Banging our heads against the window glass of a mini bus, Anuj and I woke up to a muzzled voice of the bus conductor. Only when we were hurrying up to jump out of the moving vehicle, we realized how shrill the alarm really was. We landed off road and I barely managed to stand. My left leg was numbed due to the crouching position I sat in through the journey. Unaccustomed to the broad daylight, I could hardly recognize Rishi waiting for us on the other side of the road.
“Kaisa raha safar” -how was the journey?, he asked meekly shaking hands. His eyes hidden behind a pair of tinted shades to ward off the blazing sunlight. Behind him was an old shack by the Ganges. He showed us our seats and took his own and signalled the owner with an inaudible movement of lips and three fingers raised high in the air, “teen chai”- Three teas he said.
We found ourselves among a myriad of tents pitched on high terraced land and tables decorated with some delicious North Indian food to binge. It was a campsite that Rishi operated single-handedly to provide an adventurous experience to the oblivious metro city dwellers. Rishi told us he would meet us after we had rested for a while to recover from our travel stupor. We unpacked, unwound, redressed and rechecked all our gear and were ready in no time to explore the white waters flowing beneath us with our host.
A rafting tour of 16 kms had already been planned for us to explore the waters with Rishi. Apart from our two men team, the raft included four others and a guide. The influx of expats and tourists in Rishikesh over the years had been very influential. I almost fell off from my sitting stance laughing when I heard the guide call out “foreword theam”, asking us to row forward!
Rishi & Sanjay leading us in their safety kayaks
On the other hand, even after participating in various prestigious events, meeting eminent athletes like Sam Sutton and Mike Dawson and kayaking with them as a partner, Rishi’s ingenuousness had not been sabotaged.
Rishi with Mike Dawnson at the Malabar River Festival Image: Rishi Rana
We followed Rishi’s safety Kayak that led us through some grade 4 rapids while we embraced the fury of the swollen river.We had just entered a rapid called ‘three blind mice’ and the raft was lifted up like a columbus swing and in a jiffy I saw Anuj battling the waves without his pair of extra eyes.
He was thrown off the raft!
The guide immediately looked for an eddy. He swung the buoy attached to the rope and threw it in the open for Anuj to cling on to. He yelled out loud, “kheecho”- pull. We shouted in vain, Anuj could hardly hear our cries as the current made such a deafening noise. My heart sank as I watched the waves carry him towards high rocks.
I feared an injury on impact.
Rishi and Sanjay (Rishi’s cousin) tried to catch up with Anuj in their safety Kayaks and we watched them disappear behind a spur as the river meandered around it.The guide’s wireless made some static and to my relief it was Rishi on the other end who brought good news that Anuj was safe.The rafting trip ended well and we were with Rishi in his pickup truck along with Sanjay (A kayaking champion as well).
It was pitch dark and the two dim headlamps were guiding us through the mountain road back to Rishi’s campsite when suddenly Rishi decided to make a halt. I looked over my shoulder outside the window only to find a wine shop. I was asked “aap lete hain?”- do you drink?
I replied, “occasionally”.
He hopped out of the pickup, for a moment he was gone. He jumped in, turned on the ignition and we were back at the campsite in no time.
The day had been really exhausting and all we wanted was good food and sleep but it was the only time we could catch up with Rishi and discuss for next day’s shoot. I wanted to know a little more about him. We sat outside the kitchen of the campsite. Water poured with a rumbling sound on top of a peg of whisky. Rishi pushed forward the cup towards me and said “ lijiye”- have it. I hesitated for a moment and then grabbed the cup between my hands like a hot cup of coffee on a cold winter morning.
Anuj, Sanjay, Rishi and I bantered for a while. Rishi went ahead telling me how his father retired from the army and now he (Rishi) has a big family to support. Being just 24 he is married and has a kid too. I was a bit stupefied as to how did he manage in pursuing Kayaking not as an interest but a passion. I asked him, “how do you do it?”, he smiled and he asked me for another round of whisky which I denied. Rishi insisted.
I was still holding on to my nearly filled up glass and had hardly taken a swig from it.
It appeared the whole bottle of whisky was actually meant for Anuj and me to gulp down as Rishi and Sanjay had already prepared themselves for dinner. Since Anuj and I were temporarily hauled up in Delhi for a few months, I guess we emitted the vibes of being some ‘party animals’ or junkies. Our appearances have always been deceptive but still it hurt to say ‘no’ in face of such excellent hospitality.
Anuj & I kept ourselves busy while Rishi got his Kayak ready.
Rishi and Sanjay recounted their achievements of being the best Indian Paddlers in different years at The Ganga Kayak Festival and several other accomplishments at Malabar River Festival in both rafting and kayaking championships. The list of medals and achievements left me flabbergasted. How can these men achieve so much at a very nascent age and also be the sole bread earners of their families? I’ve come across climbers and skateboarders and bikers who eat, dream and breathe the sport they love and just focus on that.
Here was Rishi Rana who was defying all odds. At a time when Kayaking is not a well known sport in India and the much needed support is lacking in the country, Rishi along with the brotherhood comprising his cousins is venturing deep into the arena of Kayaking.
All of us hit the hay around half past 2 in the morning and could hardly manage to get our feet on the ground by 8.
Rishi was nowhere to be found!
We searched the place only to be told by the supervisor that his employer had left the camp at his usual time at 6 for a jog and would be back anytime soon. Ashamed of ourselves we prepared for the day’s shoot. Captured some insane stunts by Rishi and his brothers in the “wall of death” (grade 4+ rapid). Rishi and Sanjay seemed to do it all like a cake walk. It seemed as if they knew the holy Ganga all too well.
We were back at the camp a little before dawn to catch some volleyball action at the beach and that is when Rishi told me, “Mera dream hai ki mai world championship mai participate karu aur kuch naam ho mera”- My dream is to participate in the world championship and leave something behind for people to remember me. Saying this, he hit the volleyball flying like a UFO towards him. Like a wounded soldier who marches towards rescue, he then darted towards his team on the loose sand with difficulty.
Watching him play like a five year old with his friends, with not a single wrinkle of worry or remorse on his face, was so ethereal and rare that I was left to ponder over his self effacing demeanor. I was left in awe of the “athlete”.
He was made up of more than just strength and courage. There was more to him that defined him.
Rishi Rana enjoying his second favourite sport
I stripped down to my shorts, picked up the ball lying beside me and gave it a good fist bump. it went rocketing only to hit an unaware Anuj Khurana busy playing with his GoPro.