The Boatman

By Purnima Bala

A family of four sits in a small catamaran, the two kids clinging to their parents’ arms as it rocks from side to side. The boatman pulls on the oars with steady, brisk motions. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I will get you there.” At the middle of this very lake, the boatman almost drowned once as a child, having toppled into it without a life jacket, not knowing how to swim. As he grew up, he became familiar with the lake, its every inch. Now, each morning, even when the harsh sun batters down on his skin, even when a howling wind makes the boat waver and sway, with complete certainty he says, “Don’t worry. I will get you from here to there.” IMG_8088The boatman makes sixty rupees with every crossing, enough to buy rice and milk and eggs for his wife and children at home, enough to have a little left over for his son’s new schoolbooks, maybe a little for gifts and sweets during the tourist season. His sweat mixes with the lake water. His hands, calloused and chalk-powder dry, grip the oars firm. He whistles while he works. When people with floppy hats and thickly lathered-on sunscreen point at his colourful lungi, their skins soft and white, he laughs along. When they come over to him and mime their words with exaggerated movements, not knowing he speaks four different languages, not asking if he speaks English, he doesn’t tell them. “Do you think we should risk it?” One of them turns to another, giving the boatman a sideways appraising look. They mutter among themselves. The boatman remains silent. He gazes down the beach at fishtails slapping against a net, then waves a greeting to the ice-cream lady mopping her brow, then thinks about the beauty of the lake, the silent pull lurking beneath it, dangerous to anyone who doesn’t know how to approach it, rather like his wife. But before he can reflect on her fine and wondrous qualities—her truly, spectacularly, marvellously fine and wondrous qualities—the tourists turn around and hold out crisp paper notes. The boatman counts them, twice, breaks out into a toothy grin, and beckons them forward with open palms. And when they shuffle their way onto the catamaran and sit down, gripping their thighs, he says, “Your lives in my hands, yes? Don’t worry. I will get you there.”

Purnima is a writer, editor, and artist whose work has been published in Ellipsis Zine, The Sea Letter, and Emerge ’19 and is forthcoming in others. She reads and edits fiction for Periwinkle Magazine. Some of her experimental pieces can be found on her website She tweets @purnimabala.

Art by Lesley C. Weston (Alcohol Ink and Pen)

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