The River is listening by Aditi Nair
“I don’t think she likes me!” I remark. Shardul sighs, “We have few more days with her. Have patience!”
We both are on a journey to cover the stretch of Narmada River in Central India; from her birth in Amarkantak till she meets the Arabian Sea. Yes, we address the river in feminine. And we think of her as our companion in a week long journey we set ourselves up for. We never lose sight of her, playing with her; look at others admiring her, singing her praises, listening to her dance in frolic and gush in rage.
At Amarkant, Shardul and I sit at the entrance of a temple dedicated to the reservoir where River Narmada is born. Everything around us is pristine white, every niche, wall, door and dome is cladded with white marble. Only the water is deep and cold; it is the most silent birth a girl could ever have. The holy god men allow you to get a glimpse of the river’s birth. The pilgrims are dancing outside overjoyed. Everyone wants to dip their sins in this nascent river child. We sit by the reservoir tank that night, extending an arm of alliance and eager for her to reciprocate. She is calm and sleeping. “A new friend” I utter and Shardul nods affirmatively.
We follow the river to Bedaghat. The nascent river is an angry teen now. She swells up and rushes while cutting through a limestone mountain range to pave her way ahead. Here by the Ghats, Shardul and I decide to take a dip. Within seconds I’m caught in a whimsical whirlpool and about to drown. Only local kids know how to play with her here. They cut across the flow and bring me to the banks. This is where I decide she doesn’t like me. Or maybe it is the complacent tourist searching for a story in me that she hates. I sit on the stepped Ghats mulling over it. “You should know when and how to play with her, it takes years to learn her rules!” my saviour kid comments.
We part with Narmada for a night and meet her again in Chaugan, a tribal village and the setting for Rudyard Kipling’s jungle book stories. We are hosted by a Baiga tribal family in their humble adobe home. A family of one couple, 3 kids, 2 cows and 5 goats. “They built dams over our river” Ram, our host, claims as he looks over his arid field. Left with meagre lifestyle the farmers were dependant heavily on the river. However the governments move to build dams to harness energy from the river has left millions of rural settlers hapless. 22 million people were displaced in Madhya Pradesh alone when the government built 30 dams over the course of river Narmada, giving rise to one of the leading human right revolts, Narmada Bachao Andolan(Save Narmada Protest). The river is dried up and meek here, just giving us a sense of its presence once upon a time. We dip our feet in the rivulet that remains and wonder how the government reaches such conclusion. Benefits outweigh costs they say. How did they measure the cost of despair? As Ram sighs we know that Narmada and its children are hurt. They should know how and when to play with her.
Our final stop is the historic temple town of Maheshwar. The government decision to place a dam before Maheshwar was overruled as it would drown the historic town. The river is in its full glory here. Raging through the Ghats of Maheshwar, a city dedicated to the mythical Lord Shiva. Each street and its inhabitants are filled with reverence and devotion for the river here. “Har Har Narmadey” (Long live the Narmada!) each devotee exclaims. The look up to her like a child looks for the mother. And she the fierce Maa Rewa protects them all. Bountiful and meandering with the grace of a feminine body, the river blesses the temple town and her believers.
We attend the evening prayer in the temple ghats by the river, a slight chill settles and rain drops wet our feet. It feels like she is listening. It feels like we are her children. We pay our tribute and internalise the reverence rules. Don’t mess with the mother. She is listening. Don’t harm her children. She is listening.