Memoirs of ferry rides: Brahmaputra and a trip down memory lane to Assam's Sonari ghat before the Bogibeel Bridge
The Bogibeel Bridge will, indeed, create history, but it won't wipe away the memories of all those like me who traversed across the banks on boats.
"I wonder if it will be completed in my lifetime" — Those were my father's words at an event at the Chowkidingee Field in Assam's Dibrugarh town when the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was addressing a huge crowd in an impressive display of his oratorical skills after laying the foundation stone of the Bogibeel Bridge in April 2002. I still remember the cheer from the crowd when he announced that the bridge will have a double-line railway track instead of one. My father's words turned out to be prophetic as neither he nor Vajpayee would see Prime Minister Narendra Modi dedicating India's longest rail-road bridge to the nation on the former prime minister's 94th birth anniversary on Tuesday.
Correctly dubbed an engineering marvel, this 4.94-kilometre structure is set to redefine communication links between the north and south banks of the Brahmaputra, particularly between the districts of Dhemaji and Dibrugarh, and also link places like Pasighat and Along (it isn't pronounced /əˈlɒŋ/ but 'aalong') in Arunachal Pradesh. With the Bogibeel Bridge soon to be opened to the public, the better medical facilities in Dibrugarh, which also has the Assam Medical College (earlier known as Berry White Medical School) and numerous private hospitals, will be easily accessible to people on the north bank of the river. Indeed a boom is in the making for medical professionals in Dibrugarh, and it's the same for the hospitality sector, as well.
No doubt, the Bogibeel Bridge comes as a boon for those who have been languishing in a remote corner of the country for long. But a bridge will always remain a bridge and can't assume the charm of a boat!
I can't recollect which year it was exactly, but I have a hazy memory of my first ride across the river over three decades ago, when my father got transferred from Tinsukia to North Lakhimpur in his capacity as a government doctor. It was a diesel-run country boat, maybe with a capacity to ferry 200 people. I was somehow clinging onto my mother's arm when she first entered the boat. An 8- to 10-feet-long thin wooden plank, hardly a foot wide, was the only connection between the boat and the river bank, with the swirling waters of the Brahmaputra beneath. My mother took an eternity to get onto the boat, screaming in fright all the way with all her might.
That was in Dibrugarh (I don't remember which ghat it was as they frequently change depending on the water level) when I watched our household items, from furniture to utensils, being loaded onto the boat. For the faint-hearted, it would have been a nightmare to get onto the boat, but then that's life. With the ghats always on loose alluvial soil, the fear is not unfounded. During the same journey, I remember how my mother's Usha sewing machine was perilously placed on a porter's head at Sonari ghat on the north bank and somehow didn't end up falling into the river. If you think deboarding the boat is the last hurdle in this adventurous journey, you are so wrong.
Once on land, one has to carry all the luggage and manoeuvre through the mad scramble for the only three buses to take you to Dhemaji and North Lakhimpur. One was a blue coloured bus belonging to the Arunachal Pradesh State Transport Corporation and the other two privately-owned buses were Krishna and Godavari. No matter how many ferries came from the south to the north bank, these were the only three buses available, and they made the trip only once in a day. I remember the hurry with my parents to just make it to one of the three and then get squeezed like squash for the next three hours on the horrible National Highway-52.
After my father bought an Ambassador, these scrambles stopped but not the adventure. During the summer holidays, which was often during the monsoon in Assam, the road to reach the ghat was not a road but a dirt track, particularly from Kulajan on the north bank. This is where the north end of the Bogibeel Bridge is. There was practically no road there back then. Only the slushy tyre marks of the buses had to be followed, often resulting in the car getting stuck in the mud, or the vehicle chamber scratching the loose soil below. It was almost like driving on two drains simultaneously, with one rear and front wheel on either side. When the car refused to move, my brother and I often had to get out either to push the car, or to put a particular kind of grass (probably elephant grass) near the rear wheels to get the tyres out of the mud. This, of course, happened as we raced against time to reach Sonari ghat as early as possible as the ferry that could carry vehicles (10 at a time) only made one trip a day. The bookings were always made on a first-come, first-serve basis, though the fellow who allotted the bookings played god. A few more hundreds than the government-approved rate could actually make one the lead vehicle, even if it was the 11th or the 13th one to arrive.
