It’s hard to describe The Braided River. Is it a travelogue, a personal pilgrimage, a historical search for origins and beginnings or a political commentary? It is not hard to read though. Words and stories flow like the great river itself — fast, furious, tumultuous, beautiful, occasionally sluggish, but always compelling.
We start with the river itself, the mighty Brahmaputra, one river and so many rivers. From Tibet to Arunachal Pradesh to Assam to Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal, it changes name and character and even gender over its 2,880 km journey to the sea.
Samrat Choudhury writes that he wanted to “see like someone who is a mix of both outsider and insider”, growing up as he did in Shillong next door to Assam but living as he now did in Mumbai.
Choudhury and his photographer friend Akshay Mahajan arrive in Dibrugarh and set off to look for the actual Brahmaputra only to be awed by a tributary a km wide. Sometimes magically, things fall into place as they meet those powerful, influential people who “know” things and can organise things, whom you somehow only meet on journeys. From Saikhowa to Kaziranga, there is also the ecology, the flora, the fauna around the river which is brought to life.
The Braided River is busy with facts — local myths, stories, histories, geographies and delightful curiosities on the side. Like the fact that the Milky Way is called Hathi Path, the way of the Elephants in Assam.
The river is called braided by hydrologists, we learn, because of all the channels that pour into it. And so to Arunachal Pradesh to find the Lohit braid. Before that is one of those fantastic encounters with bureaucracy, to get Inner Line Permits which even Indian citizens need to travel to the most eastern of our states. As ever, some paperwork is always missing for our officious officials. Hilarious and frustrating.
India’s Northeast is remote, beautiful and something of a mystery to other Indians. It is a confluence of cultures as much as it is of the collection of the braids of the Brahmaputra. Politicians and governments have not done well by it, neglected as it is. The people have faced prejudice and abuse for being different in appearance and language.
Choudhury brings the culture alive, from its complicated history to colonial interventions to mundane but valuable interactions. As the river calls, so does the Indian state intervene, from the Intelligence Bureau to the Indian Army. Not all these encounters are pleasant.
There is anger over planned dams, the local people especially are furious at the natural destruction that will ensue. Worse, that no one in power is willing to listen to them. As they follow the river, we learn of local concerns and the distance of Delhi to these areas. Immediate political wrangles like the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens come into play, those left out, those hoping to get in, the atmosphere of fear is all here.
The writer does not hold back as he explains the insurgencies of the area, communal tensions, the wheels within wheels, the rise of ULFA, the whole episode with Tata Tea and the threat to its tea garden staff, the Nellie massacre, the Hindus versus Muslims, Ahom versus the rest, the anti-Bengali-Bihari-Marwari sentiments…
Fascinating is the depth of historical nuggets of ancient and historic local kings, of the intertwining of Hindu mythology with local customs, the many tribes and clans, the connections to South East Asia, the mix of languages pure and pidgin.
But what brings the book alive are the people, the countryside and life by the river and in the hinterland. The chance meetings, the funny accidents, the almost resigned acceptance of the local to the disoriented outsider are so well described.
To me, the last chapters on Assam, without Akshay Mahajan, were less of a travel and people story and more of a political analysis by the journalist that Choudhury is. Interesting, but missing something. The photographs bring the story alive but one wishes they were larger for more impact.
This is a massive work of art, courage and sheer nuttiness. The reader is drawn right into the quest for the Brahmaputra and the areas into which he flows. What writer could ask for more?
The Braided River: A Journey along the Brahmaputra
By Samrat Choudhury
pp. 424, Rs.599