The sun rests loosely on the Ganga river, surrounded by the pink and beige colors of the afternoon sky. Towering above the river’s soft curves are the mimicking layers of hills. The river’s edge is sharp, fierce and bold. It reaches for the concrete steps, creating an abrupt splash dangerously close to my feet. Further back along the shore are chaotic huddles of people muttering about, migrating from vendor to vendor. Chai, flowers, water jugs and jewelry are scattered along the border of the river, tracing the tear between water and land. The dense air overhead is smeared with the potent smell of incense and deep fried oils. These overwhelming odors fill my head to the brim as it threatens to ache.
Rishikesh is crowded, yet not comparable to Delhi; where we were only a few days prior. The horns honking and people shouting radiate a reassuring hum of energy. On either side of my friends and I are Rishikesh’s most prized possessions: two famous iron suspension bridges, the Ram Jhula and Laxman Jhula. The Ram Jhula is the younger brother of the two, constructed in 1986. He stretches 450 feet across the barreling river below, creating passage for tourists and ashram seeking individuals. His elder sister, The Laxman Jhula was built in 1929, and transforms into a twinkle of lights when darkness wraps around the city, simultaneously reflecting the vibrant nightlife of Rishikesh.
“I could swim to the other side,” says my friend.
I laugh, mocking his dramatic ambition. No person could face the raging flux of the Ganga. Even the most resilient water taxis carrying dozens of tourists struggle to push back against the current. The boats come and go, retracing the same route for every new batch of people. A sea of people line up on the beaten-down dock, shouting and pushing to be the first to board the next trip. A mother nearly trips over my feet as she hurries by, carrying an infant on her hip. I shuffle my feet closer to my body, disturbing the layer of dust on the ground. I bend down, and touch the concrete. The layer of sand obeys my fingers as I carve a landscape of valleys and mountains. I swirl the powder in circles before sweeping it down the steps with the palm of my hand.
Below, a boy appears. He’s wearing shorts so big they fall below his knees, which are cinched so tight they crease in rows at the waistband. My gaze follows him as he drags his feet slowly up the current, then walks backwards in long, heavy strides. He reaches underwater as if he’s searching for something. The water welcomes him as he dips down again and again, splashing and spinning. My inner child wants to jump in and join him.
The boy eventually breaks the water’s surface, releasing a huge breath of air and peers down at his clenched hand. He searches for something within the pile of dirt in his hands, fondling it delicately and sorting through the sand and rock. A sly smile slides over his face. It’s as if he’s found a sacred treasure amidst the particles of garbage and earth. I squint to see what is concealed within the nest of his hands, but he quickly plops whatever it is straight into his mouth. I crave an explanation but adore the mystery of the situation. I break the silence to ask the boy what he is searching for.
“Sikke” he responds; coins. He puts them in his mouth to assure he doesn’t lose them as he continues his underwater hunt.
I am astonished how hard people here work to make a living, with such little remuneration. Hundreds of thousands of coins are thrown into the holy Ganges river annually, as blessings to Ganga, the goddess of purification and forgiveness. The locals then dive into the river when the water is low and spend hours hunting for the abundance of wealth which is held hidden deep beneath the layers of decayed corpses, dirt and waste. The Ganges cherishes her citizens, which is why these coins appear; she of course would never let them starve.
“Didi, please,” says a voice as soft as a flower, one that has curled up overnight, shy and sweet.
A young girl begs us to buy her floral floats, the gift sent down the river, lit by a candle. Her deep brown eyes search for my sympathy. I stare past her tangled mass of brown hair with the intention to ignore her very presence. I am an easy target; a blonde, naive, fair-skinned tourist. Even after experiencing the same thing hundreds of times before, each begging child stirs with my sensitive heart. I swallow hard.
“No, I’m sorry.” I say again, keeping my voice sturdy, untouchable and distant. She doesn’t budge. Nearly as stubborn as me, I recognize her persistence.
“What is your name?” I break.
The young girl’s eyebrows come together in a furrow. “Manakshee”, she answers.
My four friends and I learn about Manakshee and her life. Her desperate expression is wiped away, replaced with eyes that show a sky of endless curiosity and innocence. As she smiles, whirlpools form from the dimples in her cheeks. Her hands open stiffly and she claps repeatedly, her fingers separated wide apart as if they’re dripping with sticky ice cream. I’m captivated by Manakshee’s every movement, and addicted to her emotion-filled stories.
School for Manakshee is a place to learn six days a week, but also the only place where she can rely on a meal. The supreme court of India passed a law in 2001 giving all students under the age of 13 free meals at public school. This law was put in place because children were not attending school; working for their parents was considered a more valuable way to spend their time. Thankfully, having free meals at schools has encouraged malnourished children coming from low income families to go to school. Manakshee speaks of the difficulties in her life with ease, focusing rather on her dreams for the future; she hopes to become a police officer when she grows up, but for now she is content selling flower floats. She views life with such simplicity, contrasting the chaos of the society that surrounds her.
The sun sets, and the Laxman Jhula lights up like a tide of phosphorescence. Manakshee’s stories trail off with the daylight and we say our goodbyes as she heads down to pick up the basket of flower floats left at the bottom of the stairs. She then skips off, Her mass of long brown hair flowing behind her, like the current of the massive mother Ganga.
Author – Maya Carswell
Editor – Matthew Spall