TRAVELS WITH NINA

is the online portfolio and journal of Australian travel writer Nina Karnikowski.

Chapter Twenty Five

Down by the river, all hell has broken loose. Being perched up in the hills at the ashram, I’ve managed to stay completely oblivious of the complete and utter chaos that’s been going on down here. The realization of my ignorance, of how self-obsessed and bogged down in my own petty problems I must have been to miss all of this, makes my stomach churn.

As I walk across the Ram Jhula bridge to where Shristy’s home is supposed to be, the swollen river rushing by just a couple of feet beneath it now, drenched locals run past me carrying plastic buckets, armfuls of household objects, even the odd pig or chicken in their arms, shouting and yelling and weeping.

Along the way, strangers tell me rushed tidbits of information. More than 100 people have lost their lives so far. There are mudslides and flash floods happening up in the mountains that have left thousands of travellers and pilgrims stranded. The 40-foot high idol of Lord Shiva, who usually sits in the centre of the river presiding over the town, has been washed away. An ominous sign, that’s making the locals very nervous.

I push my way through the heaving crowds, the water beating down on my shoulders and soaking me through to the bone. I look to my left and see a huge yellow and blue painted semi-trailer rushing by in the brown water, closely followed by a lone goat thrashing its legs about and bleating like mad, trying to stay afloat. A young Indian boy rushes past me on my right, carrying an impossibly old lady with withered legs and white hair plastered against her hollowed out cheeks on his back. Beside him, a soaked sadhu sits in the mud, rocking back and forth and muttering prayers to himself.

I desperately need to find Shristy. But how? None of the houses I’ve seen so far are pink, and Vivek said it was right next to the bridge but he didn’t say on which side. I’m slipping and sliding around in the sticky mud and becoming more exasperated by the second. And just when I think things can’t possibly get any worse, the top of my sandal breaks clean off the bottom.

“Arrrgh!” I shout out into the rain, picking the sodden pieces of leather up off the ground and hurling them down the alleyway next to me in frustration. How the hell did I imagine this was going to work anyway? I pull my other sandal off and chuck that even further down the same alleyway, just to release some anger. But as I watch it splat down in the mud, I notice something that makes my heart quicken.

There, almost hidden by the enormous nine-story temple right next to me, is the corner of a tiny fuchsia house. I slip and slide down the steep alleyway in my bare feet. This has to be it!

When I’m about halfway towards it, I start slopping through muddy water, and look up to see that the bottom quarter of the house is already swallowed up by the river.

I slop through the open front door, water up to my shins, and find myself in a minute sitting room, that’s probably about half the size of my bedroom at home. There’s not much furniture inside it, save for a small wooden bookshelf and a few cooking implements in the corner.

“Hello?” I yell out. “Namaste?”

There’s no answer so I push through the door to the room at the front of the house, the only other room in the house and the one closest to the water. It’s a minuscule bedroom and there, huddled on the single bed, are four small children, three boys and one girl. They’re cuddled up to one another, their eyes like saucers. The littlest one is crying.

“Namaste,” I say in a soft voice. “Where is your mummy?”

They look at me blankly.

“Mumma?” I try again, realizing as I say it that they probably don’t speak English. Either that or they’re simply petrified, and I don’t blame them. The water seems to be rising by the second, and the house is making some rather alarming creaking sounds. How much longer, I wonder, before the whole house just gets swept away?

Something butts up against my leg and I look down to see an old sari bobbing around in the murky water. But as I pick it up, I realize it’s not a sari at all but a photo album covered in sari material. I flick through a couple of the sopping pages and see black and white Indian family portraits. Two woman standing side by side in immaculately wrapped saris, jewelry dripping from their bodies and solemn expressions on their faces; a man with an enormous curled moustache, a teetering turban perched on his head and metres of fabric wrapped around his body sits on the ground, his chest puffed out and a huge sword balanced in his open palms. There must be decades of family history in here, I think, and my eyes start to well with tears.

I place the book down on top of a nearby shelf, along with my plastic bags, as the house gives another menacing creak.

I’ve got to get these kids out of here.

“We have to leave, you come?” I say to the eldest looking boy as I take a step towards the bed. Instantly, he pulls the others closer towards him.

“I don’t want to hurt you, I want to help. Come on, we’ll go higher up.” I point up the hill as I take another step towards them.

“No!” he suddenly shouts as his big brown eyes flare with anger, or maybe it’s fear. “Mama say stay here. We stay.” He juts his chin out defiantly.

“But darling, mama would want you to be safe, and I don’t think you will be safe here. Please? I know your mama, she is my friend, I promise I’ll keep you safe.”

He shakes his head no and pulls the little girl onto his lap.

The water’s up to my knees now and it’s rising by the second. I’m starting to get a little panicked, and as my eyes flit madly about the room they alight on a picture of Lord Shiva, trident in hand and that serpent curled around his top knot. It gives me an idea.

“Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambho, Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambho,” I start singing quietly to the kids.

“Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambho, Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambho,” I try again, a little louder this time.

The eldest boy stares at me, a look of confusion emerging on his serious little face.

“Mahadeva Shambho, Mahadeva Shambho.” All four pairs of eyes are on me now; they all seem completely fascinated by the white girl singing the Sanskrit song.

“Mahadeva Shambho…” the little girl starts singing shyly, and as I nod at her encouragingly her little brother joins in too, “Mahadeva Shambho.”

“Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambho, Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambho,” I sing as I take another step towards the bed. I’m right next to the bed now.

“Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambho,” the two youngest kids chorus in unison. By the next line, the other two brothers decide to join in, “Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambho.”

