Book Review: When a River Flows Through Landscapes and Memories

‘The chronicle of how a river is born, how a river finds its way from the time it is a droplet at its source, is hardly ever documented, even in invisible words.’ 

Anita Agnihotri’s dense and rich Mahanadi: The Tale of a River is a gargantuan work in Bengali contemporary literature and a notably significant text that Dr. Nivedita Sen has undertaken to bring to an English language reading audience.

With a keen eye, Dr. Sen has beautifully translated the book which transitions into another language smoothly. The text turns into a performative one – it traces and tracks the route of the actual river and also uses the river as a metaphor to traverse the several lives and events that feature in this novel, thus blurring the boundaries between reality and literature. The journey of the river begins from the plateau of Chhattisgarh and ends at Jagatsinghpur on the Bay of Bengal. It crosses villages and settlements that are full of their own tales; sharing the power that the river wields over memory and how it is tied up with identity.

Mahanadi: The Tale of a River
Anita Agnihotri/Translated by Nivedita Sen
Niyogi Books, 2021

‘When do villagers have the time to listen to the sounds of crumbling structures and fallen leaves? Perpetually in the middle of numerous chores, they do not have the time to breathe.’

It is not just an actual mapping of a river that this work has undertaken but it silently goes into the ambit of metaphorical mappings. The rich use of myths and oral history throughout the route of the river bring an added depth and a remarkable narrative weaves out of this book.

The novel opens itself up to introduce characters that emerge at various turns that the river takes to reach its destination. On the one hand, if one looks at the mapping aspect, it seems to be trying to bring together all the unruly bits and areas to ensure a structure to the otherwise wild portions of the land that require a need for a controlled environment to flourish in. On the other, the novel also makes aware that the ‘unruly’ land will make sure that its voice is heard and not muffled to make way for a more linear narrative. The river navigates through these territories to not just simply pass through them but to also lessen a sense of isolation/abandonment that at times reverberates through these spaces.

‘The huge expanse of water provoked a strange tremor of fear in one’s heart –this is what happens to city dwellers when brought close to primordial nature. In their lives, everything is fixed and structured. The length and breadth of houses are measured in square yards, and there is total reliability in the mobility of cars. Nothing else was uncertain or unplanned either. ‘

What makes this novel a powerful narrative is how there are no idealised versions of these spaces; rather, it exposes the insidious ways in which the natives of these lands no longer feel at home. The idea of migration here turns into a forced expulsion/an exodus for the benefit of a handful.

Until the water level reached up to their nose, they had sat there believing that they might eventually not have to get evacuated from their village…They had wept all the way, and in different ways. They had blended the lamentation in their hearts with a sort of broken melody and poured it all into the singing of old sons.

The myths and the oral history that has been a part of one’s existence and one’s identity now assumes the role of a fierce battle against the new forces of knowledge that attempt to drown them. These myths now take on a firm stance to remind the future generations of who they were and where they came from. The exodus from what was once home would also become a part of the stories to be told to future generations. Mahanadi reminds one of the works by Eduardo Galeano, considered “a literary giant of the Latin American left”, whose works looked at the exploitation of natural resources and how there is a need for a conscience that needs to be built around environmental issues.

The birds then became directionless. Their familiar villages and trees were all under water. Their distress calls sounded like wailing. They flailed their wings and were trying to look for those branches where they used to sit after a bout of flying. Their resting places had all gone deep under water. So the birds flew in circle over the water. Who could say on which tree lay their unhatched eggs, and the fledglings that had not learnt to fly? 

Also read: Review | A Poetic Journey Back Home

The novel belongs to a much required literature under Ecocriticism, where the relationship between humans and the natural environment is depicted as it stands. The identification with one’s natural environment has been beautifully depicted through the locals of these lands and the various ways they struggle to stay afloat despite the constant pressures of a greedy, capitalistic world that makes sure to extract as much as possible from them and not give them their due credit.

Due to a little shifting of the boundary line, people’s own native land becomes ‘foreign’ to them and their very life gets transformed. The curved boundary line of the Mahanadi water reservoir became the arbiter of the fates of hundreds of villages…rich upper-caste folk and people in politics knew how and where this line had been drawn. 

