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The Anthropocene River

Photographer, writer and gifted storyteller Arati Kumar-Rao has been documenting the wondrous Brahmaputra river, and those who depend upon it, for the past three years. Here, her lyrical prose is at odds with the devastating picture she paints, of a once-wild and invincible river beginning to cede to the assault of man.

A million stars illuminate the night sky over the largest mangrove forest in the world, the Sundarbans, where the Ganga drains into the Bay of Bengal. Photo: Arati Kumar-Rao.

It was late February and silk cotton trees, bereft of leaves, were blooming a bright red in Assam. I stood on the banks of the Brahmaputra. There was no water in it, only sand. Dry season flows meant that the river had receded to only a few channels.

If you were to fly up 10 km. above this spot where I stood, here’s what you would see. Towards the north would rise mountains. Low and green at first and then higher, and higher, eventually capped white – the eastern Himalaya of Arunachal Pradesh, and beyond that Tibet – the wombs of these rivers. To the south you’d see the green hills of Nagaland. If you looked down, you’d see a million white-and-green islands of sand, braided with thin skeins of water, lying flatly along the spine of this land, Assam.

A large green expanse directly below would be Majuli, the largest populated river island in the world. If you did the same exercise in the monsoon, your jaw would drop at the scene below. The Brahmaputra spreads 18 km. across, in full flood. Standing where I was, I would not be able to see the other shore.

Right now, however, I could see no water. To reach the fisherman who was waiting to ferry my friend and me upriver, we’d have to walk at least a couple of hours to cross this sandy bed, wading through narrow and shallow channels en route, then climb up the side of a silt island (called a char), and down again to cross another shallow channel, then walk another hour over another char to reach the main stem of the river. Our fisherman was waiting there – eight kilometres away.

As we contemplated this journey (and eventually walked it hefting camera equipment and all), we saw locals bearing burdens, pulling loads, trudging the route patiently, uncomplainingly,...

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