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Hidden treasures: Part 4 – A very solemn Sabbath

Posted Tuesday, 1st September 2015

Next morning we wake to find it raining, but this does not hinder us in the least; the naked boatmen perhaps work all the harder, for the air is cool & pleasant.  At 8 oclock [sic] in the morning we reach Jaluacherra the first sign of civilization we have seen since leaving Sairang, here we find a few rude huts, a miserable shanty bearing the legend “Post & Telegraph Office” upon a board, & a dilapidated looking stockade crowning the hill just behind it.  A more wretched looking spot it would be hard to find, surrounded as it is by dense jungle & possessing a climate the reverse to pleasant. We only stop here to see if there are any letters for us & then we are off again.  Presently we are gliding along within sight of a tea garden, then another stretch of jungle & another garden & so on the whole day.  The beautiful mountains are left far behind & nothing bot low hillocks and flat plains can be seen.  At last the day is done, we stop to take our dinners & to give the men time to eat their rice & then we are off again.  The rain has cleared off & the sky is full of stars which give sufficient light to enable us to see where we are going.  A man sits in front of each boat looking out for snags, while the man behind works the large oar which serves as rudder & propeller.  K. is in front sitting outside his boat & we are not far behind enjoying the still beauty of an Indian evening.  We play a hymn on our English concertinas & the sound of some familiar tune goes floating on the breeze, perhaps startling the natives as they lie half asleep in their bamboo huts, or attracting the attention of some dusky fishermen as he patiently plies his net, and bringing to our minds & perhaps to the mind of our fellow traveller thoughts of the dear homeland & of those who once joined with us in singing those grand old hymns. Hour after hour goes by & still the men work away, for they have to reach a certain landing before they tie up.  Presently we go inside & lie down & the next thing we know is that we have arrived at our desired haven & that it is 11.30p.m. and we say to ourselves that we must have been asleep.  When the sun rises on Sunday morning we find ourselves alongside a sandy beach, a few huts surrounded by the usual banana, papaw & jack, trees is all that is visible.  We climb the bank and find a fair-sized shed called in this country a “godown”, well stocked with English stores, wines & spirits.  The owner is a portly Babu, who no doubt does a fair trade among the Planters in the district.  This lively place is known as Kalacherra & from here K. has arranged to wide across to Silchar.  The pony is waiting for him close by, & it is not long before he starts off.  Being Sunday we intend to spend the day here and give the men a rest, but they do not seem at all inclined to fall in with the proposal as they are so near home.  Knowing that there will practically be no work to do, if we allow them to put out into mid-stream and float down with the current, we let them have their way & all day we are gliding gently past pretty native villages & tea gardens.  All nature seems so bright and happy, & it is hard to realise that we are already approaching a district where death in one of its most awful forms is working havoc amid these sunny homesteads & wringing many a heart with bitter anguish.  Yet it is, alas, only too true, the fearful scourge, cholera, is all at work here.  We glide on.  The cries of the mourner reach our ears; all thoughts, save that we are in the presence of death, are forgotten.  Ahead, on the margin of the water we see a fire burning, we know what those figures flitting to & fro’ in its light are doing.  We draw nearer & now we are within a few yards of it, can see the form of the poor unfortunate lying midst the flames, & can hear the fizzing & spitting as the tongues of fire leap about the emaciated body.  The water of the river laps around the funeral pyre, & soon all that remains of that once manly form, which but a few hours ago was hale & hearty, will be cast into the stream, will float down & contaminate the water, & who can say where the mischief will end? We hear the boatmen exchange greetings with the group around the fire & hear the dread word “cholera” follow us as we glide out of sight.  A little further on we see an object floating upon the water & as we pass it we catch sight of a woman’s form, rising & falling with the ripples, & we wonder whether she has been cast there by her cruel neighbours because she did not happen to be of their particular caste, or whether she had been seized by the fell disease when in the act of drawing water, or bathing & had not strength enough to drag herself to the shore.  By this time all the boatmen are talking of nothing else but “cholera”, relating past experiences & raking up all the most fearful stories of its cruel ravages.  Presently a man hails one of our boatmen from the bank, & tells him that a certain relative has been carries off & that the family are anxiously awaiting his arrival.  Poor fellow, his face looks so sad as he gathers together his few belongings & asks our permission to leave the boat. It is explained to us that two of the boats can be lashed together when we reach the big river on the morrow so that our progress will not be retarded by the absence of one hand.  We give our consent & by & by the youth jumps ashore & makes for his home across country.  The river is now very dirty, & sometimes covered with scum & debris & as we are hoping that we shall not be obliged to drink any of its polluted water we see the cook dipping up a pot full, & know that at any rate our dinner will be cooked in it.  There is no help for it however, no other water is available & like the poor inhabitants who live on the banks we must take our chance, trusting that the cooking process will deprive the microbes of their usual vitality.  We drift on long after sundown in order to get beyond the villages & it is late before we tie up for the night.  The Sabbath has been a day of solemn thoughts, we have been brought face to face with death & we have tried to impress the boatmen with the fact of their nearness to the other world & of their need of a Saviour like Jesus who alone can rob death of its terrors & secure to us life eternal.

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