1. river 2. bridge 3. man
Bridge male river female / Bridge female river male
Locals river people / Planters bridge people
notes on Arulmani Bridge ( 1929 ? to 2011) and then some…..

1.

riverrun
Sleepy cars crawl up the mountain
Light through shimmering trees
A streak of silver in the wetgrey night.
Oldbones resting, the silent bridge
The river roars.
1.1
the lament of the bridge

Corroded by love. gradually weakened. not realising what was happening. caught up in the dance of the water, the gentle snare of time. a veil that lifts ever so slowly.
thought you would always be there with me. that i was in you. I saw myself only in you. wrapped in the sky, reflected in you, dancing in you. existing because of you. what have i done wrong that you forsake me now ? whose are these callous hands that tear me apart now ? ask them to stop… i cannot bear this clumsy dismemberment…. my burning tears shower your face for the last time. Why do you pretend not to see? twisted burning hissing metal

Wait! the blood that flows in these hands that cut me now with hissing torches is the same that flowed in those that built me. O Arulmani can you see what your children’s children are doing ?

Come with me as they haul my broken and sundered limbs away.

It was many years ago in the winter after the particularly harsh rains that he first suspected something was wrong. That he could not keep pace with her anymore.
He could not hear his own bones creaking because his soul was awash with the constant song of the river, and lost in the beauty of the swirling waters he did not feel his tiredness, he did not see his skin turn rough, the wrinkles. Later the open sores. And when on cold nights, wrapped in his new cloak of rust and moss, he snuggled closer to her; she did not mind. Orangegreen. deepforestsunset.

with you i always felt safe. never thought your love would weaken me, that the playful spray of water, that your moist breath on my face would over time gradually seep into my veins, thinning my strong blood.

1.2

Bridgeover

SHE watched him as he soared above her, bending the cloudy blue sky. Initially she was quite taken by him; after all she had not seen such a thing in the thousands of years that she could recollect. He was a little pretentious perhaps, and a bit too self important and staid but his stillness calmed her. She admired his unwavering sense of purpose. On clear days, much to his chagrin, she liked to tickle his shadowy belly with shimmering light. She laughed out loud when he struggled to keep a straight face and to keep still to allow the stream of cars that passed over.

She recalled earlier days before the Bridge came to her, the people of the hills who had drowned in her waters trying to cross over. Their prayers, pujas and imprecations when she was in spate embarrassed and mortified her. The truth was that she could not control her moods. She did not know why sometimes she was playful and calm while at other times she was angry and spiteful. She did not know why sometimes, below her deceptively calm surface, treacherous swirls formed. She was equally helpless and all she could do was to pray with the people. So when Arulmani Contractor and his men started assembling the Bridge she took it as a Godsend and eagerly awaited its completion.

The Erection of the Bridge in the valley was in many ways an act of staggering violence. The rigid geometry of its alien steel on the soft, misty landscape of the hills, was in sharp contrast to the rampant shimmering green all around. Its arrogant unwavering lines startled the land where even the tallest and straightest trees bowed their heads at the slightest breeze. The people of the hills were slow to like her. The old folk wrapped in rough wool stared through narrowed eyes at its skeletal presence on hazy mornings and in its stiffness, saw a portent of things to come. Others, as they watched the afternoon sun glinting off her, saw the march of progress, the superiority of the white man’s ways. For all of them though, now that the option of not wading through the river was there, the waters seemed colder. But soon, as they stood on its broad back and watched the river below, they could not imagine life without the Bridge.

The birth of the Bridge also signaled the inevitable development of the lands beyond. And as the motor cars and buses stared streaming over the Bridge they hardly noticed the river below. Piped water in their dwellings meant that few would come to the river to bathe anymore. Fathers would no longer wade across her with their children on their shoulders. The river missed the warmth of people, their attention. She turned to the Bridge. Soon he became her only lover, so near yet so far, but always there.

