The water turned dark. Riya’s mind, which had been steadily drifting into slumber, stirred into awareness. The sunlight piercing through the side of the truck had mixed with the water and the plastic of the bottle to create shape-shifting diamonds. Gems on the surface of the water, on the cloth of the bag, on the side of the truck. Riya had been observing their whimsy of turning from oblong to triangular to scattered specks. Their play whispered a silent lullaby to her eyes, soothing her from the ache in her feet. It took two days to get from Delhi to Agra on foot, with a little help from some drivers. On the Agra flyover, some policemen helped them hitch a truck to Kanpur. But Allahabad was still a long way.
Prakash had saved enough to buy bus tickets home, but transport was shut because of the pandemic. With the construction sites closed, there was no work left insight. The savings he had seemed to leave him faster than they had promised to. He needed to get Riya and himself home before they ran out.
The diamonds had now become rubies. A man asked for water. Her brother reached to the side of their bag and mindlessly handed the bottle over. Riya held her breath. They would find out she was the culprit and then Prakash would let her have it. The man, equally mindlessly, didn't notice the colour of the liquid and took a swig. She secretly hoped he wouldn't notice anything. The fatigue seemed to make all of them less observant. Alas, tongues are not easily deceived. The man sat up straight, first from shock and then from elation.
‘Arre bhai aapne toh badiya bandobast kiya hai.’ he said to Prakash. Prakash looked back at him with confusion, then noticed the liquid. The man had passed the wine to the passenger next to him. They were both older than Prakash and much older than Riya. The first one would be their father’s age. The second one their grandfather’s. ‘Thakan se thodi fursat mil jaayegi.’ the elderly man commented as he took sip after sip, smiling in a conspicuously friendly manner. He offered some to Riya, but Prakash quickly took the bottle from his hands. He didn’t put it back in the bag. It was Riya’s school bag. She had gotten a new one when she started 8th grade. Its fresh colours stood out in the otherwise drab setting.
The truck stopped. They were on some road or the other. Shops were closed, vehicles were out of sight, even the stray dogs were not spotted. Their presence seemed to be the only sign of life insight. The passengers disembarked from the back and paid some money to the drivers. Prakash haggled with them a little and managed to save one hundred rupees. They didn’t have a lot left. The path ahead seemed to be endless and obscure. For now, a group of former passengers sat down in the shade and started to eat. Riya and Prakash too sat down in a little distance. As they silently chewed the morsels they had left, a man sitting nearby struck up a conversation with them. Riya remained silent and let her brother answer. Her mind drifted away from time to time. ‘Ganga ji Kanpur se seedha Illahabad ki taraf behti hain.’ she overheard the man say. ‘Aap bas unke saath saath chalte rahiye.’
Prakash stumbled and nearly fell while getting up. He was carrying most of the luggage. He rubbed his forehead, adjusted his shoulders, and carried on. He had thrown the wine from their bottle and managed to refill it with water. Riya was starting to feel thirsty but did not dare ask for the water, lest she ruins it again.
They were walking straight to the river and would follow it eastwards. If not much else, the riverbank was cooler. The sun had also started to mellow as the evening descended. Riya kept her eyes averted from the river as she went on walking. They had left most of the people behind. Even in their fatigue, they were younger and faster. Only an empty river on one side, empty streets on the other, and a disappearing sun behind them kept them company. The blush of the sky infused the scene with a peaceful melancholy. Dusk mingles with everything. It robs the world of all urgency and harshness it seems to wear at other times. For a moment it seemed to Riya that very soon she too would find the peace in which the riverbank was steeped. But for a moment only. Her vision began to play tricks on her. The worst of greens, pinks, and oranges filled her view and disappeared. Stars were floating in front of her eyes. A moment of clarity would emerge and then be flooded with darkness. She was exhausted.
‘Chal.’ Prakash egged her on. ‘Bas thodi der aur.’
Riya gathered whatever vestiges of energy she had left and determined to walk straight. Her view had gone black now, but she knew as long as she kept on moving straight she would be fine. She walked with increased speed, hoping to cover as much as she could before she gave up. On and on and on she went, unaware of the world, unaware of everything but the fact of walking.
‘Riya!’ she heard Prakash’s scream in the distance behind her. She turned so quickly it made her dizzy. But in a moment, the blackness cleared up like fog. She saw before her a body of water. An offshoot of the river- too modest to be a stream, too attached to be a lake. On one side she was standing and on the other was her brother.
It was impossible! She could not have crossed it. It was too deep. She didn’t know how to swim. Besides, not even an inch of her was damp, except her feet. The only mad explanation was that she had walked on water. Maybe on another day, Riya would have found the time to marvel at all this. All she cared about at that moment was to get back to Prakash. She had come one way, surely she could go the other. She plunged into the water, only to realise her feet went in it instead of on it. So she came back, damper. Tears began to roll down her cheeks. Every last muscle of her limbs was taut with exhaustion. But Riya would not give up. She could not bear the thought of being stranded alone, not after all she had to go through. She closed her eyes and focused. She wouldn’t think of the water. She wouldn’t think of her brother. She would only think of walking. Though her face was stained with tears and her breath was breaking, she went forward. She kept going without losing focus, without even once being tempted to look where she was going. She was walking. On water.
There was a thud. The sound of some utensils clashing. Riya opened her eyes. In front of her, much closer than before, she saw Prakash. He was lying unconscious on the ground. The fatigue got to him. His body had fallen sideways on his stomach. Riya could see his face. A crown of sweat glistened from his forehead. The luggage was crushing his body. One bag on his back, another on top of it at an angle that made a deformed cross. Some utensils had fallen out and were scattered around the body. Their metal reflected the sun-like stars. Riya tried to rush to him at once, but before she could even take a step the water took her in. She drowned.