A seminal book titled Landscape and Memory (1995) by historian Simon Schama looks into the role of memory of building up not just memories but also the landscape that surrounds those memories. A landscape carries with it the histories of time as well as the various myths that surround its origin which is passed on from generation to generation.

Haradhan knew that history had no meaning here – all that was there was the sandal and vermilion of folk beliefs….Haradhan Bhoi used to tell his students that when one looked at human beings, one was not supposed to think of caste. But in this region, caste, history and folk culture clung to one another like tree, vine and serpent. 

The imagery of river also depicts the flow of time and how it is impossible to hold on to the flow of time as it meanders past people leaving them with the impossibility of ever reliving the past except through excerpts and extracts of what is left behind just like deposits on the banks of a flowing river.

How would a person who could not decipher the script that was inscribed within his own heart trace the threads of history?

The definitions and the chasm between what art is all about and when art turns into a means to another source of income in the hands of a few comes out strongly in this novel.

Heritage is expressed in social signifiers, in documents, art and sculpture. Some of that is under the ownership of common people –one cannot get one’s hands on those. The agents of the rich and wealthy try to uncover those that are sold and can be procured for a price. Because history entails economic transactions that enable the earning of money, although the investor may not understand why they are important. 


Sumana’s heart used to be moved by these Puranic stories, folk tales and narratives. To Ranga, these were mere local amusements. They would be valuable to Ranga only if the global market ascribed any value to these things.

There are several examples of this that the latter half of the novel introduces its readers to. Though the character of Mathura Meher who creates a stunning piece of art on cloth, and overlooks the losses that he has been running into while remaining immersed in his art work comes up as fine example of how oral history is translated into these art forms from weaving to painting to preserving artefacts that narrate a story. In another instance, Upamanyu, a weaver is offered a high price for his work of art to be displayed at a museum in London. But Upamanyu refuses to part with it.

It was not feasible for an artist to repeat the same piece of work again. Such art was like the flowing river of Mahanadi. One could not fill the same handful of water twice over. This was difficult to explain to an ordinary person or a buyer. 

The book sheds light on the matter of collecting data about people living in these areas, their livelihood and trying to understand the relationship between the people and their natural habitat where they have existed for hundreds of years and “who knew the everyday realities of the forest.” The adivasis in the novel have to be looked at from the point of view of the affinity that they have to the place they come from as well as the collective memory that they bring with them and hold close to them. The folklore and the myths they bring with them talks about a past that was an idyllic one, and of people who had a harmonious existence with nature. The reinvention of the self in the contemporary times brings along with it a rewriting of the myths that are no longer a part of an idyllic landscape but transforms into a barricade against these forces that attempt to break and destroy the world that they have lived and believed in.

They had been unable to build anything in this life, in the new settlement, except the means to just about survive. People from the cities would not understand the meaning of this lament, because the fulfilment of their lives lay in living and earning. But the grid of rural living is different….The earlier habitation had been full of music, dance and songs in celebration of the gods….The first victim of displacement was the oral heritage of people. Subsequently, the thread that kept oral history going was lost. 

Speaking on reinvention of history, historian Gyan Prakash has observed –“…even as the past is constantly reinterpreted by the oral traditions, it is done by referring to certain constant elements.” In this novel, the “constant elements” would be the Mahanadi. This review is but a stream in the colossal work that cannot be contained in this finite commentary. The river is a witness to solitude filled spaces of villages that are isolated, and extends to witness the struggle for one’s survival. The characters in this novel never meet one another but are a part of a long historical narrative that binds them.

She knew now that no human being is ever lonely. Surrounding her was the gurgling sound of the immense river and the indistinct sound of falling leaves. She also knew that human beings are essentially alone. They are born and die amidst the vibrations of water in the river and the hissing sound of leaves getting scattered. 

Semeen Ali has four books of poetry to her credit. Her works have featured in several national and international journals as well as anthologies. She has been invited to literary festivals to read from her works. She has co-edited three anthologies of poetry that have been published nationally and internationally. Her new anthology on women’s writings will be published this year. Apart from reviewing books for prestigious journals, she is also the Fiction and the Poetry editor for the literary journal Muse India.

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