My Friend, the River

My Friend, the River

In Kerala’s Kasaragode, a unique celebration of the river Chandragiri.

Kerala Kasaragode, river Chandragiri, Ram Manohar Lohia, Jeevanaleela
Running through it: (From top) The Chandragiri is the lifeline of the Kasaragode district in Kerala; contributors and editors of the Jeevanarekha. (Dinesh Insight)

In one of his speeches, socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia mentions an experience he had in Maheswar, the Ahalya nagari on the Narmada. The sentry on duty asked him which river he belonged to. Lohia says it was an “amusing question because instead of inquiring about my language or the city or town in which I dwelt he asked me about the river.” Indeed, a river runs through every one of us. The government may restrict sacredness to just one river — the Ganga — and invest in its protection, but Ganga in the Indian context could have a generic meaning. Every local sacred geography has its own Ganga, and those who live beside it worship it. In his magnificent work on water bodies — Jeevanaleela (1964) — Gandhian Kakasaheb Kalelkar writes: “Every river is the flow of a culture. Each has its own greatness. One feature of Indian culture is to build unity out this diversity. So we consider all rivers to be the wives of the ocean.

One of the most distinguished synonyms of ocean is saritpathi, the husband of rivers. It is given this distinction because all the rivers let their sacred waters flow into the ocean. Hence, we say, sagare sarva theerthani (the ocean is the ultimate sacred site).” The ocean is sacred because every river that feeds it is sacred. When Kakasaheb decided to tell his stories of waterbodies, he chose to begin by visiting the little river that flows past his village, Markendeyi, and not one of the seven sacred rivers mentioned in the snana manthra. Markendeyi, for Kakasaheb, is no jagajjanani (world mother, as Sage Vyasa calls rivers), but sakhi Markendeyi (dear friend).

In November last year, when the organisers of the Kasaragode Revenue District Kerala School Kalotsavam  sat down to discuss a souvenir to mark the event, they chose to focus on Chandragiri river. The river flowed beside the festival venue, Chemnad Jamaat Higher Secondary School. The editorial board drew up a blueprint for the souvenir — scientific studies of the river, reflections on its ecology, local history and culture, literature and so on. As the list of topics expanded, the book kept growing. The result is Jeevanarekha: Chandragiripuzhayude Charithravartamanangal (Lifeline: Conversations on the History of the Chandragiri River), a unique, elegantly-produced document, running into over 350 pages with contributions from over 70 authors, including school students.

Divided into nine sections, Jeevanarekha begins with the local, the Chandragiri river, and expands to become a reflection on the river as a culture. There are excerpts from TS Eliot’s Wasteland (The Fire Sermon), Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Polish poet Czeslov Milosz, and major Malayalam poets including Edasseri Govindan Nair, P Kunhiraman Nair, Sugatakumari, Ayyappa Paniker and KG Sankara Pillai. The idea seems to be to place the local against the global and make sense of it by reading parallels from elsewhere.


The Chandragiri, one of the northern-most rivers of Kerala, is the lifeline of the Kasaragode district. Kasaragode itself is a unique landscape for it is home to nine of the state’s 41 west flowing rivers — Kerala has 44 perennial rivers of which three flow eastwards and join the Cauvery in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Of its total watershed of 1,342 sq km, though only 42 per cent is in Kasaragode, it is this part that is densely inhabited and where the river is seen as a lifeline.

The harbour on the river has been a centre of trade with the Arabs and a major centre of building ships (Manchu). Malik Dinar, one of the people who introduced Islam to Kerala visited the region in the 8th century, and his remains are buried at the Malik Dinar mosque in Thalangara. Being a harbour and at a junction where the Tulu-speaking region meets with the Malayalam and Kannada areas, the Chandragiri’s banks are home to many languages, religions and ethnicities. The idea of the book, according to GB Valsan, its chief editor, is to revive this complex and composite history. He had a team of 10 people who worked for three months to put together the volume. The first step, he says, was to organise a gathering of people above 70 years old in Chemnad and get them to narrate their memories of the river. These reminiscences constitute an archive of the river’s past, when it used to teem with fish. ‘Meenorma’ (Memories of fish), written by a teacher, PEA Rahman Panathur, is not mere nostalgia but a mirror to the destruction of the riverine ecosystem. The essay on the music tradition along the river (‘Ishalozhukiya Puzhakal’) by Khalilullah Chemnad, a well-known calligrapher, is a delightful journey through the Arabi Malayalam tradition in poetry and music.

A lasting aspect of the book could be the training the editorial team provided to over 60 students drawn from various higher secondary schools in Chandragiri’s watershed. At a two-day workshop, students were trained to collect stories and write them out. Then, the students and the editorial team travelled the length of the river and its tributaries to organise oral histories of the river. This is the kind of environment activism that should be a model for schools elsewhere — over-centralised, ideology-laden projects like Namami Gange are doomed to fail whereas the Kasaragode model of bottoms-up participatory activism is likely to make rivers flow again.

Jeevanarekha is also an interesting work in the sense that it is representative of the stage in environmentalism in Kerala. Though ecology is present in a deep sense in the works of poets like Kunhiraman Nair and Edasseri, it was in the 1960s that environment became a subject of serious study in Kerala. The formation of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) in the Sixties laid the foundation for science and environment education in Malayalam. G Madhusoodanan, a critic and historian of Kerala’s environment, points out that the contribution of NV Krishna Varrier, one of the founders of KSSP and a prominent public intellectual, helped to shape the discourse on ecology in Malayalam. Though KSSP’s research led by M K Prasad provided the science to oppose a dam project on the Silent Valley, a patch of evergreen forest in the Western Ghats, public consciousness was shaped more by writers, especially poets, who drew a picture of a lost Eden to exhort people to rally for Kerala’s forests and rivers. In recent years, this strand of activism has often been appropriated to promote nativist and exclusivist agendas.

The Silent Valley agitations also taught a lot of activists that arguments for environment have to be backed by science to force the issue with the state and judiciary. Activists like the late Latha Anantha led their campaigns against dams on the Chalakkudy river and the inter-linking of rivers with pioneering research. It helped that many of them were trained in science. Essays of E Unnikrishnan in Jeevanarekha also fit the bill of scientific research. Madhusoodanan points out that parallelly, a whole of lot local history was produced — he cites the example of John Abraham, a farmer who wrote insightfully on issues concerning the Vembanad lake, and the work of the Pampa river protection group. Parallel to this, a host of new social movements aware of the links between environment degradation and livelihood depravation — the fisherworkers movement, for instance — emerged. By the ’90s, the communist parties in Kerala, too, had started to engage with the Greens.

The CPM leader VS Achuthanandan was a convert to enviromentalism soon, and, in fact, backed many of the environment-related struggles in Kerala. However, the developmentalism of the state and the needs of a consumerist society now threaten to shrink the space for debates on ecology and environment. The contradictions increasingly pit some of the most vulnerable sections in the society — Adivasis, Dalits, fishworkers — and rural communities against the state and its arms. Kasaragode, for instance, was the site of the battle against the pesticide, Endosulphan. This is the social context of Jeevanarekha.