Never say die - Ashley Hawley

It was Friday and I had cycled home from school as fast as I could. There was no time to waste, no time to wash after a hard day at school. Straight inside, bike thrown on the ground for Raju the cook to put away later. Off came the school clothes, and on went the kit suitable for a weekend in the jungle, not forgetting the wide brimmed cloth hat to keep off the burning sun. We were going to Sangam, our favourite fishing and shooting spot, to try, yet again, to catch that elusive giant Mahseer, we knew lived in the crashing rapids, just down from the traveller’s bungalow we had rented for the weekend. Stepfather Colin had left work early and packed up the Willey’s jeep ready for a quick departure. So, on my jumping into the jeep, we were off.

It was just past 4 pm, and we still had 3 hours of daylight ahead of us, before reaching Sangam. Colin chose the Kanakapuram route, rather than going through Chanapatna, and after an uneventful drive hit the atrocious triple hairpin bends just before the Sangam traveller’s bungalow approach road with a full hour’s daylight remaining. Enough to get settled in and organised for the weekend. Lo and behold, there was Jaleel, faithful as ever, waiting for us. He lived in the nearby village, and was our trusted help in everything, but especially in collecting grasshoppers for Colin to use as his favourite bait. So, after the usual salaams, and a reminder to be at the TB first thing in the morning, he pushed off to start his insect collection, working the fields next to the TB.

Ashley and Jaleel

Come morning, all the fishing kit was ready, me having done the donkey work in getting the 2 glass fibre rods fixed up with the Mitchell 300 reels, the fresh 30-pound breaking strain line, the wire trace, and the extra strong treble hooks my brother Mark and I had got made in the city market area welding shop. The ones we got from Guncraft on MG road were useless, for these big mahseer. And then just as Colin and my Mum were about to set off towards the rapids just down from the TB, a Morris Minor car came rolling down the road in a cloud of dust. And out jumped Donald Anderson and Colin’s brother Cedric, with a mighty shout of “Hello!”. This was a welcome great surprise. These guys had not seen each other for months, and there was a lot of catching up to do. But first, there was work to do. Jaleel had turned up, and a quick decision was made that Colin, Mum and Cedric would go down the rapid’s area to fish. Donald hadn’t brought a rod, so no point him going with them, and I, at 14 years of age, was considered too young to traverse the dangerous rocks, and the heaving, boiling, fast moving waters, that rushed with an ear-splitting roar, capable of carrying away any person unlucky enough to slip in, to a certain death!

So Donald and I, sat down in the shade of the massive trees, growing alongside the river next to the small temple. He lit up a Charminar cigarette, after offering me one, which I, of course, declined. After which he stood up and looked over to the far side of the river. You could tell he was considering something in his active brain, his brows crunched in concentration. He knew this rive, but also knew I was familiar with it after coming here a hundred plus times, over the last few years.

“Ash,” he said. “what’s the fish runs like, over in the far side of the river?”

“Don’t know Don, we’ve never been there to try it” I said truthfully.

“Bet there are some deep fast runs there. “he said.

“Perfect for mahseer! Come on Chum, let’s go check it out!”

Off we went, first to left, same direction the others took, but then started to cross over to the right, stone by stone. Taking great care, with Donald pointing out the safer stones to stretch or jump onto. This was turning out to be an adventure to a young teenager like me. Stone by stone, sometimes even getting into the water, where it was shallow enough to wade through to the next stone. A full hour later we were approaching the far bank, surprisingly not having come across any splat of water that looked like a suitable spot for giant mahseer.

And then with a “Whoop!” Don yells out, “And here’s one!” And then a second “WHOOP!”

This time it was loud and full of fear! And he had disappeared! Where was he? He was gone! Immediately I jumped onto the highest stone next to me, and looking along the river, was just in time to see Don being washed away by a huge torrent of water—just his head showing. HE HAD FALLEN IN! But he still had his wits about him, this shikari, this hunter, this bold, brave warrior!! He kept his head up looking, looking, looking for a solution to his terrible dilemma. What could he do?! This fast-flowing body of water was taking him to his doom! I could just see.

