An anthology is like an Indian thali—it serves small portions of different things, a couple of staples, and by providing a representative sample it facilitates further explorations. Like a thali too, it has something that appeals to everyone, but it is equally true that inclusion and exclusions usually fail to satisfy everyone who partakes of it. In the Indian context, the last decade has seen a welcome crop of city-centred anthologies, in the form of the Penguin series on Allahabad, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Delhi and Goa.1 In addition, Aleph has published a series of short ‘city biographies’.2 Most recently, Vinay Lal has edited the two-volume Oxford Anthology of the Modern Indian City. Some Indian rivers too have found their champions, most notably the Narmada, in Hartosh Singh Bal3 and Rumina Grewal,4 whereas the Brahmaputra and the Kaveri among many others still seek biographers to tell their stories down the ages.
ny others still seek biographers to tell their stories down the ages. It is estimated that the Ganga is a river in whose catchment area live one out of every twelve people in the world. Both as river and as a Hindu goddess, its catchment area in terms of civilizational memory and ritual importance is so vast as to defy any attempt at quantification. For instance, it is the only river mentioned by name in Muhammad Iqbal’s ‘Tarana-e-Hindi’ (1904), better known to every Indian schoolchild as ‘Sare Jahan se Achha’.5 Given this, it is surprising indeed that there has been no anthology of fiction, scholarship and travel literature centred on the Ganga before this volume.
As the subtitle of, and the introduction to, this book make clear, both the river and the eponymous goddess are considered one unit. This explains, perhaps, why the vernacular ‘Ganga’ rather than the anglicized ‘Ganges’ is used in the title. The editors in their selection of excerpts have focused on the simultaneously ‘material, spiritual and divine’ character of their subject. Meandering through these pages, the reader will meet the mid 17th century French traveller Tavernier complaining about the undrinkable quality of the river water in Bihar and the narrowness of the streets of Benaras (Varanasi), as well as commending the grandeur of that city’s stone buildings. The early 19th century Iranian cleric and traveller Ahmad Behbahani will commend the commerce of Munger, the monuments of Sasaram, and the hospitality of the residents of Benaras. Those more poetically inclined will read—almost hear—translations of Bhojpuri wedding songs, Bengali Baul (mystic minstrels) poetry, and classical Sanksrit verses by Vallabha (fifteenth century) and Jayadeva (twelfth century). The 20th century photographer Raghubir Singh, for whom the Ganga is no less than a muse, will take the reader to museums across India, describing, with contagious enthusiasm, anthropomorphic sculptures of the river-asgoddess in their collections.
In the last section, should the reader wish to accompany the river into the present, anthropologists will explain in insightful and accessible ways why pilgrims immerse ashes in the river (Ann Grodzins Gold, using interviews of Rajasthani pilgrims) and why boatmen in Varanasi hassle tourists (Assa Doron’s ‘Hello Boat! The River Economy in Benaras’). For those who have ever wondered why and how a sacred river could simultaneously be a disaster in environmental terms, Kelly D. Alley’s article will explain how, for believers, this river may be unclean but never impure, and therefore its pollution easy to ignore. In between these genres of writing, the reader will come across a will (Jawaharlal Nehru’s) and a Hindi film screenplay (co-written by Raj Kapoor).
It is easy to forget today that the Ganges was a navigable river. Travel accounts (Honoria Lawrence in the mid 19th century; Eric Newby in the mid 20th century) and academic narratives (Henry Bernstein’s piece on the Bengal Steam Department in the first half of the 19th century) vividly describe the experience of sailing, sleeping, and waking on the Ganga. In Bernstein’s account, the reader can compare the differences between inland steam navigation on the Ganga in Bengal and the Mississippi. The world of work is well represented. Fishermen of Bengal and Coolies of Mughal Sarai catering to religious pilgrims both find their chroniclers, the former in an extract from Padma River Boatman by Manik Bandopadhyaya, and the latter in a piece by Raja Rao. That the river and the cities on its banks—from Varanasi to Haridwar—provide spiritual succour to some and commercial exploitation of the most crass variety to others (or perhaps both together, often on the same boat, literally) is amply demonstrated in the pieces by Ilija Trojanow and Brij V. Lal. Although English language material predominates, several other languages are included: those spoken in the catchment area of the river (Hindi, Bengali), those in which local water bodies have been imagined as the mighty Ganga (Kannada) and translations from the Persian and French.
