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