The Bridge did not know it, but she was called a Pratt Truss Bridge by her creators. Patented by Caleb Pratt and his son Thomas Willis Pratt, two Boston Railway Engineers in 1844, the Pratt truss quickly became the most popular design for long bridges. Its efficiency and effectiveness remained true even as wood gave way to Iron and Iron to steel. Years later, her creators in Birmingham or Madras used a variant of this design, riveting together a series of steel members of precise lengths to form her flanks.

2.
A bridge too far

the bridge in time. temporal.
the river out of it. eternal.
the River is immortal and knows it.
the Bridge is mortal but does not know.

2.1

SHE hated the river from the very first day.

On clear days the Bridge saw its reflection on the waters below and marveled at her own beauty. She was not particularly impressed with the picturesque valley she found herself in. The mountains that stretched into the distance, the clear blue sky with puffy white clouds, the birdsong in the trees, the playful river below all were par for the course, she felt. These were God’s creations after all. And God WAS all knowing, all powerful, all whatever… Naturally, his creations would be perfect. She on the other hand was created by man, who is necessarily limited and imperfect. The work of an imperfect being when it nears perfection is far superior to that of the Gods, where perfection is routine, expected, perhaps boring. Have you seen an ugly mountain ? If you look closely can you really say that one tree is more beautiful than another ?

But as she felt various forces and stresses coursing through her members she felt exhilaratingly alive and powerful.1 The strength of her steel, the precision of her members, true and plumb, the grouping of her rivets, the solidity of her supports, even the silver paint that protected her from the rains – these were truly beautiful, she felt. These allowed her to defy God’s gravity and soar across the river. She was beautiful. She was marvelous. She was human, She was Mans’ creation. The river, the mountains and the valleys just are. To marvel at them was foolish, perhaps to demean god.

2.2

HE gazed up at the silver lattice that effortlessly straddled him, stretching across the sky. The river hated her with an intensity that surprised him.

For the river, the tediousness of being eternal, immortal was softened by immersing himself in the human passions of the local people. Their love, respect and fear kept him nimble and his waters sparkling. In mellow moods he would let their fishing lines snake deep inside him and offer them gentle trout and sometimes the fierce mahseer. In times when the sky was wet and he could not see the sun for days on end his mood would darken and he would turn sullen and unpredictable – often denying them safe passage across. During such times the people conducted pujas, broke coconuts on the hard rock of his flanks and prayed to him. For to pray to any of Gods creations is to pray to God. Their words and offerings never failed to move him and invariably he would stop his tantrums, caressing and guiding those who swam across his breadth.

After the bridge was built, he sensed a gradual irreverence in the local people. It was not anything obvious at first, but he could see it in their eyes as they looked down at him from the safety of the Bridge. At first he ignored it, thinking that it would pass. But by the time the children who had grown up playing in his waters had children of their own even the token pujas stopped. The last straw was when they started throwing garbage in his waters. He could not stand it anymore. Hurt, he brooded for months. He let his waters grow muddy and confused. When the stars came out he turned his back on them. And then, on a stormy autumn night woven with strange dreams, he suddenly woke and it became clear what he had to do. Towards dawn, as the tall trees lashed the cold sky awake and before the restless birds stirred he silently resolved to destroy the bridge.

It took thirty years for the first hint of rust to appear on the Bridge. Another thirty before some of her bottom members started to corrode. And when the local people added a central pier to compensate for the weakened Bridge, he redoubled his efforts. The fierce intent and infinite patience of a being like the river is beyond the comprehension of our feeble minds. Another thirty years passed before the Bridge was finally condemned and declared unfit to use.

