On the first step of the staircase he paused and looked up to see the rock cut into equal, though uneven steps to help people reach the top where it was said the sun at the earliest hour bathed the town far below in the valley in its yellow light and in a way that the river itself looked like a stream of gold making its way past the houses on both sides of it. And what had struck him, and he wasn’t sure if others saw it that way too, was that the houses on both sides of the river were hardly houses at all. But roofs made of hay, clay, even tarpaulins that were propped up by bamboos and plastic sheets. He lived among them, and he knew how it was to see the place from inside. People who walked up these steps cut into the face of the rock to see the gold flowing through the town hardly ever visited the town. Almost none knew the name of the place either.
To them, it was a sight that made them wake up early, drive in the dark of the first hint of dawn, take almost an hour or more to get here from the Fort City that had more attractions to keep them there, and walk up these steps to see the golden river. Not the houses that flanked it, not the people who made their living by collecting and selling sand at the point where the river curved and slowed down enough to drop the grains it chipped off the rocks that came in its way and coaxed them to leave their home, only to be sold and bought, only to become part of structures that were far weaker, far less majestic, and transient compared to the rocks and hills they had once belonged to.
That sand was their gold. Though it never sold at prices of anything but sand, and took a lot more out of the people than it gave them. They walked miles to reach the bend, used their own hands and shovels to dig up the sand from the shallows, hauled them a few metres away where the mules stood, loaded them and walked to where they would get the bags weighed and get paid to leave them there. But the weight of the sandbags was only taken after it was completely dry. Even for the little weight that the water could have added there was not a paisa to be had. Though when they lifted the sand and picked the bags and loaded the mules, they had felt it bearing down on them. But when it came to getting paid for it, they had to wait till the last drop had evaporated, or dropped out of the bags.
And yet, people from afar called it gold, flowing between the two banks, held within the two lines as though, if allowed, the gold would flow between the houses and turn them rich. If they ever saw the houses on the bank. He remembered the year when the river had forgotten its boundaries and thrust itself over the banks and entered the town. The three days that it ran through the alleys and lanes and into houses and shops and even the school that was at a slight elevation, like a raiding army, it had made life for the people drenched like the sand. A heavy load till it dried up again. Food, cattle, and belongings had been picked up and, when the waters pulled back, had either been discarded, or taken along. What criteria did the river use to do one thing with some things, and another with the other, no one knew. Over the next month or so, people kept discovering things they had lost, or finding things they had long given up on. Some, when found, had to be dried not unlike the sand they all worked with. Some could never be called back from the wet but were kept because they gave people something to remember what they had lost. He himself had found a picture of his mother that had, for over twenty years, reminded him of the smile he would have otherwise never known, having lost her in his childhood. The river had first swept it down from the low table it had always been kept on in the corner of a room, then taken it a fair distance, crept through the frame and smudged the colours of the old picture. It may have even taken it away, had not the shrubs refused to part with it, preserving for him an image of the image that he had grown up with. And now he looked at the photograph, nailed to the wall at a considerable height, and tried to remember the smile from the old photograph. Only much later did he realise that he no longer looked for his mother and her smile in the smudged paper behind the glass with a hint of a face. Instead, he kept looking for the photograph he had grown up with. Had the river done him a favour by making him move on from the trauma of his childhood, or had it dealt a cruel blow, taking away his mother a second time?
He had by now climbed the rock’s face and was sitting and staring down at the valley, the town, the houses. And the river. There would be no tourists today. The sky was heavy with dark clouds under which the river looked exactly what it was. Grey and heavy from all the sand it was carrying, deep and wide as it pushed past the slowing flow ahead near the bend where it realised that the best way to proceed was to let go of the sand. This was the real face of the river. A face that no one from outside wanted to see. For them, the river was river of gold. Not because it was. But because they would only come on days and between the few hours that it seemed as though it was. They were not here to see reality, but to escape their own. He understood and never grudged them their little escape. But whoever had seen it from near could never see it as a river of gold, even if they sat where he was sitting now, on days when the sun was out and the sky was blue and the light not yet harsh to burn all the colours in to a harsh, uniform whiteness. Like the sand.
Only he could.
The town would often remind itself that however much they may curse it, they would have to come back to where the river slowed at the bend and left behind the grains from distant lands, so they could pick it up and sell it. The food they ate, the education their children got, the clothes they wore, the medicines and care they received, the celebrations and mourning, the births and the promises, it was all in exchange for what the river gave them. They were free to not call it a river of gold, but it was at least a river of life for them. If they ever thought that their lives were miserable, they were free to make it elsewhere. This was all the river could give, all it would give. Sometimes, it would take away. But they never asked the river why it took away a little something from the rocks far away and gave it to them.
But he used to often ask the river when he sat by its banks longer than his friends would, longer than the effect of the rum stayed in his head, longer than its smell lingered on his breath. And asked why had he taken his mother away. He didn’t expect an answer. But he owed it to the memory of that smile to at least ask.
But that was then. Now, almost two years after the river had invaded their town, he stopped asking it that question. On a day like any other day when he was out with the other people from his town by the bend in the river, hauling sand and carrying it to his mule and dropping it over on the bags on its back, knowing the weight would soon start reducing as the water dried up, he found something small and red caught on the edge of his shovel where the edge had been chipped off while digging near the point where some stones had rolled over in the shallows. He squatted down, shook the small pouch free, and then shook it to clear the sand that was obscuring most of it and thought it looked familiar. Dropping the shovel, he pulled back the drawstrings that were tied in a tight knot, and after much effort, managed to free it enough to drop the contents on his palm. There, under the sun, the edges of his mother’s golden earrings caught a sunbeam and lit up like a tiny diamond. Or a smile. Like with many others in the town, he too had not even known what all he had lost till some memory or use or mention brought up a search that yielded nothing and a sense of loss swept over them like a fresh wave, though the loss itself was not.
He too had never realised that the little red pouch was missing. Not that he had a lot of things to remember his mother by. But to him, the photograph was far more precious than these earrings. But now with the photograph gone, suddenly these glittering, playful pieces that were in his palm now became everything to him. His mental gaze shifted from that smile he remembered in that smudged photograph and went to the ears where the same pieces dangled. Never before had he noticed them. But now, even though he stood far from the image, and without any way of knowing if anything of these ornaments still remained on it, he could see them clearly.
He put the earrings back in the pouch, secured the pouch in his pocket, and went back to hauling sand. From the river of gold.