The banks of my pleasant Ichhamati are dotted with tiny villages, wild flowers, green trees and bird nests. In the past five hundred years, so many fishermen have cast their nets in the river, so many houses have been built, so many babies came in the arms of their mothers to take a dip in the river and then in the old age found their last bed near the cool waters of the river. I can visualise the countless who have approached this peaceful river bank through centuries. I shall write a story of about all this. This story shall be called Ichhamati.

— Diaries of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay from the 1940s

This is no literary criticism. I cannot read or comprehend Bangla beyond a couple of phrases. And yet, few regions have cast their spell like Bengal has. Relying on translations of Bangla novels, short stories, poems and songs, I did not realise when Jibanananda Das’s Rupasi Bangla or Apu’s recitation of Amader Bangladesh from Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito became my own.

Where is the greenest land of all – where the tender grass your feet must fall?
Where the golden grain sways on sunny afternoons and the blushing lotus blooms?
It is our very own Bengal, the greenest land of all.

The Apu trilogy made by Satyajit Ray consists of three films that are supposed to be some of the best ever made. All three are based on Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novels Pather Panchali: Song of the Open Road and Aparajito: The Unvanquished.

Pather Panchali (1929) was Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s first novel, Ichhamati (1950) was his last, published in the same year that he passed away. Bibhutibhushan’s invaluable body of work from Pather Panchali to Aranyak to Ichhamati is imprinted with forests, rivers, silver bursts of kaashbon, red-thorned Semul trees, blue-purple Bonsim blossoms falling into the river, “immortal” fig trees and many such moments. Wilderness is not a setting in his writings, it is a character in itself. Its presence is gentle and wholesome. Wilderness is so captivating that it shapes Bandyopadhyay’s characters: the way they face the warps and wefts of fate and yet find rare moments of stillness and epiphany.

Assorted images from the Apu Triology
Assorted images from the Apu Triology

It was while reading Amitav Ghosh’s stellar The Great Derangement that I realised what Bandyopadhyay and many other “riverine” writings in Assamese, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Marathi have given me.

In The Great Derangement, Ghosh laments:

In a substantially altered world, when sea level rise has swallowed Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when the readers and museum-goers turn to art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what should they-what can they-do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to know as the time of The Great Derangement.

But climate change and the collapse of the natural world do not always descend upon us in a crash. On some days, its footfall can be heard more surely in uncanny changes that grow upon us. Before we realised, polluted, dammed rivers became a reality. Bare river banks, dredged river channels, thirsty estuaries and barren origins became the new normal. How do we hear the approaching peril when the noise of everyday is so unsettling?

It is said that if we have to restore the present, we have to know the past. The baseline.

But do we know the baseline?

How were the rivers of my land? Was there really a time when fishermen groaned under the weight of their catch? What did it mean to live next to a swollen river and pluck nagkesar flowers on the riverbank? How did a fragrant forest affect the hearts of men? When a child sat at a riverbank with her father and looked up at the stars and fireflies, what did she feel? When a village woman dived in a flooded river on an evening, just for a swim, what was truly happening? How did the men know that their river was dying?

These age old sensations which once formed an integral part of a community’s consciousness have now acquired a surreal quality for many of us. We never felt it. And it is difficult to go about saving something which we have never experienced.

Bibhutibhushan’s Ichhamati is one such museum of memory. A way of life next to a river that is almost extinct. The way life unfolds along the banks of Ichhamati makes us want to believe that tranquility and satiety is possible if only our rivers are full and forests are green.

Ichhamati river between India and Bangladesh / Map from IUCN
Ichhamati river between India and Bangladesh / Map from IUCN

This series is an attempt to understand the rivers and wilderness of India, as reflected in our literature. Fewer such works are being created today. The reasons are many but the result is somewhat similar: we go a little more away from the living world around us. We tread wearily, talking of dams and pollution, forgetting the free flowing rivers and moist forests. This dystopian reality allows a prime minister to carry out Ganga aarti on concrete banks when the Ganga itself is dying in the channels, or to think of interlinking distinct rivers and flooding thousands of hectares of forests.

It is in times such as these that the literature of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Advait Mallabarman or Arundhati Roy, the songs of Bhupen Hazarika or Jasim Uddin, the poems of Rabindranath Tagore, Jibanananda Das, epics like Meghaduta or Silappatikaram or Ganga Lahari, the devotional songs of Tyagaraja, the movies of Ritwik Ghatak, all assume the role of an invaluable legacy – a cultural and ecological archive which is at once alive and flowing, not stratified in the past.