Some 60 yards downstream, this flood ending in a maelstrom of spray and mist rising into the air, where the water crashed onto rocks. Instant death would be the outcome to any person being driven there. There was no chance of surviving this trauma! BUT hang on!! There, in the middle of the stream was a stone sticking out of the water! Right in the middle of the flow! Right where Don was being driven! He saw it, our strong hearted friend, and as he was being taken around the stone by the water, he reached out and got his hand onto the stone. And somehow held on, fighting the ripping current, until he managed to draw himself onto the top of the stone. It was just big enough for him to sit on. He turned towards me, bedraggled, soaking wet, hunched in weariness, and looked at me. A look of fear, and dread, where every drop of blood had drained away from his face.

At times like these, you wonder how your body works, how your brain works. And at other times, you don’t think at all. Not even for a split second! The adrenaline kicks in. Your heart pumps like a dervish! Your brain works super-fast! A million things go through your brain! A million solutions come to mind! GOT IT!!! There, just 20 yards downriver from Don was a fallen tree. A branch of which was hanging over the river. It was over 20 feet long. The tree long dead had, sometime ago been uprooted by the monsoon floods and lodged into the riverbank. That branch could --- could be Don’s salvation! My brain had worked out, that it was hanging over enough, so that if Donald let go of the rock he was sitting on, he would drift under it. But it was too high for a drifting swimmer to grab it while floating down. There was just one thing to do! I would have to climb onto that branch and hang down and try to grab Don’s upwardly stretched hand as he floated past. A highly risky business! What if I missed his hand? What if I was not strong enough to grip him, and hold him against the strength of the current? What if the current sucked him under? A million “WHAT IFS”. Now was not the time to procrastinate. It was the time for action! I yelled out to Don “Hang on! I’m coming around the far side of the river. Just hang on. I may be some time!”. And I was off! I had my fishing shoes on. Designed by the sailing boat fraternity--- rope soles!! Colin had brought us all a pair each when he went to England on business last. These were perfect for the smooth rounded stones in this river. Never slipped, even when the stones were wet. These are what Don should have been wearing. I went like the wind! Back the way we had come, stone by stone! Onto the riverbank. Running past the TB on the riverside. 200 yards I ran upriver, where the river was some 300 yards wide, and the current gentle. This was the place I needed to swim across, to the other side of the river, so that the current wouldn’t carry me down those dreadful dangerous rapids. The shoes came off, laces tied up, and then slung over my neck. I was in the water. Refreshingly cool. I was a school champion, with loads of awards. It was an easy swim for me. On the other side, the shoes went back on, and I trotted downriver to where Don was waiting. I found the uprooted tree, and inched forward to check out where Don was, and where the tree branch was in relation to Don. I spotted him and yelled out, that I had arrived.

Now, Don was not slow in working out what was happening. He was in a predicament! To be taken down the river flow was sure death! He realised that! He also had seen the overhanging tree branch and dismissed it as a solution, because of it’s height over the water level. But now seeing me approach this tree, he realised what I was thinking! He saw me get onto the branch, and noted it was fixed onto the riverbank, but that it was just resting on the rocks loosely, having been carried there by the last monsoon floods, and deposited there. On I got and crept along it like a serpent. Inch by inch! The branch didn’t like it one bit! It shook, it shivered, it gave a ghastly muted groan! This branch was not going to hold! Not with the weight of two of us on it. But there was no looking back now. I looked up the river to where Don was sat, looking totally demoralised. He now knew for certain what my plan was. And he didn’t like it one bit! What kind of a crazy plan was this? To be let loose on this torrent, to a certain death. He sat unmoving, taking in all the risks. Churning over in his mind the alternatives he had. There were none. He had to put all his trust into my abilities, my steadfastness, the strength of my teenage arms, and my judgement and skill in hanging onto that demonic swaying, moaning, branch. I positioned myself in this particular spot, taking into account the rock, the direction of the water flow current, the speed of the current. I had to be exactly above where Don was going to pass by. I watched and watched, till I saw a small floating wooden twig approach Don’s rock and watched the way the current took it around the rock. AND CARRY IT DIRECTLY UNDER MY POSITION! this was the right spot! I called out to Don loudly, with as much authority as I could muster. I had to take charge, young as I was. There was only one plan—my plan. And it needed to be followed the way my brain worked it out. “DON, get off the rock on your right-hand side. Don’t jump. Slide in slowly. Let the water carry you towards me. See my hand? Grab it on my wrist, hard, hard, hard”. I was resting firmly on the branch, looking towards Don. I lowered my left arm down towards the water surface, and moved it side to side, so Don could see it clearly. Now I was ready. The next step was Don’s. What would he do? I saw him slide in on his right, gently and then let himself be moved away from the rock. Slowly at first, gaining speed as he approached me. Closer and closer he got. 5 yards, 3 yards, 1 yard! Don’s arm reached up in a deliberate non panic way. My arm was down. I moved it slightly to get in line with his approaching arm. SMACK!! His fingers closed on my wrist like a clamp. Mine automatically shut on his wrist like a rat trap firing off. AND THEN— All hell let loose. WHAT THE HELL!! As I grabbed Don, and took his weight, the branch lowered. With an agonised groan the branch dipped towards the water surface! The tip of the branch went underwater, and the water flow started moving it along the stream.

