Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned.
~ ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
“You all know what a river is,” the biologist says, standing on the banks of the Cauvery, as behind him the river mumbles and roils over low rocks and gleams slick silvery flashes in noontime sun. The man, who has spent a good part of his working life studying rivers and the animals like otters who live in them, is talking as a resource person to a group of scientists and conservationists on a field trip after two days of a conference on river otters in Bangalore city. “The river’s upper course begins in the mountains, the water comes down the slopes, becomes perennial in the middle course,”—the speaker gestures to the river behind him—“and then flows through plains in the lower course before finally entering the sea.” Standing in the audience, listening, he thinks the biologist seems self-assured and competent: he must know, he must be right. And yet, it seems too pat, too succinct, too simple, that a great river like the Cauvery weaving its way through southern India is described thus—as neatly organised and fulfilling as a three-course meal. It seems to suggest that a river is but a line—a watery, purposeful line drawn from mountain to sea. A line.Standing in the shade of a sprawling banyan tree beside a small riverside shrine near Mavinahalli village—located in Karnataka State about a third of way down the river’s 800 km length from nascent spring in the Western Ghats mountains to yawning mouth in the Bay of Bengal—they look across the river. They look past waters gushing through the innards of a centuries-old check dam, spewing white from between stones dislodged by the last monsoon flood, past calmer waters slipping smooth around boulders in the river bed, through little tuft-like islets with sedges and grasses and leafy Polygonum tangles waving their heads with wind and water. They look across water looping around elliptical islands and ephemeral sandbars, past a dry stretch lying in the lee of a small hydroelectric dam conterminous with the check-dam, towards the opposite bank over three hundred metres away. From the reservoir brimming behind the dams, a canal draws water through the countryside draped with fields of paddy and sugarcane, onion and tomatoes, pastures and stands of coconut trees. Downstream the river slides, roils, slips, glides, waves, shimmers, effervesces, and chatters—down a long, gently-curving stretch, with little channels curling and purling between islets, before it swings out of view. An hour ago, a lone otter, swimming, head held above the water, had suddenly turned, dived, and vanished under the marmoreal surface. There is so much the river shows, so much it hides.
He tries hard to imagine the river as a line, but fails. In the sparkling sweep of water, fish wink in little splashes at the surface, radiating ripples subsumed by the silent current. Then a cluster of ebony rocks, marked with white acid splashes of bird droppings, rises a couple of feet above the water—enough, it seems, for the darter standing motionless and coloured like the stone itself, wings held open to dry in sun and wind. Water again, a tar-black cormorant skimming ahead of a leafy twig bobbing and turning slowly as it drifts—to what unknown destination? And land, again, an islet edged by a strip of fine, dark sand carrying the calligraphy of wader feet, and crested with sedges and shrubs into which a little black-headed munia flies carrying a long blade of dry grass to tailor its nest among reeds. Then, water again, with Asian openbill storks walking on stilt-legs, like old men, heads bent, looking—wading in inches-deep water in the company of stately grey herons, frozen in ambush, fierce eyes behind dagger beaks. Land again, a sand-bar, tossed like a throw-cushion on the satin sheet of the river, attended by a line of snow-white egrets, onto which a common sandpiper sweeps in on stiff, twitching wings, even as a cloud of three hundred pratincoles flares into the skies, wheeling, quartering, rising, twisting, dipping, flashing now white, now brown, in a stupendous, heart-stopping, aerial symphony of movement, like one giant bird exploded into hundreds, yet alive. Then water, then land, water, marsh, and land again.
The river is a braid of land and water, he concludes. A braid, like the braids that village women washing clothes at the riverside make with their hair—parted neatly or drawn back from their foreheads, pulled into long bunches, woven over and into each other but for a tassel at the end, the braids coming tight together neat and gleaming down their backs, just as land and water and marsh and rock come together in the river shimmering its way ultimately south. Now, the egrets and otters and storks and plovers are but jasmine and kanakambara flowers decorating the braid.
