ADITYA SINHA describes the charms of a new travelogue based on the Brahmaputra.
Often one thinks of travel books as the purest form of writing; more honest than navel-gazing literary fiction, and more informed than yet another interpretation of historical forces. During COVID-19's first wave, the best books I read were travel writing: The Lost Pianos of Siberia and The Bells of Old Tokyo. A third, now, is a book that is in equal parts Jonathan Raban's exploration of the Mississippi River, and Jerome K Jerome's 1880s slapstick journey up the Thames in Three Men in a Boat : it is Samrat Choudhury's The Braided River: A Journey Along the Brahmaputra.
Samrat's book is more of a pilgrimage of Bistirna Parore, the Brahmaputra of the late Bhupen Hazarika's imagination, than it is travelogue. One ponders why there hasn't been more travels down this mighty river, a universe in itself that spans three nations; the Ganga, for instance, inspired many films, songs and novels, most recently being Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy.
Perhaps, it is too much of a luxury for many of us. As Samrat tells us, he had to quit his career in order to spend a couple of years travelling down the Brahmaputra: "I said yes without sweating the details, and plunged right in." Good decision. He shanghais the photographer Akshay Mahajan into this adventure. Ideally, they would have began in Chinese-administered Tibet, where the river is called Tsangpo, but unfortunately, it is not easily accessible for those from the North-East. Ancient lore, as Samrat lets us know, says that the river was actually a sea lying between India and Asia, when India was a separate landmass, until India crashed into Asia and formed the Himalayas; the sea became a river. The Tsangpo stretch in flow is nothing compared to the Brahmaputra in India, due to the three rivers – the Siang, the Dibang and the Lohit – and the many rain-fed tributaries in Arunachal Pradesh that make the Brahmaputra as mighty as it eventually becomes.
Hydrologists call the Brahmaputra the "braided" river because of the many channels that form the river, with sandbars and islands lying in the middle (you have to be in the middle of the river, and not at one of its banks, to appreciate this braided-ness). The river is braided at the beginning, and in a sense at the very end – after it changes sex and becomes the Meghna, and then merges with the Ganga to become the Padma, flowing out through the Sunderbans. "The dance of creation and destruction is visible in the play between sand and water," Samrat writes. From Arunachal itself, Samrat travels up the river, taking in the land, its people, its food and its history. He even tries to make it to the Line of Actual Control – up the Siang to Gelling, the last point in India, but he is turned back by the Indian Army, obviously oblivious to the possibility of a good book. But down the Siang, down the Dibang and down the Lohit, Samrat finds himself in one rollicking journey after another, on vehicles perched on mountainsides overlooking vast drops to the river. It includes stopping at the Tuting monastery, where an Ambassador car is inexplicable kept in a glass case; at the Parashuram Kund; and at a house on traditional stilts in Yongkiong. Samrat drinks apong, the local brew.
When he reaches Assam, he travels by boats and steamers, hitching a ride with a couple of doctors working the islands in the upper Brahmaputra, visiting with jolly smugglers, laughing at hapless Intelligence officials, listening to the stories of fishermen, hoteliers, schoolteachers and making a friend or two along the way. In fact, reading this book made me want to spend more time discovering the Brahmaputra: I too want to go to Tezpur and see Xihu (dolphin) jumping in the water; I too want to see the Samaguri Satra at Majuli; and I wish I had been to the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation at Kaziranga, where Samrat watched the late Tarun Gogoi feeding baby rhinos from large cannisters filled with lactogen milk. (The Brahmaputra annually floods Kaziranga, orphaning a few animals every time it does. Snakes too.)
In the final part of the travelogue, Samrat ends up in Bangladesh, in Daulatdia, where his boatsmen go offshore for the pleasures offered by the world's oldest profession. A sort of Ram Teri Ganga Maili – type of end punctuation to the narrative.
For his travels, Samrat prepared withmuch scholarship. There is mythology and history, ranging from Sankaradeva and Madhabdev to the Ahom kings who established the land, to Lachit Borphukan, who is now a right-wing icon for having driven off the Mughal army, commandeered ironically, by a Hindu king. His reading includes colonial treatises on the land and the people, such as Noel Williamson's 1907 account of the Lohit, or George Barker's grouchy account of life in the tea-gardens in the 1870s. Also, there is an account of the Dhubri gurudwara of Guru Tegh Bahadur, who watched his companion Bhai Mardana turned into a lamb by the sorceress Netai Dhobani; fortunately, the Guru was able to turn his companion back into a man, a feat unaccomplished by most ever since.
Best of all, Samrat takes this manifold tapestry and parcels it out in chapters of a few pages each, 55 chapters in all, as if you were eating lots of items in a thaali at Paradise restaurant. With brief yet tasty chapters, the reader is invited to lazily drift through the book, as if he were on a river cruise having had his fill of fish and rice, watching the landscape change as he floats by (the Brahmaputra's currents are a bit stronger than a lazy flow, but let's not quibble). The book is a labour of love and deserves your attention. It gives you a glimpse into the multi-verse of the Brahmaputra, and it would have made the late Bhupen da proud.