His name I know well. He repeatedly told me - Ramji - and repeatedly told me not to forget.
I'd only wanted to get away from the shore, not a guided tour. But the boatman was determined, now that he'd struck a deal, to give me the complete package. At all the ghats, each nuzzling the next, he'd tell me the name, the name of the king, queen, pundit or merchant who'd financed it. The information slipped off my ears like water off his oar.
At one point, he mentioned Narad, the mischief-making god.
'A couple should never take a dip together at this point. If they do, they're sure to fight. Narad makes sure.'
At another, he told me the whole story of Raja Harishchandra. I listened as if I hadn't heard it before.
At yet another, he stopped and ordered that I take a palmful of water and sprinkle it over my head. Every few ghats, he'd direct me to fold my hands in prayer, at the very least.
At one point, he used the phrase - 'our Hindu brothers...' and caught himself.
He asked my name. I told him.
He repeated - 'Naini, is it?' and I did not bother to correct him.
Then he wanted to know about my brother, my mother, my father, my work, was I married, why not, and why was I in a white saree?
Exhausted, I turned his questions round on him - how many years has he been a boatman, what did his father do, will his son do the same, are his daughters in school, why was the eldest married so young?
When the talk showed no signs of ceasing, I asked him to let me take one of the oars.
With no hesitation, he agreed, making space for me and spreading his red gamchha so my saree wouldn't get wet.
And finally, there was silence.
Except that he clicked his tongue impatiently each time the oar slipped from my hands, and made encouraging noises whenever it seemed like I was finally getting the hang of it. Fifteen minutes later, the wind was against us and my muscles were protesting.
'This is hard work,' I said.
He cocked his head and stopped rowing for a moment, as if thinking this over.
'Yes, I suppose it is.'
The minute I returned to my passenger status, the commentary and questions started again. He was saying something about a curse by Shiva, so that there must be an eternal pyre, some loved one turning to ashes, forever, at a certain ghat.
And he was also admonishing me.
'Didi, next time you come, you must come with Jijaji.'
'Don't wait any longer...time enough.'
'And when you come with Jijaji, make sure you ask for Deepak Maajhi. Actually, my name is Ramji, but the boat belongs to Deepak Maajhi.'
'Didi, shall I tell you something? When I first saw you, I was a little worried. Especially when you said you wanted to be alone. We get suspicious because people who want to go alone will often jump off the boat. And you... in your white saree... I thought...'
'That I wanted to commit suicide?'
'Hehe, no, but we worry. We're poor boatmen and the passenger is our responsibility.... you must not wear white... Once, there was a man - must be ten years older than you. He also wanted to go alone. I took him, and at the end, he was so pleased, he promised to buy me my own boat. He gave me a phone number and asked me to call up after six months.'
'It has been only four months. I will call. My own boat will cost Rs 30,000-35,000.'
'Didi, you will not forget my name, will you? You will remember Ramji?'
'Yes, I will.'