I am on a sandbank in northern India. There is a full moon. The Ganges is the most sacred river of India if you speak to a Hindu for whom it is a goddess itself, bringing spiritual power from the abode of Shiva, creator and destroyer. It is a monumentally important river to an agriculturist, as its floodplain feeds a third of India’s population, to a geographer it transfers water and nutrients from the Himalaya in its flow, to an economic or military strategist it is a vital supply route, to an anthropologist is is part of the cradle of a civilisation that is twice as old as the pyramids.
I am standing here on this sandbank, thinking, in the quiet evening of the thousands of miles of space between me and where I came from to this serene place. I play a favourite Runrig song about a life on the edge of the world which takes me to Scottish islands, a baring of the soul, to a deep sense of belief of which I am aware but can no longer honestly profess.
A flicker at the edge of my vision reminds me that my group are taking in the same wonders as I am, gazing into the flames of a driftwood fire, some trying to find words for their record of the journey, some distracted from the moment by chatter, some perhaps wishing they had a proper bed for the night. A slow plosive splash behind me tells of a dolphin breathing.
The murky colour of the Ganges is often viewed with distaste until we realise what we see; the silt and clay from a slowly pulverised mountain range is carried to bring new life to the Northern Indian plains. A survey found several thousand Gangetic dolphins, virtually blind because of their opaque world, and dolphins much prefer clean water. The river also has a high silver iodide content, a substance used in modern water treatment, so the ancient Hindu belief of self purification may not be without basis
As I write this in 2018, many people are celebrating Father’s Day in the western world, in the Muslim world it is just after the festival of Eid at the end of a month of self examination, of introspection, purification and self discipline during Ramadan. At the time I was experiencing what I can only describe as some sort of portal in space, I was thinking about my own father who was 6,000 miles away. Here was I, carelessly communing with the cosmos, and my father would be struggling at times to simply draw breath in the just the same way as the dolphin behind me.
At that time my father was in the latest stage of his life, having had a minor heart attack, he was now on a variety of medications to treat that condition. The other most limiting condition was emphysema, now termed COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder) most often a result of smoking and formerly also from inhalation of particles associated with heavy and extractive industries.This thought hit me at the time like a fall from a tree where you are winded, your ribcage in spasm to pull in air as it should.
The yawning gulf between my life swanning around the world, and that of my father unable to walk to collect his pension, shrank back over the intervening years. My father died in his own bed, and his time ended, he would no longer grow older, but I would, granted more time to unravel the mysteries of the world. I cannot say I have fully found that understanding, but I feel I may have found many more clues to the elusive answers we all seek.
The irony is not lost on me that I now feel exactly how he felt, as I also developed COPD, a sense of indestructibility often a hallmark of youth, prevented me from seeing things that were self evident to others. Ever the fate of the hapless human, repeating history.
Et in Arcadia ego – where does this come from ?