Review | Walking Along the Banks of the Brahmaputra

The river Brahmaputra has been a constant in my ever-changing life. My mother grew up playing on the banks of the river at my ancestral home where an almost 200-year-old Durga Puja is celebrated each year.

Decades ago as a young student studying at Delhi University, I had to take the Brahmaputra Express to travel back and forth between Delhi and Guwahati a couple of times a year. The sweaty, smelly third-class compartment of the train would always make the journey exhausting. Yet all the tiredness and crankiness would disappear into thin air the moment we would cross the Saraighat Bridge, and the metallic rattle sound of the train passing over the bridge would almost sound like a welcome song.

Mine is an idyllic, romantic view of the Brahmaputra, coming from my privilege of never ever having to face its fury. My home was never flooded, my livelihood was never been washed away and I was never displaced owing to the wrath of the river. My love for the Brahmaputra is absolutely unconditional and this is the reason why I wanted to learn more about it. That’s when I chanced upon writer and journalist Samrat Choudhary’s The Braided River. The engaging writing of the book, published in April 2021, made my journey along the mighty Brahmaputra a remarkably enriching one.

Written from the perspective of an insider-outsider, the journey takes us right to the birthplace of the Brahmaputra, at the edge of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park where lies the confluence of the Lohit, Dibang and the Siang – the main tributaries of the Brahmaputra. But as the writer says, “The river is the sum of its parts, and much more.” Therefore the book is divided into three sections, commencing with an engagement with the tributaries, moving on to the Brahmaputra in upper Assam, and concluding with its journey into lower Assam and Bangladesh.

This “genre-bending” book is a travelogue of sorts with the author and his companion, Akshay, travelling on land and water, on magic vans crammed with people, and “bhut-bhutis” that barely avoid capsizing; primarily through the interiors of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, tracking the river quite literally, with instinct taking over as GPS. But the narrative, reflective of the braided river, is also an interweaving of the historical, anthropological, cultural and political.

Braided narrative

‘The Braided River’ Samrat Choudhury Harper Collins (2021)

It is a well-established fact that civilisations come into existence on the banks of rivers owing to the presence of water and fertile soil which in turn makes it more suitable for habitation. So as the writer travels along the river, we find remnants of history, often in the form of architectural remains, that tell us about kingdoms and people who came before, like the Sutiyas who ruled before the Ahoms; the Taos who trace their roots to Siam, the Ahoms who fought valiantly against the Mughals at Saraighat, the attack on the British Garrison at Sadiya in 1839 by the Khampti tribe. It is history, often of resistance; history that forges ties between the mainland and the Northeast; history that mostly finds no mention in the mainstream.

This history segues into the contemporary politics as Choudhury travels, tracing the drawing of the contested McMahon Line, the battles that were fought between the Chinese and Indian armies in 1962 along the Lohit, and how this continuing and festering conflict with China even in contemporary times is underlined by the numerous encounters with people from the Intelligence Bureau that dots the narrative.

The book reveals how the external threat of violence is mirrored by the constant presence of internal threats in the form of militant groups, such as ULFA which ran almost a parallel administration in the 1990s, especially in the Dibrugarh-Tinsukia region of upper Assam; and how while that threat has been somewhat mitigated, the issue of Bangladeshi migrants, and the consequent National Register of Citizens has once again thrown this region into turbulence.

A history of mistrust

A glimpse into the historical and political is often provided by way of the anecdotal, wherein personal histories and stories make the political more varied, more personal. What is also achieved as a result of the anecdotal, by means of the back stories that are provided for almost every person the writer comes in contact with during his journey, is an understanding of the heterogeneity of people that mainlanders simply bracket under the category of Northeast. So we are familiarised with the multi-ethnic plurality of the Northeast as comprising not just of the Assamese, the Arunachalis, the Nagas and Mizos but the Adis, Bodos, Khasis, Mishimis, Singphos, Garos, Galos, among others.

One learns about the complicated, sometimes distrustful ties that exist between different communities, and how and why that distrust extends to what is known as the mainland. This lack of trust is historical and predicated on years of neglect that the Northeast has been subjected to. Through the journey, we become witness to the accretion of neglect that defines this region where even the presence of a functioning ATM is a miraculous occurrence. What is ironic, though not surprising, is how the exploitation of natural resources continues unabated, irrespective of the abject dereliction of duty the state owes to its people.

This is most powerfully brought out by the writer’s discovery of the 178 dams that are in the pipeline to be built on the Brahmaputra. The destruction that such projects would cause to the ecosystem is beyond any reasonable doubt, the loss of livelihood and displacement incomparable; but the motivation to completely disregard all of this is too compelling of course, because as Choudhury notes, “Money is a great remover of obstacles.”

While development is essential, what also become abundantly clear through the journey is the need for sustainable development, so that while a sector like tourism needs all the impetus, we possibly do not need Majuli, the biggest river island, the home of the Sankardev’s “satras” to become a Wi-fi district thronged by tourists. It is this nuanced perspective, a sensitive engagement with issues, uncompromising scholarship, and yet a rare lightness of touch that makes The Braided River a must read for anybody who is interested in the Northeast, or the matchless fabulousness that is India.

Shibani Phukan teaches English literature at Delhi University.

Featured image credit: Amazon/Pixabay; Editing: LiveWire