Abhay Mishra and Pankaj Ramendu traveled across Ganga and found stories of its decay and exploitation that they put in their book Dar Dar Gange.
Interview with Abhay Mishra
Tell us something about yourself. Where did you grow up, what did you study and what do you do for a living?
Abhay Mishra: I was born in Madhya Pradesh and received my education on the banks of river Narmada in Hoshangabad and Khandwa. This is where I developed a subtle and deeper connection with the essence of rivers.
After completing my LLB, I earned a Degree in Mass Communication from Makhanlal University of Journalism, Bhopal. In a career spanning 14 years, I worked with Doordarshan, NabBharat, Cobra Post, Voice of India, etc. I left mainstream media about 4 years back. And started devoting my time to writing on social and cultural matters.
I am also a co-founder of Openwings Productions, a media house that acts as the source of my livelihood.
How did you get inspired to do a Yatra across Ganga and write about it?
I knew about Ganga only as much as books told me. And then, purely by chance, I got an offer from Ganga Heritage Foundation to make a documentary on the upper reaches of Ganga. To be honest, we started out on this project considering this as a picnic that pays us money for having a good time.We completed that documentary but the whole exercise left an uncanny, pinching void somewhere deep within us. Probably Ganga had marked us out to listen to her story… With
We completed that documentary. But the whole exercise left an uncanny, pinching void somewhere deep within us. Probably Ganga had marked us out to listen to her story… With that, we set out on a long journey along the Ganges – in an attempt to know and understand Ganga. We completed the journey along the entire run of the river, from Gomukh to Gangasagar.
The journey was completed in three stages spread over three years. It offered us an opportunity to witness the current state of affairs of the river. And to study the impact of Ganga on the cultural & economic activities of the societies along the route. As well as the impact of societal activities on the river in turn. It was a mesmerizing experience to see how a mother turns into a lifeline for millions. And eventually condemned to transform into a diminutive, dying river. The colorful diversity and underlying unity of the cultural and behavioural traits of the people living on the either side of the river inspired us to write. Different cities have their own and unique way of looking at Ganga and dealing with it.
The book leaves the reader very sad and not without reason, but did you find anything that was re-assuring, anything that still gave you hope that we may get Ganga back sometime.
Walk along the Ganges with an eager ear and she starts narrating her story spontaneously. As you noted, most of these stories prominently have shades of sadness – of varying tones and textures. However Dar Dar Gange stories are not just a long saga of pain and sorrow. It also has sparkling silver linings – the undying struggles of the sons of soil. Who, far moved from glare of media and publicity, are fighting tirelessly. Working silently to save Ganga from an impending demise. These people are completely untouched by Delhi and everything that it symbolizes. In fact, these very people give us reasons to believe in future that is a lot less bleak. They give us hope!
How did you deal with the dichotomy of devotion & exploitation when you saw them together?
Well… that’s something that completely baffled me. I cannot say I was really able to deal with this. It challenges, fatally, your very basic outlook towards things when you witness exploitation coming in the way of devotion. And what’s worst, when you see them co-exist in such a seamless and “peaceful” manner.
Take the case of Hindus of Manikpur near Allahabad – they bury their dead in the dried up river-bed instead of consigning them to the funeral pyre. Because of the dams, up stream, leave way too little water in the river to allow the traditional way of cremation. They pin their hopes on the next floods when the Mother will spread her arms and satiate the souls of their dead.
Spread all across Haridwar, you find a massive bazaar of devotion which shamelessly, ruthlessly plays with the emotions and trust of unsuspecting, innocent pilgrims.
Not a single Ashram in Rishikesh, the most prominent centre of Ganga movement, does anything to disallow its sewer from flowing directly into Ganges. In Varanasi, right next to the location of much famous and spectacular Ganga-Arti, a concealed drainage pipe pours out a continuous flow of poison into the river.
This dichotomy is something that still haunts me. But probably this just reflects the confused and rotten aspects of an otherwise magnificent culture.
How has the Yatra changed you as a person? What are the things that you see differently now?
This three year long journey has, undoubtedly, impacted me at a very basic level. In a way, it has fundamentally altered my viewpoint towards water bodies. Not just Ganga or other rivers but also the tap water, nallahs, the ponds. And even roadside pits filled with water. The journey, somehow acted as an eye opener. When the sense of urgency dawns upon you, it shatters your hopes even if you are a diehard optimist. Through the course of this journey, we got a glimpse of the various aspects of Ganga. Its cultural significance, its spiritual message, its impact on the lives of flora, fauna and human societies. Big dams, sand mining, pollution, distortion of faith, sewage, Mafia, poaching of Ganga-Dolphins, mindless construction, the political ramifications, etc.