“Steady, steady” I yelled as loudly and as urgently as I could! “Don’t move a muscle!”

Screeeeee, -- went the branch as it settled into it’s new position. Then it stopped! We all stopped! This is not the time to shake the branch. We are balancing on the edge of disaster. The branch is holding on by the tiniest bit of luck you can get. Any minute now it will let go, and we’ll be gone with it. Don held his nerve. His firm grip on my wrist never wavered.

“I’m going to move backwards now” I said, trying not to sound anxious, though my heart was beating like a drum. Inch by inch – no, it was more like a millimetre at a time. No way was the branch to move or we’d be gone. Six inches were traversed. Then a foot. This was going to work! What can hold us up now, I thought. I looked at the end of the branch. And even that was lifting up, out of the water. Easing the pressure on the branch.” Screeeee” !! again the branch protested, this time it was a loud effort! Don lifted himself with the shock! His grip on my wrist tightened massively, and boy did it hurt. The sudden pull of his arm nearly wrenched my shoulder out of it’s socket! The branch dipped with his extra weight. Immediately Don realised his mistake and lowered himself back into the water. Everything settled down again. Again, I moved backwards. Inch by inch. I had made a yard, and the edge of the branch was a good foot off the water surface. Perhaps this was the time to progress. Don had been quiet all this time. We both had, concentrating on the unfolding events, second by second. “Can you get yourself up onto the branch Don?

"I think it will take our weight now?” I queried. “OK!” he replied in a decided happier tone.

He had had enough of depending on others. I pulled him up slowly, and he pulled himself up too. It was going to take both our efforts to get him up onto the branch. He stretched up with his free hand but could not reach. I was not strong enough to raise him any higher! By an almighty effort I pulled him up another four inches, and this time he got his fingers over the top. Just enough! Up he came, and again, down went the branch. But this time there was no complaints from the tree, and the end of the branch stayed clear of the water. I backed off again, and made the riverbank, and Don had no trouble following me after. We looked at each other, and simply shook hands. Nothing else was said. It was just two friends having an adventure and helping each other out. Don reached into his top pocket and drew out his packet of Charminar cigarettes. Of course, they were soaking wet and useless!

Of course, the adventure wasn’t finished at all. We were on the wrong side of the river. Which was nothing to me, but what about Donald swimming back across the river? From a previous experience at a duck shoot, Donald and all the other adult shikaries, stood back and let me, a young teenager swim out into the jheel to collect the fallen floating ducks. We walked back along the river, upstream, a good 400 yards, to where it widened a full 300 yards.

The Cauvery river

The river current was gentle here, and it was a good place to swim across. I took Don’s shoes, tied the laces up, same as mine, and looped them over my neck. Into the water we went, swimming at an angle to the current, to compensate for the river trying to wash us downstream. I swam alongside Don, downstream side, and pushed his body, with my head, against his chest, keeping him on track to the other side. Then, it was done! Now the adventure was over. We put on our shoes and drifted over to the Forest Officer’s bungalow, just chit chatting. “Best not to mention this episode to the others.” said Don, and I agreed. Hell, if my Mum found out what I’d got up to, I wouldn’t be allowed back to Sangam. So, until now, no one knew of the tale. I looked out for it in Don’s biography, “The Last White Hunter”, It is not written there. But now, here it is for all to read!

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