I start clapping my hands as I continue singing, then reach my arms out for the smallest child. Her older brother sings back, but still cuddles the girl tightly to his chest. I’m at a stalemate for moment, but then I have a brain wave. As I keep singing, I motion to my back and turn around, squeezing my eyes shut and praying to Lord Shiva, Lord Buddha, and whoever else might be listening, that these kids will decide to trust me.

About twenty seconds later, I feel a pair of small hands grab my shoulders and a grin spreads across my face. “Jai shiv shankar!” I say out loud, and the kids start giggling behind me. The little girl and one of her brothers have clambered onto my back together, and we keep singing in call and response as I wade through the water, out of the house, up the alleyway and onto the sodden street, then up another alleyway onto higher ground. I reach another temple and set the kids down next to a gigantic statue of a cow with bells around it’s neck, telling them to wait right there, before scurrying back down the paths to grab the other two kids. They clamber onto my back, and on my way out of the bedroom I tuck the photo album under my arm, then make my way up the hill again. As I set the other two kids down, I realize I have no idea what to do next. I look at their four stressed-out little faces, chewing the inside of my cheek and wondering how on earth I can keep them safe here while I go back and try to salvage as many belongings as I can from their house.

“Heeey!” comes an American accent from behind me. I turn around and there, standing right behind me with umbrellas over their heads and huge SLR cameras slung around their necks, is the American journalism student and the balding gay guy from the ashram that I’ve successfully managed to avoid for the entire week.

“Can you believe all this? Isn’t this just insane?” says the guy, flopping his wrist at me. “We’ve just been taking the most amaaazing shots down by the water. All the crazy Indians praying – as if that’s really going to help them now – and cars and fridges and even houses just floating right by! We’re so, so lucky we’re here for this, right?”

“Totally…” I say distractedly. “But actually guys, I’m wondering if you can do me a huge favour. I’ve just pulled these kids out of a house down by the water that’s on the verge of collapse, and I really need someone to keep an eye on them while I try to grab some of their things so they don’t lose everything. Would you be able to do that for me?”

The guy looks at be doubtfully; I can tell he’d rather continue snapping pics. Thankfully, the journalism student pipes up.

“I’d love to help. I mean, I just spent last month working on an Oxfam project in Nepal, so I’m totally down with this sort of thing.” She turns to her friend, sensing his discontent. “We can totally take heaps of photos of the kids too, they’ll be amaze.” The guy casts his eye over the huddled group of kids, then nods his head in apprehensive agreement.

“Great, thanks so much. So please just stay right here, I’ll be back as soon as I can. And you guys,” I squat down in front of the kids, “you be good for these people ok? I’m going to get your toys and clothes so we can keep them safe, then I’ll find mummy and everything will be ok.” They stare at me blankly, and I hope to God they’ve understood at least some of what I’ve said. Then just as I turn to walk away, I hear a timid little “thanks you,” from behind me, and I turn to find the eldest boy giving me a Namaste. My heart soars.

“That’s ok buddy, you take care of your brothers and sisters. I’ll be back.” We smile at each other and I rush back down at the house with a renewed sense of purpose.

The water’s risen another foot, I realize as I wade back inside, and a chair’s bobbing around in the corner. I make my way into the bedroom and see that it’s starting to tilt at a rather odd angle. As fast as I can, I grab my plastic bags from off the top of the shelf and start cramming them full of anything I can get my hands on: clothes, teddies and toys, the Shiva painting and a few small hand carved boxes filled with knickknacks. Once I’ve filled four bags, I grab them along with the bobbing chair and lug them back up to the Americans and the kids. The guy’s got them posing for the camera; they’re jumping around and making faces for him, giggling and having a great old time. Clearly it’s a total novelty and an excellent distraction for them. The journalism student’s chatting to a local guy next to them, most probably trying to work a story out of him.

I chuck my load down next to them, and just as I’m about to hurry back down the hill the student yells after me, “you need some help down there?”

Yes, yes I do. Thank you Buddha.

The two of us are able to lift the little wooden bed, that the entire family have presumably been sleeping on together, and lug it up the hill. Next we take the bookshelf, then a couple of bags of pots and pans. Just as we’re getting our final load together, the front door swishes open through the water. It’s Shristi.

“Margaux, why you are here?” she asks, wild-eyed and frantic as she pushes past me into the bedroom. I wade through the water behind her, but before I can explain anything she’s let out a bloodcurdling scream. “WHERE MY CHILDREN?!”

I grab her by her trembling shoulders and look her in the eyes.

“Shristy it’s ok, they’re safe, I took them to higher ground.” I let go of her and press another chair into her arms. “Take this,” I instruct her, “we go to your children now.”

“I go to town, try to find help, but road flooded,” she starts muttering as we walk out of the room and towards the front door. “I can’t get back, I…”

Suddenly, a catastrophically loud crack rips through the room, and we turn around just in time to see the entire room crumble away into the rushing river. A wave of filthy water surges towards us, reaching up to our chests, but Shristy just keeps staring into the river and whimpering. I grab one of her muscular arms, the American grabs the other, and we drag her out the door and back up the hill with us. She continues whimpering as we make our way up, and as soon as she lays eyes on her children, who by now are all jumping up and down gleefully on a discarded mattress with the American, she drops to her knees and starts sobbing. The eldest boy sees her and sprints over. “Mama!,” he cries, and wraps his arms tightly around her neck. The other kids hear his cry and rush over at once, and the family become a heaving mass of intertwined arms and legs.

Eventually, Shristy’s tear-stained face emerges from the pile of limbs. “Thank you, thank you Margaux. You save my children. I never forget…” That’s all she manages before she’s engulfed again. I wipe away the tears rushing down my face. But this time, they’re not tears of sadness. They’re tears of pure joy.