A Sobering Experience

The river at Jaroli

Have you ever come with a hair’s breadth of killing someone? It happened to me, and it was a sobering experience, to say the least.

No, it was not a close call when driving a car. Nor the result of a flash of blinding anger. It was, rather, something that happened in a moment of playful relaxation.

The incident took place when was when I was living and working in the village of Rajnagar, India, as a Peace Corps volunteer, 1968-70. I’d already been there for over a year when my friend and co-worker, Jagdish Prasad Mishra, invited me to accompany him on a visit to his family’s home village, Jaroli, on the banks of the Gomti River, a tributary of the sacred Ganges, in neighboring Uttar Pradesh (Northern State).


One morning, Mishra-ji and I, accompanied by several young boys – nephews, cousins and neighbors, as I recall – walked down to the river to swim and splash. The water was muddy – in fact, opaque. The bottom sloped sharply down, and we stuck close to the bank where we could stand. At one point, though, I submerged, swam up behind one of the boys, stuck my head between his legs, hoisted him up and, after a minute or so of carrying him around on my shoulders, playfully tossed him off behind me.

My friend and co-worker, Jagadish Prasad Mishra, with his family

That’s when I heard someone yell, “He can’t swim!” I instantly turned around and realized the kid was nowhere in sight. I was in chest-deep water, which meant that the sloping bottom behind me provided no opportunity for a small boy to stand with his head above water. I spun around, reached down behind where I’d been standing facing the riverbank, and felt his head. I grabbed his hair and instantly pulled him to the surface. I don’t think he’d been under water for more than a couple of seconds, and much to my relief, he wasn’t even sputtering.

I’ve never felt so relieved as I did at that moment. It had never occurred to me that a kid who couldn’t swim would ever be allowed to play in a big river. (When I was growing up, the banks of the lake a block or so away from my house were strictly off limits; and I was a good swimmer.)

What a frightening experience! What an unforgettable lesson in the need to ask questions before doing something that might prove risky!



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