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‘The Braided River: A Journey Along the Brahmaputra’ review: Rolling on the river

Long before the ‘chicken’s neck’ became the sole point of access for India to its Northeast, there was Goalando. In the golden age of the steamer, the second half of the 19th century, it was the port wherefrom the India General Steam Navigation Company’s vessels would embark on their journey upriver to Dhubri, Gauhati and Dibrugarh. As the railways gained traction, the place became the terminus of one section of the East Bengal State Railway for transiting to the Brahmaputra waterway. Situated at the confluence of the Ganga (Padma) and the Jamuna (Brahmaputra), Goalando today is a nondescript ghat, a far cry from its storied past. But as Samrat Choudhury puts it in perspective, maps and names are just human inventions as civilisations waxed and waned along riversides: “‘This is China,’ we say, ‘and this is India, and downriver from here is Bangladesh.’ The river doesn’t know, and it doesn’t care.”

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Ode to a neighbourhood

The Braided River is the journalist-turned-author and Shillong native’s ode to his immediate neighbourhood. The meandering course taken by the Brahmaputra from its points of origin to its final destination in the Bay of Bengal serves as an apposite narrative device, though the author is often at pains to justify inclusions of historical towns and places of interest that aren’t quite hinterland but qualify as being on the riverbank only with some latitude. The author flies down to Dibrugarh, takes a houseboat to the edge of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park, where the Siang, Lohit and Dibang meet to form the Brahmaputra, and thereon to the constituent tributaries by road and boat before embarking on a long descent to Upper Assam, Central Assam and Lower Assam all the way down to Bangladesh.

While the book pitches itself as travel, memoir and history rolled into one, it is in the latter two that it sparkles most. Not that the author doesn’t try capturing the flows in their myriad hues — “uprooted water hyacinth bobbing downriver at pace”, “glistening silver line”, “muscular ripples” — but one can only wax eloquent so much. In an age where one is constantly told that real travel entails eschewing the beaten track and seeking the pristine, it isn’t difficult to picture the sheer wondrousness of nature untamed without iterations upstream or downstream. What does hook the reader are the intimate pen portraits of towns dotting the river that bring to life their rich pasts, and conversations with bystanders or passers-by as the author courses through his journey. Particularly hilarious are the scenes that ensue after he and photographer Akshay Mahajan, who contributed the bulk of images in the book, crash a funeral gathering at Yinkiong in upcountry Siang mistaking it for the local bar.

Warning bells on environment

Choudhury isn’t above the odd sweeping generalisation or two, such as announcing that popular culture in Pasighat (and presumably Arunachal at large) seemed to revolve around television; and the temptation to exoticise — likening an old man in a flowing red robe carrying a wooden spear to a figure from Chinese kung fu films. The author, however, deploys his trained journalistic eye to give fuller treatment to reportage that has appeared across time and publications, such as on the boat clinic on the Brahmaputra that caters to people on the river islands, the river dolphins upstream from Tezpur, Makum, Assam’s very own Chinatown near Tinsukia town, river island Majuli, the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati, dargahs of Sufi saints Ajan Pir and Ghiyasuddin Auliya in Sivasagar and Hajo, and, of course, the Kaziranga sanctuary. There is a delightful account of life as a manager in a tea estate, with its bungalows and retinue of service staff, a throwback to the days of the Planter Raj. The bits on Ahom history, the Mughal invasions, and events of more recent vintage such as the rise and fall of the United Liberation Front of Asom make for a riveting read.

The book is yet another in a long line of academic scholarship and non-fiction that make a fervent plea against damming up the Northeast, a push triggered primarily by a hydropower race with China and as yet unfounded fears about it diverting Brahmaputra water away from the source channels. Choudhury highlights the short shrift given to green compliances, often in the face of protests by locals, in order to fast-track projects that would cut up the Siang, Lohit and Dibang. In a seismic hotspot, the consequences, he points out, could be catastrophic.

An associated argument is the need for sustainable development, reviving inland waterways and, given the political will, the natural downstream route into Bangladesh that was severed by the India-Pakistan war of 1965. There have been small beginnings. The author notes New Delhi and Dhaka signing an inland water transit agreement in 2015 that allows Indian cargo boats to access the old pre-Partition routes. A barge with fly ash from Patna entered Assam via Bangladesh three years later. The logical extension perhaps should be a freer movement of people with tighter border patrolling. But in an environment where the National Register of Citizens exercise and the Citizenship Amendment Act has “reopened old wounds... without serving a single useful purpose for anyone”, that doesn’t qualify as even wishful thinking. Meanwhile, the river will keep rolling.

The Braided River: A Journey Along the Brahmaputra; Samrat Choudhury, HarperCollins, ₹499.


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