River Beas is one of the five rivers of the Punjab. The word Punjab itself means five rivers. Chenab, Jhelum, Satluj and Ravi are the others. I am doubtful of the veracity of this, but I am told that the names are all names of girls, including Ravi, which is in fact pronounced Raavi, rather than the sun-god Ravi. I should confess that I have only ever known a Jhelum, and the friend who told me this had only ever known a Raavi, but the next time someone I know is looking for a name for a girl, I’ll be bound to suggest Chenab, just so they can ridicule me.
About eleven days before my first sighting of River Beas this past June, there was a terrible accident on its banks, in which more than twenty people had died. A dam built on the river, associated with the Larji Hydroelectric Project, was opened without proper warning, and a group of students who were very close to the river were swept away as the water rose too high, too fast. River Beas had swallowed them whole.
I suspect that the Larji dam is one that the bus drove past on its way from Delhi to Manali. I didn’t identify it as the “culprit” dam then, but perhaps I would have been awe-struck by it anyway. The pressure with which the water sluiced through and the height to which curved up after hitting the ground were an homage to gravity and engineering.
River Beas originates at Rohtang Pass, at one end of the Kullu valley in Himachal Pradesh, and loses around 3700 mts of altitude over some 470 kms before it merges with River Satluj, well into the state of Punjab. By then, perhaps, it is like a mature woman, with girth and fertility, capable of feeding farms and feeding people, not just with its water, but also with its rich soil deposits. But up in the Kullu-Manali region of the valley, the river is still a young girl, footloose and fancy-free, more about pace and electricity than anything else.
While in the valley, much of the NH21 highway runs right next to the river, and the views left me transfixed as the bus wended its way through. I think I have never quite swallowed the fact that water wears out rock. Limpid, flowing water, catcher of light, dwelling place of foam and spray. Hard, monolithic rock, born of the Earth’s womb, dwelling place of metal and ore. Pit one against the other and give it time, lots of time. Wait and watch. There is only one winner. The water continues to dance along its merry way, beating poor old rock into submission, as it cascades, crashes and carves over it and into it.
The closest I got to seeing the water in action was on a short white water rafting trip. It wasn’t totally free of apprehension that we went. Apparently people had died there earlier in the season. Apparently it was better to go rafting earlier in the day, before the snow melt raised the water level. And of course, they also told us beforehand what to do if we fell out — basically, you had to act like the dead Boromir from LOTR, arms across chest, flowing down feet-first, the only difference being that you were in the water waiting to be rescued, and he was in a little boat, well past the point of rescue. As a response to the “be like Boromir” intructions, we just decided to hold on to the ropes tighter.
The rafting itself was uneventful and thoroughly enjoyable. Well, I say in retrospect that it was uneventful, I don’t think I would have said that the first two times we encountered rapids. But I realized at some point what expert hands we were in, which hands were precisely controlling how much of a thrill each stretch of rapids was going to be simply by maneuvering the angle at which the raft approached the rapids, and after that the ride was uneventful, at least mentally. It was still very enjoyable, and the yells of “Oooooh ah” from the raft never stopped. The river left us completely drenched, in body and in mind.
Beyond the rafting too there was the Beas. There was the sitting near it, the walking along it, the staring at it, the skipping rocks into it, the little bridge over it and the contemplating of it. I wish I could say it was all Beas, all the time. It wasn’t quite like that, but there was a lot of it, and what was there was enough.
As the bus left Manali a few days later, again wending its way right by the river, it seemed strangely unfair to know that the river would continue being its own true self even in my absence, like a lover who doesn’t quite love you enough. I might leave, I might return to the other side of the planet, but River Beas would just go on being. Sometimes taking lives, but mostly giving to them. Freezing, falling, rising, carving, all even after I was well and truly gone. Impervious and indifferent to me, personally, but blithe and joyous to whoever came by. And so it would continue for millenia.
I wonder sometimes if sitting by a river for a little while, walking by it, rafting on it, or just being next to it while on vacation, can give one sustenance for life after vacation. Whether it makes one stronger, or wiser, or calmer, whether it has any lasting positive influence at all. If life is an aggregate of all one’s past experiences, I’m glad to have a sliver of River Beas in my past. But what if life is not about past experiences? What if it’s just about the present moment, as all the wise men constantly tell us? What then?
Well, what we have then is a thousand cliches clatteringly coming true, because the river embodies them all. Or perhaps they aren’t cliches, perhaps they are wisdom. Sometimes the difference is hard to tell. First of all you get Heraclitus, telling you that you can never step in the same river twice, both because you change, and the river changes, from instant to instant. And if the ever-changing nature of the universe weren’t enough wisdom, you also get the unwavering Zen teachers telling you, gently, smilingly, that the river, it is exactly the river, nothing more and nothing less, always. It is what it is, they want you to know. And they’ll let you know in this way: “Before you come in contact with zen,/ you feel rivers are rivers and mountains are mountains.// Once you start learning about zen,/ you feel rivers are not rivers and mountains are not mountains.// Once you have mastered zen,/ You know that rivers are rivers and mountains are mountains.”
And so the river, constantly changing and never changing, is telling you the three things that matter, the only three things that have ever mattered, and the only three things you have ever needed to pay attention to. Every moment it flows, the river offers them up to you, like a meditation. “This. Here. Now.” And that, at the end of the day, is what River Beas really does. She teaches you what matters, and she makes sure you hold it close to your heart. “This. Here. Now.”