Cauvery chronicles

Print edition : January 04, 2019

O.K. Johnny. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Women carrying water from the Cauvery to offer to their temple deity at Kalvadangam village near Edappadi in Salem district in Tamil Nadu on March 23. Photo: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

Prayers normally begin with the recitation of Gayatri japam in the Christian "ashram". This is short in the strange but silent religious "revolution" on its probation that is being witnessed In the Sachitananda Ashram, (a Christian ashram) at Shantivanam, situated amidst sylvyn surroundings on the fertile southern sands of the holy Akhanda Cauvery in Thannerpalli village about 35 km from Tiruchi on the Tiruchi-Karur highway. (Published on 28/10/1984) PHOTO: THE HINDU ARCHIVES Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The book explores the Cauvery and the trajectories of everyday life of the communities living by the river, informed by a spirit of inquiry and a subaltern perspective.

What a river bequeaths to the world and the human race was summed up pithily around 440 B.C. by Herodotus, often called “the father of historical studies”, when he said that “Egypt is the gift of the Nile”. The apperception and its effect have lasted for over 2,500 years and have been the inspiration for many a chronicle of rivers, the lands through which they flow and the people who inhabit their banks. The celebrated German-Swiss author Emil Ludwig (1881-1948), who too acknowledged Herodotus’ pioneering historical studies, took out a decade-long expedition between 1924 and 1934 on the Nile and the countries through which it flows, which resulted in the definitive The Nile: The Life Story of a River. He elucidated “the Nile’s gift” as follows. “It [the Nile] feeds hundreds of different races, men of the mountain and men of the marsh, Arabs, Christians, and cannibals, pygmies and giants. The struggles of these men for power and wealth, for faith and custom, for the supremacy of colour, can be traced farther back here than anywhere else in the history of mankind—for six thousand years.”

But Ludwig also added that because of this diversity and vivacity covering the expanse of life as a whole, capturing the Nile story in its entirety was difficult. Hence, all he could do was to make it appear “in fragments, which too had repeatedly to be cut down, so that the river might flow on unhindered”. Ludwig promised to get back to the omitted details in a later book but did not get around to writing it in a substantive form and scale. This was a rather unique self-limiting experience for this otherwise prolific writer. Ludwig authored as many as 25 other books, recording historical events and the lives of great personalities such as Bismarck, Napoleon and Goethe, most of them voluminous tomes.

His sense of the work on the Nile being fragmented in many ways underscores a widely perceived mismatch in the depiction of rivers in fiction as compared to objective and historical chronicling. Objective and historical studies of rivers are few and far between, but at the same time, rivers, their unique physical characteristics and the lives on their banks have had manifold fictional presentations brimming with creativity and philosophical perceptions of life and the universe. Fiction’s greater adaptability for fragmented selection from the array of offerings, thematic, perceptive, emotive and anecdotal, that a river’s chronicle presents is in all probability an important reason for this mismatch.

The rivers that dot fiction from across the world—Mark Twain’s Mississippi, T.S. Eliot’s Thames, Joseph Conrad’s Congo and Mikhail Sholokhov’s Don, to name a few—are all captivating illustrations of this fascinating contrast. Closer home, the abiding presence of the river Nila in the works of M.T. Vasudevan Nair, the doyen of Malayalam literature, the twists, turns and travails of life on the shores of the Padma, depicted by the Bengali writer Manik Bandopadhyay, and the celebration of the Brahmaputra by the Assamese legend Bhupen Hazarika in his expansive oeuvre spanning literature, music and cinema, all underscore the same contradistinction.

Nearly eight decades after Ludwig marked the “fragmenting” in his work, objective and comprehensive studies on rivers and the lives that sprout on their banks are far fewer than the depiction of rivers in fiction. As Ludwig himself noted, chronicling the life of a river comprehensively involves great physical exertion, which could be handled only if one is driven by a consuming sense of adventure and passion for inquiry. Those who have written authentic, historical and experience-driven chronicling of rivers in these eight decades have also underscored this. Jonathan Raban’s Old Glory: An American Voyage on the Mississippi, Nick Thorpe’s The Danube: A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest and Tim Butcher’s Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart on the Congo are works which exemplify this aspect at different points of time.

In the Indian context, a lot of works that claim to be attempts to chronicle a river’s life story end up as pilgrimage or tourist guides, with descriptions of pilgrim centres and tips for “comfortable visits” to such places. There are umpteen such guides passing off as river chronicles on the Ganga, the Narmada, the Brahmaputra, the Godavari, the Krishna and the Cauvery. A few exceptions such as K. Nagarajan’s Cauveri: From Source to Sea, Victor Mallet’s River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future, Sanjeev Sanyal’s Land of the Seven Rivers: History of India’s Geography, Amritlal Vegad’s Narmada: River of Joy (translated from Gujarati), Jagmohan Mahajan’s The Ganga Trail, Stephen Alter’s Sacred Waters and Dennison Berwick’s Along the Ganga have presented certain facets of some major Indian rivers. On the whole, the fact remains that there are not many river chronicles in India driven by a sense of adventure and objective inquiry.