Still, he is not satisfied, although the idea of a river as a braid seems better than calling it a water-body, or by that ambiguous, ambivalent, amphibious word: wetland. In the river, the waders, the storks, the otters: do they not belong to water and land? And do we not have to see the great wheeling flock of pratincoles but once to know that they belong to land and water and air? And if they are not part of the life and energy of the river—then what is the river?
No, his vision is too constrained by what he sees before him now: an all-too-human constraint. He needs to look further. He thinks of what the man said of the river’s origin in the mountains: the tiny spring of sweet water that somehow became this great, wide river. The origin, in a sacred pool, springing out of the belly of the mountains in Kodagu.
* * * * *
He knows the sacred place, the hillside temple at Talacavery in Kodagu. In the austere heights of the Western Ghats mountains, at an elevation of nearly 1,300 metres in Kodagu district in Karnataka, a tank and shrine of the eponymous river goddess mark the origin. He has been there with her, a girl of Kodagu, her middle name Cauvery, too. Soon after their wedding, they had made the traditional visit with her parents, like so many others from Kodagu to worship and be blessed by the river. Modest offerings at the shrine, mediated by a priest, a few sips of sacred waters, a purifying walk through the pool a few yards below. Now, as then, they both think that wherever crystal springs of sweet water emerge, as if from the earth’s navel, no one, religious believer or scientific atheist, can be faulted for heaping such places with spiritual value.From source to sea, the Cauvery basin occupies more than 81,000 square kilometres and sustains nearly 33 million people: an area about the size of Austria with four times its population. The basin—about 245 kilometres at its widest and 560 kilometres at its longest—spans the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, with small portions in Kerala and Puducherry. At 400 people to the square kilometre, it is among the most densely populated river basins in India. Around 70% of the population is rural, two-thirds of the basin is agricultural land. A land with a rich history going back thousands of years, a crucible of the cultures that make South India what it is today. The river is the circulatory network of water-filled arteries and veins of the land. As the river’s watery tendrils weave through the land, its vitality weaves the tapestry of landscapes and peoples.
Yet, the river is more than a closed circulatory network, it is more open and dynamic. Downslope from Talacauvery, the water joins a first-order stream emerging from the dense forests and swaying grasslands on the mountains, becomes a clear stream chittering over smooth pebbles and rocks, along banks shaded by evergreen trees. Here, they had bathed in the waters, in public with other visitors and pilgrims, the women entering water almost fully clothed—a dip, some splashing, water cupped lovingly in one’s hands and poured over one’s own head, a ritual cleansing of body and soul. He had felt how strongly the community identified itself with the river, and the river’s significance for their land: as birthplace, as mother, as source of pride, as progenitor of water and life. Like the two of them had done, all Kodagu couples would visit these waters, he thinks, if it was within their means. They would bring their children, their children’s children. At the end of their lives, many would, like her father, have their ashes consigned nowhere but in the river.
Perhaps, like a bloodline, the river is a community of waters. A coming together of freshets, a commingling of streams traversing earthly life and landscape, surmounting boulders, cascading down cataracts, sweeping through calm interludes, receiving, sharing, giving, branching out into little distributaries that join the vast oceans of life. Through Karnataka, then Tamil Nadu, the Cauvery gathers the waters of the Hemavathi, Kabini, Shimsha, Arkavathi, Bhavani, Moyar, Noyyal, Amaravathi, and more, before splaying out into the great delta of over 14,000 square kilometres across Thanjavur and its neighbouring districts. At every confluence of rivers, one is likely to find shrines, or ghats, or great trees, silent markers of religion, culture, and ecology.
He ponders, now, over the two streams joining near the origin, the water lapping against as-yet unsullied banks. Something that the hydrologist said at the conference comes to him: the daily flux of water with the breathing of the trees. He imagines now the water level dropping subtly by day as the trees in the watershed draw water up through their roots, breathe them out through their leaves, the level slowly rising again as the trees close their stomata in the quietude of night. He imagines the tree as a river itself, waters drawn from the earth, coursing through the trunk, branching out, breathed out into the atmospheric ocean, the air then burdened with moisture, condensing as mist and cloud, rushing back into the mountains, then falling as rain, the water drenching the trees and the earth, shimmering down the tree trunks, sponged by the leaves on the soil, percolating through soil pores and root tubes, then drawn out again, into the tree, into the river. Now, the river is a dendritic network of water melding with the trees.
