This book review is part of #TSBCReadsIndia, a reading challenge wherein one reads a book from each State and Union Territory of India. Presenting the book from Madhya Pradesh and the third of the 36 books to be read in this literary journey across India.
My earliest travel memories revolve around trains and river crossings, in particular the Narmada at Bharuch. I remember being awed by the expanse of the river flowing under the railway bridge, and wondering where that water was coming from and where it was going to. As the train crossed the river, my mother and I would fling coins from the train window into the Narmada. These were offerings, my mother would whisper into my ears, to the river Narmada as she was life-sustaining and, therefore, sacred. Together, we would fold our hands and bow before the river.
Decades have passed since those train journeys. I no longer throw coins into the Narmada or any other river from the train window, but my fascination and reverence for rivers — especially the Narmada — continues even today. That was the reason I bought a copy of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada (HB, 242 pages, 2013, Fourth Estate) by Hartosh Singh Bal, soon after its release.
The book lay unread for almost 2 years and then #TSBCReadsIndia happened. I did not even have to think twice before selecting this book as my read for Madhya Pradesh. There couldn’t be a more apt choice for as just as Madhya Pradesh is the geographical heart of India, so is the river Narmada.
The Narmada is a very special river in many ways. In all likelihood older than the Ganga — the holiest of Indian rivers — it is taken as the traditional marker that divides North and South India. The Narmada was also probably the first non-Vedic river to be considered holy by the Indo-Aryans. According to the Puranas:
just the darshan of the Narmada gives you the same benefits that you obtain from bathing in the Ganga. In this era of decay, in this kaliyug, the Narmada grows in strength; that is why of the seven sacred rivers, it is the only one to merit a parikrama. (pg.74)
Literally, a parikrama means going around a sacred object, a circumambulation really. In the case of the Narmada parikrama, this is a distance of about 2700 km.
The parikrama can commence anywhere along its banks. The pilgrim must keep the sacred shrine, here the river, to the right while walking. A pilgrim… never breaks the journey, stopping only for the four months of the monsoon… (pg.5-6)
Waters Close Upon Us is an account of the author’s personal journey along the Narmada, his parikrama. But the parikrama is not really a religious or spiritual journey. It is a journey into the region’s past and present through anthropological, cultural, sociological, art, environmental, philosophical, historical, developmental and political lenses.
The parikrama/book/journey begins at Amarkantak, the source of the Narmada. The journey begins slowly and takes a while to settle down as we, the readers, adjust to the author’s thought processes and writing style. As the journey proceeds, the rich, varied and, conflicted landscape of the region emerges through the people we meet, the stories we hear, and the history that unfolds through the author’s observations.
One of the first things we understand early on in the journey is that the Narmada Valley “was home to a number of classical cities” which “flourished as city states, before declining in the face of new kingdoms that lasted till the early medieval period. For much of this period, the bulk of the population in the valley remained tribal” (pp.47).
We meet the Gonds and hear their stories of creation, the importance of the liquor distilled from the mahua flowers in their daily life, how their art was “discovered” and went from being just a tribal art to being recognised internationally. We are also privy to the consequences that followed.
We visit illegally built temples designed with no aesthetic sense. We also visit temples whose original walls have been covered to look like hotel lobbies. We walk past abandoned temples and see centuries-old sculptures lying about without anyone to care for them.
We hear of the legendary debate between Adi Shankaracharya and Mandana Mishra, at Mahishmati on the banks of the Narmada. Shankaracharya won the debate and Sanatan Dharma, or Hinduism as we know it today, was born 1200 years ago there.
We listen to the claims of the present day cities of Mandla and Maheshwar as being the Mahishmati of Adi Shankaracharya
We visit Gadarwa, the birthplace of Osho Rajneesh, and see how the town still seems to idolise him. We also meet a host of sadhus at various points during the journey, including one who is not sure about his future as a sadhu to another who has appropriated a rock shelter for himself and whitewashed the 7000+ year-old paintings over. We hear the author reserving his pithiest comments for the sadhus.
It seemed more and more to me that to be a sadhu was in most cases the last refuge of a layabout, the prestige of a tradition ensuring both respect and free food. Certainly I met none who had studied the texts with a questioning rigour, and I met no one who could hold his own in a philosophical debate. (pg. 71)
We get to know about the American Quakers who came on a mission to convert the tribals or adivasis to Christianity. And then we meet the modern-day proponents of Hindutva and members of the Dharam Prachar Samitis who are on a mission to convert the tribals, who they prefer to call vanvasis, instead of adivasis, to Hinduism.
We meet the district head of the Gond Gantantra Party, which is modelled on the Bahujan Samaj Party, and has been set up to bring back pride in the Gond identity amongst its people.
We are led to the edge of the Sardar Sarovar Reservoir, which is so vast that it looks like a sea. We see the tops of telephone poles and trees emerging from the water, and can imagine entire settlements lying underneath. We see the desperation of the people in their believing false assurances from officials in receiving a fair compensation. We also meet people who have decided never to leave the area and are prepared to die when the water levels rise.
We meet people associated with the Narmada Bachao Andolan at various points like Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy.
We listen to the author’s own struggle with the issue of large dams and his admission that dams are a mistake. This comes years after reporting about them.
In the simplest of terms, the returns from the Sardar Sarovar Project, irrespective of when it is completed, will never be enough to justify it. The project should never have been approved. (pg. 203)
We stand with him at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad and see water flowing in the once dried river bed of the Sabarmati, and realise that it is the
water from the dam that had displaced over a hundred thousand people [that]… had ended up providing a pleasant river-front view for the people of Ahmedabad. (pg.212)
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
The Narmada parikrama as experienced through this book is not just an actual travel journey; it is an internal parikrama calling for a lot of self-reflection. I was forced to think about people, policies, development, displacement, inclusion, exclusion, religious conversion, history, culture and so much more. It also made me look at values.
In the course of my work, I have read a lot of writings on the Narmada issue, and the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), and even edited some of them. But none of them made me think about the mess that the SSP is, the way Bal had done in his book. And mind you, his writing is not easy to read. The first 30 pages are particularly tough for Bal talks about a lot of things and wanders off in different directions, making it difficult to keep track and understand him. And then quite suddenly, he settles down and the journey continues quite smoothly thereafter
The part on the Narmada dams and the SSP and the people affected by it is particularly poignant and I often had to reach for tissues. (Disclaimer: I get emotional while reading books.) Bal summarises the entire issue, and the injustice of it all by saying that,
The sacrifice demanded by the dams has been forced on those who have not volunteered, who have little belief in the faith that calls the dams into being. (pg.226)
These words hit you like a hard punch in the gut. But then Bal does not spare anybody — not Arundhati Ray for her flawed analysis of the Narmada issue, not Shankaracharya or Rajneesh for their philosophies, not the politicians for their greed, and certainly not Narendra Modi, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat.
A must read and a parikrama that I highly recommend.
- For more information on the Sardar Sarovar Project, popularly known as the Narmada issue, do read this.page.
- If there is one thing I absolutely disliked about the book, it is the cover designed by Arijit Ganguly. It depicts a washed out artwork by Edward Lear depicting “The Marble Rocks Nerbudda Jubbolpore”. Everything is wrong about this painting, but especially the pastel, washed out colours. I would have loved to see a Gond painting on the cover depicting the community’s relationship with the Narmada. Anyone listening?
- If you need more details on #TSBCReadsIndia, please head to the TSBC blog, or you could leave a comment here which I’ll be very happy to answer.
- If you want to know more about The Sunday Book Club then you can read more about it on my blog here or head over to the TSBC Blog.