This book flows with the Brahmaputra from Tibet to the Ganga, blending travel, memoir and history

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We had not thought that the Brahmaputra would be hard to find. It’s huge, it’s a river, and it’s right there. I had seen it many times in Guwahati, where it is a single channel of water flowing between two banks and the opposite bank is visible, and of course I had seen it neatly marked on maps. After our first day in Dibrugarh, I realised something was amiss.

It was there all right, but it wasn’t a neat, muscular channel of water flowing between two clear banks. It was this thing that had major and minor channels, all of shifting and varied names and identities. I figured that one of these, the most major of the major channels, was the “actual Brahmaputra”. It would have to be tracked down.

The Braided River: A Journey Along The Brahmaputra

So, taking the advice of the friendly smuggler, we decided to go to Dibru Saikhowa to find the river. Our drive took us to Guijan ghat near Tinsukia, where we found room onboard a large wooden houseboat. It was evening, and the sun was setting. The river raced past us, all whorls and eddies. We could hear it and see the odd tree branch or uprooted water hyacinth bobbing downriver at pace. Sometimes there would be a little splash in the near distance as a chunk of earth fell into the river. It was a sound that would become familiar. It was the sound of the water eating away the land.

I wondered whether we had found the “real” Brahmaputra. “Is this the main channel of the Brahmaputra?” I asked Madhab, the Ahom boy who was our porter, guide and general handyman on the boat. I got the response I was getting used to. “No, this is the Dibru. The Brahmaputra is…” – and he waved his hand in front to point to the expanse in front of us – “there”.

“There” across the Dibru river was a large sandbank that turned out to be a river island. Night fell. It was a night of deep darkness, darkness of a kind that you can never see in cities. The silence was broken by the sound of distant folk music from somewhere across the water. We had seen no land around us apart from the river island. There was no light visible. However, it was clearly inhabited… and the inhabitants in this distant outpost in Upper Assam seemed to be Bengali.

The song was in an eastern dialect of Bangla. The sky was more lit up than the earth, the pinpoints of countless stars sparkling above us. It was nothing like the sky that’s visible in the city; we might as well have been on another planet. Here on the river, I turned my gaze up and sat looking, transfixed.

A band of light was clearly visible. “The Milky Way,” I said to Akshay. I had never seen it before. “Hathi Pathi,” said Madhab. Hathi Pathi: the Elephant Path in the sky. There’s a quote, attributed to various people from the Buddha to Anaïs Nin, that goes something like: “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

The ancient Greeks and Romans had seen the band of stars in the night sky and thought of a trail of milk. The ancient Hindus had seen it as Akash Ganga, the holy Ganges in the sky. Some Assamese had seen the same band of stars and thought of an elephant trail drawn in stars. Almost everybody around the world, including Assam, now sees that band as the Milky Way. Hardly anyone sees it as the Elephant Path.

Down on the horizon, upriver, looking past the bow of the firmly anchored boat, we could see only one other band of light. It was an orange glow in the distance: the light of a massive fire – a flare from an oil well.

It was the kind of scene where one could conceive, a hundred years ago when the forests around were thick with wild animals, a person might easily have been awed by the river, the jungle and the dark. The song wafting in from the distance may have added to the sense of wonder and dread if one did not know the language. The milieu might have evoked a sense of a journey into the heart of darkness.

We sat on the deck of the boat stargazing. Time had slowed down. In the silence and the dark it felt like late night; it was quieter and darker than it ever gets in Mumbai at any time. I knew it couldn’t be very late but found it hard to reckon how long we had been up there. An hour? Two hours? We tried guessing the time. It felt like 10 pm at least. It turned out to be 6.30.

By 7.30 we were done with dinner and ready to sleep. The night passed with little incident and in reasonable comfort, except for a brief period around three in the morning when the power failed. The fan stopped whirring. It was sweltering hot. I threw off the covers and was immediately set upon by hordes of mosquitoes.

The only other sound was that of water lapping against the hull of the boat. There was nothing to see; it was pitch dark. Someone was walking about in the narrow passageway outside my cabin. The power came back after a while. I went back to sleep. We were up at first light around 5 am. without any alarm or wake-up call. The time zone in Northeast India is certainly different.

Morning started early with cups of chai and biscuits and the only perennial activity here: river gazing. Then a man in combat fatigues carrying an AK-47 walked in. The boat staff seemed to barely notice his presence. I looked around, to see if there were more. Soon enough, there were four men in fatigues with AKs on the boat. They walked around, avoided conversation and soon left.

They were soldiers from the Indian Army’s Kumaon Regiment out on patrol. No one on the boat seemed to have anything to say about their little visit. We started on our water journey into the Dibru Saikhowa National Park soon after. Our transport for this leg of the journey was a small wooden country-boat fitted with a very loud motor. These are locally known as “bhut-bhuti” for the sound they make.