* * * * *
A yell snaps him out of his reverie back to Mavinahalli. Standing on a bamboo coracle, wooden paddle in hand, a fisher shouts across to another in a coracle downstream asking, perhaps, about the day’s catch. On the banks, the conference group splits and climbs onto half a dozen coracles and two inflatable rafts to experience the river, discuss field survey methods—their task for the day—and look for otters. The coracles and rafts are full and he waits on the banks with her, for another coracle from the village. A boy is dispatched running to the village for the purpose and returns soon with the coracle. The boy carries the coracle inverted over his head, only his legs are visible, feet slapping bare earth: he looks like a walking mushroom. Behind him, a fisherman follows, holding a paddle.
The sun blazes furiously over their heads and there is no breeze. The shimmering surface of the river reflects the light, the water is barely cool to the touch. Sweating, squinting against the light, squatting at the three points of a triangle in the coracle for balance, the two of them and the fisher make their way slowly downriver, the coracle swinging now this way, now that, to the rhythm of the rowing.
Out in the river, the fishing is on. A pair of smooth-coated otters gambolling in the current, heads up skimming the surface, plunging suddenly as if diving for a fish, reappearing somewhere else. A fisher on a coracle, swinging his net, heaving it out, the net fanning out in a circle, dropping, the net hauled up and checked for unsuspecting fish caught. Another setting out a net line from the edge of an islet out into the river, waving their coracle around the unseen net in the water.
He sees the river as an ecosystem, one that sustains life and livelihoods; he wonders what the fishers see the river as.
There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.
To this, keeping rivers in mind, one could add:
There are two spiritual dangers in not knowing a river. One is the danger of supposing that fish come from the market, and the other that water comes from the tap.
The history of use and abuse of rivers in India is a sorry one. Few rivers have been left undammed, their dynamic flow, their open throbbing engines of life, left untrammelled. After 1947, independent India embarked on a phase of dam building, reaching a crescendo in the 1960s onwards—a period when around the world there was one dam being built every day on average. The archaic and obsolete ideas of development based on large-scale impoundment of water for agriculture and electricity generation has spared few of India’s rivers. The Cauvery and its tributaries already has a series of major dams at Harangi, Hemavathi, Krishnaraja Sagar, Kabini, Mettur, Lower and Upper Bhavani, Avalanche, Emerald, Kundha Palam, Pegumbahallah Forebay, Pillur, Porithimond, Parson’s Valley, Nirallapallam, and Amaravathi, and smaller impoundments, 65 dams already, plus a series of irrigation canals drawing water out—Devaraj Urs, Mettur, Kodivery, the Grand Anicut of the Cauvery Delta, Lower Coleroon, and more—all of which feed the prosperity and eternal discontent of human needs in the basin. Over a hundred dams, beguilingly named mini-hydels, built or being built, generating power and profits for privateers, are set to scupper what is left of the river. The 2012 River Basin Atlas of India proclaims that about 90% of the Cauvery basin’s average water resource potential of 21,358 million cubic metres is “Utilizable Surface Water Resource”. The live storage capacity of completed reservoirs has already usurped half that pot of water—a disputed and contentious pot, the sharing of which the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have fought over for more than 150 years. Another large hydroelectric dam, recently proposed at Mekedatu, already has the political powers-that-be jousting, indicating the bitter fight is not over.
And there is drinking water, too, he remembers. He travels often between the cities of Coimbatore, Bangalore, and Mysore, where nearly 11 million people depend substantially on the Cauvery or waters from its basin for their drinking water supply. How much of all that water has he imbibed over the years? If over half his body is water by composition, is the Cauvery now a part of him, too? Is he then not part of the river of life that is the Cauvery? And then, if the river declines, will it only presage his own?