3.
manboy

People of the River, People of the Bridge.
Who are you boy ?
Good morning Auntie
Good morning Uncle
Thank you Auntie
Thank you Uncle

 

3.1

In the tall room with drawn curtains, a small brown boy looked at his mother brushing her hair in front of the mirror and marveled at her beauty. It is quiet except for the fire crackling in the fireplace and the muffled splashing of the boy’s father in the bathtub. Soon the door opens. The smell of aftershave, a hint of cigarette smoke and a general warmth wafts in with his father into the room. They mingle with the smell of the cold cream his mother rubs into her skin. The mirror mists slightly bringing a dreamlike haziness to the scene. The rustle of her sari, polished leather shoes, still warm, brought in from the kitchen, a crisp white shirt unfolded, a tie magically knotted, the clatter of shoes on the wooden floor and soon they are off into the dark.

Tied to a shifting string of light, the car traverses the winding roads. Pulled along by the headlights which latched on to sometimes a post, sometimes a signboard, mostly trees, but sometimes also the glowing red eyes of a darting fox. His sisters beside him, the boys’ world was in the car. Sometimes he would see people from the other world on the road, stragglers with swinging torches that muddied the dark night feebly, briefly as they wound their way home after a hard days’ work. They were the people of the river.

Inside the car there is a faint glow, a warm fragrance, a timelessness, an anticipation, a hint of dread.

The bridge signaled arrival. Caught in the cars headlights, its steel grey lattice announced the imminence of yet another world. The Club was just minutes away.

3.2

In the Club, where the people of the Bridge congregated, women were called ladies and men were called gentlemen. Here there were warm rooms filled with carpets and people, corridors and billiard tables, rows of books in glass cages, sausages and oak planked floors, crevices and lacquers and a wall stuck with the heads of dead animals and the hats of dead planters.

In this world the saris were always so stiff that the women could not come really close to each other and hug properly. They had to blow kisses in the air to convey their love. However, the men; who were perhaps a little light headed on account of the ties around their necks; valiantly ignored such impediments and succeeded in planting kisses on the layers of make up on the women’s cheeks. Naturally the children were not allowed to pull at their mothers saris or hide in its folds. Nor were they allowed to stare as it was not polite. It was important to be polite in that world. This involved learning a few English phrases and saying them often and loudly whenever provoked. The children quickly mastered them. As the night unraveled, glasses tinkled, ties loosened and speech slurred, the laughter grew more raucous and red eyed. In the dimly lit tall room where the men gathered, through the fragrant haze of cigar smoke the eyes of the stuffed animal heads glinted and shone bright.

In sharp contrast to their parents, at the Club, the children had to be well behaved. This meant not doing any of the things they really liked to do while being polite at the same time. To mitigate this double trauma they were fed ‘finger chips’ along with sweet orange juice in sticky glasses and kept in a “Children’s room” at the far end of the Club. There there were ayahs who wore soft clothes and were quite huggable. They sat on especially hard wooden benches painted a cold white and kept a stoic eye on the proceedings . Sometimes the fragrant women on their way to powder their noses came in to show each other their offspring. In a flurry of heady perfumes, singsong voices and painted feet, attempts to kiss heads and rote enquiries of well being were made. The children smiled politely and behaved themselves.
Outside this world, the roads would be empty. By now the people of the river would also be asleep. After finding solace briefly; some in temples, some in taverns; they would have found their way to their tenements and their wives. Here, after a meager meal in the kitchen that was also the bedroom and the living room, under the baleful eye of the gods they brought from the plains and now arrayed across a wall, they would have mated furiously, silently and helplessly under rough moth eaten blankets, while the children beside them pretended to be asleep, eyes wide shut, not hearing the muffled sounds that signaled future siblings.

On the way back home, the men invariably drove faster, swinging their cars on to the road, across the river on the bridge, into the dark.
It is only after they cross the bridge that the boy nods off to sleep in the backseat.

Oct 30 to nov 4, 2011

“You can never cross the same river twice” not applicable to the bridge.
Without History there is no context to anything, no meaning to say what you feel not feel what you say `

the small brown boy grew up into a small brown man.

~Arun Nalapat