On Almost Drowning

I’ve almost drowned twice. Once during the whitewater rafting trip I described here a while ago. The other occasion came many years before, on a school trip in India, close to a river known for its fearsome flooding, for the toll it often extracts when its swollen waters disdain its banks and make their way over the neighboring lands: the Teesta.

In my high-school sophomore year–the tenth grade–I traveled to Kalijora in West Bengal on a schoolboy expedition. We were to spend a weekend in a forest service bungalow, swimming in the local rivers, hiking through the forests nearby, cooking our own food. It would be three days of blessed relief from school discipline and regulation.

When our bus dropped us off at our digs, close by the Teesta, situated on a cliff next to its banks, we stopped to stare at it in some awe. The summer rains had turned it into a beast. Readers of George Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire will be able to imagine what we saw if they remember this passage from A Storm of Swords when the Hound, Sandor Clegane and Arya Stark are confronted by the river Arya takes to be the Blackwater Rush – on their way to Walder Frey‘s castle:

The tops of half a hundred trees poked up out of the swirling waters, their limbs clutching for the sky like the arms of drowning men. Thick mats of sodden leaves choked the shoreline, and farther out in the channel she glimpsed something pale and swollen, a deer or perhaps  a dead horse, moving swiftly downstream. There was  a sound too, a low rumble at the edge of hearing, like the sound a dog makes just before she growls.

Years later, when I would see the Cheat River–in flood–in West Virginia during the rafting trip I described in the post linked to above, I thought of the Teesta again.

The Teesta was fed by a tamer tributary that ran below our bungalow; our plan was to use its considerably more inviting waters for our aquatic escapades. We strung up two ropes across its banks, separated by about fifty yards or so; our hope was that anyone knocked off his feet and carried downstream would be able to use the ropes to arrest his otherwise swift passage to a watery death. We stayed above the first rope; we had two shots at being rescued.

Those ropes saved my life. On the first afternoon, rather foolishly, long after my mates had gone left the tributary and climbed back up the rocky flight of steps to our kitchen for a cup of tea, I stayed on, swimming and wading, reluctant to leave its cool waters for the all-enveloping muggy heat that awaited me once I stepped out from them.

And then, suddenly, I was tumbling. I was knocked off my feet and carried downstream in a flash. As I frantically tried to regain my balance to stop being washed out to the frighteningly visible Teesta, I stuck my hand up, and miraculously grabbed the second of the two lifelines.

The tributary’s current was fast, and my body was now strung out, my legs ahead of me, with my arm hanging on to the rope for dear life. I could not stand up; I could not pull myself back up over the rope to get my head and torso out of the water. I felt water flowing over my head and down again. I could raise my head if I tried and when I did so, I would catch a glimpse again of the Teesta’s brown, furious, roiling waters. They might have been a hundred yards away but they felt frighteningly proximal. I might have shouted a couple of times but to no avail. No one was around; I was alone. If I was washed out to the Teesta, it would be a while before my absence would be noted; I doubted my body would ever be found.

I don’t know how long I stayed in that position; it could not have been too long for I surely would have been exhausted and let go. But somehow, I rolled over and pulled hard on the rope to become upright. Incredibly enough, I found a foothold nearby from which I pushed off into slightly calmer waters, from where I made for shore.

Exhausted and beat up, I walked quietly back up for my tea. No one asked me where I had been; I hadn’t been away that long.

It had felt like a lifetime though.

Fearful Reveries, Penal Colonies and Death in the Dark Ocean

In Everyman (Vintage, 2006), Philip Roth writes of his central protagonist’s fears that intrude into an otherwise idyllic sojourn by the sea:

The only unsettling moments were at night, when they walked along the beach together. The dark sea rolling in with its momentous thud and the sky lavish with stars made Phoebe rapturous but frightened him. The profusion of stars told him unambiguously that he was doomed to die, and the thunder of the sea only yards away –and the nightmare of the blackest blackness beneath the frenzy of the water–made him want to run from the menace of oblivion to their cozy, lighted, underfurnished house.

I’m perhaps not as anxious about death as Roth’s ‘hero’–perhaps!–but the fear of the ocean, and especially at night, is a familiar one.

Years ago, during the second year of my two-year stint in Australia, as I began reading Robert Hughes‘ epic history of its convict years, The Fatal Shore,  I paused when I came to the following description of the ocean waters around Sydney Harbor:

Long swells boil into the cliff in a boiling white lather, flinging veils of water hundreds of feet into the air.

I was familiar, in a fashion, with the wildness thus described. Shortly after my arrival in Sydney, thanks to a good friend, I had been taken for a yacht ride through the Harbour, under the Sydney Bridge and past the Opera House, out to the heads where the open ocean was visible. As we sailed out, the formerly benign waves that bore our craft became steadily more feral, acquiring a shape, substance and heft not previously visible. By the time we had reached our turning around point, walls of green water were bearing down on us, their impact minimized by the skillful helmsmanship of our captain.  We were not skittled; we rode the waves well. But it was time to retreat into the safer waters of Sydney Harbour.

I didn’t forget those roiling waters, especially because I spent a year living at Bondi Beach, slowly becoming familiar with its crushing breakers, its foaming ‘big ones’, that so delighted surfers and terrorized mere mortals. On Christmas Day 2001, I ventured into the waters for a morning swim before heading out for the afternoon’s barbecuing, and found myself retreating a mere fifteen minutes later; I had been flung down, far too often for my liking, face down into Bondi’s white sands, by waves that came roaring in, again and again, relentless in their bruising power.

The thought of those same towering waters at night filled me with dread. What was it like, out on the open waters that were visible from Bondi’s cliffs? It was with some incredulity then, that I read in Hughes’ book of the desperate convicts who, beaten and chastised beyond bearing. had decided to run away from their penal confinement and cast themselves into the open waters at night, hoping somehow to wash up on a distant, safer, shore.

There are many imagined deaths that afflict me with nauseating fear. Among them, occupying an elevated rank, are those of the brutalized souls who thought that a dark roaring ocean was a safer place than the tyranny of their jailers.