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In the monsoon, the Brahmaputra, one of the longest rivers in Asia, is an unstoppable force of nature that flows through the flood plains of Assam, sometimes swallowing up whole villages. But it is the most sought after season for labourers from Kanaighat—a small village on the banks of one of the river’s tributaries, Kalyani—to take on the onerous task of floating down its angry waters with their wares: bamboo.

A labourer enjoys a quiet moment before the start of the journey, which could take four-five days in the monsoon, but as long as a month in winter when the Brahmaputra gives way to a labyrinth of channels and sandbars. Photo by Dhruba Dutta

Around 800-1,000 bamboos are tied together with nylon ropes to make each meleng. Larger melengs, which travel faster, are constructed by tying together smaller ones. These are composed of as many as 10,000 bamboos. “This is the equivalent of what 12 diesel-burning trucks will hold. No fuel, no pollution; a most cost-effective way of transport," says Dutta, who’s in the process of documenting a photo series on the Brahmaputra.

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The bamboo trade is most profitable for the labourers, who’re paid 2,500 per journey—and who hail from the immigrant Bihari and Bengali communities, as well as the indigenous Adivasi and Assamese communities—to float their rafts in the monsoon. As Dutta observes, the force of the river helps them complete the journey from Kanaighat to Guwahati in four-five days. In the dry winter season, the river gives way to a labyrinth of channels and sandbars, and navigation becomes extremely difficult, taking 14-30 days.

Bamboo is a precious commodity in the North-East, used in sustainable forms of architecture and design. Purchased for 15 each from bamboo cultivators near Kanaighat, it is sold for 50 to traders in Guwahati. Customer pay up to 80-90.

Dutta went on a 14-day meleng journey in February to document what he calls “a superhuman effort" involved in this indigenous method of transporting bamboo.

“Firstly, there’s the Herculean task of manually rowing the rafts down the river. Then, (the labourers) also have to negotiate dacoits who take the bamboo forcibly from them," says Dutta. Sometimes, these labourers end up getting stranded on sandbanks for months, and contractors are known to send down food in fishing boats for their staff.

Dutta’s photo series is a story of the human spirit conquering the forces of nature and negotiating obstacles. And, in that sense, the meleng journey is a dramatic staging of life itself.

anindita.g@livemint.com

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