04 November 2007

Cry Me A River

By Julian Crandall Hollick
Random House India
Pages 283
Price 495

It’s a sign of the age we live in that a book published this year on the river Ganges is neither a travelogue, nor a glossy coffee-table book. It’s a Kafakaesque account -- complete with footnotes and an impressive bibliography -- of an 18-month roughing it down the entire 1,200-mile length of the mother of myths, faith, indeed a whole civilisation, and, not to mention, of those countless coffee-table books.

Like earlier travellers and writers taken up by this culture thrown up by the coming together of poverty, blind faith, and a river, Hollick’s Ganga is a meditation on that same culture, but one that is now being changed radically by a new element -- urban India’s increasing affluence and a matching demand on natural resources.

Initially drawn to the river for the myths she sustains, and later, after years of casual encounters, being struck by the amazing variety of personalities she could possess, Hollick found rankling the general disconnect between the mythical and the geographical river. This was most evident in the way the faithful seem to treat the two rivers differently, making Hollick ask the question: ‘How can Indians pollute Ganga and yet at the same time worship her as a goddess?’

To explore this conundrum, Hollick, along with his wife Martine and a retinue that an Indian prince would have envied, consisting of a variety of retainers (including boatmen for different legs of the journey, and cooks), guides, and scientists, sometimes abroad and sometimes carrying their boat ‘Basanti’ in Mahindra SUV, sets out down the Ganges, from its source to its mouth.

No evocative descriptions, no charming vignettes, what follows is Hollicks intense gaze on the condition of the river relentlessly seeking out those responsible for its dire straits. Will Ganges the goddess die if the river did? Is it faith, literally blind to the extreme stress it puts its goddess through, whether it be plastic bags, dead bodies, or human waste thrown in and from which the river is believed to cleanse itself miraculously, that is killing the river? Is urban India’s insatiable thirst sucking the river dry?

Hollick’s learned forays into the river’s various physical aspects -- Ganges’ miraculous self-cleansing properties; the mysterious bacteriophage that allegedly appear and vanish in seconds to cleanse large swathes of the river of deadly bacteria; the deadly Chromium effluence of the Kanpur tanneries; the self-inflicted environmental catastrophe that Farakka barrage is, built ironically to punish East Pakistan; and river hydrology -- convey her true value as a natural resource and an ecosystem.

Hollick quizzes mahants, gurus, pilgrims, environmentalists, hydrologists, and microbiologists for answers. He meets interesting characters and goes strange places. In Motipur, a veritable Village of the Damned, he finds the entire population of both people and cattle afflicted with the effects of Chromium poisoning. The president of the Small Tanneries Association, offers a bizarre explanation to Hollick: ‘It’s all caused by nuclear radiation!’

And yet, Hollick’s problem is not of lack but a surfeit of answers. Hollick might now be a convert to Nehru’s assertion that in India there are many sides to a truth. One truth that remains unchanged through out the book is that people staying along the river's banks are less and less likely to bathe in it or use the river water to wash the bodies of their dead.

Something ails the Ganges? Who and what is responsible? Perhaps the answer lies in his analysis of the still-born Ganga Action Plan started with best intentions by Rajiv Gandhi, with the help of most competent men and women. ‘[Yet] everything that could go wrong has gone wrong!’ writes Hollick. ‘There’s little deliberate malfeasance or evil intent. It’s incremental: a decision is made, a direction taken, without fully anticipating the possible consequences. It’s never anybody’s fault!’

In short, it’s everyone’s fault. A whole culture to blame for its own imminent demise.

It’s amazing how Ganga, though reading like a skittish radio-documentary script and coupled with Hollick’s inability or indifference to marshall the wealth of his material into a cogent thesis, still manages to deliver a devastating cultural critique. Ganga is one of the most acute and revealing portrait of the land and its people by a Westerner on the sheer strength of Hollick’s well-chosen metaphor for contemporary India.

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