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The Xihu’s last refuge: An extract from ‘The Braided River’ by Samrat Choudhury

A stretch of the Brahmaputra in Assam   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

Next morning we set off to go on a boat ride in search of a group of increasingly rare inhabitants who are truly indigenous to the Brahmaputra valley: river dolphins. The rivers around Tezpur are reputed to be home to many of them, and we wanted to glimpse the beautiful creatures that had eluded us so far on our journey. I had a number for a local boatman through my Shillong friend, the writer Ankush Saikia. When I called the boatman, he said he would meet us at his village under the Kalia Bhomora Bridge that spans the Brahmaputra on the outskirts of Tezpur.

Boatman Arfan Ali was very courteous, but demanded Rs. 3,000 for a ride that Ankush had said should cost Rs. 600. It was, Ankush had said, a short ride out to the spot where the dolphins were usually to be found. Even accounting for the usual difference in rates that tourists are subjected to, Ali’s demand seemed like daylight robbery. However, while there were other boats at the spot, there were no other boatmen in sight whom we could approach for a better deal. We were forced to go with Ali.

He took us to a little sandbar in the middle of the river, hardly a kilometre upstream from the Kalia Bhomora Bridge. There he dropped anchor, and asked us to disembark and wait for the dolphins to make their appearance.

We waited. We tiptoed up and down the 100 m of fine white sand on the sandbar which was barely an inch or two higher than the surrounding waters. We scanned the surface of the muddy green-brown river in all directions, and spotted foam and branches of trees floating past. Ali suddenly shouted ‘There!’ and pointed at a spot somewhere between the sandbar and the bank on the Tezpur side. We looked but saw nothing.

Ali asked us to settle down for the watch. He had brought along two red plastic chairs. He now placed these on the sand. We sat

The Ganga River Dolphin

The Ganga River Dolphin   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

there, literally in the middle of the river, and waited. After some time, there was what sounded like a splash somewhere in the river. We tried to follow the sound but saw nothing. A couple more splashes followed, with the same result. Then Akshay claimed he had spotted a dark shape in the water. I was looking blankly at the river, having given up hope of seeing anything, when I saw something flash out of the water. It was gone in a trice.

We waited on, but saw nothing more. Akshay, in exasperation, even turned to YouTube for help; amazingly enough, we had data signal on that sandbar. He found a soundtrack that he claimed was the mating call of the Amazon dolphin and played it from his phone, but the Assamese dolphins were immune to these fraudulent Brazilian charms and failed to put in an appearance. Akshay surmised that their languages were probably different.

A different question of languages had been bothering me since we met Ali. We had spoken to one another in Hindi and Assamese, but his Hindi was accented in an unusual way. Now, to fill the emptiness of what seemed a pointless wait, I tried to chat him up. ‘Where are you from?’ I asked. ‘Tezpur,’ he replied.

‘Your family is originally from Tezpur?’ I enquired.

‘A little further down the river,’ he replied, before exclaiming, ‘There! Big one!’

I turned to look but saw nothing.

The Xihu’s last refuge: An extract from ‘The Braided River’ by Samrat Choudhury

Anyway, after some more staring into the opaque waters of the Brahmaputra, even Ali felt the need to put in more of an effort. We got back in the boat and rode a little further upstream, to a larger sandbar close to the point where the Jia Bhoroli River — known as the Kameng in Arunachal Pradesh, from where it flows down into Assam — meets the Brahmaputra with a loud crash. It sounds like the sea, and there are waves that ripple down to the shore of the char a kilometre or so away on which we now dropped anchor.

We were rewarded almost immediately with the sight of a dolphin, sleek and black, flashing out of the water. Then another. And another; or perhaps it was the same one resurfacing in a different spot. There seemed to be at least two, one big and one small, and they were having a good time gambolling in the water. Gradually, their appearances grew more distant from us and after a while we lost sight of them. It had, however, been a satisfying sight. We had finally seen the Xihu.

The Xihu is the local name for the Ganges River Dolphin, or Platanista gangetica. The IUCN Red Data Book on Dolphins, Porpoises and Whales of the World lists it as a ‘Vulnerable’ species. ‘Formerly apparently quite abundant, there is evidence that populations have declined more or less throughout the range,’ the book says. ‘The major problems are: extensive habitat damage, particularly through dam construction; indirect and incidental catching; pollution; and boat traffic’. The dolphin is found in the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Karnaphuli and Meghna river systems, from the foot of the Himalayas to the limits of the tidal zone in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan, according to IUCN.

The female dolphin is bigger than the male. The average male gets to between 2.0 and 2.1 metres long, while the average female is 2.5 metres long.

The Brahmaputra, unlike the Ganges or Ganga, is a free flowing river. It is still possible for the dolphin to survive here. The two great rivers eventually merge into one another, and creatures big and small can move from one river to the other. If the Brahmaputra and its living creatures survive, they can flow back into the Ganga. The section of the Brahmaputra between Jorhat and Tezpur is one of the last remaining refuges of the Xihu. The IUCN Red Data Book recommends that this area should be declared a river dolphin sanctuary — a recommendation on which there has long been no progress.

We took the brief boat ride back and in a few minutes were at the riverside village below the bridge. Ali was most hospitable and insisted we join him for tea at the village tea shop, a ramshackle bamboo structure with a floor of beaten earth in which plastic tables and chairs had been placed. A group of men, most of them wearing lungis and sporting beards, sat inside engaged in a lively conversation. The language of conversation was one I instantly recognized. It was the language my maternal grandmother used to speak in, the Mymensingh dialect of Bengali, from what is now Bangladesh.

The village was one of the people known in Assam as Miyas, the Bengali Muslims, mostly of Mymensingh origin, whose ancestors had been lured to the state by the colonial administration as farmers to increase paddy and jute cultivation. At that time, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there was no international boundary separating Assam from what is now Bangladesh. Indeed, there was not even a provincial or state boundary.

From the time of the British annexation of the former Ahom kingdom’s territories after the Anglo-Burmese war of 1826, until an administrative reorganization in 1874, Assam had been part of a Bengal that included today’s West Bengal, Bangladesh, Bihar and Odisha. Between 1905 and 1911, when the Mymensinghia migration really peaked, East Bengal and Assam was a single province again. Driven by a desire to increase revenues, the East India Company and, after 1857, the British government of India, encouraged cultivation of ‘wastelands’ in Assam. The cultivation of rice and jute in these ‘wastelands’ in the Brahmaputra floodplains required human labour, for which the Bengali Muslim peasantry of neighbouring Mymensingh was encouraged, until about 1930, to migrate.

Extracted from the chapter, ‘Looking for the Xihu’, from The Braided River: A Journey Along the Brahmaputra by Samrat Choudhury, published by HarperCollins.

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