GANGA by Julian Crandall Hollick. Island Press: Washington, D.C. October 2007. Hardcover. 296 pages. $25.95.

Julian Crandall Hollick, a journalist whose radio documentaries on sounds of India have gently woken me up on many days, has written a fabulous, conversational book that comprises a river’s ecology, mythology, and, to a lesser extent, her economy. Ganga is the name of Hollick’s book—simply Ganga and not the less euphonious, anglicized Ganges (note: this review is based on the Indian edition of Ganga; the American Island Press edition carries the subtitle “A Journey Down the Ganges River”). This is the river that invited Hollick to traverse her length, and she is the goddess who informs his story telling. Just as Ganga meanders through North India, Hollick weaves between the physical and the metaphysical to explore the conundrum of duality: Is Ganga a river, a goddess, or both? The answers come from Ganga’s fantastical mythological beginnings and its very real and constrained present.

Rather than simply repeating the origin myth of how Mother Ganga’s torrential heavenly descent to earth was contained by Lord Shiva’s matted hair, Hollick tells the longer, more nuanced “once upon a time” tale about imperial King Sagar. This story bookends the author’s own story which begins in the Himalayas and ends at Sagar Island in Bengal.

It is helpful to explore the Sagar story before proceeding with Hollick’s. In the myth, Sagar performs a horse sacrifice in order to extend his kingdom. The horse wanders into a forest where Kapil rishi is meditating. Sagar’s sixty thousand sons—all from one wife—give chase, but disturbed the rishi in the process; all sixty thousand are reduced to ashes. Months pass and Sagar’s lone son from a second wife enters the same forest, but, unlike his brothers, Anshuman wisely waits for Kapil rishi to complete his meditation. Pointing to the ashes, the rishi tells Anshuman about his brothers’ folly and suggests that only Mother Ganga can wash away their ashes and send their souls to heaven. Three generations of Sagar’s sons and grandsons fail to induce Ganga to come down from heaven. Finally, his great-grandson, Bhagirath is able to please Ganga by standing on one leg for a thousand years, and the goddess consents to come to earth through the Himalayas, but only if Shiva will agree to keep her powerful waters in check by letting them run through his braided hair.

Before reaching the end of his cross-country journey from the Himalayan mouth of Ganga to Sagar Island south of Kolkata, Hollick regales the reader with many more stories based in Hindu mythology and the folk culture of villages. The ride on and along the river recalls Alex Frater’s Chasing the Monsoon. Both books share a palpable, liquid passion for the chase and a storyteller’s love for the elusive, watery object of the chase. But along the way, a second story about ecological degradation emerges: Ganga’s flow is being strangled by India’s insatiable thirst for hydro-electricity and agro-irrigation. Compounding the problem of concrete dams and massive waste are industrial pollution and residential sewage, which poison the Ganga jal water used as purifying nectar. This narrative echoes Rachel Carson’s plea for protecting the earth’s fragile ecosystems; indeed, in one passage Hollick footnotes Carson’s title, Silent Spring, as “shorthand for environmental poisoning no one notices until the damage has been done.”

How to reconcile the incontrovertible fact that Ganga’s water is impure and the enduring belief that the goddess is pure? After a brief moment of darkness where he bemoans Indians’ “private cleanliness [and] public squalor,” the open-minded Hollick lets the reader hear from Indians (both celebrated and ordinary) who have little difficulty with any apparent dichotomy between the pure and impure: “We live as multi-faceted personalities and don’t have a contradiction to resolve”; “As a scientifically-trained mind I want to protect the river. But my heart has an entirely different relationship to Ganga. The physical world and the world beyond the limits of our senses are two entirely different worlds”; “Ganga has a dual identity. If you consider her as river then she can be polluted and die. But if you consider her as goddess then she can never die …. There are no mass epidemics …”

Hollick devotes a delightful chapter titled “The Mysterious Factor X” to get at the bottom of why there have been no pandemic cases of cholera, typhoid, or dysentery at any of the great bathing festivals along Ganga. Except to note that a company called Gangagen, based in Palo Alto and Bangalore, seems to have scientifically validated the counter-intuitive belief in Ganga’s therapeutic value at the seemingly unhygienic Kumbh Melas, this review will leave the mystery of Factor X undisclosed.

The more troubling question that Hollick asks is whether Ganga will survive. With not a little sadness, he powerfully asserts that “the greatest danger to the river comes from the goddess herself … The faith in the ability of goddess Ganga to cure herself leads to avoiding the life and death issues the river faces.” Because there is a tragedy of the commons at work in and around Ganga, Hollick concludes his myth-infused book with realistic caution: “Destroy Ganga and you will therefore destroy the essence of India.”


RCO thanks The Energy and Resource Institute’s Rajiv Chibber for his gracious introduction to
Ganga.

After a long run in the corporate world, Rajesh C. Oza now balances his life between family and friends, organizational alignment and consulting, reading and writing, India and America. He has published fiction and nonfiction and is presently writing a memoir about his childhood in India, Canada, and the United States. Raj can be reached at raj_oza@hotmail.com

 

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