In her poem Dear City, Filipina poet Conchitina Cruz says, “Pity the water that stays and rises on the streets, pity the water that floods into houses, so dark and filthy and heavy with rats and dead leaves and plastic. How ashamed water is to be what you have made it.” In these books from across the subcontinent, water speaks up, protests, rejoices and mourns. In our changing times, these books, across genres of poetry, graphic novels, non-fiction and fiction, explore diverse subjects – from India’s maritime history to the threats of modernisation for small fishermen and the water crisis in cities to the simple, endangered pleasures of rain and water bodies.
Waterlife, Rambharos Jha
Growing up on the banks of the river Ganga, Jha has always been drawn to water and to marine life. Living in the Madhubani district of Bihar, Jha spent hours watching women practice the traditional Madhubani art, which is made using twigs and brushes and natural pigments and dyes. Using the geometrical, aesthetically pleasing patterns of the art form, Jha created the graphic novel, Waterlife. As a new parent, he used blue, green and orange colours in his drawings of the underwater world to express a deeply felt happiness. Some of the illustrations from the book can be viewed in Brain Pickings, where Maria Popova called it one of the most beautiful books she had ever laid eyes on.
City of Water, Anindita Sengupta
When Sengupta moved from Bombay to Bangalore, she would “go for drives around the city, round and round, as if looking for something. I realised only recently when I moved back to Bombay that I was hunting water on all those endless, night-time drives.” Her debut collection of poetry is obsessed with water – the sea and the rain in her home city. In the titular poem, she writes “Outside, the relentless drip – / it can make people mad.” Some poems from the collection that won the Muse India Young Writer award can be read here and here.
Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast, Samanth Subramanian
Subramanian follows the fishing culture along the coast of India to reveal histories, folklore and traditions – such as a cure for asthma that involves swallowing a live fish, the rivalry between East and West Bengal over whose river has the best Hilsa fish, the extra-spicy Karimeen fish served with toddy to prompt guests to drink more, and others. This narrative of local cuisine and customs is accompanied with observations on over-fishing by trawlers who are driving small, traditional fishermen out of business.
The Golden Boat: River Poems, edited by K Satchidanandan
Forty-nine poems on rivers in India have been collected in this anthology by poet and critic K Satchidanandan. The book opens with a hymn to water from the Rigveda. The collection is named after a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, which celebrates scenes from rural life in Bengal along a river. The poems range widely in tone, from Mamang Dai – who notes that “In small towns by the river/ we all want to walk with the gods” – to Amrita Pritam – who says, “From the water of river/ Ganges to Vodka/ stretches the travelogue of my thirst.” Drawing from numerous languages, the anthology is a diverse celebration of rivers in India.
All Quiet in Vikaspuri, Sarnath Banerjee
The protagonist of Sarnath Banerjee’s graphic novel is a long-suffering plumber who, because of a dire water shortage in New Delhi, is employed to drill to the centre of the earth in search of the lost, mythical river Saraswati whose water source is believed to be the only solution to the crisis. The satire is a humorous critique of the human tendency to take natural resources for granted. Delhi’s class wars play out in the background as the search for the Saraswati continues.
A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman
Adwaita Mallabarman’s novel, considered a modern classic of Bengali literature, explores life in a fishing village on the banks of the river Titas. The culture, customs and economy of this once thriving community have been eroded by modernisation, conflict and natural disaster. In a series of interconnected stories, the book follows the lives of people living along the river over a span of many years. Soon after her wedding, a young woman is kidnapped by bandits on the river. Another woman loses her newly married husband in a boating accident. In the backdrop of these catastrophes is an unwelcoming, unsupportive village community who in a time of scarcity are unwilling to share resources with the unfortunate and the bereaved. The book was adapted into an acclaimed film by Ritwik Ghatak.
River of Stories, Orijit Sen
River of Stories, published in 1994, was one of the country’s first graphic novels. The work, comprising 62 pages written and illustrated over three years by Orijit Sen, examines the environmental, social and political ramifications of the construction of the Narmada dam. Two parallel narratives run through the book. The first follows a journalist from Delhi called Vishnu who visits Ballanpur to record the reactions of the locals and of the protestors. The second follows the birth of the river Narmada, which is known locally as Rewa. Some panels from the work can be seen here.
The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History, Sanjeev Sanyal
In The Ocean of Churn, Sanyal ties together the histories of the landmasses touched by the Indian Ocean. Sanyal wrote a book on Indian coastal history because he found that most historians focused on the interiors of the country and left many narratives along the shorelines untold. Sanyal’s book begins at the formation of the Indian Ocean and continues till the transformation of Bombay into Mumbai is complete. The book rescues little-known characters from maritime history such as Kanhoji Angre, a Maratha naval commander, who defeated on multiple occasions the English and Portuguese navies in the 18th century.