The Ganga, with its age-old mythology continuously renewed in lived experience, its beauty and seasonal metamorphoses, and its broad sweep down from the mountains and across the most densely inhabited plain in the world, is clearly a travel writer’s dream— history, myth, culture and spectacle, all in one go. Julian Crandall Hollick’s book is the third on the Ganga to appear in the last five years, after volumes by Stephen Alter and Ilija Trojanow.
But, it would be unfair to blame him for having come late to the party, for the subject is capacious enough to allow all these works to coexist comfortably, and Hollick is probably the most systematic of the recent chroniclers of the moods and fortunes of the river.
Hollick’s starting point is that millions of Indians are intimately familiar with small stretches of the Ganga, either through settlement or religious pilgrimage, but few know it in the entirety of its 2,500km— surely, then, there must be something in being able to figure out the big picture in person rather than from a map. Among the various useful distinctions he makes on the basis of his travels, on a couple of custom-made boats, is that the Ganga has a kind of double personality.
The religious and mythical aspects of the Ganga, the Ganga associated with the goddess of the same name, with Haridwar and Varanasi and worldly transcendence, and with scenes from the Ramayana, predominate from the river’s source in the Himalayas down to Varanasi. As it flows through the plains of Uttar Pradesh, it is shallow, unthreatening, benevolent, and often highly polluted. But beyond Varanasi, fed by the waters of the Yamuna, the Ganga assumes strength once again and becomes a far more physical presence, often wreaking destruction in the lives of the people of Bihar and Bengal during the monsoons. “Reality in Bihar and West Bengal means dealing daily with the sheer physicality of the Ganga, not her spiritual generosity,” Hollick remarks.
Hollick takes up the argument that it is the supposed divinity of the Ganga that explains the neglect of many of the problems affecting it. Precisely because Indians see it as sacred and eternal and ever-pure and purifying, they are not willing to engage in arguments about its misuse. The Ganga can be “dirty” but not “polluted” in the eyes of the faithful, and this distinction allows them to evade the question of keeping it clean.
Hollick’s visits to various bodies set up by the government to implement measures recommended by the Ganga Action Plan of 1986 reveal a picture of appalling ineptitude, neglect and probable corruption. Yet, he argues, it is the citizens who need to do more to keep the administration on its toes.
Among the attractions of Hollick’s book is his engagement, not just with the Ganga but also the Hinduism that undergirds its meaning through history. In this, his work is one with the perspective of Christopher Kremmer’s Inhaling the Mahatma, one of the best of the raft of recent books about India. Hollick is especially good on the oral culture of North India, in which time is collapsed so that the events of the Ramayana are spoken of as if they happened only yesterday. Time here is experienced not as linear, as it is in most parts of the modern world, but as circular. At the same time, Hollick also asks tough questions about the connection between the spiritual and the physical, the ever-present and the current, soliciting the views of priests and pilgrims along the way.
Hollick is also attentive to questions of science and economics, traditionally the weak areas of travel writing. He is determined, even if it makes for a less fluent and readable book, to consider the impact of the Tehri and Farakka dams on the Ganga, and presents a summary of the specialist literature. He is just as keen to assess scientifically the reports of the miraculous health-giving and self-cleansing powers of Ganga jal, and provides an interesting overview of the various theories on the subject.
He advances the idea that, contrary to the arguments of most environmentalists, it may not be pollution as much as overuse of the Ganga’s waters for irrigation and hydroelectricity that may present the greatest threat to the Ganga in the long run. This is a comprehensive, clear-eyed and engaging book, let down only by some inattentive editing.
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