In­dia’s rivers have their own rhythms, west­ern cur­rents won’t re­new them

The Times of India (Mumbai edition) - - THE TIMES LITFEST 2018 - Mo­[email protected]­group.com

Be­cause mankind needs wa­ter to sur­vive, civ­i­liza­tions from time im­memo­rial have flour­ished along­side rivers. Be it as a dreaded lo­cus of pil­fer­age that River Volga and its trade route of­fered to the Vikings or as a sus­tain­ing caul­dron of progress, cul­ture and in­ter­min­gling of faith that River Bospho­rous has re­mained.

How mighty rivers like these gave birth to civ­i­liza­tions and the crit­i­cal need to nur­ture these wa­ter­bod­ies as an in­te­gral part of our ex­is­tence like how it was cen­turies ago was a sub­ject of deliberation at an af­ter­noon ses­sion at the Times Lit­fest at Me­hboob Stu­dios on Fri­day.

If Egyp­tian nov­el­ist and cul­tural com­men­ta­tor Ahdaf Soueif, who lives in Cairo, dwelt on River Nile and the ro­mance of how life at the frag­ile desert land clings to the world’s sec­ond long­est river, Moin Mir, au­thor and scion of the Nawab fam­ily of Su­rat re­flected on his days of grow­ing up by Tapi, a river that gave rise to Su­rat and be­came the spine of In­dia’s mar­itime trade, but has over time been for­got­ten as an eco­nomic main­stay. An­thony Ac­cia­vatti, au­thor of Ganges Wa­ter Ma­chine, the first com­pre­hen­sive vis­ual sur­vey and en­vi­ron­men­tal his­tory of the Ganga basin, spoke about the in­tel­li­gent trans­for­ma­tion that the banks of the Ganges un­dergo – from hy­per ur­ban to bu­colic – as tem­po­rary tent cities pop up be­fore the mon­soon ar­rives only to get washed away dur­ing the largest con­gre­ga­tion of pil­grims on the planet—Kumbh Mela.

Pol­lu­tion con­tin­ues to pose the big­gest threat to all these rivers, apart from cli­mate change. Ac­cia­vatti, who spent a decade criss­cross­ing the Ganges by foot, boat, and car to doc­u­ment con­flicts over wa­ter for drink­ing and agri­cul­ture, feels that it is im­per­a­tive for the gov­ern­ment to look be­yond just ac­tion plans. “Be­fore we can start ad­dress­ing pol­lu­tion we need to draw rivers dif­fer­ently that take into ac­count his­tor­i­cal de­vel­op­ments of the Ganges and its cur­rent state. It is In­dia’s most densely pop­u­lated wa­ter basin and one needs to start de­vel­op­ing smaller mod­els in­stead of em­u­lat­ing for­eign ways that have no con­nec­tion with the na­ture of this river,” says Ac­cia­vatti, who be­cause of no ac­cess to maps or satel­lite im­agery, de­vel­oped his own in­stru­ments to vi­su­al­ize the rhythms of the mon­soon and the dy­namism of the Ganges when writ­ing his book.

Draw­ing at­ten­tion to Tapi, and in a bid to erase his most haunt­ing im­pres­sion of the river as a del­uge of plas­tic in­stead of dra­matic waves, Mir ad­vo­cated a model sim­i­lar to Sabar­mati. “The restora­tion of the Su­rat Cas­tle has led to re­newed in­ter­est in Tapi. If the gov­ern­ment ini­ti­ated for Tapi what it has for Sabar­mati, the river might see resur­gence,” he said.

Ev­ery­thing’s not lost though. De­spite their wa­ters de­plet­ing, rivers that have shaped life in dif­fer­ent lands con­tinue to find ways to do so. Soueif de­scribed how the break­down of so­cial bar­ri­ers dur­ing Egypt’s upris­ing in 2011 saw a small so­cial move­ment on their river boats. These plea­sure boats, whose pa­trons are mostly work­ing class and were ea­ger to spend more time on the streets and in the wa­ters, pa­tro­n­ised the ‘mahra­ganat’, a form of mu­sic cel­e­brat­ing the re­al­i­ties of ev­ery­day life. “You don’t hear it broad­cast on tele­vi­sion or ra­dio but pumped out of the river after dark.”

Pics: Uma Kadam

TAP­PING INTO NILE AND GANGES: Rav­ina Aggarwal moder­ates the ses­sion ‘Civil­i­sa­tion Rides the River’, fea­tur­ing Moin Mir, Ahdaf Soueif and An­thony Ac­cia­vatti

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