Long an inspiration to art, music, literature and poetry, the Brahmaputra has captured the popular imagination of generations in Assam. For historian and scholar Arupjyoti Saikia, a decade of his life was spent researching, understanding and experiencing this mammoth river. The result is a formidable work of scholarship on the history of Assam’s most important river, and in that, the history of Assam itself.
The Unquiet River: A Biography of the Brahmaputra (Oxford University Press, 2019; Rs 1,195) takes a deep dive into the Brahmaputra, where the author invites the reader to ‘take a boat to the middle of the river, swim across certain depths’ instead of watching it from a distance.
In this interview, Saikia, a professor of history in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, talks about the river — its long past and its place in the 21st century.
Your book is a ‘biography’ of the Brahmaputra. What made you call it a biography, and not a ‘history’?
Unlike many rivers of the world, the Brahmaputra is still a largely untamed river. There are several Assamese idioms describing its unruly and wild nature. We see smaller tributaries of the river that have succumbed to human will, or the will of the surrounding landscape. But the Brahmaputra is different — it is not a simple river. It’s a great geological and ecological wonder! Yet, the river is an integral part of the collective will of the people of Assam, deeply embedded in their minds. Does a river like this not need a life story of its own? Through this modest work, I wanted to visualize the river as a powerful entity that played a critical role in shaping the destiny of a region. However, by the use of the term ‘biography’, I must clarify that I have not made any attempt to assign human characters to the river.
What kind of research went into this book?
I grew up in the floodplains of the river — in Juria near Nagaon town. For long, we never saw the river but only read about it in school textbooks. However, we still dealt with its wrath because the floods were part of our daily lives. It was only when I moved to Guwahati in the mid-1980s for college that I first experienced the river. It wasn’t the wild river of the hinterland. In the middle of the city, this was a human river — experienced visually through the big bridge and the ferries on it. Since then, I had to cross it almost every other day and often I would interact with the boatmen, fishermen, potters who lived by its banks. Though they pre-date the idea of even writing this book, these conversations did have a bearing when I finally wrote it. For research, I depended greatly on the works of scientists, as well as literary and religious texts — from the writings of poet-saint Srimanta Sankardeva to Buranjis (historical manuscripts from the Ahom-era) to Assamese poems and novels to tribal folksongs. I listened to accounts from the Bengali Muslim community (who traced their origins to erstwhile East Bengal and now Bangladesh) — their understanding of the river was traumatically different from the other tribes such as the Bodos and Mishings.
Much of the writing on the Brahmaputra is often popular and emotive, done by authors, poets and musicians. Do you feel that the river has been ignored by historians thus far?
For long, the river’s presence in the collective mind of the people of the valley was shaped through literature, folksongs, folktales etc. A jaunt through a hundred-meter stretch of a road in any of Assam’s urban areas will lead you to come across at least a couple of signboards/shops named after the river. I think that we took the river for granted and presumed that it simply flows from the east and west and disappears into the Bay of Bengal. But that is only a very little part of a grand narrative. The river is much more than that. It is dynamic and active. It is not a simple straight canal to carry water. The river’s dynamism comes from its geo-morphological and many other natural processes. These characters ensure that the river has a temperament of its own. To put it simply: it is not a spectator but more like a very formidable striker of a football team.
Is your book, then, trying to bridge that gap?
I must acknowledge that this is a very preliminary step to understand the river; more research, writings and other forms of narrative will add to a better understanding of the river. The readers will be the referee. But I do hope that the readers will get a few glimpses of the river’s active involvement in the making of the long history of Assam along with the sense of the river’s own rhythm and volatile character.
The river has eluded human control for centuries. What is it about the Brahmaputra that has made it impossible to tame?
What is most crucial is its great and enigmatic statistics. A river — which carries billions of tons of sediments and an equal level of waters; has innumerable tributaries; is regularly visited by earthquakes; is flanked by the fragile Eastern Himalayas; annually hosts the fascinating south-west monsoon; and has such complex geo-morphological characters — is bound to allude mathematical formulas. But there also lies the nature of economic and political systems which have evolved in this region over the centuries. Such systems did not necessitate the mega transformation of this river. However, this did not mean the humans and the river did not have companionship. Over the centuries such a companionship evolved through a complex agricultural system, the art of boat making, fishing or gold washing etc. all of which required a fine understanding of a complex river system.
What place does the river hold in the 21st century?
The river’s grand character is derived from its extraordinary statistics. Some of the worlds’ rivers have gained epic characters because of grand human made structures including canals, dams, barrages etc on them. This river has none of these men made grand structures. The river is a great painting all on its own.
Now, the 21st century idea of the river will be shaped by the competing views of two economic giants — India and China. The infrastructural investment on the river is big, and it is worrying. They are seeing the river as a pure mathematical abstract. You may have the numbers, but it doesn’t work that way. You need to engage with the river, you need to understand the pulse of the river.