The boatman was waiting for the high priest’s arrival. Even as a young man the boatman knew the priest well. Now that he is past sixty years, the boatman had to wait for the priest - who was older than him - to go the other bank of the river.
As soon as the head priest arrived at the bank ferry of the river - the boat was kept ready - the boatman came closer and worshipped the priest. The priest stood still and said: “May you be blessed.”
The high priest was alone. Sediris, the old boatman, untied the boat from the ferry pole and started paddling slowly. It was Sediris who spoke first as he felt it must be the custom.
Ape hamuduruvo, or bhante, is the term he used to address any priest in the temple.
“I have not seen you for sometime ape hamuduruwane,” said Sediris.
“Yes. I had a lot of work in the city school where I teach.”
Sediris was paddling his boat slowly. This used to be his occupation for the last fifty odd years. He learnt the skill from his father who was also known to the priests in the temple. It used to be the custom to take the priests across the river free of charge. That the priest as well as the boatman knew.
“Did you have a lot of people crossing the river today?” Asked the priest calmly.
“Not very much.” Said Sediris.
The priest knew that Sediris was a knowledgeable, pious and good hearted man. The priest also knew he refrained from drinking liquor and gambling.
“How are your children? What are they doing now?” Asked the priest.
“I have a son and a daughter you know. Son is in the security service and daughter is a nurse in the city hospital.”
“That’s very good.”
The priest knew that his wife was aching from some sickness. He was about to ask, when Sediris said:
“Selena is still not recovered fully from the paralytic stroke. But my daughter has managed to get a wheelchair.”
The priest knew that it’s going to be a long conversation. Gradually they reached the other bank of the river. As soon as the priest got out of the boat, he handed over an envelope containing Rs 100 to the boatman.
“I can’t accept money ape hamuduruwane.” Said the old boatman.
“No Sediris spend this money on medicine for your wife. Tell her I will come one day to chant some pirith to her.”
Tears rolled in Sediris’ eyes as he accepted the money reluctantly. Then he knelt down and worshipped the priest. There were some men and women waiting to go to the other side. They all had hearty chats with the old boatman. They all knew he was a saintly type of a person quite moderate in his charges. He respected the teachers of the village schools and sometimes let them go free of charge.
He would resume his first boat ride around 6.30 in the morning. Then he would wind off his rides at 7.30 in the evening. But there were exceptional days like poya. He knew the pilgrims have to be taken from one bank to the other on these exceptional days. But he was not tired at all.
But one fateful day it all came to an end. Some trousered gentlemen from the town had come to cross the river by his boat.
They had some special instruments like binoculars and measuring rods. They were chatting among themselves regarding the length and breadth of the river. They were also finding a place to erect a foundation stone close to the ferry. The boatman intuitively felt what they were up to. Are they not going to build a great big bridge?
He came to know it through a schoolteacher who questioned him one day.
“Sediris don’t you know they are going to build a bridge across the river?”
“Yes I know it.”
“Did they ask anything from you?”
“No they were chatting to each other all the time.”
“Very soon a bridge would be seen.”
“Will they build it in a few days?”
“Oh no it will at least take a few months.”
“I have to say good bye to all these then.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Most people like to cross the river to go for the temple by your boat. The teacher, he thought, is trying his best to console him. So he kept silent. Day by day the builders came to build the bridge. It will take some time. “It’s time for me to give up everything,” he thought, “my own children may not like me paddling the boat day in day out. Did they not ask me several times to stop all these things? But it was my own wish. I like this river.
All creatures living here and my friends. They are known to me. Even the crocodiles living in the river know me. They have never done any harm to me any day.” He was brooding on matters he had not thought so far in his life. He felt that a certain thick layer of a block cloned in shrouding his life. Everything is coming to a close, he felt.
Hello Sediris Ayya, some would say; some other would say hello Sediris mama. Did you see a big bridge is coming on, they would ask and he would keep silent. The voices became quite agonizing. Even the very sight of the bridge coming up was an eyesore to him.
Then dawned a day when arrangements were made to open the bridge gates ceremoniously. Some authorities in charge said the most fitting person as the guest of honour would be the old boatman Seiris. Then a messenger was sent to get his consent.
But the old man was missing.
Some said he had left the village. Some said he is hiding from the public eye. They all felt sorry when the high priest said the old boatman should be given the due credit to all what he had done over the years.
But the old man was still not to be seen. The river flowed as usual. The boat, tied to the ferry pole, swayed silently.
[TALES ONCE TOLD - Professor Sunanda Mahendra]