The Smell of Summer Asphalt

Michael C. Keith

As rivers flow into the ocean but cannot make the vast ocean overflow, so flow the streams of the sense-world into the sea of peace that is the sage. —Bhagavad Gita 2:70

Rimyi Mehra could barely contain his excitement as the road repair truck approached his small village of Baritun. He loved the scent of fresh asphalt and the sight of the shimmering steam rising from it as it poured from the truck. But most of all, he loved to chew and blow bubbles with it before it hardened or was defiled by the wheels of ox carts, human feet or the occasional automobile. No boy or girl in the village could create tar bubbles as large as Rimyi, whose favorite pastime was to launch his sticky, black orbs onto the Yamuna River. He would follow them as far as he could and watch them bob and weave away in the churning water.

The narrow main street of his village in the Haryana region of India was repaved every year, due to the ever-crumbling ground beneath it. It was said that Baritun would soon slide from its mountainside perch into the Ganga tributary. But this had been predicted for so long that few people paid much attention. However, Rimyi was among those who did. With mounting fascination, he measured the descent of the narrow strip of yard behind the two-room ghar he occupied with his mother and sisters. He had been born there eleven years earlier, the same year his father had left the family for work in Delhi and never returned.

As he and his friends happily followed the paver to the edge of Baritum, they heard screams. The weight of the truck was causing a section of the earth to move and slide into the river. Rimyi immediately feared for his family and ran towards his home only to find it floating away. To his momentary relief, he found his sisters clinging to an uprooted Banyan tree.

"Rimyi! Rimyi!" cried Aaheli and Farha. "Yamuna has maatagee!"

After he helped his younger siblings from the fallen tree, Rimyi descended the landslide in pursuit of his mother, but the house had already floated far down the river.

"Maatagee! Maatagee!" shouted Rimyi, and his mother waved desperately from the roof of the dwelling that had been set violently adrift.

Although he was a strong swimmer, Rimyi knew he could not reach her without assistance. He scanned his surroundings for anything that would float, but found nothing. An idea then came to him, and he scampered up the fallen cliff to what remained of the freshly paved road. Steam still rose from the asphalt, and Rimyi dug out a large chunk of it and returned to the river's edge. There he placed the tar in his mouth and rapidly chewed. Soon he was blowing the giant bubbles for which he was famous. In no time, he had a dozen or so, which he stuck together and placed in the stream. He then grabbed onto the flotilla and pushed it into the current with his sinewy legs.

* * *

Rimyi's makeshift craft gained speed as it moved past the verdant shores that led to the vast Guittar Pradesh province. Only once had he been away from his native region, back when his family visited relatives in Ghaziabad. The large, industrial city had both fascinated and repelled Rimyi. He found its ample buildings of cement, steel, and glass curious and longed for the modest, bougainvillea covered structures in his tiny village. The noise of the busy streets and the frenetic pace of Ghaziabad's inhabitants also offended his sensibilities.

"You are a true country boy," his mother had laughed when he complained about the disagreeable urban surroundings.

Though his bubble-supported float made good time, Rimyi had not seen his floating house since he entered the river, and he was growing more fearful that it had sunk, taking his mother with it. Unlike he and his sisters, she could not swim, so the chance of her surviving in the roiling water without something keeping her afloat was unlikely. His anxiety mounted when the sun began to set over the rounded Vindhya Hills. He began to doubt if he would see her again, and he made a fervent plea to Vishnu to save her, so they might be reunited.

"Sri Govindaraja, I serve you faithfully," he repeated, as he clung to his bubble raft.

When darkness overspread the land and water, Rimyi slipped in and out of sleep. He dreamed his sisters stood along the bank in flowing orange saffron robes and tossed magical Rajanigandha petals into the river for his safe journey. In his waking moments, he saw ancient temples awash in golden lights and he prayed each time for the restoration of his family.

As dawn drove the night from the East India sky, he passed the wondrous Taj Mahal, and its beauty lifted his mood and strengthened his resolve.

"I come for you, my maatagee . . . I come!" he shouted, the persistent current carrying him on his sacred quest.

