superb skills and courage to match.

As soon as our rafts got there, life jackets and helmets were strapped onto us. We were given our paddles and quickly told basic directions on how to row. And off we were...into the unknown (quite literally!).

As it was just the start of our mission, enthusiasm was high, our shoulders were working faster and the raft was moving forward. And there we saw the first rapid approach! Water lashing fiercely, each wave struggling to make space for itself and in the process, setting off a thick battle of foam. "Paddle harder," yelled our instructor and we put in all the strength we could. The raft tossed and turned, like a roller coaster ride on water and we thoroughly enjoyed it. I, for one, was having a gala time, relishing the adrenaline rush...wanting more.

Then the second, then the third. "This is fun!" I was passing high fives in air to Aparna and Avantika (my partners in crime) and we were on a roll.

Then came the fourth rapid- Club House. We saw the raft in front of us, being thrown around like a piece of paper. And I looked straight at the water. I could see a huge, really huge wave building up right in front of me. In the next few milliseconds, before I could react, I had been sucked right in! There was water all around me and suddenly, the sky disappeared!

I realised I had fallen into the water. There was no time to be scared. The life jacket was firmly in place and as soon as I had fallen in, the life jacket started pushing me up. But I then realised I hadn't reached the surface. Everything around me was still blue-green. I raised my hands and felt something above me. I was stuck under the raft!!

I then remembered what Avantika had told us that very morning. She had spoken of a little boy who died because as a raft turned upside down in the Andamans, the poor boy's life jacket kept pushing him up and the upturned raft kept pushing him down. He got stuck in the water and drowned... just below the suface. (It's amazing how I could think so clearly in that situation.) I raised my hands again, the raft was still there. I must have panicked for a second because as I opened my mouth to express shock, the water went right in- through my mouth, then my nose. Thankfully, that little swimming I had learnt and conveniently forgotten came back to me.... quite surprisingly. I shut my mouth and tried hard to remember what my swimming coach had said. "When in a tough spot in the water, just calmly exhale." Tried that, didn't work. Because I hadn't had the time or realisation to inhale while falling off. My mind was thinking again, the waters around me had calmed down slightly. I didn't care, I was choking.

And all this had taken just about 10 seconds. No breakthrough yet. Then my mind did the scariest thing... only that it seems scary in retrospect. At that moment and in that condition, the thought hit me quite casually, calmly. I remember thinking, "Oh! So is this the way I am going to die?' A second of acceptance. And then... "Okay, so I just have to wait for a few seconds to pass out, for everything to go black."

Meanwhile, I must have been moving. Because at that very second, my hand touched a rope and I heaved myself up from under the raft! It was a big loud breath, that of a person come back to life. Before I knew it, I was pulled out amidst cries of "Don't worry, you are okay!"; and dropped in the raft. For the next few seconds, every breath I took, I uttered a tired 'Mamma'. I even remember thinking how a child thinks first of its mother. What a strong bond that must be!

My life jacket was unfastened, and as the spinning in my head slowed down, I saw concerned faces looking down at me. I explained very clearly to them, "I was stuck under the raft, I couldn't breathe."

I then managed to raise my head and I saw that even the raft ahead of us had stopped. Terrified faces were staring at me. A firang professional kayaker had stopped too. He was asking me if I was okay. As I caught my breath, I must have smiled, as all tense faces around me relaxed. Some of them flashed thumbs up signs at me. Aparna was talking, asking me, telling me... I am not sure all of it registered in my head. But I realised those 12 seconds were long enough to have left everyone worried. And the truth is- I was completely shaken up!

The trip was far from over. And my fellow rafters couldn't believe it when they saw me being pulled back into the raft a second time, from the rapid that followed Club House. I had gone berserk when I fell into the rapid again, expecting the worst and holding on to the instructor who had jumped in to ensure everyone was safe after more than half the raft had emptied out. Here, I felt the real force of nature, of what I was talking about in the first paragraph. The water throws you around you like you don't matter; waves, a few feet high, rush to drown you and all you can do is wait for the rapid to get over so that you can be helped back into your place in the raft. I decided not to paddle in the rapids for the rest of the trip, fearing I would make a hat trick.

Of course, I realised the irony of the situation much later, as locals we met after rafting asked us how many of us fell in the water. So that was the point of it all! Falling in the rapid, taking fear head on, respecting the skills and strength of character of those who do it for a living...