Putting all of that together has given me a more comprehensive insight into life processes of not just a river but also of the society. And – through a direct extension – of my own existence.
What are your biggest learnings and insights from the Yatra Abhay Mishra?
The Yatra taught us that even rivers have a protocol which must be respected at all cost. We have marked out core areas for the National Animal of India. Why then we cannot extend the same courtesy to the National River? There should be no construction within a 3 km wide belts on the either side of the river.
If we have come to the realization that the task of lightening up the country cannot be achieved without hydro-power, we should find ways to do that without destroying our rivers. Natural falls and steep gorges along the course of the river should be utilized for power generation. The requirement of minimum flow in the main stream should be honoured while diverting the waters for irrigation purposes. Naroras should be not allowed at any cost where more than 90% water is diverted away from the river. Would you ever draw 90% blood of one person to save the life of another? Why should a river be treated differently then?
A central policy regarding fishing can bring about a massive change in the economy of the region. In today’s free-for-all regime we are killing fish – big as well as small. The ecology of the river is under massive distress.
Take a look at the history of all the places which have suffered due to floods. You will know who encroached upon who’s land – was it river that entered our houses or is it the other way round?
I would also like to mention that much revered Ganga Jal is not available at any point beyond Tehri. The dam has destroyed the most potent quality of Ganga water. What Tehri has done to Bhagirathi will be done to Alaknanda by Srinagar project. Once that’s completed, one will have to travel to the source of river to fetch Ganga jal. Probably our belief that Ganga water cannot be decayed has decayed it. We should probably stop treating Ganga as a goddess. She is our mother. Let her continue to be a mother.
We were somewhat able to gauge the character, depth and dimensions of the society through which the eternal flow of the mighty river continues. In a way, this journey helped us in our attempt to quench the thirst of our personal, intriguing curiosity. How did a powerful career of a civilization, a rich culture, the life-line of a nation was reduced to a dying, diminutive river? And what, if any, message is it relaying to us?
What were the challenges Abhay Mishra that you faced during the travels?
The leather industries of Kanpur won’t think twice before firing a bullet at you because they fear you will write against their factories and their interests. To ensure that the truth doesn’t come out in the open, power project authorities like Tehri will do everything under their control to hide every bit of information they possibly can.
Even with a casual look you will unfailingly notice, throughout the course of the river, people who are trying to hide something or the other. As you proceed with the yatra, you can run into problems arising out of language at one place and intent at another. Some of the NGOish organizations wanted us to look at Ganga through their lenses. The push from them varied from being gently subtle to blatantly coercive. And each such effort from them got on our nerves. Innocent villagers think of people roaming around with cameras to be Sarkari Babus. Whose reports will form the basis for a much needed help and their long overdue compensations? Hope-filled eyes of the distraught and down trodden men & women leave your heart with a gaping hole and pinch the deepest core of your soul.
Would you like more and more people do take up Yatras like this across other rivers as well and why?
Ganga is faced with a danger. A grave and a real one. Ganga and other rivers should be treated as a massive national issue. And should transform into a mass movement. More and more people should take up such yatras and other related activities. That will help us build adequate pressure on the governments to shake them out of their disastrous inaction. The relationship between the man and nature is really an unpretentious and facile one. We should learn to live in a way that keeps the sanctity of that effortless relationship intact. If we fail to mend our ways, we should be prepared to face many more calamities like the one witnessed in Kedarnath.
Abhay Mishra, are you planning another Yatra across any other river too?
Recently, I took up a journey along the northern banks. And of the delta region of the river Ganga to understand what makes them most severely affected areas during the annual floods. I have started a yatra along Yamuna after which I want to invest a few years on trying to revitalize a small tributary of Ganga. Flourishing small rivers will have a direct impact on the main river. I also want to know Ken and Betwa better. Especially because these rivers are to be interconnected through a river-link project. I am not sure if we are doing a right thing by treating the rivers like roads. A river is a living thing that permits us to intervene but only up to a limited extent.
Abhay Mishra are you working on any other book at the moment, if yes, please share some details with us.
Abhay Mishra: I’m currently working on another book on Ganga. It will include, among other things, a scientific analysis of the changes in the river. The storyline of this book will not end at Gangasagar. It will go beyond.