The incredibly blue waters of the Bhadra river, snaking through the forbidding mass of rocks and boulders that ring the ruins of Hampi, capital of the ancient Vijayanagara kingdom, couldn’t be more than knee high.
If you’re an adult, that is.
For fifteen year old Venkatesh, intrepid boatman of Anegundi, and no more than a scrap of a boy really, they swirl around his arm-pits. His coracle, all reed, bamboo and plastic is rapidly filling with water as it gets trapped in the thick mass of grass, bang slap in the middle of the river.
But Venkatesh is unfazed. He jumps off the coracle and into the Bhadra without a second thought, as he must have done a thousand times before. He spins the coracle around, frees it from the grass trapping the boat, and then jumps right back in.
Perched on the edge, flashing an impish grin as he works the oars with an almost demonic intensity, he powers the reed boat by the sheer force of his will, against the current to the far end, to the rock cut steps of the Kodandarama temple where he tells us, in another time, Rama slew Vali and installed Sugriva as the king of Kishkinda.
Every inscription, every sconce, every statue at the bend in the river, is dwelt on at length during the ride. He’d put a tour guide to shame, this boy, not yet a man.
Where did he learn his history, I ask. Was he taught this at school? Or were these life lessons learnt while listening to stories told and retold by the banks of an ancient waterway. Its not school, which he quit when he was ten and the tourist trickle turned into a flood, and his father, one of a long line of boatmen, pushed his two sons into uncharted waters.
“But you’re safe, you know, I feed most people to the anaconda and the crocodiles but they wouldn’t have liked your colour. Too dark. They only like white people,” he says, in perfect English, without batting an eyelid. The boy has a sense of humour! And its only one of the many languages he speaks, including Russian and a smattering of French.