Also, getting a four-wheeler onto the ferry was no mean task. During winter, the land was higher than the boat as the water level was usually low. But during the rainy season, it's the other way round. We literally had prayers on our lips when our father used to drive our car on two wooden planks, which were quite steep, to park the vehicle on the ferry. The wheels would often skid, and if the engines were not revved enough, it wouldn't climb up the planks. If the brakes were not applied at the right time after the wheels were on the boat, one could end up falling into the terrifying river, angry with its swift monsoon currents. And it was deep.
The Assamese saying 'Rakhe Hari mare kune, mare Hari rakhe kune' (no one can kill the one protected by the lord and vice-versa) is so befitting.
The journey from Sonari ghat to Dibrugarh would take even longer as the ferry had to move from west to east against the current. It was worse during the monsoon as it would often take over three hours, but travelling back along the route was equally faster.
The Brahmaputra during the monsoon will mesmerise you, regardless of whether nature appeals to you. It's often foggy, windy and cold in the middle, with no sight of the banks on either side. The Brahmaputra is also India's widest river. The ferry would often shiver, even if it was loaded with 10 vehicles (mostly Ambassadors, Fiat and Jeeps during those times) while crossing the many small whirlpools created by the monsoon ferocity. It was also a sea of green with hyacinths floating in abundance. Sometimes, even tree logs could be seen floating by. The rolling waves enthralled me and my brother so much that during our monsoon visits, we would often tie Coca-Cola bottles with long ropes and put them in the river while sitting at the rear end of the ferry. It was so delightful to watch the bottle jump over the waves!
Then there was the cup of tea that I enjoyed on the ferry. Made straight out of the river water on a kerosene stove, the ferry staff would invariably sell it along with a 'pop' (this wasn't pop music but a bakery item closest to a croissant). I have no idea why it was called 'pop'. My mother would also pack chicken fries along with rotis so we could have our lunch in the vehicle aboard the boat. The shouts of fry mach, fry mach (fried fish) still ring loud in my ears. There was probably no fish fresher than that. Caught straight out of the river, it was cleaned within minutes and put on a frying pan on a firewood chulha. After the fish is half fried, it is put on burning charcoal for a few minutes and soon after, wrapped with a newspaper for you to devour. Priced Rs 6 (yes, six and a bigger one would cost you Rs 10), it tasted delectable. No chef can beat that rustic taste!
Sometimes, a water channel comes up overnight when the river changes course, and then people are forced to take smaller boats to cross them to reach the main ghat. The boatmen often bargained and agreed to a paltry sum on the banks, but they would shake the boat so violently in the middle of the channel that the passengers, fearing for their lives, would finally oblige and shell out more. Yes, it was blackmail, but it was fun, too. Cruel, I know!
At times, for four-wheelers to cross the river, they would often tie two country boats parallelly, around three to four feet apart, and get vehicles like Ambassadors and Jeeps onto them. With the dead weight of the vehicle, the top edge of the boats would be dangerously close to the water level. Neither have I even seen any of them sink, not have I heard of it. But it was sheer luck and courage that made the boats float.
The frequency of commutes along that route dropped considerably once the Kolia Bhomora Setu on the Brahmaputra river came up later in the 1980s, connecting Sonitpur district on the north to Nagaon district on the south in Central Assam. It was a major detour of over 400 kilometres via the Kolia Bhomora Setu while travelling from Dibrugarh to North Lakhimpur, and vice-versa.
As the prime minister is just a few hours away from inaugurating the Bogibeel Bridge, a surge of memories grips me, from the sludge track to the spiralling waters, to the anxiety of whether our turn would come to get onto the boat, and to the thrill after getting onto the ferry.
The Bogibeel Bridge will, indeed, create history, but it won't wipe away the memories of all those like me who traversed across the banks on boats. Thanks to the many unnamed and unsung boatmen from the Mising tribe who braved elements of nature and meagre resources to earn their livelihoods and who helped knit a story for many to reminisce today.
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