“Don’t go to Majuli, worst time,” came a foreboding text message from a friend. It was raining in Majuli, as it had been raining across Assam that month. And in my neck of the woods, when it rains, it doesn’t just pour — it floods.
Till last month, I was pretending to understand wine, the point of high heels, and Le Corbusier in south Bombay. Now, in more comfortable shoes, I am a journalist reporting from the hinterlands of northeast India. And rains are certainly not something that come in the way of a weekend getaway. Or a good story.
Rains in Majuli, the country’s largest river island, however, are not ordinary. With every downpour, the island that sits near the north bank of the Brahmaputra, loses a little bit of itself to the river, almost as though caught in some sinister game of paper dance. “This one time in Majuli, the road we took in the morning wasn’t there the next day!” came another text from another friend. Too late. I was already on the train to Jorhat from Guwahati.
Much has been written about Majuli in the past — that the world’s “largest river island” is sinking, its land eroding at a terrifying pace because of the great, mercurial river it is encircled by.
To grow up in Assam is to grow up with the Brahmaputra. Over the years, I have picnicked by its banks, eaten its fish, floated on its tributaries on a rubber boat with my father, and dutifully thrown coins into it from the Kolia Bhomora bridge every summer on my annual sojourn to the grandparents’ in Tezpur. For a six-year-old, there are few things as thrilling as watching an infinite river swallow up a 50 paise coin. At 28, at Jorhat’s Neemati Ghat — where one takes a ferry to Majuli — I find a group of women doing the same: paying obeisance to a river that gives them as much as it takes away.
“If we pray to the river, it is kind to us,” Dipankar, a monk of Dakshinpat Xattra, tells me the next day. I am in Majuli’s oldest monastery, and there’s a light drizzle falling around us. Like the hundreds of monks who live in the scores of monasteries that dot Majuli, Dipankar was inducted into the order at the age of seven. In the confines of the all-male monastery established in 1854, Dipankar and his dhoti-clad monk fraternity (called bhakats) live, eat, pray, dance, sing, act — and on occasion, play football and volleyball — while keeping alive the teachings of Srimanta Sankardeva, the famous poet-saint of the 16th century. Today, the 60 xattras of Majuli promulgate Sankardeva’s unique “worship through art” approach with music (borgeet), dance (xattriya) and theatre (bhauna).
Over the weekend, the rains gradually abate. The sun shines weakly, and outside every household, a wooden boat is tethered out to dry. Majuli is not your typical tourist town — I see a few resorts, but not a single restaurant. I realise, you don’t go to Majuli to holiday, you go to imbibe its many worlds — its culture and spirituality (within its xattras and its arts), its thirst for modernity (in its towns and its youngsters), its stunning biodiversity (in its birds and fish) and its old-world charm (in the villages and its tribes). These worlds have different dreams, but are bound by a painful reality: the annual deluge. It is then that the boats simultaneously become vehicles, homes and lifelines.
But the floods mean different things for different people. Dhrubo Payeng, a young boy from the Mishing village, tells me that he secretly enjoys the flood. “It cleans up everything, it makes the soil fertile,” he says. The villages that lie on the other side — the “wrong” side — of the embankment, have a different tale. In Xaalmara, the Assamese village of boat makers, an 85-year-old tells me how one monsoon, his entire family had to live in a boat.
Yet, it’s evident that the Majuli resident does not want to be defined by the floods. They rather talk about the Raas puja. Every November, masks are donned and worries are forgotten, when Majuli becomes a temporary stage for a three-day-long theatre festival in worship of Lord Krishna. “It’s really the resilience of the people that’s amazing,” says the owner of the resort I am staying in. He’s been in Majuli for almost a decade now, and lets me in on a secret that might just change the very discourse on the river island. “Majuli isn’t shrinking, it is actually growing in size — as the river eats away its one side, there’s an equal amount of silt deposition on its other side.” The river gives back what it takes — but that, of course, is another story.
On my ferry ride back to Jorhat, I meet a young girl from Majuli’s Puroni Bari village. Khanjuri is 16 and has recently moved to Jorhat to study — the first time she has stepped out of her little island home. Over the hour-long-journey, she tells me about her life, about how everyone in Majuli is either a born singer, dancer or actor (“It’s the culture of Majuli”), and, about the time when one monsoon, their entire village shifted to a local school. “They say the island is shrinking — perhaps, we have to move to Jorhat then,” she says, matter-of-factly. That’s not a happy prospect. “When I am away in Jorhat, I keep thinking of Majuli,” she says.
Towards the end of our journey, my new friend wants to see pictures of big cities. I show her my best picture of the gothic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel taken on a crisp summer morning. “Wow,” she says. I follow it up with stunning vistas of the Arabian sea, dotted with yachts. “Oh! We own boats too. Every family in Majuli does. Do we really need to go anywhere else?”
And in that moment, as the sun tap-danced on a river filled with lazily floating clumps of water hyacinths, I find no need to contest that.