When a Body Meets a Boatman on the Ganges - OZY | A Modern Media Company

When a Body Meets a Boatman on the Ganges

When a Body Meets a Boatman on the Ganges

By Rohit Ghosh

SourceRohit Ghosh


Because the spirit won’t be willing if the flesh is weak.

By Rohit Ghosh

Dharamdas Dubey is on the boat, his boat. When he removes his white undershirt, his biceps catch my attention.

“Rowing has made your arms muscular,” I say. You generally don’t expect a 76-year-old man to have meaty arms.

“Rowing is good for the stomach also,” Dubey says with a nod and a pat of his belly.

He takes his pants off and wraps a coarse saffron-colored towel around his waist. Then he starts to row.

I live in Kanpur, an industrial city in north India on the banks of the Ganges, and this morning I’m with Dubey on one of the flights of stairs, or ghats, that dot the riverbank.

The Ganges originates in the Himalayas. After zigzagging through the plains of north India for some 1,500 miles, it drains into the Bay of Bengal in India’s east. Hindus consider the river holy, a mother and a deity. A dip in the Ganges, they believe, will absolve them of their sins.

“It was only when one of my sons died that neither did I touch the boat nor did I bathe in the river,” he says. “But that was only for a few days.”

I heard about Dubey, a boat owner and a lawyer, on my frequent visits to the river. For decades, every morning at 6, Dubey has rowed upriver, alone and in silence.

While India is mostly a riparian country and several rivers and streams crisscross its surface, it’s still unusual for anyone but fishermen to own boats. I wanted to know who Dubey was and why he had bought the boat.

“To know that you will have to accompany me on my boat.” He took mercy on me and told me to be at the ghat at 7 a.m.

Being on Dubey’s boat is an honor. He’s never had any of his family on it — he tells them to rent if they want a boat ride upriver.

The surface of the river is yellowish, lit with the early morning sun, and the mist rising from it is whitish.

The boat itself is simple: a 7-foot-long hull with flat planks between its sides. Dubey collects the anchor and drops it on the bottom of the boat. After seating himself toward the bow, with me facing him, he takes hold of the oars and starts rowing.

I’m jittery. The river is wide and deep and I don’t know how to swim. A person depending on a lawyer for his life in a courtroom is all right, but in the middle of a river? 

“What does a lawyer need a boat for?” I ask.

“It was in 1970 that I settled in Kanpur and started practicing as a lawyer. I live some 3 miles from the Ganges,” Dubey says, rowing with ease. “I saw a few of my neighbors bathing in the river every day, and I also started taking a dip in it. Gradually, it became a habit.”

We are far from the bank now and gliding upstream smoothly. The only sound is the splash that the oars make when they hit the water. For the first time I see my city from the river; buildings that were familiar look new.


Dubey rows gently to shore.

“The population of Kanpur increased as years passed,” Dubey continues. “New industries were set up and the Ganges was becoming polluted. Waste was being discharged into the river, and I found the water at the ghats of Kanpur too dirty for my daily dip, so I decided to visit the opposite bank, where the water is clean. For that I needed a boat. So, in 1980, I bought a boat for 13,000 rupees [$175]. Since then, when I am in Kanpur, I have never missed my ritual dip. Would you like to row?”

I look around. There’s nothing but water in every direction. Still, I can’t pass up the offer to handle the boat. It wobbles as we swap places. I freeze for a moment.

I am holding oars for the first time in my life. I start rowing in the opposite direction.

“You need to practice,” Dubey says with a chuckle. “We will reach the point from where we started if I allow you to row.”

We quickly swap places and the boat once again bobs up and down.

The Ganges swells after monsoons that stretch from July to September and has a menacing look today, so people are avoiding it. But Dubey remains.

“It was only when one of my sons died that neither did I touch the boat nor did I bathe in the river,” he says. “But that was only for a few days.”

We have crossed the river and reached the place where Dubey bathes. I follow him as he jumps onto the sand and moors the boat. The water is clean and the bottom visible. My feet sink into the silvery sand.

Dubey splashes water into the boat and on its sides, cleaning it, and then he climbs back in. Facing the rising sun, he performs some yogic and breathing exercises before finally entering the water chanting hymns in Sanskrit for his ritual dip.

Ten minutes later, he’s done. After drying off, he puts on a fresh pair of underpants and an undershirt. He sits cross-legged on the boat and chants hymns, drops some flowers and pours milk on the surface of the Ganges. As a final obeisance, he closes his eyes and joins his palms.

I watch from the bank.

“Have I answered all of your questions?” he asks.

I nod and get back into the boat. I look at my watch. It’s 9 a.m.

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