How to Lose a River
Every winter, the dark river disappeared as if it had never been there in the first place. Like a magician’s trick.
But its absence wasn’t total. The eye picked up a trail of clues – dead fish, mournful carcasses of driftwood, empty snail shells, and the herringbone pattern of current cast into its soft bed.
We’d trudge through this sandy canvas, shoes and supplies in our hands, our shadow cloaks trailing behind us, till we’d chance upon a spot, perfect in its isolation. Here, we'd settle down, chain smoke, argue over what music to play while someone rolled a joint.
We were seventeen or eighteen then, and beginning to understand that talk was vital. Blood vital. To make a difference in this world, we needed smooth, persuasive talk. And so we would. Talk. Of what is past, or passing, or to come. In the silly, infantile language particular to boarding schools.
About our exams, the relief that they were soon going to be over.
The colleges we were going to apply to in Delhi, Bombay, Pune, London, New York, LA.
About freedom that lay a lick away; how much we wanted to leave, to shed this town, like snakeskin.
What we wanted for ourselves and how we wanted to change the world but never sell out.
As liquid released from a corked bottle, our talk would trickle away from our lives, meandering across a plain of subjects.
The very Natural-Born-Killer-ish slaughter of the Nepalese royal family.
Bush, and the attack. How bizarre it was.
About the person we knew who had died in the Windows on the World; someone’s friend’s uncle, who worked as a waiter there. His name was Domino.
Truly truly bizarre.
Once we were done with that, we’d talk about music and poetry. Patti Smith and PJ Harvey. Eliot and Ghalib. The Smiths and The Kinks. Sappho and Rilke. Iggy Pop and Blondie. Kerouac and Ginsberg. Nirvana and Greenday.
And Bob Dylan of course.
The orange eye of the joint, making patterns in the crisp air, keeping beat to the frenetic rhythm of our gesticulations.
Sometimes, when the weed was too strong for our minds, we'd stop talking and watch the sky – its architecture of gormless colours and clouds mutating into a magnificent onomatopoeic beast. I don't know about the others, but this is where I learnt to be still, very still, and yet be alive.
Evening would inevitably come, starlight piercing through her dark belly. With darkness, comes fear. But we were too young, too restless to be afraid. Far from it. We were eager, fecund, bulletproof – ready to consume the world.
Just like our river when it would reappear in summer.
These were the early months of 2002. There were four of us, Lulu, Rumi, Danny and me.
And they were twelve.
Dust devils. Rising out of the winter wasteland, taking us by surprise. Their sticks and machetes incongruous intruders in our privileged timeline.
The leader of the pack stepped into the circle they formed around us. His eyes were hard, uncompromising, like a man who had lost something dear and was making the world pay for it. The words that fell from his tongue were coarse, lacking the rounded vowels of an education. He addressed the boys only.
They had been watching us and the things we got up to. It wasn’t right, they said. Morally.
That girls could do such things was not only unbelievable, it was disgusting. He talked about us, Lulu and me, at length, but he never once looked our way.
Lulu reached for my hand, and I held it tightly. Our world was sinking like the sand beneath our bare feet.
Where did you find these girls? The one with the hard eyes repeated.
It’s not what you think it is, Rumi said.
How much are you paying them?
I’m telling you. We’re friends from school. We’re just hanging out. Killing time.
Killing time? Is this what you kids do nowadays? Kill time with hookers?
God! They aren’t, Danny couldn’t bring himself to say the word. Look, if you don’t believe us, why don’t you speak to my parents. They live right down the first embankment road …
Parents! Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves? Your parents have taught you nothing. They throw money at you. Send you to expensive schools. You know nothing about tradition, your culture and this land. Every day there are more of your kind. Rich, spoilt… Insulated in your sheltered lives, clueless about the world. You’re sick.
If you’ll just let me explain, Danny tried.
He really did. His dilated brown eyes, speckled with flecks of gold if you looked closely that I loved so much, pleaded.
No more. We don’t need more of your kind in our land. We’ve had enough.
He stopped talking. The noose tightened around us.
Hey! Danny tried to stop them but it was too late.
When I finally regained consciousness, the men were long gone. Up ahead, a grey smudge circled the dusty evening sky, growing in size with every blink. In the roaring silence, I heard whimpering. I sat up. A few feet away, Rumi was bent over Lulu. He was holding her in a death grip. A trickle of blood fell from his face onto her pale, naked stomach.
It was when I saw Danny, lying face down on the sand like a doll a child had grown tired of and discarded, the pain came. White, hot, unforgiving. I stumbled over to where he lay, my body screaming in agony, and found his pulse, throbbing dully in his limp hand.
The cry of a bird pierced the still air. I looked up to find the grey smudge had turned into a falcon. In another moment, it would begin its descent. Deaf to the calls of its falconer.
The next year, the monsoons arrived, heavy and thundering.
The river, I heard, never came back. But neither did I.
Trisha Bora is an editor and writer. She studied Literature at Miranda House, and started a career in publishing soon after. She has worked at Rupa Publications, Penguin Random House India and Dorling Kindersley. Her works have been published at Out of Print, Tongues of an Ocean, Ultra Violet, Nth Position, Pyrta Journal, Asia Writes, and Nether Magazine, among others. She is working on her debut novel.