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Updated: March 26, 2014 14:37 IST

Along a river

Amita Baviskar
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Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada; Hartosh Singh Bal, Fourth
Estate/HarperCollins India.
Special Arrangement Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada; Hartosh Singh Bal, Fourth Estate/HarperCollins India.

An elegy for the Narmada and the civilisation that grew along its banks.

The parikrama is an ancient ritual of reverence for Hindus and Buddhists. Circling the sacred — stupa or temple, or a sacrificial fire, tulsi plant or peepal tree — is a form of meditation in motion. A parikrama can also be a pilgrimage, an arduous quest where bodily privations prepare the mind for spiritual enlightenment, the circuit now describing an entire town — as prescribed for Benaras, or a mountain, Kailash, or a river, Narmada.

The notion of a parikrama as a small journey that may encompass larger truths lies at the heart of Hartosh Singh Bal’s book Waters Close Over Us. Bal travels along the Narmada, tracing the river’s sacred geography through history, reflecting on the streams of thought that have grown along its banks. His musings dwell on Advaita philosophy (Sankara’s legendary debate with the Mimamsa school is believed to have taken place at Mahishmati in the Narmada valley 1200 years ago), 19th century Quaker missionary debates in Hoshangabad, as well as contemporary controversies over large dams and development. Bal is as much a time traveller as a man driving along the river in a car.

The intertwined themes of renunciation and sacrifice spiral double helix-like through the book. The narrative starts on the Amarkantak plateau, the river’s source, which is dotted with ashrams of ascetics. Bal finds the sadhus disappointing: intellectual wimps compared to the Adi Sankaracharya, they are incapable of grappling with muscular metaphysical problems. Later in the book, Bal visits Swami Rajneesh’s birthplace in Gadarwara — a town midway between Jabalpur and Hoshangabad — and his tone becomes snidely disapproving. To him, Osho is a charlatan and his philosophy of detachment amid worldly pleasures debases the idea of renunciation beyond retrieve.

According to Bal, a similar slide of the sacred into sophistry can be seen in the career of the idea of sacrifice. In 1822, a British officer witnessed the death of a young man who offered himself to the god Kal Bhairava, flinging himself down from the cliffs of Mandhata Island at Omkareshwar onto the river’s rocks below, as crowds of worshippers cheered and prayed. The act is savage and splendid at the same time. The officer praised the youth whose ‘strength of faith and fortitude would have adorned the noblest cause’. From that courageous act of self-immolation, we have now descended to mass murder, as unnumbered farmers and forest-dwellers are forced into a living death by the dams on the Narmada. Their sacrifice, and the dubious gains for which it was made, roils the gentle melancholia that flows through the book into angry eddies.

Bal sojourns among Gond and Pardhan storytellers and musicians whose myths and legends recount past glories when Gond kings ruled large parts of central India in the 16th century, before losing ground to Rajput and Mughal chieftains. Today, those tales are being retold, history and language revived and Gond religion reinvented in order to regain power, not least through the Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP). If this electoral initiative signifies a born-again Gond identity, it must grapple with Hindu nationalists for the souls of Sdivasis. According to the Sangh Parivar, Sdivasis are Hindus who got lost in the forest; they have organised public ceremonies of mass ‘ghar vapasi’ (homecoming) to bring them back. Gond and Hindu origin stories flirt with each other, as do their political counterparts.

The storied landscape that is the Narmada valley has caves with 9000 year-old paintings of hunting and battle and those that sheltered Buddhist monks more than 2000 years ago. Even such venerable relics are not safe from harm: the insult of casual visitors who leave graffiti and empty beer bottles behind or the cultural crime of a sadhu who says, “The painting here was spectacular. Two hundred men wielding shields and spears stood there, two armies facing each other. I had it painted over.”

Waters Close Over Us is a lament. It mourns the decline of intellectual debate and the dominance of self-righteous know-it-alls who deny tolerance and respect to those who differ from them. The damming of the Narmada and the destruction of ancient cave paintings bring the parikrama full circle: the river and the civilisation it spawned are both dying. I found this view overly bleak and numb to the sense of joy and meaningfulness that suffuses everyday life in the valley. But the arguments in Bal’s erudite, elegantly-structured book are still well worth thinking about.

Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada; Hartosh Singh Bal, Fourth Estate/HarperCollins India, Rs.

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