Meanwhile, as the river silently gives, it silently receives: the wastes of cities, the washing and leavings of humanity, agricultural chemicals and poisons, fertilizer runoffs and residues. Invasive alien plants like water hyacinth and Salvinia choke its flow, as native riparian vegetation along the banks is stripped off to be replaced by unsparing farms and alien Eucalyptus. Alien fish fed into the waters proliferate, as native fish beat their retreat under the hooks and looks of Fisheries Department officers and anglers. The fishers still eke out their living, on a fluctuating catch from a changing river, taking recourse to poison and dynamite to fill their nets with stunned and shattered fish. All along the river, lorries queue up in the hundreds, gouging sand from the bed, destroying the fabric of the river from the bottom up, even as the sand will help erect the concrete framework of houses and buildings in the growing cities and towns. And further down, at the end of the river—if any river can really be said to have an end—down in the Cauvery Delta, every drop of water that enters the sea is considered wasted. Not as waters that forever build and sustain fertile plains, not as waters that sustain flourishing ecosystems well past the Coromandel coastline—no, any water entering the sea, so the blinkered view goes, is water wasted. And so it goes.
To utilitarian human eyes, the river is no line, or braid, or network, or tree of life. The river is only a pipe from tap to flush-pot, with feeder pipes to drain or dump at will.
* * * * *
The next day, a hundred kilometres downstream in Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, he sits quietly by the river again. A welter of broken forest-clad hills, having somehow resisted farms and dams, have left a stunning stretch of river winding past stately arjuna and mango and jamun trees towering along the banks. The others have left on their coracles, but he prefers to sit silently by himself and watch the river. Past the disembodied darter, swimming with only snake-neck and spear-beak showing above the surface, a marsh crocodile basks on rocks across the river. On a high branch in a tall tree, a lesser fish eagle waits, eagle eyes on the river, suddenly plunges into the water, then rises with the merest splash, back to its perch, a fish in its talons.
In the quietude, he wishes now for a good book about the river. Perhaps the translation of Eternal Kaveri by T. Janakiraman and Chitti, to know as the subtitle suggests, ‘the story of a river’. Or another book by the same name, documenting the historical sites along the river. Even, It Happened Along the Kaveri, a recent publication touted as a delightful travel book replete with the requisite anecdotes and trivia. Would he have understood the river a little better then? Would he have known the river in its essence as the otter and fisher on the coracle, perhaps do, everyday? Maybe he would have. But the book he carries with him, the book that he finds absorbing, now, by the river, is Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. Fictions. What can one learn about a river from mere fictions?
He is dissatisfied with all his metaphors of the river, distressed even at his attempt to describe the river thus. Line, braid, network, tree, tap—really? Is that all he can come up with? He is disgusted with his ideas, his scrawls in his notebook.
The river is a great engine of life, energised by the sun’s fire, the wind’s breath, the cloud’s sweat, the pull of earth, and the touch of mountains. An elemental, spinning circle of water, air, earth, and fire, that distils the alchemy of ethereal life. His eyes on the ever-moving current—water in him, in the air, in the earth—all moving, melding, dissolving, he wonders how one can pin down in words something so fluid, so full of movement? It is like trying to hold a fistful of water; the tighter he clutches at it, the more it slips away.
Finally, it is in Borges that he finds his answer. In the story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, where Borges writes about an imaginary realm of idealistic nations, Tlön, a world whose language and everything derived from language is suffused with idealism. For Tlön’s people, Borges writes:
the world is not an amalgam of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts—the world is successive, temporal, but not spatial.
Consequently, in their language, the “conjectural Ursprache” of Tlön, there are no nouns. There are “only impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) functioning as adverbs.” There is no noun like moon, Borges writes, but there is a verb that in English would be “to moonate” or “enmoon”. In Tlön, one does not say “The moon rose above the river.” One would avoid nouns altogether, and say: “Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned.” Imagine that, he thinks, a river not as a noun, or an object of human consumption, but as a verb, a ceaseless flowing part of a community of ever-flowing life.
Ah, yes! That is it: exactly, perfectly, it!
It is so the onstreaming engines on, sunblazing, windbreathing, condensing, earthpulled, and hillblocked. It is so in circlespinning, watered and aired and fired and earthed. It is so the onstreaming ethereally alchemises into lifesparking.
As it sundowned, watching: downward, behind the onstreaming, it flamed.