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Bidisha Banerjee on "Superhuman River: Stories of the Ganga": ‘I wanted to shift the narrative on Climate Change and its impacts by writing about a river that has fascinated both Indians and foreigners for millennia’

Bidisha Banerjee (Photo Credit: Yi Zhang)

Bidisha Banerjee is an ethical leadership coach and a former programme director for the Dalai Lama Fellows. She lives with her family in Oakland, California, the midpoint between her two homes—Kolkata and Kansas. Trained in environmental science and climate change policy, she has written on these and other topics for Slate, The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media, Triple Canopy, and the Stanford Journal of Law, Science, and Policy. She has been fascinated with the Ganga ever since she pretended, as a child, that the Kolkata municipal bathwater was Gangajal. For ten years, she explored the Ganga from its source to the sea, and has recently come out with the book “Superhuman River: Stories of the Ganga”, which is a compelling and fresh perspective on every aspect of this extraordinary river.
Chirdeep Malhotra connected with her for an exclusive interview, in which she talks about her debut book, why Ganga is a “Superhuman River”, and what needs to be done for Ganga’s environmental conservation.
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Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I have been fascinated by the Ganga ever since I pretended, as a child, that the Kolkata municipal bathwater was Gangajal. (My mom taught me to say “Ganga, Ganga” while she splashed water over my head at the end of my bucket bath.) I grew up between Kolkata and Kansas. I studied English and Ethnicity, Race, and Migration at Yale. After graduation, I worked at Ashoka, and as a journalist for Washington City Paper and Slate Magazine.
A turning point in my life came while I was working for a marine biologist in Hawai’i in 2006. I became aware of how massively climate change would impact the earth. Snorkelling in the coral reefs there inspired me to serve as a bridge between the developed, colonial economy of the U.S. and the developing economy of India. I didn’t want to see India repeat the mistakes made in the U.S. with regard to fossil fuels.
So, I worked with eco-clubs in rural India as an Indicorps Fellow, and then received my Masters from the Yale School of the Environment, where I connected with the founders of the Indian Youth Climate Network and joined them for the India Climate Solutions Road Tour. We drove solar-electric Reva cars, and other sustainably-fueled vehicles, from Chennai to Delhi, to highlight India’s many solutions to climate change. Subsequently, I co-founded a company called Encendia Biochar, and worked as a program director for the Dalai Lama Fellows, a group of young changemakers from around the world who are committed to ethical leadership. Today, I live in Oakland with my family and work as a writer, consultant, and embodied leadership coach.

You have written in the book about the incident that compelled you to return to India and travel along the majestic river Ganga. But what pushed you to write this book?
As a student at the Yale School of the Environment, I received the Middlebury Environmental Journalism Fellowship and funding from Yale’s Tropical Resources Institute to travel to Gaumukh to better understand how climate change is impacting the Gangotri glacier. That same year, in 2009, I also travelled to Varanasi to witness a total solar eclipse from the Ganga. That eclipse won’t be repeated until 2132. My host in Varanasi was the legendary priest-hydrologist Veer Bhadra Mishra. He was hailed as a Hero of the Environment by Time Magazine for his life-long commitment to cleaning the river. However, many of his best ideas were not implemented. I was moved by his commitment, and it made me wonder what the Ganga will look like in 2132. How might we use our energies wisely as a civilization? My editor at Aleph Books, Simar Puneet, read an essay I had published about witnessing the total solar eclipse. She commissioned me to do this book. And she’s one of the people the book is dedicated to.
Before I began the book, I participated in the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change conference. I was struck by the level of blame and abstraction in the conversation, and how clear it was that governments and institutions were not able to make changes at anywhere near the scale needed to avert upcoming catastrophes. So, I wanted to shift the narrative by writing about a river that has fascinated both Indians and foreigners for millennia. I wanted to understand the lessons the river has for us about maintaining resilience in a time of great change. And I wanted to tell stories about the people who live along the river as well as the stories they themselves tell about it. Because those people know and love the river in unique ways and have a lot of wisdom to share.

