Book review: Waterlines by Amita Baviskar

Rivers are wellsprings of life. They give birth to civilisations, sustain livelihoods and sometimes even trigger wars. Rivers inspire awe and creativity. But in modern times, they are taken for granted: their flow checked by large dams, their waters sullied by dirt from our factories, the lives of those who live by their waters imperilled by the march of our supercilious civilisation. We are socialised very early in our lives to believe that scarce waters will flow towards us, regardless of whether we kill rivers and poison those who live by them..

 
By Kaushik Das Gupta
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- waterlines edited by Amita Baviskar Penguin Books India Delhi 2003

Rivers are wellsprings of life. They give birth to civilisations, sustain livelihoods and sometimes even trigger wars. Rivers inspire awe and creativity. But in modern times, they are taken for granted: their flow checked by large dams, their waters sullied by dirt from our factories, the lives of those who live by their waters imperilled by the march of our supercilious civilisation. We are socialised very early in our lives to believe that scarce waters will flow towards us, regardless of whether we kill rivers and poison those who live by them.

Lest we forget, people have looked at rivers in far different ways. The intimate presence of rivers in the cultural, spiritual and everyday existence of Indians, over the ages, and the various forms of expression this has inspired are the subjects of this slim but delightful collection under review. Contributors include poets, litterateurs, economists, sociologists and naturalists.

Quite a disproportionate number of contributions in this volume are devoted to the river Ganga. Perhaps this is because, as Diana L Eck notes, "there are a very few things on which Hindu India, diverse as it is, speaks with one voice as it does on Mother Ganga." Eck's essay in this volume analyses the many sacred connotations associated with the river. Stephen Alter describes the annual journey of the kavars (pilgrims) from different parts of the country to the holy city of Hardwar. But the book does not confine itself to the religious significance of the Ganga. Nita Kumar's account of the river at Benaras celebrates the everyday existence of the people who live along its banks: ascetics, barbers and masseurs. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's poetry captures the lyrical charm of life sustained by the river.

Rivers stir, enthuse and inspire. Tagore's brilliant tale of a young widow's life along the ghats of the Ganges in Benaras; Agyeya's moving recollection of his aunt's courageous battle against the turbulent Byas; Advaita Mallabaran's poignant tale of the Malo community who live by banks of the river Titash; Arundhati Roy's cameo about the adventure of two little children on their first boat ride; and A K Ramanujan's poetic tribute to the Kaveri are amongst the highlights of this volume. The naturalist S Theodore Bhaskaran reminisces about holidays spent as a child along the banks of river Amaravathi. The conservationist Jim Corbett is moved into childlike exultation at the sight of the Mahseer, while Ruchir Joshi's prose brims with delight when describing the bridge on the river Hoogly at Calcutta.

But times are changing. In ancient times, the Sanskrit poet Bhartrihari described a river as hope itself. Today, the Malayalam poet M T Vasudevan Nair writes a plaintive elegy for the Bharathapuzha. This volume contains both pieces (the former in a translation by Barbara Stoller Miller). Amita Baviskar's essay is an environmental sociologist's warning about the dangers of stopping a river dead on its tracks. A river in flow is the source of life. A river dammed causes death and destruction. Dams play havoc with aquatic life; they swallow up homes, lands and ways of life. As the editor of this volume notes, " Sacred rivers have been profaned in more ways than one." The muse for the brilliant contributions of this volume is gravely imperilled. So read on and if you regard rivers with insouciant indifference, the book will surely make a difference.

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