Everything was wrong about the way I got to Majuli, the world’s largest river island.
In North Lakhimpur, the “gateway to Arunachal Pradesh” when an invitation to Uttar Kamalabari monastery for Rongali Bihu was shouted out over a dodgy phone line, I made the choice to not waste eight hours riding to Jorhat to take the regularly scheduled ferryboat like every sane newcomer to Majuli.
Instead, bundling everything back into my outsized Samsonite suitcase (the very largest size permitted by IATA airline regulations), I hired a confident-seeming driver who promised to drop me to the ashram by ‘short cut,’ and foolishly handed over the entire sum of money he demanded in advance.
It was then that circumstances started to slip out of my control – I could feel it even as we hurtled through endless tea estates to the incredible, ocean-vast expanse of the Brahmaputra river.
Our car careened down the sandbanks to an uncertain-looking vessel already crammed with humanity: two canoes strapped together with narrow corrugated-metal platforms atop. Now the driver gesticulated towards the water – and the boat which was starting to chug purposefully – “last boat Majuli” he said. Hefting my suitcase down, he jumped back into his car and started to reverse hastily.
So there I was, ankle deep in soft sand on a fantastically beautiful but entirely alien riverbank in Assam, with my only contact speeding away.
Of course I shouted and tried to stop him. But it simply wasn’t possible. I was stranded, and would have to either head back or forward on my own steam. This is when I discovered that no one around me – no one in the crowd of at least 50 people packed onto the boat or waiting to get on – spoke English or Hindi.
It took a few minutes to get the message that the boat was indeed the only way to get to Majuli (everyone understood Uttar Kamalabari Satra), and the only one scheduled that day (the river was already rising from rains upstream, in a another couple days the ferry would cease entirely).
Further gesticulations, grins and back-slaps allowed me to relax, and take the decision to head forward. I toted my ridiculous suitcase to the gangplank, and now I felt the incredible warmth and generosity of Assam, and Majuli denizens in particular. Laughing relatively politely, man after man heaved my suitcase through the crowd, and made place for me.
Two dolphins surfaced as we chugged off into the slanting rays of late afternoon. I breathed a sigh of relief – now on our way to Majuli, I would certainly be able to find the monastery without problems, and keep my rendezvous with the “living deity” who had so warmly invited me for Bihu. So I spent the next hour happily shaking hands with my fellow passengers – all Mishing tribals, crinkly-eyed and smiling, eager to shake hands despite us not being able to communicate at all. Eventually, another sandy ghat appeared ahead. Majuli!
But no, not Majuli! It was another island to be transversed in order to get to another ferry that would finally take me to my destination. Signalling rapidly, my newfound buddies indicated I should run like blazes to the solitary Sumo that sat idling some distance away, because that was the only transport available across this unknown island. But here I was stuck amdist the tribals like a tinned sardine. And how to run with my laughably trunk-sized Samsonite?
By the time I made it to the Sumo, trailing my bag behind like the biggest fool in Assam, it was already crammed to its rafters with Mishings, including half-a-dozen squatting on the roof. Now the sun was flashing red over the deserted alluvial plains like a scene from Mars, and the wind was cold on my skin. I felt helpless, stranded, so very, very far from home.
But here again it did not matter that I was unintelligible and obviously severely mentally challenged for bringing along the world’s most inappropriate bag. Everyone smiled at me reassuringly, and together we hoisted my bag onto the roof. Then the driver insisted I squeeze into the front seat alongside him, and the couple who’d already occupied it. We drove for an hour with the gear-stick between my legs, and a young tribal standing on the roof with my suitcase between his!
By the time we slanted down yet another sandbank to the next ferry, it was really sunset. I dipped my feet in the river, now aware of just how lucky I had been to arrive in my predicament in this place, among these people, who’d made pleasant adventure out of a dire situation that could have easily added up to disaster. That is when I noticed why the ferry was making its was way to our side of the river so slowly – it was hand-drawn!
So I was literally tugged hand-over-hand across the river to Majuli. A silent, companiable ride with the sun’s last rays flashing golden over slow-moving waters. The river ran clear, I spied fish moving below our wake, and now immense flocks of egrets came skimming low on their way to roost.
In a few minutes, I was in another Sumo heading fast into an incredibly, inexpressibly lush and fertile riverine landscape that has to be experienced to be believed. It felt very much like I was entering the Garden of Eden.0 comments so far — Join the discussion