Filling a vacuum

It is this background that makes O.K. Johnny’s work in Malayalam, Kaveriyodoppam Ente Yaathrakal (My journeys with the Cauvery), specially significant. It is a prodigious saga of inquiry and application that seeks to fill a phenomenal vacuum in the Indian context in terms of comprehensive, objective and historical study of its rivers. Spread across 450 pages, the book unravels the writer’s repeated journeys through the 738 kilometres of the Cauvery, exploring and capturing manifold nuances of geography, history, environmental sciences, anthropology, archaeology, architecture and sociology. Indeed, marking the trajectory of the Cauvery from its origins at Talacauvery in the Brahmagiri hills of the Western Ghats, through its gathering of many tributaries on the way to the final merger with the sea at the ancient city of Poompuhar in Tamil Nadu is an important element of the work.

But this primary exploration of the geography of a river that flows horizontally most of the time is spiked by countless perpendicular thrusts of environmental, social and people’s history, which cumulatively reflect the power of nature, the strivings for the existence and survival of plants, trees and agriculture, animals and peoples. In their entirety, both the depiction of the horizontal flow of the river and the perpendicular thrusts on it form a narrative that all the beings and happenings on the river and on its banks were, and are, essentially on account of the river.

The nuanced narrative also records the subliminal trajectories of faith and devotion through different communities on the river and the multiple conflicts triggered by the urge to capture power and enforce hegemony. Beyond all this, the abiding endurance of the human spirit, marked by creativity and grit, gets highlighted in these pages. The sweep of the narrative is so magnificent that the gestalt of the reading experience is not about the author’s travels with the Cauvery, but the Cauvery’s own journey through history. The reader experiences the Cauvery as a living being, whose journey through hundreds of years manifests itself not only in the flow of the water in its many hues and shapes, the diverse flora and fauna that abound in it, but also as the plurality of life that it nourished on its banks.

A sense of adventure and passionate inquiry permeates the narrative. Also evident is the narrator’s intimate familiarity with the domain that he is exploring and presenting. Several parts of the book point to the scale and extent of the intimacy that Johnny has with the Cauvery, an intimacy that was formed through repeated explorations of the river and its different elements over a span of 35 years.

There are suggestions in the book that many of Johnny’s friends had even called this obsessive engagement with the river some kind of “incurable madness”. Still, many of them not only put up with these obsessive, compulsive river yatras but also partook in them. The book shows that these wanderings were always about learning more through exhaustive examinations of scores of gazetteers, including records from the periods of Tipu Sultan and the British Raj, as also contemplation and assimilation of local histories, including oral histories. The result is the conjoining of mainstream historical narrative with accounts of lay history and culture, producing new perspectives.

Pillars of glory

In this process, Kaveriyodoppam Ente Yaathrakal also revisits the well-known pillars of glory that stood, strutted and strode on the banks of the Cauvery; the personalities of Raja Raja Chola, Tipu Sultan, Hyder Ali, the saint-composers Tyagaraja and Andal and the structures at the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur and the legendary jungle lodge in the Karapura jungles. However, these visits are not about reasserting the simplistic or sectarian or hugely exaggerated narratives that have been constructed around many of these personalities and structures over time. Instead, these interpretative vulgarisations are confronted with the tools of historical understanding and objectivity, creating lucid illustrations of what these pillars of glory meant for the people and their times. Of particular interest is the debunking of the anti-Hindu myths built around Tipu Sultan and Hyder Ali.

But the most fascinating parts of Kaveriyodoppam Ente Yaathrakal are the unusual common people that Johnny discovers in the hinterlands of the Cauvery. The middle-aged Jain muni he comes across at Kanakagiri’s Parshwanath Basadi (temple) after a tortuous trek through the hills and fields of Chamarajanagar and Maleyuru was practising sallekhana (the Jain ritual of voluntarily courting death through systematic rejection of life-supporting devices, including food). The naked and worn-out muni had blood drops all over his face. Asked the reason for the blood, the muni said with a smile that he was plucking the hairs of his beard one by one instead of shaving as part of sallekhana. The muni had hopes of completing the translation of a work written by the Jaina Acharya Pujyapada 1,500 years ago in the forests of Kanakagiri. “Whenever I think of that most humble and composed muni, I am consumed by an unknown sense of fear and sorrow,” writes Johnny.

Years later, in 2009, Johnny gets back to the Kanakagiri hills but is unable to locate the muni’s samadhi. On the other hand, the saga of Sabu, the mahout boy from the Kabini region who caught the eye of international film directors during the shooting of a documentary and went on to become a star in Hollywood and European cinema, is elevating. The boy from Kabini has even acted in a movie of the legendary Italian director Vittorio de Sica.

Thus, the narrative in Kaveriyodoppam Ente Yaathrakal traverses the highs and lows of life as also that of the river. But if there is an overall or dominant thematic stream in the book, there is little doubt that it is a subaltern perspective.

Johnny’s earlier works, including documentary cinemas such as The Trapped, Silent Screams and A Village Chronicle have sought to address the lives of marginalised people, including the Adivasis, from a subaltern perspective. His writings over the last three and a half decades have reflected the same ideological perspective. Kaveriyodoppam Ente Yaathrakal continues to flow in the same direction.

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