For the 2-3 days that followed, I couldn't get that near-drowning experience out of my mind. Now, I am slowly learning to live with it. A friend said it would bring a radical change in the way I look at life, especially after knocking at the doors of death and then running away like a naughty child when the doors were opened. Well, that hasn't happened yet. But yes, it has opened up new avenues of thinking for me- like how I'll try snorkeling next or assisted sky-diving. Of course, I have vowed to continue going on more weekend trips. And now I also know the meaning of 'death by drowning'. Or shamelessly feeling that I understand 'water films' better than most others ...like when I was watching 'A Perfect Storm' last night.

Will I do it again? Hmm... tough one to answer. Maybe a year from now, I'll have accumulated enough courage again. Or maybe I'll let it remain a once-in-a-lifetime experience...

Monday, March 10, 2008

Written a few days ago- an attempt to revive my blog

"You Marathis!" Yes, that's what people call us now...especially after Sena's former youth leader and now MNS chief launched his recent tirade against 'outsiders' in Mumbai. The violence was unwarranted, deaths of two innocent men in Nashik...shameful! Much has already been written about Raj and his ways. So how was the experience for a Maharashtrian, watching the happenings from a distance? From a state where she could easily be deemed an 'outsider'?
Working in 'bhaiyya' land, living in a multi-cultural Delhi... and as a journalist, deeply missing the coverage in Maharashtra. Luckily, DTH allowed the viewing of Marathi channels, continuously beaming Raj's war of words. An absolute entertainment! If, even for a moment, we could keep Raj's deeds aside, we would see in him an excellent orator. The ideas, the tone, the face...much like his Uncle whose public appearances have been legendary for the Sena's electoral fortunes. And the ease with which those daring phrases flowed, the face not flinching for a moment...in fact, the sarcasm intentional.
So is the above praise a show of support for the taandav Raj launched in one of India's most developed states? Hell no... not in a hundred years! In fact, apart from MNS goons and some misguided youngsters, I am certain no well-meaning Maharashtrian would have hurt even a fly. A senior at work said- it's not the mentality of an ordinary Maharashtrian to indulge in hooliganism, Maharashtrians are content leading their own little lives- and I, who was brought up in an ordinary middle class Maharashtrian family, had to agree.
When Raj claims that jobs in Maharashtra belong only to the Maharashtrian youth; he is not only making a politically volatile statement but also threatening the validity of a part of the Constitution. But the Marathi manoos is not devoid of political opinion. And he is certainly not devoid of a strong sense of his cultural identity. So when mediapersons rushed to get the view of the common (Marathi) man, surprisingly, many seemed to be on Raj's side...not for the vandalism, but for the debate that had ensued.
It's at these times I shy away from being a journalist- a mere observer- because the sentiments being tossed in public are part of my personal identity. In vain, I try to explain why Raj's dramatic claims touch a familiar chord somewhere in a Marathi mind. Born and brought up in Pune, I never had to speak Hindi... not with the Marwadi grocer, unknown rickshaw wala (auto wala for the people up here) or my Gujarati neighbours. I spoke in English with my friends, most of whom were non-Maharashtrian, as was expected in my convent English-medium school. Hindi was limited to mugging dull poems for exams and Bollywood films.
So my first few months in the national capital must have been quite amusing to whoever spoke to me in Hindi about anything under the sun. From being unable to string together a single Hindi sentence without stammering, my Hindi has improved to haggling quite comfortably with the ready-to-fleece-you auto wallahs and behold, doing simple lives with our sister Hindi channels. So surprise surprise... when I went back to Pune last year! No matter where I went, people spoke to me in Hindi!!! The Marwadi grocer, the unknown rickshaw wallah, the employees at my favourite Udipi restaurant and the assistants at the never-needed malls in Pune. Some of them were Maharashtrian, as I later found out from their conversations with colleagues. And I was left trying to absorb a city that was no longer the Pune I knew. Imagine my relief when Pune's only commercial radio station had RJs speaking to us in Marathi... at least, 70% of the times.
The changing face of Pune- I call it cultural erosion, and people call me xenophobic. Let them. Punekars take pride in their language and culture and it's disappointing to see it fade out like that. Especially after the year I spent studying in Chennai. I have never seen a people so fiercely possessive of their language, a defining feature of their culture. And contrary to what the ignorant have to say about 'Madrasis', I had an excellent time... because I attempted to learn their mother tongue. My half-baked Tamil opened several doors for me... and I earned many friends there- the grocer, the Kollywood-crazy rickshaw walla, the Annas at the local restaurant and even the frowning big moustached policemen.
We are not talking about violent anti-Hindi riots here, like the one Tamil Nadu saw in the late sixties. In fact, that should be the last thing on the mind of a mature democracy. And nothing or no one can make native Indians leave from Maharshtra's cities or abandon their respective languages. But let the unique cultural fabric of each city be preserved, not by force but by habit.