These artforms provide an impetus to the dystopian nation today to understand what is at stake: not just clean air and water, but perhaps a part of our humanity.

~~~

I read a translated version of Ichhamati: Restless Waters of Ichhamati, translated by Rimli Bhattacharya and some parts of Ichhamoti, translated by Chhanda Chattopadhyay Bewtra (ongoing). I’m indebted to the translators for the lucidity of their translations and for opening a world of beauty for non-Bangla readers. Rimli Bhattacharya’s “Introduction” to Restless Waters of Ichhamati is an able companion to the book.

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (1894-1950) was one of the most important novelist of Bengal in the post-Tagore period. Pather Panchali, in the words of Tagore gave “something fresh and original in literature although it was as clear and familiar as an old companion”.

Apu’s story is also a story of a boy and his “bhavtaal”. Bandyopadhyay has been riddled with criticism for being stuck in an idyllic past, not moving forward. That is too simplistic. We all wanted Apu to go back to the home of his childhood, Nischindipur. But he did not. The story says, On the other side of the Ichhamati, by the side of the lotus infested Madhukhali swamp, and crossing the river Betrabati, my road stretches far away, from one country to the other, I have given your forehead the invisible mark of a wanderer and brought you out of your home. Now let’s go forward.”

Aranyak, written from 1937-1939, is a memoir of forests. An urbane Satyacharan, who cannot bear to be in the forests of Bihar, falls in love with that very forest and has to keep coming back. Although mesmerised by the old growth, his job is to clear the forest and make way for a settlement. In his diaries, Bandyopadhyay writes, “A novel on forests. It will have the stories of loneliness, stories of trees and plants...the picture of a dense forest in the pitch darkness of this evening.”

Bandyopadhyay walked miles in the woods every day, usually taking his notebook for the purpose of writing whilst surrounded by the wilderness (A song, And Bibhutibhushan Walked Alone, although in Bangla, paints the author in just a few strokes).

In a letter he said, “The essence of my literature lies in the depiction of vastness of space and passing time.”

His novel Ichhamati illustrates the play of both these elements. What could be a better metaphor for both time and timelessness than a river?

Ichhamati begins with a glimpse of the small and beautiful stretch of the Ichhamati river, flowing through the “districts of Nadia and Jessore known for its exquisite beauty”. In the first page, we get a waft of Bandyopadhyay’s supreme knowledge of ecology. He does not describe the river in romantic abstraction, but paints a flourishing riparian riverbank characteristic of Bengal with groves of bamboo, crown flowers, aquatic water lettuce, durba grass and further up the bank, stately trees like banyan, peepul and semul. Flowers and trees are not embellishments: they have names, niches and effects on characters. He describes more than 50 specific plants in Ichhamati and Chhanda Chattopadhyay Bewtra has painstakingly tried to annex Latin and common names of many. There are times when you feel as if wilderness is the main protagonist in Bibhutibhushan’s work, and human characters are witnesses.

In the prologue to Ichhamati, Bandyopadhyay makes us a river-farer: a sakshi or observer of the events unfolding for hundreds of years on the banks of the Ichhamati. There is no archive of the smiles and tears of people living on the banks of the river and yet: “All these messages and old stories are the true history of our nation. History of the silent people. Not the triumphant tales of the emperors and kings.”

This is a common thread binding many writers who wrote “riverine” novels in Bengal. They understood the worth of the stories of the people of the land. Like Advaita Mallabarman writes in Titash Ekti Nadir Naam, “Titash is just an ordinary river. No one will find its name in history book or chronicles or national upheavals. But does that mean it is really without history? Its banks are imprinted with stories of its people: History some people know, some don’t.”

Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, in Hansuli Banker Upakatha, simply states that happenings on the bank of Kopai was history itself: “Small rivulet of stories (Upakatha) has joined the great river of tales.”

~~~

Ichhamati portrays life in the village of Panchpota and Mollahati Indigo plantations in the second half of the nineteenth century in undivided Bengal. Despite depicting the ebb and tide of the plantation days, including the Indigo revolt in 1859-1862, Ichhamati is not a “plantation” novel, nor a historic one.

It is a story of a slice of time at the banks of a river, a poetic novel in many senses which does not have the sharp twists and turns of a melodrama. There are no villains.

Even the colonial Burra Saheb or the younger Grant Saheb are not portrayed as villains. On his death bed, Burra Saheb dreams of his rivers in England full of trouts, while Colesworth Grant think of Bengal as the “land of Shakuntalam- on the banks of a river in this obscure little village.”

At the surface, Ichhamati tells the story of Bhabanishanker, a Kulin Brahmin married to three sisters Tilu, Bilu and Nilu late in his life, as was the order of the day. Bhabani is a spiritual man, who was on the path of becoming an ascetic, but has wandered back into domesticity. In many ways, the novel is a story of Bhabani’s search for truth, divinity and beauty and how he finds these in places which are unexpected and humble.

