Home/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Desert rain; bewitched river

The bus is crowded with colour: pink-and-tangerine ghagras (skirt) and maroon-and-sunshine safas (turbans), wide-eyed children with silver amulets and sandy hair, brown wicker baskets and bright neon bags. And music: lost love, a prodigal son, a wife far away. All belted out in a nasal high-pitched voice, played too loud on a crackling sound system. We bump and sway, as if with the rhythm, along a thin straight desert road that stretches and fades into shimmering haze.

Women carrying water
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Women carrying water

I want to be a student of the desert and I am on my way to it. My self-assigned curriculum is this: It rains for 132 days in Thiruvananthapuram but wells run dry in summer. It rains for one, maybe two days in the deep Thar desert but the wells never run dry. How? I intend to find out.

Dressed in a T-shirt and cargo pants, I am squeezed between a gaunt wax-mustachioed man with large silver rings and a hundred-bangled woman in a hot-yellow nylon veil. I look nothing like anyone else on the bus. I can feel everyone’s eyes on me.

The bus driver speaks first. “Where to?" Ramgarh, I reply. “Where will you stay?" A hotel, maybe? I say. The whole bus guffaws. “There is no hotel in Ramgarh. There is nothing there," they tell me. “Now what will you do?" The question is writ large on faces.

“I’ll find a way," I feign bravado and flash a smile. I have the number of a shepherd-farmer on my phone. A few days ago, he had promised to receive me. But today, thus far, there has been no response to my repeated calls. I’ll find a way, I convince myself.

An hour later, the bus dumps me at a dusty, sand-blown crossroad. A few shops, a mechanic’s workshop, a textile store, and a tea stall. I head for the tea stall, and ask for some chai.

Inexplicably, half an hour later, a slight man in a spotless white kurta-pyjama approaches me. It’s the shepherd-farmer.

A shepherd, caught in a sudden sandstorm, corrals his sheep under a tree
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A shepherd, caught in a sudden sandstorm, corrals his sheep under a tree


It has been two years since that bus ride. I have gone back often. The shepherd-farmer is now friend, guide, teacher; and he is my eyes and ears to the changing desert way of life.

I also began to travel to the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin in 2014. The two landscapes cannot be more different, but they are both undergoing change like never before. The government is planning dams across rivers in the North-East that will change life and ecosystems dramatically. I want to document life now, and those changes if and when they unfold.

I reach Dibrugarh, on the banks of the Brahmaputra, in June. The monsoon has burst over Assam a few weeks earlier and the river is in spate. Standing on the south bank, I cannot see the far side.

There is only one way to begin to understand the power of this river, they say. Get on it.

That’s foolish, others say. Stay off it.

A bridge over the Lohit, one of the main tributaries of the Brahmaputra
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A bridge over the Lohit, one of the main tributaries of the Brahmaputra

The Brahmaputra, described too often as “mighty", is also bewitching. I decide to get on it. A crew of doctors and nurses is heading upriver to a remote island, cut off from medical care. This monthly visit of a Boat Clinic, run by the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, and the brainchild of author Sanjoy Hazarika, is their only hope for medicines.

The Boat Clinic’s trip the previous month had been thwarted by the monsoon. So it is crucial that we make it to these villages this time.

The weather is bad. The clouds bulge with rain, smudging into the river. To find deep waters means reading the river’s depths in fifty shades of grey. We leave anyway.

“This is a game of danger and courage," says Kapilash, the boat master, as we find the middle of the river.

“So darker shades mean deeper water?" I ask, trying to reduce his art to a formula. He grunts. “There are no rules here. It is all experience." We are near the shore now.

“You see that water boiling?" I look to where he points and see the middle of the river bubbling, breaking into round ripples, spreading, and bursting. “It’s shallower there." But the middle is not shallow for long. Soon we snake back to the middle because the sandbars are now by the shore.

The wind picks up and alternates between humid blasts and a sticky nip. A mist on the horizon turns into a dense fog and begins to billow towards us. Kapilash mutters under his breath. “You see that kohra? That fog? That is a killer." He calls his co-boat master and they discuss the situation, in Bhojpuri. To be engulfed by fog on this unpredictable river, filled with roiling eddies and hidden sandbars, can be deadly.

We dock. We’re nowhere on Google maps. There is no name to this place.

I ask about a story I’ve heard.

Events in Assam are dated before 15 August 1950, or after. On that fateful day, a massive earthquake crumpled the land from Tibet down to the Assamese flood plains. Land swallowed land, and rivers changed courses. Apparently, in one instance, a forest blanketed another forest. Today, legend has it, massive trees grow on the graves of old trees.

The Mishings in the villages around dig up these graves. They push their staffs into the ground, and when they strike something hard, they dig. If the buried bole is too large, elephants are summoned. Those weathered, buried, massive tree trunks are the best wood for boats, it is said. “Does this forest under a forest really exist?" I ask.

Kapilash is silent.

I am sitting on the prow, watching the river. I can no longer tell water from sky. The greys shift constantly as the minutes wear into hours. The fog lifts and falls again.

At one point when the fog lifts, Kapilash points to the north-east. I see a clump of trees about a mile away. “That’s the forest you wanted to see. But we cannot go there in this weather. Next time." I barely have time to get a few images as the fog swallows the forest.

When we parachute in and out of places, it tends to leave us with just a snapshot in time and a view of only what is. Not why, or how it came to be.

It is as Rainer Maria Rilke has said, “In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing."

Fair enough, I’m in it for the long haul.

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Updated: 03 Oct 2015, 11:49 AM IST
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