Why do you call the Ganga “Superhuman River”?
Directly, it means extraordinary or exceptional, which the river clearly is. More deeply, it means having power beyond that of humans, which the river clearly does. Most deeply, however, it means having a nature superior to that of ordinary humans. This last one is hardest to grasp and it’s the one I give most attention to.
In the book I write, “It certainly shows capacities and powers unimaginable in a single person, but I believe that the Ganga can help us better understand our own superhuman status.” What could I mean by that? I mean that, “now, in an age of climate change, we have the power to impact the earth and its future in ways unimaginable before.” So we are called on, by the Ganga, to get good at being superhuman. The book is about the Ganga calling us to that new task.
I pose the question in my book of what can happen if “we venture beyond blame-games,” and try to find what of the sacred is left to reclaim in and around the Ganga and the ideas of the Ganga.
In 2017, an Uttarakhand court conferred upon the Ganga the status of a “living human entity . . . with all corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities.” By 2018 however, this status had been suspended. Here the change in vocabulary, before it was reversed again, raised a massively important question about the aggregate, systemic benefits of “a strict-liability language,” as Quinn put it in his recent article about the redefinition of racism in the U.S. In future, I would like to see the courts revisit the Ganga’s “living human entity” status. This status should be granted so that we humans, who have become superhuman compared to the river, can be held liable for damaging the river’s integrity. I would also like to see the courts address a specific question: How does legal recognition of the river as another human being redefine our rights, duties, and liabilities toward this person?

You travelled the length of the river Ganga, from its source to the sea, to write this book. How was the experience of travelling along the river like? Can you share some interesting anecdotes from your travels?
The experience was life-changing and heart-opening. It taught me to slow down and become fully present. When I first had the idea of travelling from source to sea, it seemed impossible if I didn’t do it quickly. And then it turned out to be impossible to do it quickly. Even though I had had this river in my mind from the time I was a child, I did not know how captivating and demanding the physical presence of the river would be as I travelled down its reaches. Over many years, I spent one summer, one autumn, and two winters travelling. Countless people hosted me and guided my way.
It’s hard to choose a few anecdotes because there are so many. Early on, I learned about the importance of breathwork from a fellow traveller who taught me how to stay calm when I was trapped on a narrow, crowded bridge above Rishikesh for several hours. Later, I followed my friend Annu Jalais, an anthropologist, to Satjelia Island in the Sundarbans. There, I met Sukumarda, a tiger charmer, who had communicated via dreams with Bon Bibi, the goddess of the forest who is sacred to both Hindus and Muslims. His stories about outwitting tigers thanks to Bon Bibi’s grace were unforgettable. So was sighting the Firoz Minar, a monument built by a forgotten Ethiopian king of Bengal, in Gaur, a glorious city on the river’s former banks destroyed by plague.
Glimpsing endangered river dolphins in Bhagalpur, Bihar and meeting the scientists and fisher-people who know its habitat well was also a highlight. So was hearing the songs of the fisherwomen of Bhagalpur. They sing about the Ganga directly to the Ganga. Dancing with the Bauls in Kushtia at the India-Bangladesh border at a festival in honour of Lalon Fakir, an 19th century mystic who envisioned a world of religious harmony, brought the importance of embodied practices home.

‘Superhuman River: Stories of the Ganga’, Aleph Book Company.

