Ganges river bank
Ganges river bank in Varanasi | Photo by Commons
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While Mallet convinces the reader of the Ganga’s importance in the country, he often dips into detailed, perhaps irrelevant, mythological tales about the river.

Victor Mallet’s River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future is a book about the river Ganga and its perceived ancient purity and current corruption, used often as metaphors to explain the complex country to the reader.

The major focus of the book is to explain the river’s relevance as a source of life, but also its deep immersion in Indian culture, religion, and spirituality. So much so, that Ganga has been the theme of many Bollywood movies (an obvious indicator of India’s culture it seems).

While Mallet convinces the reader of the Ganga’s importance, he often dips into detailed, perhaps irrelevant, mythological instances. The reliance on these tales is so heavy that it sometimes steals focus from the pressing issues of the present day. The book appears as if it is meant to appeal to a foreign readership, who are most likely to lose interest without slight exoticising.

Another surprising aspect is Mallet’s viewing of the river as purely linked to Hindu identity, the same river he uses as a metaphor for a very diverse India. In all fairness, he mentions Akbar’s love for the river and its reverence across South Asia. But he still believes that among all the rivers, Ganges lies at the heart of Hinduism and the Indian spiritual consciousness.

Mallet mentions a ‘river cult’ which started with the Indus, but moved to the Ganga, linking it to the formation of a ‘Hindu sacred landscape’ which demonised the Punjabis for eating beef and garlic, even before Islam came into existence. The author largely ignores the relationships of Muslims with the river, even though a major chunk of the river lies in Uttar Pradesh, home to a majority of Indian Muslims.

Mallet leaves it to the reader of the book to answer a crucial question: why a very capable India isn’t able to clean the Ganga. He does not delve into the nuance of why environmental concerns fail to be the state priority, or how cleaning the river remains less appealing to the masses.

The author provides well-researched depictions of the cities around the Ganga and the sentiments echoed by people in those cities.

While we learn of Varanasi’s character, spirit, and filth, Ganga only features in bits and pieces. What’s amiss is an in-depth analysis of the Ganga’s many troubles in Varanasi—how its sewage treatment plants barely function, how domestic drains flow freely into the river, or about the daily dose of pious refuse and ashes that litter the Ganga.

On the other hand, in a very real depiction of Kanpur, we see how the tanneries are particularly targeted as they are largely owned by Muslims, but at the same time, they often play victim to escape any meaningful contribution to keep the river clean.

The book weaves politics into the narrative, speaking of the hopes tied to Modi and how it has begun to turn into a disappointment, or how despite his seeming commitment to the river, he couldn’t battle the Hindus who opposed the construction of sewage treatment plants in places where cow shelters once existed.

The author brilliantly sums up Uma Bharti’s tenure as a water minister saying, “She appeared more interested in proving the existence of the extinct Saraswati river than in solving the very real crisis facing the contemporary Ganga.”

The book makes it easy to visualise the millions of litres of sewage that goes into the river and the cancer-causing toxins that industries let it into it. It is easy to understand the urgency of the matter.

The book also takes into consideration the another burning issue with the Ganga- that of hydropower projects. It documents how dams have been seen as instruments of development- whether it was Nehru or Modi. Further, it highlights how the Modi government has no national water strategy and has only focused on cleaning the river. The chapter, however, misses relevant aspects such as the government’s lobbying in favor of power interests and fails to highlight the link between the flow of the river and its health.

Another interesting point is the Ganga’s contribution to generating superbugs. The antibiotic-resistant diseases that they enable can potentially kill many in the future. In the same chapter, the author takes on the important task of answering whether or not the water of the Ganges is scientifically pure, concluding that “the waters of the river are not a magic cure.”

The author also smartly uses the north-south divide in India to explain the relatively higher lack of education, and the presence of patriarchy, poverty as a reason for more populated cities along the Ganga, which in turn affect the health of the river.

While the book is well rounded and comprehensive, sometimes in a book about the Ganga, you miss reading about the river Ganga.

Victor Mallet’s River of Life, River of Death:The Ganges and India’s Future was published by Oxford University Press, India.

 

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