At the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati's Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Dr Saikia researches the economic, political and environmental history of modern Assam.
In 2015, Dr Saikia was awarded the Srikant Dutta Memorial Book award for one of his earlier books, A Century of Protests, by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.
In an interview with Firstpost, Dr Saikia spoke of his connection with the Brahmaputra, what brought about the idea of the book, the river's role in the history of Assam, its likely influence on the geo-political future of the North-East, and how geology, geography and nature continue to shape the mighty Brahmaputra.
Could you start with sharing the nature of your connection with the Brahmaputra?
Part of the answer is my childhood upbringing in the floodplains of the Brahmaputra. Those paddy, mustard or jute fields, intersected by numerous streams from the river, regular annual floods and the people who lived there (including small cultivators) have shaped the destiny of millions, including me.
During the monsoon, my father and his fellow villagers caught kilos of fish from those flooded fields, we also heard the village elders' animated discussion about rising floods and the fate of their paddy or jute crops. We grew up listening to the stories of a mighty river and constant struggle of the tiny human beings to come into terms with the river. I greatly cherished those childhood experiences as I wrote this book.
The Brahmaputra. Photo by Prarthana Saikia
How did you think about this book? How did you go about writing it?
The answer lies largely in the political situation in Assam in the first decade of this century when anti-large dam mobilisation gained widespread popularity, which also generated serious public debate. Those of us who wanted to understand the river better realised that there is little available. But it was an agrarian studies fellowship at Yale University which gave a final shape to the idea of book. I was really lucky to be able to be in conversation with some of the finest environmental historians, geologists, geographers, biologists, zoologists and many others to better understand the river.
Moreover, I repeatedly sought the vast experiences of my childhood friends who live by the river and its floodplains to still get the best sense of the river and lives in the floodplains.
Could you share some anecdotes of your travels along the river? Your feelings or observations of the river, the people you met, the wildlife you must have seen.
Probably the flood of 1988, caused by a breach of an embankment on the Brahmaputra, was an eye-opener. I had just completed Class Seven at the time. Within hours we were forced to move to a government relief camp which was located 12 km away. Not everyone though, including my father, were as fearful as us kids.
Twenty-four hours later, we realised that we needed to go back for a rescue mission! The district administration provided a boat for my father and me to go back, and neither of us knew how to swim! On that full moon night, as we embarked on our rescue mission, we immediately realised the boatmen, just like us, were clueless about the direction in the flooded landscape. That dreadful night when we only encountered a vast sea was a critical experience for me.
Why did you feel the need to write a biography of the Brahmaputra?
Such an enigmatic journey of the river had hardly been recounted. The genres of history and biography could both have done justice to this requirement. I chose the genre of a biography, to freely roam around any aspects of the life of this wonderful river and also to give an agency to it. Does not a dynamic and living ecological entity like that of the Brahmaputra deserve a biography?
Could you tell about the role the Brahmaputra played in shaping the history and identity of Assam?
One can hardly imagine Assam without this gorgeous river. Can we think of Indian history without the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea or the Himalaya? The river is Assam's spine and the backbone of the region's ecological setting. The collective will of Assam's residents always remains overwhelmed by the river. This sense of the untamable has been beautifully captured by the legendary singer Bhupen Hazarika.
Unlike the Ganga, the river's fickle-minded courses never allowed the rise of any major towns, except probably Guwahati and Tezpur, to emerge on the bank of the river. The geological features of the river near these two towns are the backbone for their vitality and also survival.
Again, despite this overwhelming nature of the river, the fishermen, grazers, peasants, boatmen and many others have made a wonderful friendship with the river. They know the river more intimately than others. They read the river's rhythms, its temperament. There is definitely a deep cultural bond between the river and the inhabitants of the valley and hills. The river has also remained witness to Assam's political and economic fortunes.
In the book you allude to the fact that India has neglected the Brahmaputra. Could you elaborate on that and on India's relationship with the river?
This comes out of the official narratives about the Brahmaputra, which largely see the river from a very narrow and short-sighted prism of floods and flood relief programmes. Such ideas hardly take into account the river's centrality in Assam's ecosystem and landscape. Also, my idea of neglect comes from historians' inability to assign the river the centrality that it deserves. By alluding to question of neglect, I do not want to imagine a river chained by mathematical formulas. India's techno-bureaucratic machinery has increasingly reinforced a modern narrative of the river where the river's water velocity, gradients, currents etc are more important.
What is going to be the future of the river? And what role is it likely to play in the geo-political future of the South-east Asian region?
Given the speed at which the water crisis has fast caught our attention now, there is little doubt that the waters of the Brahmaputra will now be the subject of intense political rivalries. India's grand river linking project, its hydro-power projects, the ambitious Chinese hydel projects, warnings from the climate scientists will further imprison the river. One can apprehend that rivalries between upstream dwellers (haunted by the dream of economic opportunities) and downstream dwellers (haunted by the threat of more erosion or unpredictable cycle of floods etc.) will intensify.
Could you share how geology, geography and nature have shaped the river and continue to do so?
Probably one needs to pay attention to the river's intimate link with sediment, waters, its velocity or currents to understand its dynamic relations with the larger ecological setting. The Himalayan mountain ranges to the north, and the Patkais to the east, and innumerable ranges of hills in between, or the monsoon, have defined the valley's ecological destiny. Those mighty mountains and hills have saved it from the turbulence of the Bay of Bengal. Its grasslands, dense forest coverages, vast stretches of flat alluvial lands have created space for human and non-humans. They are the sources of vitality of lives. The great one-horned rhinoceros survive because of this unique floodplains.
The geological or climatic disturbances in the Himalaya can impact the river's dynamism. The tectonic disturbances have critically shaped the river for millions of years. This will continue to do. The great earthquakes of 1897 and 1950 are two such recent events which had shaken the river. If we remember that the river is Assam's spine, this alteration can be metaphorically equated to the instance of a serious spinal injury. I do not need to explain further how serious this injury could be.
Could you elaborate on the changing nature of life along the river over many centuries?
There is no fundamental change except that the vitalities of the floodplains have declined over the centuries. In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Assam's great Vaishnavite scholar Sankardev wrote how the immediate landscape close to the river was full of grains and fish. Early 20th century literary writings allude to a similar sense. But since then, as the river and the land's umbilical connection was disrupted by building thousands of kilometers of embankments, those vitalities slowly declined.
Also, as the floodplains became drier because of the embankment, more human habitation moved closer to the river, putting their lives and properties at risk.
The Unquiet River: A Biography of the Brahmaputra by Arupjyoti Saikia is published by Oxford University Press.