Readers of an anthology may be capable of relishing the entrees on their own, but in the best anthologies the Introduction serves as an appetizer, whetting the appetite for more, and also priming the palate for the delights that follow. The Introduction to this book could have been more detailed (it does not mention, for instance, the texts in which the Ganga first finds mention, something that many readers would want to know) and more context could have been provided for each extract. The concept of sacred geography binding both river and goddess, for instance, so skilfully discussed in Diana Eck’s survey of Hindu mythological themes, would in itself have set the stage for all the other pieces in the book had it been placed at the very beginning.
One also wishes that the editors had chosen to include information about the author/translator of each piece, along with the year of publication, right above the excerpt itself. As the book now stands, the reader is not given any clue as to when a piece was published, and must turn to the end of the book repeatedly to piece together publication details from the ‘Copyright Statement’ (in no particular order, alphabetical or otherwise) and the ‘About the Contributors’ section. The only advantage of reading a piece not knowing when exactly it was published is that it illustrates continuities in patterns of livelihood across decades, if not centuries. Perhaps it is a testimony to the slow pace of change in India—in certain spheres of life, at any rate—that many extracts which this reader guessed to be from the 1990s turned out to be from the 1930s!
Kama Maclean’s account of the Kumbh Mela is a notable omission in an otherwise rich and varied collection.6 In fact the Kumbh— which is probably the one time, every twelve years, that the rest of the world takes notice of the Ganga and its magnetic hold over millions—only makes one appearance in a fictionalized rendering by Vikram Seth in his A Suitable Boy (as the ‘Pul’ Mela). Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s recently translated account of her visit to the Mela in 1977 would have added a different dimension.7 The volume contains, under the section ‘Historical Perspectives’, five foreign travellers’ accounts of the river, from the 16th century onwards. The omission of extracts from Fanny Parkes’s journal from this list is puzzling; one recognizes that constraints of space would render it difficult to include all travellers’ accounts, but mention of them at least (perhaps in a bibliography at the end in a subsequent edition) would greatly assist the interested general reader and researcher in tracing continuities and changes in perceptions of the river across centuries.8
This volume is too joyful and bustling with people—praying to, singing alongside, or eking a living via the river—to be a dirge. Given the environmental disaster that encompasses the Ganga at the moment, one hopes that this anthology will not also become, in the next few decades, an elegy.
1 Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (ed.), The Last Bungalow: Writings on Allahabad (2006); Veena Talwar Oldenburg (ed.) Shaam-e-Awadh: Writings on Lucknow (2007); Syeda Imam (ed.) The Untold Charminar: Writings on Hyderabad (2008); Khushwant Singh (ed.) City Improbable, Writings on Delhi (2010); Jerry Pinto (ed.) Reflected in Water: Writings on Goa (2012).
2 In this ‘A Short Biography of’ series, all published in 2013, are books on Delhi (Malavika Singh), Patna (Amitava Kumar), Kolkata (Indrajit Hazra), Mumbai (Naresh Fernandes) and Madras (Nirmala Lakshman).
3 Hartosh Singh Bal, Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada, HarperCollins India Publications, New Delhi, 2013.
4 Royina Grewal, Sacred Virgin: Travels Along the Narmada, Penguin, New Delhi, 1994.
5 The relevant verse has been translated by Frances Pritchett as: ‘Oh River Ganges! Do you remember those days?/ When our caravan descended on your bank.’
6 Pilgrimage and Power: The Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, 1765-1954, Oxford University Press, New York, 2008.
7 The Holy Trail: A Pilgrim’s Plight, translated by Soma Das, Supernova Publishers, New Delhi, 2014.
8 Readers of this anthology interested in more foreign traveller’s accounts of life lived around the Ganga would do well to consult Meenakshi Jain (ed.) The India They Saw. Included in Vols. III and IV are accounts of the Ganga from the 15th century onwards, including those by Ralph Fitch, Friar Sebastien Manrique, Matteo Ripa, Father Wendel, Louis de Grandpre, Thomas Twining, Lady Maria Nugent and Captain Thomas Skinner among others. Ocean Books, Delhi, 2011.
Devika Sethi’s PhD thesis was on colonial and early postcolonial censorship of publications in India. She teaches History at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi, Himachal Pradesh.