You will know that you have strayed from well-traveled routes when you arrive at a riverbank and there is no bridge. Since ancient times, and especially in rainy backcountry, this is an epic scene: river landings with dugouts drawn up on the strand. The figure of boat and ferryman is so central to human experience that together they hold a lasting and evocative place in cultural memory. Indeed, remains have come to light of dugouts more than 8000 years old, whose making required no metal and were fashioned by fire and stone tools from a single, mighty tree.
It is possible, even today, when traversing the monsoon lands of Asia, the Amazon or Congo basins, inland New Guinea and a host of other places, to find yourself, of necessity, cradled in just such a dugout, with no highway besides the surface of a vast and muddy river.
Step into such a dugout and you know you have crossed into another reality. Terra firma has fled. Beneath you is terra incognita, except it’s not even ‘terra’. Below are slippery depths and darkness unknown. You have no river legs, and land instincts are of little use. All is entrusted to a river craft and to one who stands with paddle at its stern.
We once lived along such an Indian river, revering our village neighbors who fashioned the dugouts from riverside hardwoods, and those who took us onto the currents, bearing us to parts beyond. Chief among those boatmen was the one we knew as ‘Pani Ram’ (Water God). He may have had family, but none that we knew, maybe because he was kin to the river. He had his own rice fields, but he kept them indifferently. No one thought to employ him since he had a well-known weakness for rice brew, his way of keeping knowledge of the perils and secrets of the river at bay. When it came time to travel the river though, there was no one who could replace Pani Ram. He knew what lay unseen in the water’s depths, where the shallows waited, where the current swirled dangerously, where the ‘ghorial’ (river crocodile) lurked. When, on rounding a bend, we would hear the thrashing of white water, it would have to be Pani Ram at the stern of the dugout, battling the turbulence with his paddle, shouting to the other boatmen, guiding the massive dugout through roiling water.
It’s a timeless figure, this riverboat and Pani Ram. The dugout and the ferryman. Poets and storytellers have pondered the great crossing to what lies over yonder. They say a ferryman waits there with his dugout to conduct travelers to the far side. Some have said he is an exacting boatmaster. Hence the custom of placing a coin on the lips of the deceased, that the crossing be unhindered, paid in full. But there is also an old Indian lyric that says of the crossing,
“… wayward or righteous,
pauper or carefree,
whatever the origin,
that life to come is yours for the desiring.”