Tilu or Tilottama is the eldest of the sisters: simple, steadfast and loving and yet, not a meek village woman. In fact, none of the women in the novel are meek. Tilu, Gaya Mem and Nistarini are women who demonstrate the Veer Rasa on several occasions, whereas the honeyed beauty of Vatsalya Rasa is found in Bhabani more.

In a particularly sparkling part of the book, Tilu and Bhabani go swimming in the Ichhamati:

Following the path made by the pearl diving fishing folk, Tilu and her husband cleared a little ghat for themselves. There, in the crystal waters of Ichhamati, yellow flowers of Babla tipped over and plopped into the water, slender creepers of Gulancha draped around, tiny-eyed fish darted and frolicked around Tilu-sundaris breasts, flicking away and disappearing the very instant you stretched out your fingers to grasp them. No one could see the couple here.

Suddenly, Bhabani’s dhoti is caught in the submerged branches of a silk cotton tree and he thinks a crocodile has gotten him. He implores Tilu to swim away, but the strong Tilu dives into the waters without a moment’s hesitation to set the limp Bhabani free, pulling him to the shore. “There’s nothing to fear. Your dhoti is stuck in Simul thorns, stay afloat and I will free you soon.”

Each female protagonist in Ichhamati is a deviant. A shy deviant, but staunchly so. And unsurprisingly, it is on the banks of Ichhamati that their uniqueness shines the brightest.

A section I particularly admire is about Nistarini, a beautiful, dusky bride who does not understand the rules of love or hierarchies of respect in the village. But it is Nistarini who finds the pearl of Ichhamati as she swims in the flooded river:

In the fast running brimming waters of the Ichhamati in the month of Bhadra, even a straw was torn in two in a few moments; people were afraid of bathing during this time for the fear of sharks and crocodiles. Nistarini never bothered about any of these. Those who have never swum with a water pot, what would she tell them about the pleasure? You are swimming, almost borne along by the ebb tide, surrendering yourself to the current and along with you come clusters of floating vegetation. Toka-pana, the bright ripe fruits peeping from the tele kucho creeper, river mynas chirruping from the mossy floating islands that went by you. Such bliss! The joy of liberation! What if the crocs take you? Let them! That too, would be a kind of liberation, unique and varied. Sheer joy.

The forested banks and ghats of Ichhamati is where women laugh, tease, gossip and bathe. A particular ghat repeats often in the book, with ancient Jiuli (Lannea grandis) and Kadam (Neolamarckia cadamba) trees: “These two trees have stood near each other on the banks of the river, or so it seemed. None of those still living recall a time when they had not seen these two trees”. And when the women of all castes and colour laugh here, “The branches of Kadam trees shone rosy red in the afternoon and the feathery Kash flowers on the other bank rippled with the flowing waves of laughter.”

Kash Phul at Padma River / Wikimedia Commons
Kash Phul at Padma River / Wikimedia Commons

A particularly distant and beautiful ghat on the Ichhamati is the Bonsimtala Ghat where, “you would find at least a couple of fifty year old Chhanra trees with solid trunks, and delightful resting spaces beneath the trees”. Women of all castes and classes came together to bathe and joke. “The cool waters of the river seemed to have freed the women of their daily burdens and there was much laughter and teasing. No one seemed anxious to get out of the water.”

As Nistarini walks to this frolicking group, they fall silent simply because “it wasn’t right for a woman to be so boisterous and free.” But the waters bring them together and Nistarini sings so beautifully that the bride of the village embraces her in the river and says, “Had I been a man didi, I swear to you – I would’ve fallen for you!”

Another unique woman in the book is Gaya Mem, belonging to the “Bagdi” caste and staying with the Burra Saheb in his bungalow. Gaya is steadfast in her devotion to the saheb and when he dies, she is like Eliza in Pygmalion: she cannot belong to her new world and cannot go back to her old world either. And yet, she is a picture of dignity and grace. Finally, with her youth leaving her, she asks Prasanna Amin, a man who desired her once, to come and stay with her so that she can take care of him. Gaya Mem emerges unvanquished. The novel ends with her laying flowers at the grave of Burra Saheb in the darkness of a Bengal night.

Compared to the women, Bhabani is confused and unsure.

Skeptically stumbling through his new domestic life, Bhabani finds refuge in the Ichhamati. “He preferred to sit by the broad river beneath shadow of the Uggidumur fig tree on solitary afternoons. Migratory birds sought resting place here like flocks of shymacoot, ducks and sili, egrets, kites and khoro ducks and a couple of vultures. Smaller birds like Mynah, babbler, magpie robins did not rest or nest here.” Such sentences make us sharply aware that we are not only reading an author who is a master of his craft, but also a sensitive ecologist who observes everything around him with joy and equanimity.

Bhabani is a tender, peaceful soul who has embraced the path of Bhakti (devotion), “Bhakti different than the path of knowledge. Knowledge maybe achieved by teaching oneself, whereas Bhakti should be born from within.”

