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The Shape of Wind, by Lucinda Nelson Dhavan

I've been thinking a lot about erosion lately. Maybe it's because I just had my sixtieth birthday. These days I stand under the shower feeling the water wash over me and think things like, "I must have done this, what--maybe twenty-two thousand times?" (This is assuming my mother did not hold me under the shower for a bath when I was an infant, but also taking into account the fact that in the hotter seasons here in India, two showers a day is the minimum.)

Twenty-two thousand times water must have washed over me and gone down the drain with a few hundred skin cells, changing the physical "me."

"Down" is also a word much in mind, of course, as gravity exerts its superiority over skin tone and muscle mass. I look in the mirror and laugh when I remember what I used to think. I thought that if people have bodies that looked like mine does now, it was their fault. They didn't take care of themselves. They didn't work at it. They had only themselves to blame.

I can't really blame myself now. I did what I could, but no one can resist the erosion of time. It washes over you like a river. Who can argue with rivers? Even as I write, helicopters fly overhead every half-hour, taking food to people marooned by floods in North Bihar, going out to rescue those in danger. Under gray monsoon skies, even the mighty government officials in some areas have found their offices filling inexorably with water, and have fled with their files, typewriters and secretaries to rooftops and railway stations to carry on with their jobs. Phones don't work; roads are underwater; bridges and railway lines have been washed away. All this has happened because the rivers flowing down from Nepal are in spate and have swept away every obstacle in their path to spread over fields, through villages and city streets. "No one can prevent it," the officials say. "It is a force of nature."

Water is like that.

My husband's hometown of Allahabad is between two rivers: the Ganges and the Jamuna. The Ganges there now looks quite anemic most of the year, a thin stream meandering through a broad bed. So much water is taken out upstream for irrigation and other uses these days that there isn't a lot left of the sacred river, except in the rainy season, of course. As the monsoon swells, you can stand on the bank and watch the water chewing into clay, swallowing the hunks that fall into it in a single brown swirl. The river has her moods, too, reminding mere humans of why She is considered a Goddess, and respected. The place where the two rivers join is considered especially holy. People come from all over the country by busloads to take a dip at the "Sangam," following an age-old custom. But those who have studied the Ganges say that the point itself is not age-old, that it has moved dramatically from where it was, say, a thousand years ago when a Chinese pilgrim wrote about people coming to "Sangam" to throw themselves in the waters, believing they would be washed away to heaven.

Academics take views from satellites and samples of earth, trying to map how the Ganges has changed course over the centuries. They have proof of an extremely restless river.

As the Greek philosopher said, you can't put your foot in the same river twice. It keeps moving. And not just the water, which is probably what the philosopher had in mind, but the earth beneath and around keeps moving as well. Water plus gravity plus time--a powerful combination that can overcome almost anything.

When I was younger, people used to advise each other to "go with the flow." The theory was that if you could relax and drift lightly along with "the times," float on the Zeitgeist and swim with the current, you would remain happy and unscathed by life. This always appealed to me. If you're going to picture water as the ultimate metaphor for life, then why not be buoyant? Why fight it?

But metaphors are just metaphors in the end. Pictures we draw in our heads to help us understand what we're dealing with in this messy thing called life. Circumstances don't always allow you to be a floating object, or even an intelligent fish racing downstream. Sometimes you get stuck as a rock on the bottom. I have a lot of sympathy for rocks. I keep a large heap of rounded pebbles from riverbeds on my desk, and frequently roll them around in my hand to remind myself that this is what erosion does to you-it polishes. With the erosion of water or time, you become very, very smooth.

Another thing I read when I was younger was a simple explanation of Japanese aesthetics. To the Japanese, the author wrote, a cherry blossom is beautiful not only because of its shapely, fragrant self, but because it will so soon fall off the branch and into the stream, and be washed away. In painting after painting you will see a branch of cherry blossoms hanging over a stream, to remind anyone who sees the painting of the true, deep level of beauty in this situation. The flowers are beautiful because they will be swept away.

I can easily add that to my jumble of metaphors, kept in a jar like a bunch of polished stones, covered with water so that they will always shine. Twenty-two thousand showers have turned me into a smooth rock. And one of these days, though I come from a long line of tough, long-life cherry blossoms, this life will also "go with the flow" toward eternity. And that is what makes it beautiful, going with the flow.

Ah, the comfort of metaphors.

BIO: Lucinda Nelson Dhavan first went to India on a Fulbright Foundation grant, immediately after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College. Two years later, she married a struggling lawyer in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. After several years devoted to domestic bliss, child rearing and learning Hindi, she joined the staff of a regional newspaper, where she worked for thirteen years. She feels she may have learned enough by now to write fiction. She is polishing a collection of short stories and working on a novel.
Her email address is: ldhavan@yahoo.co.in


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