Did you notice any change in the Ganga in the ten years of travelling along the river, and exploring it?
During those ten years, I mainly noticed the unfortunate results of changes that had been made in the past, which still press on anyone who walks along the river with some idea of its history. And those changes have been largely what we have inherited as our problem. For example, plenty of people attest that the Farakka Barrage, which was initially proposed by Sir Arthur Cotton, a colonial engineer, and then built in post-independence India, has been disastrous for both Bihar and Bangladesh without having any positive impact on Kolkata’s port or West Bengal. It caused a 92 percent decline in the amount of hilsa and other economically important fish caught upstream.
If the 2016 National Waterways Act is implemented as proposed, the subsequent dredging and shipping could drown the river in new hazards and also consign the shushuk, the Ganga River dolphin, to extinction, like the Gangetic turtle, which is currently extinct in the wild. I was lucky enough to touch a mellow soft-shelled Gangetic turtle at the shrine of Bayyazid Bostami in Chittagong. It was squelchy.
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi—who speaks of himself as a son of the Ganga—came to power in 2014, the Ganga’s public image changed into a river on the mend: the Modi government has promised an ‘aviral Ganga, nirmal Ganga’—a clean and free-flowing waterway. But new leaders, ministries, funding mechanisms, policies, and personnel have overpromised, under-delivered, and failed to live up to our shared environmental values. There are officials who would disagree and insist that, as of the book’s publication, 3,234 villages have been declared free of open defecation. Over 700 industries suspected of dumping waste into the river have been inspected, and 48 were asked to shut down, while 123 new ghats and 65 crematoria have been built. The river flow through Varanasi, Allahabad, Kanpur, and Patna has been cleaned, at least on the surface. But our faeces, even in open-defecation-free zones, is far from turning into fertilizer. In many places, sewage and large-scale industrial pollutants still flow freely into the river. Different stakeholder groups blame each other. The task of cleaning the river is more often seen as a technical challenge (one with a clearly defined problem and solution), rather than as an adaptive challenge (one that will require new ways of being and new practices on the civilizational level).
Since the lockdowns due to Covid-19 started, the river is reported to be much cleaner and dolphins and gharials have been sighted more frequently. I have not witnessed this, but am encouraged by the news reports because it’s important for us to remember how quickly Ganga rejuvenates herself if we change our practices. My hope is that the pandemic will serve as an opportunity to reset our habits and mindsets.

In the book you write, “Following the Ganga led me to understand my own personality and motivations, and to discover archetypes that helped impel my growth”. Can you tell us more about this?
In the book, just after the words you quoted, I decided not to tell of my own quest for meaning and purpose in hope of eliciting that of my readers’. So, rather than answer that question in full, I would like to invoke the Kannada poet Chandrasekhar Kambar, who writes about any village pond being the equivalent of Mother Ganga. In brief, as I followed the river, I came to evoke the Goddess Ganga when I felt I needed her blessing and I created rituals to honour the water I use every day. I recognized that I thrive when I’m serving as a champion—fighting for a right relationship with the river, defending and protecting it—and trying to inspire others to use their energies wisely. And I felt motivated to heal my own trauma and confront my unconscious, so that I could be more present with the anger, fear, shame, and numbness that previously distracted me from giving the river, and through the river giving my higher self, my full attention.

What was your writing and research process like?
Often quite difficult. Essentially it went this way. I wrote the first few chapters and in a sense that made me write the subsequent ones, to explore and clarify what those opening chapters not only said but also implied, left open. On the other side, it’s often said that when you sit down at a desk to write, anything can happen, and I looked forward to that excitement. I also tried to follow a rule that my mentor Amitava Kumar reminded me of: I made sure I wrote 100 words in my notebook daily in case something happened. My goal was to synthesize many different disciplines (science, history, politics, mythology), to reclaim forgotten stories that can help us during a time of great cultural evolution, and to summarize academic books and debates for a popular audience so that new possibilities for action are available.
The book would have been impossible without the support I received from my editors, mentors, and from my family members and friends who patiently read many drafts and helped me with fact-checking and accessing academic books and articles. I took a lot of photos during my travels and recorded audio as well. These helped me with writing, as did walking beside the lake near my house, which connects to the bay and then to the ocean. Sometimes upon returning, I was surprised to find that something had simmered while I was gone.

Did you face any challenges while writing this book? If so, how did you overcome them?
The book was originally titled Superhuman River: A Biography of the Ganga. During the course of writing it, I realized this subtitle promised too monolithic a task. So, on my publishers’ suggestion, we changed it to Stories of the Ganga. I struggled with organizing and processing the volume of information needed for a multi-strand narrative. It was also hard to move between translating a lot of academic writing and including personal writing. Deciding what to leave in was challenging. I also navigated a high-risk pregnancy, the pre-term birth of my daughter, and a diagnosis of celiac disease and chronic pain. A number of gifted childcare and domestic workers, my martial arts practice (aikido and battodo), physical therapy, bodywork, and unstinting support from my spiritual mentor, my friends, and my family helped keep me in good spirits.

