Josna Rege

161. Watching the River Flow

In 1950s, 1960s, 1990s, Books, Childhood, Inter/Transnational, Stories on October 5, 2012 at 2:26 am

Amrit Vela

Watchin’ the river flow,
Watchin’ the river flow,
But I’ll sit down on this bank of sand
And watch the river flow.
                                                Bob Dylan

As a child my favorite reading was set on rivers. In The Little Grey Men, the three gnomes—Little People—were happiest at home in their brookside burrow, but embarked on a long journey upstream to find their long-lost brother. Where Go the Boats? from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses still conjures up an imaginative space that soothes like nothing else.

When Nikhil was little we would go over to the little bridge across the Amethyst Brook and play Poohsticks, throwing our twigs in on one side and then running downstream along the bank trying to keep pace with them until one got caught in a tangle of branches while the other floated free, or until they both disappeared in the froth and foam.

Meera, the protagonist of Leena Dhingra’s 1988 novel Amritvela (that ambrosial hour before dawn, the ideal time to meditate), dreams of being on a riverbank watching the world go by at a safe remove. Ultimately, she takes the risk of wading out into midstream, where the flow is swift and dangerous, but where she is fully immersed in the struggle of life. Although I approve of the sentiment, if I’m honest it is not the maelstrom in the middle but the cool, quiet riverbank that calls to me.

In my hotheaded youth I remember arguing with a friend about Paul McCartney’s Let It Be, contending that it was advocating acquiescence at a time when it was action that was required; but I was wrong about the song. Deeply restorative, it was imagining a time when there would be no need to struggle any more.

I suppose I am simultaneously driven to action and drawn to the riverbank. This is a trait in my father’s side of the family: Uncle Ted, my maternal uncle, tells stories of my lively and talkative father in his twenties, deep in a book in the midst of a party, oblivious to the music blaring and the dancing couples swirling around him. My cousins in Pune similarly tell of their father, Bhai-kaka, an army man, never happier than when at home with his large extended family, who showed his contentment by withdrawing quietly into an adjacent room with a book. I find myself doing exactly the same thing, but sometimes I must set aside my book and get out into Nature. I head over the road to the banks of the Amethyst Brook and just  watch the river flow.

Where Go the Boats?
Dark brown is the river,
Golden is the sand.
It flows along for ever,
With trees on either hand.

Green leaves a-floating,
Castles of the foam,
Boats of mine a-boating–
Where will all come home?

On goes the river
And out past the mill,
Away down the valley,
Away down the hill.

Away down the river,
A hundred miles or more,
Other little children
Shall bring my boats ashore.
–Robert Louis Stevenson

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  1. Josna,

    This is a lovely piece. As someone for whom ‘watching the river flow’ is essential to my well-being, I sometimes wonder about people who don’t ‘watch’ at all or often. Then I think of my yoga teaching and practice and realize that one of its goals is to help people get to that place of calm inner focus. The joy I see in the faces of students at the end of a practice comes from having watched the river flow, if only briefly.


    • Thank you for your comment, Karen. Only a regular practice such as yours can enable one to cultivate and maintain the balance between action and reflection. The resulting joy and peace is its own reward, though when I, for one, get caught up in the busy-ness of everyday life I am liable to forget that.

  2. Watching the river flow was one of our chief delights on the Rhine recently. Also watching the fascinating way in which the locks were handled as we rose up and down through them in our ship, was something I won’t forget.
    One’s sense of time slowing down as we gently flowed with the river, and being able to watch the daily life on the river banks made me feel deeply peaceful and at the same time just a spectator, floating along. The ancient castles through the Rhine valley lent a sense of history and the people taking their vacations or just a short break, watching us float by, was most enjoyable. Having never lived on a river, made me wonder whether we might see the same sort of relaxed enjoyment in other countries.
    In India the rivers seemed to be used for washing much more than just gazing at, although there must be places there, also where people are free to just meditate on the flowing river.
    So many folk songs involve rivers and how we love them. I hope we can continue to save and keep cleanly flowing these great waterways that are like lifeblood throughout the physical world.

    • I love your comment, Marianne: the thought of your sense of time slowing down as you flowed with the river; your reflection on rivers in India deserves a whole post to itself, since rivers are sacred and so central to the Indian cultural imagination; the innumerable folk songs associated with rivers (you mentioned The Lorelei to me as connected with a place you passed on this trip, and limiting oneself to Britain and the U.S. alone Flow Gently, Sweet Afton, The Jolly Miller, The Banks of the Wabash, On the Banks of the Ohio, Shenandoah, Deep River Blues, Moody River come immediately to mind. Best of all is your closing sentence:

      I hope we can continue to save and keep cleanly flowing these great waterways that are like lifeblood throughout the physical world.


  3. Poohsticks and A Child’s Garden of Verses: You always hit the evocative childhood notes for me! Ratty messing around in boats, Stuart Little sailing across the pond in Central Park – living near water always seemed romantic to me growing up in Cleveland, where the Cuyahoga River caught fire and nobody swam in Lake Erie, although, happily, those places have both been cleaned up quite a bit. What I loved best about working on the Quinnetukut were the quiet 45-minute rides at the beginning and end of the days, when I could just enjoy the ride and look for herons and kingfishers along the banks. There is something so peaceful about that. Trains can do the same thing, in a different way: they don’t connect me to nature, but give that same feeling of remove and an ability to watch the world. Where I live now, I can walk down to the river and read a book at one of the picnic tables, which is lovely, although I don’t do it as often as I’d like.

    Another lovely piece, thank you!

    • Dear Sarah,
      Of course, you messed about in boats for your bread-and-butter those two (was it?) seasons on the Connecticut River! When you were on duty you were really switched on, so those quiet first and last rides of the day must have been so relaxing. I notice the Native American names: Cuyahoga (lovely to think it’s come back since your childhood), Quinnetukut. They put me in mind of Langston Hughes’ famous poem:

      I’ve known rivers:
      Ancient, dusky rivers.

      My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

      Check out Langston himself reading it:

  4. This is lovely jo, I can also remember you being able to totally switch off whilst reading Adrian mole xxxxxx.

    • Thank you, dear Cussin. I had forgotten about having read Adrian Mole until you mentioned it–will have to re-read it sometime. Nowadays I’m feeling too scattered to completely lose myself in a book as I used to–I find it easier to listen to books on tape in the car. Must find my way to a riverbank soon. . . Hugs xxx

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