“Give me Your hands.” Said the older man with pushed back wet hair and a distinguished mustache so typical of Indian man to match. The little girl, one hand latched onto her mother who stood on the dry ghat steps, the other in full reach towards her father. Her brother, a little shorter and younger, sat half emerged in the bathing steps, slowly switch between his legs, kicking in the morning water of Ganges.
Behind her, a plastic container resembled the shape of a cooking oil container wrapped in a long green head scarf with two ears tied and secured around her waist. The submerged steps remain slippery from the algae, and his hands just a pinky length out of reach. In the space between her mousy shout of “Catch” and “Me”, she let go and leaned into a finger length free fall.
He held the slight amused smirk in check and easily caught his daughter’s hands, despite a fraction size of his, grabbed on tight with surprising strength. In her eyes, he saw hesitation, uncertainty and most certainly – Fear, of the unfamiliar and unknown, something that must be conquered beyond the mechanic of swimming, something he must help her through. “Small steps” he thought as he gently scooped handful of Ganges water over her arms, shoulder and head.
Despite the early onset of Indian summer, a small gasp let out as the water caught her off guard, wet and dripping along her long black hair down to the shoulder. A reaction she thought she had out grown. The water felt cooler than expected though pleasant enough to bring out a slight smile. The tug of war between uncertainty and pleasant surprise played out unhidden on her face not lost to him.
Seizing the momentum, he quickly asked her to take a deep breath, lower into the water and let the bubbles out. The familiar sound of his firm commanding voice lead her to follow out of habit. With one last glance at him, she slowly lowered into the water, but made as far as her face touching the surface before involuntarily jumped to her feet. Without hesitation, he firmly pressed her to try again. This time, a little quicker, she submerged into the water.
Bubbles involuntarily escaped her mouth, zigzagging upward to the surface. With eyes shut tightly, the Ganges draw the last curtain over the world she knew. The sound of holy man chanting, the splashing of her little brother kicking, and the concerned voice of her mother, muted, adrift into the distance unable to make out who, what and where, except a familiar pair of hands anchoring hers. For a split second, she pondered if this is how the astronauts float in space, before reawakening to the fact the air she took for granted can no longer sustain her.
In just under a few seconds, he saw his little girl re-emerge gasping for air. Not yet long enough but long enough to bring a smile. With his hands guiding her, they repeated the exercise again and again and again; until her eyes no longer shut jail tight, until her hands no longer grab in desperation, until the bubbles found their purpose zigzagging.
From the ghat steps, the alternating kicks stopped annoying the Ganges; the boys attention long ago shifted to the commotion of the shouting and pleading. Fully obliged as a younger brother, he watched in amusement and takes pleasure in the suffering of a his sister, unaware soon enough it would be his turn.
When submerging, holding breath and blowing bubbles no longer scared her, he paused briefly before reaching out both hands holding hers in mirroring reflection; face to face and in simple words – he tries to mentally prepare her to move further into the river. “Just a little further” he assured, pointed a few feet away – “Not too far.” Two angular eyebrows, blown cheeks accompanied a strong side-to-side head shake with a non-visible foot stump below the surface. She wasn’t sure what to expect out there, all she knew was she’s not completely comfortable even here, further seemed risky. The father knew it was coming, something he himself refused at that age and stage of learning. But there is no other way. His commanding voice boomed, this time with more emphasis on compliance, and without waiting, he stepped further in. Not wanting to let go of his hands, she followed.
The moment her feet could no longer feel the ground and the plastic container behind her took on a life of its own, she screamed. Firmly steadying her arms, he sternly commanded her to kick, kick, kick below the water. Below in the murkiness, two pairs of legs, scissoring and crisscrossing trails of white bubbles in random patterns. Above, the empty plastic container strapped behind her kept her afloat, a fact she has all forgotten. When the random grabbing, struggling and screaming softened, before he could muster the calmest firmest voice, the knot in his throat had to go first.
The duty of a father. The admiration of a daughter. Small hands, big hands, one depends, the other affirms. As the anchor, the protector, he wanted to be always there for her but knowing that he will not always be. The hands that disciplined, comforted, lead, now must let go. She must learn to trust herself in what can be possible. The river of Ganges that blesses and protects, there is nowhere else he trusted more to let go. ”Small steps” he said to himself. Then in his calmest, firmest voice masking his struggle, “I’m going to let go. Paddle your arms towards the ghat.” With that and all of his strength, his grip loosened and gently propelled her away back towards the ghat.
Eyes widened, screaming at the top of her lungs. The anchor of gravity and strong arms have left her before instinct took over. Between swallowing gulps of Ganges, her wild arms swung furiously and legs kicked high to stay afloat; the desire for the shore was unmistakably in her eyes. Guarding her all the way back, pacing next to her but just out of reach, he repeatedly shout out “Paddle. Kick. Breath. Good.”, and at the last few yards, he circled in front to receive her.
Into his arms she held on like dry land. Out of breath, limbs quivering in protest, he gave her a big squeeze and assured she did a great job. Eventually her breath returned. The quiver in her arms and legs subsided. She looked at the man she’s always trusted. There was an angry objection in her eyes. The hands she’s squeezed tight since toddler pushed her away. Out of habit, her fingers flinched to form a small fist, but the splashes and reflecting light reminded her she’s not yet on dry land. Nonetheless, the lips compressed into a thin tight line, nostril flared, and small punches came at his arm in furies of three. She angrily shouted and protested. He pretended the punches hurt, they did, just not where she can see.
Yet in her anger, came a quiet recognition of what seemed not possible became possible. If she can do it once, she can do it again. Whether that is going to happen is entirely another matter between her and the man she’s infuriatingly mad at at the moment.
The middle age woman sat on the ghat steps looked on since it all began, chuckled as the daughter punched her father in the arm a fourth time. “Are you her family?” I asked, glancing back at the pair. “No. But she’s learning so fast!” she replied. Her eyes and voice filled with admiration for this little girl to grasp a fundamental life skill so important so young; and for the father, to have the wisdom and strength to know when to hold on and when to let go.
A series of loud boyish laughs pulled us back. Father still nearby, his sister just paddling back to the ghat a third time. Coughed again and again to force out unintentionally swallowed river water, she leaned forward with arms resting on the knees to catch her breath. In between the inhales and exhales, her father called out to her brother “Your turn”. A slight grin pulled across her face; it’s her turn to laugh.
2013, Ganga, India, River, Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi