Ground Reports

The Boatmen of Yamuna

For many, the Yamuna has now become a memory.

What passes through the city of Delhi today is what every autowallah calls a ‘naala’, a drain. Civilisation has moved far away, enough to present history as a satire. The sunsets and sunrises over the river are as akin to loneliness as its waters.

Only a few boatmen remain. Worshipping it, riding it, using it to earn enough to feed their malnourished stomachs. “The river gives us as much as it takes from us,” Shyam Yadav, a young boatman who has spent all his life beside the river tells me. Once a lively spot for tourists, all that remains of the Yamuna in East Delhi now, is crematoriums and pre-wedding photoshoots.

By Priyali Dhingra , 7 Dec 2021

On a cloudy morning, Shyam Yadav sits at the Ghat

On one such ride to cover the sunrise, I met Shyam Yadav. Yadav was born in Delhi and has spent all his life next to the river. He lives in a small house in the varicolored lanes next to Nigambodh Ghat with his brother. Both brothers share their tales of isolation, of their economic dependence on what they dearly call ‘Jamna Maa’.

During the peak months of the pandemic, especially during the second wave, even the few remaining boatmen were hit hard by economic desolation. While they once carried dozens out into the river for a quick, breezy, boat ride, their income came down to zero for many months during 2021. Months after the peak of April & May, the boatmen see only a few customers on the weekends. However, since the Yamuna Ghat is located right next to Delhi’s biggest crematorium, these men saw death up close. “Ambulances were lined up outside our homes, and we could see large fires inside the crematorium for weeks altogether,” says Ganesh, another boatman who resides on the ghats.

Pappu Yadav, who came to Delhi over 18 years ago, shares the stories of his romance with the river

Long shadows of civilisation’s back-end operations at the Yamuna Ganesh and the others even helped carry bodies inside the crematorium due to a shortage of labor in peak months. “I saw more bodies here in two months than I had in a year,” Ganesh adds, as he bids farewell to meet up with his only customers for the day. However, the blip in ‘sawaris’ has lasted since. As has their fear. But once in the river and with an oar in their hand, the shade of their desolation changes. “I’d rather be broke here than live in the city,” says Shyam Yadav as he slips into a melancholic lullaby about the Jamna.

Waiting for a breeze at the Ghat.

“In Delhi, death and drink make a life worth living,” I remember Khushwant Singh’s paragraph on the burning pyres of Nigambodh, and how it mirrors the lives of each of these boatmen who spend their days circling the crematorium like vultures aching for a piece of flesh.

A boat ride in the early mornings and late evenings makes one feel like a tourist, even if you’ve lived in the city for decades. The boatmen share their stories, sing their songs, and take you kilometres into the river. “I can take you to the Taj Mahal if you want me to,” Shyam says. And like the mausoleum’s dead romance, the Yamuna becomes a memory.

A looming sunset over the Yamuna

Shyam Yadav and a sunset over the Yamuna