Cau­very chron­i­cles

FrontLine - - BOOKS IN REVIEW - BY VENKITESH RA­MAKR­ISH­NAN

The book ex­plores the Cau­very and the tra­jec­to­ries of ev­ery­day life of the com­mu­ni­ties liv­ing by the river, in­formed by a spirit of in­quiry and a sub­al­tern per­spec­tive.

W

HAT a river be­queaths to the world and the hu­man race was summed up pithily around 440 B.C. by Herodotus, often called “the fa­ther of his­tor­i­cal stud­ies”, when he said that “Egypt is the gift of the Nile”. The ap­per­cep­tion and its ef­fect have lasted for over 2,500 years and have been the in­spi­ra­tion for many a chron­i­cle of rivers, the lands through which they flow and the peo­ple who in­habit their banks. The cel­e­brated Ger­man-swiss au­thor Emil Lud­wig (1881-1948), who too ac­knowl­edged Herodotus’ pi­o­neer­ing his­tor­i­cal stud­ies, took out a decade-long ex­pe­di­tion be­tween 1924 and 1934 on the Nile and the coun­tries through which it flows, which re­sulted in the de­fin­i­tive The Nile: The Life Story of a River . He elu­ci­dated “the Nile’s gift” as fol­lows. “It [the Nile] feeds hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent races, men of the moun­tain and men of the marsh, Arabs, Chris­tians, and can­ni­bals, pyg­mies and gi­ants. The strug­gles of these men for power and wealth, for faith and cus­tom, for the supremacy of colour, can be traced farther back here than any­where else in the his­tory of mankind—for six thou­sand years.”

But Lud­wig also added that be­cause of this di­ver­sity and vi­vac­ity cov­er­ing the ex­panse of life as a whole, cap­tur­ing the Nile story in its en­tirety was dif­fi­cult. Hence, all he could do was to make it ap­pear “in frag­ments, which too had re­peat­edly to be cut down, so that the river might flow on un­hin­dered”. Lud­wig promised to get back to the omit­ted de­tails in a later book but did not get around to writ­ing it in a sub­stan­tive form and scale. This was a rather unique self-lim­it­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for this oth­er­wise pro­lific writer. Lud­wig au­thored as many as 25 other books, record­ing his­tor­i­cal events and the lives of great per­son­al­i­ties such as Bis­marck, Napoleon and Goethe, most of them vo­lu­mi­nous tomes.

His sense of the work on the Nile be­ing frag­mented in many ways un­der­scores a widely per­ceived mis­match in the de­pic­tion of rivers in fic­tion as com­pared to ob­jec­tive and his­tor­i­cal chron­i­cling. Ob­jec­tive and his­tor­i­cal stud­ies of rivers are few and far be­tween, but at the same time, rivers, their unique phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics and the lives on their banks have had man­i­fold fic­tional pre­sen­ta­tions brim­ming with cre­ativ­ity and philo­soph­i­cal per­cep­tions of life and the uni­verse. Fic­tion’s greater adapt­abil­ity for frag­mented se­lec­tion from the ar­ray of of­fer­ings, the­matic, per­cep­tive, emo­tive and anec­do­tal, that a river’s chron­i­cle presents is in all prob­a­bil­ity an im­por­tant rea­son for this mis­match.

The rivers that dot fic­tion from across the world—mark Twain’s Mis­sis­sippi, T.S. Eliot’s Thames, Joseph Con­rad’s Congo and Mikhail Sholokhov’s Don, to name a few—are all cap­ti­vat­ing il­lus­tra­tions of this fas­ci­nat­ing con­trast. Closer home, the abid­ing pres­ence of the river Nila in the works of M.T. Va­sude­van Nair, the doyen of Malay­alam lit­er­a­ture, the twists, turns and tra­vails of life on the shores of the Padma, depicted by the Ben­gali writer Manik Ban­dopad­hyay, and the cel­e­bra­tion of the Brahma­pu­tra by the As­samese leg­end Bhu­pen Hazarika in his ex­pan­sive oeu­vre span­ning lit­er­a­ture, mu­sic and cin­ema, all un­der­score the same con­tradis­tinc­tion.

O.K. JOHNNY.

Kaveriy­o­doppam Ente Yaathrakal By O.K. Johnny Mathrub­humi Books, 2018 Pages: 452Price: Rs.520

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