“Oh! Ganga ji? She’s about 200 metres to the South from here.”
This conversation was repeated regularly as I walked along the Ganga for six months – often asking locals to direct me to the river. While navigating the heavily populated floodplains – at times wandering off on a tangent – the river acted as my anchor; my GPS, if you would like to call it that. I was moving upstream, switching constantly between hard tarmac, gravel roads and soft mud paths – a journey from noise to silence, from electricity to open skies, from the hard red and orange of trucks to the tranquil earth tones of a riverbank.
Very slowly, walking through the constant drone of daily life, people showed me the relationship they share with the Ganga that to them is not just a river, but life itself. Some days were stamped with festivities, some special occasions to remember this life-giver – but all other days were a simple mix of everyday activities.
And while we look at activities, it is also important to observe the pauses. There isn’t a constant buzz, at the riverbanks, of folks in colourful clothes praying to the river. The fishing boats aren’t out on the water all day. The popular depiction of the river, the ghats at Varanasi, hardly qualifies as a complete representation of the life of the riparian community or the river itself.
These pauses, a quintessential feature of daily life, are slow in nature. This often includes sitting by the river bank, or on a boat, gaze fixed on the river as its muddy currents melt into the opposite bank or merge with the purple horizon at dusk – reflected in the river. Time becomes fluid like the river, measured by the lighting of the chillum – a traditional clay pipe used for smoking tobacco – or by the gathering of cattle who have run away or when it is time to draw in the fishing net.
Everyday life, repeats itself, much like the journey of a river. Yet, it is ever new.
Siddharth Agarwal has been walking across India, along rivers, trying to document and bring stories of marginalised people and the environment into the mainstream.