In the light of day, Rimyi searched the river ahead for any sign of his mother, but all that laid before him was endless miry liquid. He considered with dismay how his mother could have moved so far ahead of him, and he moved his tired legs harder to gain momentum.

As the morning wore on, his thoughts fixed again on his sisters. He remembered them dancing gaily to their mother's sweet renditions of Aloo Bolaa ("Potato Says") and Ek Kawwa Pyasathaa ("There Was a Thirsty Cow"). What would they do without her and, if he were to drown, what would they do without their big brother?

"Lord Vishnu, I pray you give me strength," beseeched Rimyi, adding for good measure a denunciation of the forces of evil.

* * *

Young Rimyi pressed on despite the ache in his legs and his growing hunger. At what he calculated to be mid-afternoon, he spied a brilliant Royal Bengal tiger drinking on the river's bank. Not much later, a herd of long-tusked elephants bathed as he drifted by them. He wondered if the sacred Yamuna purged animals of their sins as it did humans, and then he recalled a shaman explaining to the village children that animals were not capable of sinning. He wondered why people were.

Rimyi knew that the Yamuna flowed into the Ganga hundreds of kilometers south of his village. Had his mother already reached it, he pondered? Its waters were called Amrita—the nectar of immortality. Rimyi had learned this from his lessons in the Sanskrit, and it gave him hope that she had not perished.

The sun was hot against his skin, prompting him to slip under his asphalt raft for momentary refuge. At night, the tar globes radiated warmth and protected him from the chilling effects of the wind. Time began to lose meaning to Rimyi as the sun and moon repeatedly appeared and vanished.

His strength waning, Rimyi now slept most of the time, the water lapping around his face. At one point, days into his seemingly endless journey, he saw—or believed he saw—a line of monks walking behind a funeral bier singing the Bhajan, his favorite devotional song and also that of his hero, Mahatma Gandhi. Fear suddenly seized him when the idea struck him that it might be his mother's body lying in repose atop the flower-covered catafalque.

"Maatagee!" he cried out, and the procession suddenly vanished before him as if it had been an illusion. Other such visions came and went as he neared the confluence of the country's two great rivers at the holy city of Allahabad. He had never seen the Ganga and was excited, despite his intense fatigue. As the converged water widened, the balloons constituting Rimyi's vessel began to deflate one by one. He was soon treading water to remain afloat, but his spent legs quickly gave out and he sank below the surface. Blackness surrounded him as he descended the depths of the Ganga.

I am sorry, dear maatagee, that I have failed to save you and now I will die, thought Rimyi, as he felt his lungs contract and his life seep away.

* * *

"Rimyi, Rimyi," called a familiar voice from the void, and then the darkness lifted, and he beheld his mother sitting lotus-style under a fig-laden Bodhi Tree. "We are reborn in the subterranean currents of the Saraswati, my son. There is nothing to fear. Come and sit with me before we return to Baritun to give your sisters vigil." She caressed his face and spoke to him of the Hindu cycle of life.

"The soul is part of the limited being, the Jiva, and moves on when the body dies. It is imperishable. Our spirits will follow the bright path."

With those words, they ascended from the river, his mother chanting the Ganga Mataki Jai:

Glory, glory, all glory to you, O sanctifier of the world glory to you,
O Ganga, the sacred river of the gods. Victory to you, O dweller among
Shiva's locks! Your bouncing and rippling waves are incomparably
beautiful.

From above the newly reconstructed road in Baritum—that passed the house of the Mehra's closest friends, who had lovingly provided shelter for their orphaned daughters—Rimyi watched joyfully as Aaheli and Farha dug their small fingers into the just-poured asphalt.

"Bhai-ya, bhai-ya," they called out, sensing their beloved brother's presence in the steam and scent that rose from the restored surface.

And now, like Rimyi, they too possessed the wondrous ability to blow immense black bubbles.


About the Author

Michael C. Keith is the author of three story collections (And Through the Trembling AirHoag's Object, and Of Night and Light) an acclaimed memoir (The Next Better Place), and two dozen books on media. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and PEN/O.Henry Award and is the recipient of numerous awards in his academic field. He teaches communication at Boston College. His website address is: www.michaelckeith.com.