Book Review: Ganga: The Many Pasts of a River by Sudipta Sen. Penguine Viking. 2019. PP 445 + (xvi)
“Panditaraja Jagannath, Mughal court poet extraordinaire, a scholar of Linguistics, poetics, and philosophy, hounded by the Brahmin orthodoxy led by Hara Dikshita for marrying a Muslim woman, sought refuge on the steps of Banaras by the side of the Ganga. Forbidden to step into the water lest he pollute the river with his transgression, he was moved to compose his famous devotional eulogy of the Ganga, known as the Piyushalahari. As he composed each verse, legend has it, the river rose step by step, and at the end of his recitation sweeps him and his devoted wife away.”
This is one of the many fascinating stories that Sudipta Sen tells us in this remarkable book, a product of at least 12 years of labor of love.
Rivers are indeed storehouse of millions of tales, and no book can do justice to all the tales a river has to tell. One book can never be sufficient to tell a history of a river, as the history of river would include the history of all the key interactions that a river has had with various living organisms and people. Not the least a river like Ganga.
The author says in his introductory chapter, “This books explores the evolution of this image of a cosmic river at the intersection of myth, history and ecology.” For a river like Ganga, this is a herculean task. It is difficult to judge how far the author succeeds in this exploration of myth and history. But, he does not go far in defining the ecological parameters of the river.
The author starts his journey from Kali Gandaki river, the river older than even Himalayas: “Geologists have been fascinated by the Kali Gandaki and its tributaries because it is the only river that has retained its path through the Himalayan massif.”
In the beginning of this journey itself, the author asks a pertinent question: “How did the Ganga come to assume such a central place in the civilization and culture of the Indian subcontinent?” He may well have asked another pertinent question there itself: if Ganga did assume such a central place in the civilization and culture of the subcontinent, why was the river allowed to degenerate into one of the most polluted and defiled places on earth, its situation worsening during the right wing rule of Vajpayee and Modi?
The author variously describes the river as “a mundane river, repository of accumulated human misdeeds”, “cosmic river”, “one of the most engineered spaces on the planet”, “immaculate and eternal deity of the flowing waters”, “the river of the last resort”, “refuge of the wretched of the earth”, “the iconic status”, “River of afterlife”, “a comfort for the dying”, “the metaphysical threshold”, “the most compassionate mother”, “resplendent necklace on the bosom of the earth”, among many others. It reminds one of the 1000 names that Ganga has been given in puranas.
Some serious limitations For a book published in 2019, one expects it to contain a reasonably accurate account of the key current issues plaguing the river. But the book makes no detailed mention of plethora of bumper to bumper hydropower projects and all the debates around them, the unsustainable sand mining, encroachments on the floodplain and river bed and even the historic 2013 Uttarakhand flood disaster, or climate change impacts already affecting the river.
The whole book is about a River. One expects the author to at least attempt to define the river along with a narrative about various dimensions of a river. The author falls in the familiar trap of using water and river interchangeably. The book may also have benefited from providing map of the Ganga basin to define the changing Geographic contours during different eras.
The author makes a large number of inaccurate, wrong or misleading assertions. For example, he says Farakka barrage was “originally intended for irrigation and flood control”, which is not true, the basic objective of FB was to sustain navigability of Kolkata port.
Moreover, the book makes rather confused statement: “India has defended the viability of Farakka as a safeguard against excessive siltation that has progressively diminished the navigability of the river between Hugli and Allahabad.” In the context of Farakka, Allahabad does not come in the picture and the stretch between Hugli and Allahabad has seen various adverse impacts.
Similarly, his contention that efforts between India and Bangladesh “have not been successful in reaching a mutually acceptable compromise” does not seem correct in view of the 1996 Ganges agreement that has survived 23 summers without major issues.
For a number of questionable statements, the author does not provide any source or reference, which is a rather disturbing weakness. For example, he states “Some scientists have sounded the alarm that the Tehri Dam added to the minor barrages in Bijnor, Narora and Kanpur, has so accelerated the siltation rate of the Ganga that its lifespan is limited to a meagre forty to fifty year.” The author neither names any source nor any scientist, the statement itself sounds meaningless as it stands.
Similarly, he says the Tehri debate “pitted engineers and technocrats against villagers, devout Hindus, hidden leftists and environmental militants.” He does not clarify source or who is means by environmental militants or hidden leftists. He makes another factually wrong statement when he says, “The (Ganga Action) plan was officially withdrawn in 2000 and a postmortem was done by the National River Conservation Authority.”
These are avoidable mistakes and let us hope the writer qualifies them or corrects them in the next editions.
Political setting The author may as well have noted that it was BJP rule under AB Vajpayee when the Tehri Dam gates were closed rather secretively, without going through due process.
And that it was Congress rule when Prof GD Agarwal (also known as Swami Gyan Swarup Sanand) went on fast at least four times, and government negotiated with him and agreed to many of his demands, each time, he withdrawing fast, whereas under Modi, Prof Agarwal died during the very first fast as the Prime Minister had no time for responding to Prof Agarwal.
The claims of the “Ganga putras” like the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Ministers Gadkari and Uma Bharti about Ganga notwithstanding, there is little dispute that their actions have done enormous harm to the river. As I write this, Swami Atmabodhanand broke his fast unto death for the Ganga on 194th day of fast on May 4, 2019.
The songs and the tales right in the beginning of the book the author mentions the notes from the seventh century Chinese traveler Xuanzang who saw at Ganga-Yamuna Prayag, “hundreds of men fasting for days before immersing themselves in the river for a last ritual bath before committing suicide by drowning.” The strange ritual was ultimately stopped by Mughal emperor Akbar, the author notes.
One is reminded by the author about “the songs and verses of the radical devotional ferment that swept across India of the late Sultanate period, led by figures such as Nanak, Raidas, Dadu and Kabir, all of whom questioned the blind following of prescriptive rituals in normative and orthodox forms of Hindu worship and piety.” Sen goes on to remind about Nanak recording in Adi Granth “about the folly of believing that simply bathing in the Ganga makes one pure”. And about Kabir talking in his famous language of “enigma and paradox” when he says purity is an attitude, a state of mind.
The same water that flows in the roadside nala also flows in Ganga, but the former is not even worthy of being touched. The author notes, “Decades before India’s official independence, the Ganga had already secured its place as the national river”, referring to Poet Iqbal’s Song of India “Sare Jahan se Achha”, written in Lahore in 1903.
At one stage, the author asks a pertinent question that Ganga herself possibly asked Bhagiratha: “And then where would she go to cleanse herself of such accumulated poison?” As Bhagiratha reportedly replied to Ganga, she possibly does not have to go to any new place to clean herself. If truly religious people of current day India, like Panditraja Jagannath and his wife from the story we started with were to stand up for the river. Today we have saints of Matri Sadan, ecologists working on dolphins and turtles, activists working against dams, civil society working against unsustainable sand mining, pollution and environment flows, standing up for the river. But we clearly need more efforts from all concerned to improve the state of Ganga.
A number of scholarly books have come out in recent years on Ganga. Sudipta Sen’s book is a valuable addition to literature on Ganga, especially for the way in which it connects various historical periods of the river. In spite of its limitations, but the book is a keeper.
But we need lot more scholarly work on our rivers, before the amazing beauty of rivers desert the humanity forever.
*With South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org