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Posted at: Jan 7, 2018, 1:34 AM; last updated: Jan 7, 2018, 1:34 AM (IST)BOOK REVIEW: RIVER OF LIFE, RIVER OF DEATH: THE GANGES AND INDIA’S FUTURE BY VICTOR MALLET.

Ganga chronicles: Of salvation and sullying

Manu Moudgil

We are essentially river people. Our ancestors settled down around rivers, worked up the fertile silt these brought and revered them. Today, the same rivers sustain our agricultural land, flow through bathroom taps, carry our sewage and wait for our missed calls to be saved. Rivers are perfect signposts of our lifestyle. 

Rivers have always told our stories and while listening to the Ganga, one can hear the socio-political discourse of India in its entirety. This is what journalist Victor Mallet does in his book, River of Life, River of Death. Mallet comes off as an excellent listener as he travels up and down the river and, thankfully, to its tributaries over four years; meeting farmers, boatmen, politicians, priests, environmentalists and technocrats and combining all those conversations with latest science and oldest references. The author seems to be conscious of Western prejudices and hence the writing neither raves about nor demeans the Indian way of living. 

Pollution occupies the central point of the writing and nothing conveys it as succinctly as this: “People are killing Ganga and the river is killing them.” 

In the introductory chapters, the book seems to be written for the international audience. For what new can a writer tell us Indians about the river whose legends we know by heart and whose state of pollution has been the subject of national debate for years? But meticulous research and extensive travel sees Mallet through as he introduces smaller rivers which make the Ganga, the dams and cities that choke it and takes a dip at the 2013 Kumbh Mela, the grandest gathering on its banks. 

On the way, he deciphers why Hindus simultaneously adore and abuse the Ganga. “For centuries, it has been possible — for devout Hindus at least — to draw a distinction between the spiritual purity of Varanasi and the Ganges and the physical pollution from which both the city and the river suffer in the form of garbage and untreated sewage.” Mallet is quick to add that those views don’t persist as strongly as before and illustrates that with quotes of many individuals, including priests, who have stopped taking a dip in the river. Still, as he points out, saving the Ganga is not a majority pursuit, but the enthusiasm of a tiny number of specialists.

The river also allows the author to talk about the political campaign and governance model of Narendra Modi, who has brought adequate attention to the river and the insanitation in it. The chapter that explains the imminent health disaster due to superbugs thriving in our waters is the most startling and disturbing. With around 700 million people in India and Bangladesh directly affected by the Ganga and its tributaries, the warning could not be more well timed.

Amidst the gloom, Mallet manages to cheer up his readers by taking them either to meet the ghariyals and turtles of Chambal, a comparatively cleaner river that meets and redeems the Ganga, or to spot the frolicking dolphins who have surprisingly adapted to the murky waters at Patna. At the end, we enter the Sunderbans where the mangroves and wildlife fortunately still overwhelm humanity.  

The book also examines the claims about magical properties of the Ganga’s water, the demographic dividend India boasts of and the ambitious plans to clean the river in backdrop of corruption and bureaucracy’s inertia. The author reminds us that all is not lost. “Rivers have been sullied for millennia, and these have been turned black and pungent by manufacturing industries for centuries...And these have — like the Thames, the Rhine, and the Chicago River — recovered.” But he also sounds a warning that India can’t afford to wait like developed countries to first attain wealth and then think about its environment simply because of the higher dependency we have on the ecosystem. After all, the Ganga is not Thames. 

Books and journals of ancient travellers and work of artists offer some interesting and bizarre representations of the river. For instance, a 1651 design for the ‘Fountain of the Four Rivers’ in Rome has a statue of a male god with muscular thighs and a beard representing Ganga, quite unlike the Goddess we know.

One chapter juxtaposes the colonial fleets and traditional native hacks to move on the water with the ambitious yet impractical plan to build waterways. Mallet borrows heavily from other authors and chroniclers before him and that, along with his own experience, makes this book worthy of its subject.


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