Trimbakeswar. A small, sleepy town, seemingly far away from Nashik, characterised by big and small temples here and there, devout believers of god and dusty streets. As I wandered through those dusty streets I came by the riverside. Away from the quiet air of the village I saw a small gathering of people along the banks of the river. They were clustered near a tree whose gnarled branches stretched across half the river. So as to not get in the way of the grownups I sat down, watching quietly. I could hear bits and pieces of conversation floating about. Unlike the village, this space seemed to be charged, it seemed to be crackling with energy. Suddenly out-of-nowhere I heard laughter and I turned around and saw a bunch of boys of my age running amidst the crowd. Even through the crowd I could make out that there was one specific leader. And to my surprise he seemed to be dressed in Bal Krishna’s attire! I looked around to see if anyone was watching me. All the adults seemed to be quite engrossed in their strange activities with the strange three-legged creature. It not only stood on three legs but also was draped in some kind of black cloth and someone or the other kept peeping into it. Strange, I thought. But as no one was watching me I quickly got up and joined those boys. Soon I found out that this wasn’t a strange family picnic or an impromptu get-together. This was in fact the shooting for a film ‘Kaliya Mardan’ and the man behind the three legged creature was Dada Phalke and that the three legged creature was in reality a camera. And to my surprise I learnt that the leader was Krishna, in fact he wasn’t a boy at all! It was actually a girl dressed up as a boy and that too she was Mandakini, Dada Phalke’s 7-yr old daughter! One of the boys told me that most of the scenes of Krishna stealing butter and curds had been completed and the main scene where he battles with Kaliya the snake were remaining. No one thought I was a stranger. Children and adults all alike included me into all that was happening. I became a part of their team. Soon we were all gathered at the foot of the tree while Mandakini was perched on a high branch well over the water. Dada Phalke wanted to shoot the scene where Krishna jumps into the water. He had already told her that when he signals she should jump into the water. But as soon as he signalled, Mandakini looked below and froze. She saw the gushing water, and the bubbling current. The petrified expression on her face was speaking of another story.
Dada had told me about the Kumbh Mela. But he never mentioned it would be like this. I can see so many different people and so many different faces, a myriad of colours. I can hear so many voices chanting so many different things. The swelling river and its noise is adding a new dimension of its own. Suddenly I realise that I have strayed away from mother. I vaguely remember her saying that she is going over to talk to Dada. Dada is busy shooting the activities on the ghat with what he calls his first love, his camera. I can see him, clearly in his element. But I can’t see mother anywhere. Among so many people I can’t find her. Mesmerised by the constantly flowing water I turn my gaze back to the river. Just as I am thinking that I could stay here and keep staring at the water I see something bobbing up and down. I think it’s a pot but suddenly the pot turns and I see a face. It takes me a few seconds to realise that it’s a boy of my age crying out for help. He is caught in the current and is flowing away. He can’t reach the bank, the current is too strong. I realise that I can’t move either. It’s almost as though I’m glued to the ground. I want to help him but I can’t move. I want to shout and tell people but my voice is caught in my throat, my tongue is dry and heavy. I can’t even manage to shut my eyes. I can do nothing but watch as the terror unfolds, nothing but see the boy struggling, and nothing but hear his desperate cries for help.Suddenly the people around hear him, see him and rush to his aid. I am still glued and now all I can see are the backs of the other people. I have no idea as to where that boy is, rescued and alive or drowned. Neither do I have the courage to ask anyone. Nobody seems to notice me or that I’m paralysed with the fear of what I jus witnessed. Suddenly I find myself being shaken by mother. She senses something amiss and asks me what the matter is. Unable to answer I simply shake my head at her. She drags me away but the roar of the river and the cries of that boy still echo in my ears.
All the boys including me were asked to wait under the tree. Mandakini, paralysed with some fear couldn’t take her eyes off the water. Frozen as she was, she was unable to climb down. So instead Dada climbed up to her. As she finally looked at him and then at us I saw pure fear in her eyes. None of us could hear what Dada was telling her. All we could see were Mandakini’s down-cast eyes and in them a mixture of guilt of letting her father down and the lingering traces of her previous fear. From Dada’s expressions and actions we could see that he was fast losing patience. As we could only see them it was as if we were watching a silent film. As I sat quietly looking at them, the others were trying to guess what both of them were saying. Suddenly we heard Dada shout, “You have to jump into the water. Our lives depend on this film. You have to do it for your father’s sake.” Then I noticed a subtle change of emotions in her eyes. The earlier fear was replaced by another one, a greater one. The fear of her father’s wrath and anger. It was probably bigger than her previous fear because after Dada climbed down, readied everyone for the shot, as he signalled Mandakini mutely jumped without much ado. As I walked back home that evening I couldn’t help but wonder what had caused Mandakini to freeze on that branch.
Story by Radhika Ganorkar, Nasik workshop