At the Centre of Assam’s Layered History
Sanghamitra Misra
THE UNQUIET RIVER: A BIOGRAPHY OF THE BRAHMAPUTRA by Arupjyoti Saikia Oxford University Press, 2019, 602 pp., Rs.1195.00
April 2020, volume 44, No 4

The Unquiet River, by a historian who has chronicled several aspects of the history of modern Assam, comes adorned with weighty academic endorsements which recommend it as an unparalleled environmental and social history of the Brahmaputra, singular in its historical depth and magisterial sweep. The author’s introduction anticipates this sentiment: it laments the marginalization of the river in modern histories of South Asia; it classifies all recent historical writings on Assam as ‘dry details of lands, unconnected histories of a varied landscape and their craft drove the river into a corner’. Could this be because of the impossibility of recovering such an ‘imperious force’ through history writing, Arupjyoti Saikia, the author, wonders. And then suggests a ‘reorienting of the historian’s gaze’ towards the entwined history of the Brahmaputra and Assam, to correct this distorted historical vision as well as to achieve the colossal task he has set for himself.

The book narrates the unfolding story of the Brahmaputra and its plains in four parts (12 chapters). While the first two chapters have information on pre-historic ages, the rest is based on a reading of Mughal, Ahom, colonial and postcolonial sources, which is not necessarily original. The book is thematically, not chronologically, divided, as will be shown below, with the bulk of the narrative and argument circling around the colonial period.

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