India’s rivers have their own rhythms, western currents won’t renew them
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.”
TAPPING INTO NILE AND GANGES: Ravina Aggarwal moderates the session ‘Civilisation Rides the River’, featuring Moin Mir, Ahdaf Soueif and Anthony Acciavatti