The crew included a small, wiry boatman and his underage apprentice, a boy of thirteen, whose job it was to constantly bail water out of the leaky boat with a plastic bucket improvised from a used cooking oil can. Boatman Radhabinod Pal was from Sivasagar, also in Upper Assam. He had moved to Guijan ghat in 2005. Dibru Saikhowa had been declared a national park in 1999, and the first tourist lodge in the area, run by a reformed poacher named Joynal Abedin, had come up. The United Liberation Front of Asom’s insurgency, which had severely affected these areas, was winding down. Tourism was starting, and there was work for him.

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The river we were on, the Dibru, had been a smaller river then, Pal said. It started growing. More water coursed through it. Year on year, it kept becoming more powerful. The river’s swift current swept us downstream, out of sight of the ghat and the houseboat. We passed the tip of the river island with its emptiness of white sand and turned into a channel that Pal said would eventually connect with the Brahmaputra.

Our boat was now travelling upriver; we had changed direction. The forest thickened gradually on both sides. From tall kaash grass with their tufts of white it turned to thick undergrowth and tall trees. The only inhabitants we saw were birds on the sparkling white-sand river beaches. Terns, herons, storks and kingfishers observed our noisy passing.

That other humans passed this way, however, was evident from little signs. Somewhere in the mud, a few incense sticks. What were those incense sticks doing there? Who was the god being worshipped here in what looked like the middle of nowhere? Why, Ganesha of course, said Pal…but it could also be Shiva…who is Ganesha’s father.

The channel we were on, which varied between 70 m and 100 m wide, flowed strong. Stumps of big trees stood almost concealed in the water at intervals; they had succumbed to its flow. Boatman Pal stood at the prow of the boat, peering ahead for signs of submerged danger. His apprentice Amit steered following his hand signals. The speed with which he waved his hands seemed to be an indication of the urgency with which the boat needed to be turned. On one or two occasions he also turned and glared at Amit. We probably had a few close shaves.

The heat increased. The hours wore on. We stopped taking photos. Conversation ceased. We began wiping sweat and drinking water in silence. Three hours later, we had still not reached the “real” Brahmaputra. The river we were on had widened. The forest had thinned; now it was sandbars on one side and grassland on the other. We were getting close, Pal said.

We came upon it quite suddenly. It was like nothing I had ever seen or imagined. In every direction before us, as far as the eye could see, there were only channels of water separated by sandbars and river islands. It was a waterworld. This vast entirety of sand and water was the great Brahmaputra. Here, at the edge of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park, is close to where it is, in truth, born.

This is where the rivers Siang, Lohit and Dibang merge in the area around the massive river island, roughly 35 km long and 10 km wide, on which the park is located. The untidy tassels of water they together form is the Brahmaputra. To think only the main channel is the river is folly; in fact, the whole combination of channels and sandbanks constitutes the river. The Dibru, too, is a part of it. So is the river channel we had seen on our first day out in Dibrugarh. The river is the sum of its parts, and much more.

It has come to be that the Siang, which is the longest and strongest of its three formative tributaries, is seen as the Brahmaputra; but the part is not the whole. In terms of water volume, the Siang is at best about a third the size of the Brahmaputra.

The Lohit, which meets the Siang on the northern shore of Dibru Saikhowa, is no minnow. And the Dibang in monsoon carries a surprisingly large volume of water, more than the Lohit. It is almost as big as the Siang in the rainy season.

Many other tributaries that are great, powerful rivers in themselves, such as the Subansiri, Manas, Teesta and Kopili flow into the Brahmaputra, making it the phenomenon of nature that it is. Hydrologists call it a “braided river”. The term starts to make sense when you see the Brahmaputra, not from a bank, but from somewhere in the middle. Braids of water run into one another. Sometimes a channel seems to flow in a direction opposite to the channel next to it. The dance of creation and destruction is visible in the play between sand and water.

The fine, silvery white river sand accumulates over time to form sandbars, which turn into little islands. Then some subtle balance in the forces at work may shift from one side to another. The water may start to nibble away at the island. It is possible that the island may disappear. Or it may not.

Perhaps a bit of grass will start to grow on one of the countless sandy islands. Perhaps the tall kaash grass will take root. Sand may slowly start to turn into soil. A seed may float in from somewhere, and grow into a tree. One tree may turn into many trees. Animals and humans may come to settle. Then, one monsoon day, the river may rise, and lay waste to it all. It may start eating away the island, until no more than a sliver of a sandbar remains. And the cycle of creation and destruction starts again.

Excerpted with permission from The Braided River: A Journey Along The Brahmaputra, Samrat Choudhury, HarperCollins India.

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