Many a times he is confused about his role in the world. But two things help him: his bond with his little son Khoka and the serenity of the place he calls home. He has fallen in love with this village and river:

The cool waters of Ichhamati had washed away the grime of his own thoughts. Those who wished to experience the mystery of the world, let them walk with eyes open, observing at all times. It was as though the river gave him the mantra of a vision that would be gained not by renouncing the world, but by becoming a part of life itself. Kalasvana Amritadharavahini Ichamati. Nectar immortal borne in the music of Ichhamati’s flow. What god was it whose music did not bring in its wake any hope and joy?

Bhabani and his young son Khoka’s bond is the well-spring of affection in the book. Bhabani grasps the most profound truths of his journey and his connection with the divine from some of the simplest sources: children, love and wilderness.

The rains have filled the river to the brim. Bhabani took his little boy to the Ichhamati and settled him down in boat. Dense green on both banks, creepers swaying above the water, golden flowers radiant in the overhanging branches of the babool tree. The blue-throated barbet flitting from one green branch to another.

On this melodious afternoon, Sri Bhagwan was present in the tranquil waters of the river, on land, above, in all four directions. His presence was in the child’s laughter, in the golden flashes of the blue-throated barbet, in the bankalami flowers blossoming along the banks. In all such things one might find signs of divinity.

“Water, Water!!” exults Khoka, stretching out his hands.

“Khoka, is the river nice?”

“Nice.” He agrees with a turn of his neck.

~~~

The air behind them was fragrant with akanda flowers, as though the still blue space was immersed in meditation of the eternal. The music of life, that pure unstruck sound he was hearing in so many voices today: five hundred or a thousand years later, where would those voices disappear? In the flow of time new histories would unfold on the river banks by the restless water of the Ichhamati.

Father and his little son sitting here by the river on an afternoon today and the immense love and affection between the two.

No one would know of it.

Bhabani felt that on such beautiful blue evening, just behind the horizon, intimations of an unknown land, a life yet to be experienced were approaching him. What if he could not stay with his guru? Could not become sanyasi? The river, the fields, the cycle of seasons, birds, evenings and moonlit nights that had given him exquisite Ananda, as though a new Upanishad was being composed in his own heart.

~~~

What could he leave behind for his son?

It was a belief in divinity: and an abiding love for the divine.

He knew of a no more invaluable gift.

One did not need great intelligence to arrive at this understanding. It was possible to do so by being simple and natural. This was the truth he had arrived at, sitting and meditating by the banks of Ichhamati day after day.

In the evening, the rosy red of the Saibala bushes ringed by kaash reeds would slowly fade, above him, the first star would show itself, in the distant kaash forest, he would hear the dove calling out as the fragrance of the wild silk cotton flowers came to him in the breeze.

It was in those moments while sitting on the riverbank, that he had travelled along a joyous path of experience, receiving in the depth of his heart: his truth.

An ancient truth, but always to be released anew. Bhagwan was not limited by any one form. In him, the play of Lila and Form entwined. One could not be without the other. The child, the river, the riverbank were part of this cosmic oneness.

The novel ends just as a river meanders. There are no shocks or thrills. The epilogue of Ichhamati is a study in riverine riparian vegetation and the cycle of growth and climax. It draws a fine picture of how erosion and flood cycle will bring new silt and how fallow fields will slowly fill up with crowded amaltaash forests.

After every cycle of growth and destruction, we have seen it happen all over again. “We have seen the flight of geese winging their way in effortless grace over fields of tender green paddy foraging lotus stalks. We have seen the beautiful violet purple of bonsim flowers flood the river bank each year at the end of the rains.” It tells us of pearl divers, brides and old women who will keep coming and going to the banks of Ichhamati even as the river herself restlessly moves towards the big salty river and towards the mighty ocean.

~~~

While I smell and touch and taste the slice of life along the Ichhamati, the river I know today is heavily silted, polluted and encroached. Fish are dead and dying, forests are gone and river banks are mined for as little sand as they have left in them. We divided the river in two nations and the two nations fight over who pollutes and who pays. The only bright spots are when, during Durga Puja immersion, people from both countries float in a river they share and sing for their deity together.

Tilu, Nistarini, Gaya Mem realised their true selves on the banks of Ichhamati. Bhabani saw the secret of stars reflected in the smile of Khoka and the waters of Ichhamati. He came closer to the divine through this river.

And here, I’m left wondering that in the absence of a gentle river, how many epiphanies have I lost? Would I be a different, wiser, happier person if the rivers of my land also flowed like Ichhamati once did?

Like Bibhutibhushan says, “Perhaps the first star of the sky knows something of it all.”

This article first appeared on SANDRP.