I have a flickering memory of wading through the Phalgu River in Bihar’s Gaya district, a few hours’ journey from my home, when I was ten or twelve. The current was strong and I could barely keep my head above the water. My father, ahead of me, held me by one hand, and my cousin Gautam held me by the other. Around us were dozens of kanwariyas, including my father’s friends, each ferrying water from a tributary of the Ganga in small pots tied to a wooden pole. We were on our way to a temple on Barabar Hill, north of Gaya, to offer the water to the god Shiva.
After emerging from the river, we walked on along the bank. The hill—a mountain to my young eyes—looked like a giant stack of boulders that someone had carelessly thrown down. Gautam and I, after much discussion, agreed that it must have been Hanuman, the monkey god from the Ramayana. We knew he was capable of lifting mountains and that he was an incarnation of Shiva himself. For us as children, this was a journey full of myth and wonder.
Whenever we felt weary and faltered on the climb, a cry from behind would encourage us to go on: “Bol bam!” Sometimes this came from my father and his friends, who let us walk ahead so they could keep an eye on us, and sometimes from other kanwariyas passing by. We felt like we were being taken care of by every one of them. We knew that kanwariyas often used “bam” to address each other, but we had never been addressed that way before. Every time one of us got called a bam, it left us in splits.