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Published on: 02/23/22 5:44 AM

Book review: The Braided River by Samrat Choudhury

THE BRAIDED RIVER by Samrat Choudhury. HarperCollins Books, 2021.

The Brahmaputra, says Samrat Choudhury, is not a canal. It does not flow between two neat banks. Its untidy braids, channels of history and commerce, witness to the ebb and flow of empires, are verily the architects of the surrounding landscape of nature and of humans.
First, some stats. The 2,880-km-long river`s origins lie near Mount Kailash where it is known as the Yarlung Tsangpo. It enters India in Arunachal Pradesh as the river Siang, then flows to Assam, where, meeting with the Lohit and the Dibang, it becomes the Brahmaputra. And upon entering Bangladesh, it undergoes a sex change and becomes the Jamuna. But this isn’t the end of the tale; the river becomes the Meghna when it finally flows into the Bay of Bengal.
In a lucky stroke for readers, Choudhury and his photographer friend Akshay Mahajan decide to follow the course of the largest river in India and after its confluence with the Ganga, the largest river in Asia, from the southern edge of Tibet down to where it flows into Bangladesh.
It`s some substantial river-gazing the writer does. Along with stories of this fascinating river, he relates the history of places it flows through, and delivers a pertinent commentary on how the ecological balance in the vicinity is going awry.
Included in this roster of topics is the Chinese activity in the Dibang river valley; the pervasive army presence; the OG story of the Ahom dynasty, who for a time controlled the north bank of the river; the travails of the tea industry in Assam; the interesting fact that the small town of Makum derives its name from the Cantonese `ma-kam` meaning golden horse; the famous Majuli Island which is fast being eroded; black soft shell turtles at a small Nag Shankar temple, all collectively called Mohan; the river dolphins of the Brahmaputra; the minority politics of the region (there`s an excellent chapter on the NRC and CAA); the annual migration in Kaziranga, and more.
The book is an ode to the Brahmaputra, this truly great river, older than the Himalayas. This land-eating, soil-renewing, course-shifting river, creator and destroyer; home to timber/sand mining/even fish mafia; with tributaries like the Subansiri, Manas, Teesta and Kopili which are powerful rivers in themselves; on the banks of which feral horses and wild water buffalo graze; where the construction of big dams goes on bulldozing local protests; where the past swirls among some really ancient monuments, temples and as legends; a river having one of the highest sediment loads of any river in the world and too dangerous for large boats to navigate in the dark; where a Hudu deity which appears in the shape of a barn owl is worshipped.
A well braided account, this really is the stuff of a great travelogue.
a trip down the BrahmaputraHarperCollins BooksSamrat ChoudhuryThe Braided Rivertravelogue

Sheila Kumar • February 23, 2022

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