How has pollution and global warming impacted the Ganga?
Exactly as they have impacted the world’s other bodies of water—only more so. I collaborated with a French cartographer to contribute a map of industrial pollution in the Ganga to Guerilla Cartography’s Water: An Atlas. You can download it to see the industrial pollution hotspots and where they originate. The government has a list of industrial polluters; what’s needed is to hold them accountable. Of course, individuals play a significant role in polluting the river too.
As for global warming, its impacts are being felt from source to sea. As the Himalayan ice caps melt, the Ganga’s Tibetan origins are impacted, as are the livelihoods of the people dependent on the river system. Downstream, in Bangladesh and the Sundarbans, sea level rise is displacing people. Long term, if the Gangotri Glacier continues to recede, that of course may slowly decrease the Ganga’s water volume and may eventually make the river’s very flow depend upon rainfall. And monsoon rains are expected to become more concentrated, increasing the risk of flood. Worldwide, climate change now displaces more people than war. Given the high population density of the Ganga River System, many more climate refugees displaced by changes to the river can be expected in the coming years.

You have trained in environmental science and climate change policy. What more do you think can be done for Ganga’s environmental conservation?
Earlier I mentioned the tiger charmer I met in the Sundarbans. Witnessing the delicate balance between humans and tigers on the island made me appreciate the solar-powered huts that I saw elsewhere in the Sundarbans even more. A coal-fired power plant is proposed to be built on the Bangladeshi side of the Sundarbans. It’s expected to harm the tigers and the local biodiversity. Protesting such proposals and insisting that our government and institutions divest away from coal is critical. I also think it’s important to recognize that the Yangtze river dolphin, cousin to the Ganga river dolphin, went extinct after 30 years of bureaucrats and experts discussing what to do. Let’s rethink the National Waterways Act, a proposal to turn the Ganga into a canal so that barges bearing coal move down it more easily. That’s probably not a particularly cost-effective idea anyway, and it’s important for people to discuss and debate the proposal vociferously so that it doesn’t come to pass. In the Himalayas many more large dams are proposed. To paraphrase what I wrote in the book, India’s challenge is to stop replicating the monstrous public works of the past, beneath which the Ganga is entombed, but, superhuman river as she is, still alive; instead we must build roads, sewers, buildings, cities, and power sources that prioritize humans working with the intermittency and changeability of natural systems, rather than fighting—and killing—them with, for example, large dams.
Valli Bindana, director of the film Surya Ganga, told me, “One look at the impacts of hydro-power on the rivers and mountains disqualifies it as clean and renewable energy. Solar on the other hand, is the alternative as it does not inundate rich ecosystems, farm and forest land. It does not impact water systems or wildlife. What’s more, once installed, solar gives fixed priced energy for twenty-five plus years without any additional intervention in natural systems.”
If China intensifies diversion of the Yarlung Tsangpo, which runs through the Tibetan plateau and forms the Brahmaputra’s upper reaches, then India and Bangladesh may have stronger reason to increase their allyship. My visit to the Farakka Barrage, and to Bangladesh, convinced me that greater regional cooperation, and recognition that the river basin system is a regional treasure, will be even more important in the future. Finally, some researchers have highlighted the need for the equivalent of a Clean Water Act for the Ganga—massive amounts of money pumped into building effective sewage-treatment. I agree that this is important, and I believe that eco-friendly solutions like the Eco-San toilet already exist in India and need more public awareness and support.

What message do you want readers to take away from the book?
The first step is to pay attention to how we pay attention to the Ganga. Understanding this complex river system means understanding the limitations of the human bodies, of our human lives. We hold a lot of armouring in our bodies that is related to past emotional pain we’ve experienced. It blocks us from being able to feel our own difficult emotions, and to remain engaged with the Ganga in face of the anger, shame, sadness, and numbness we might experience when we confront environmental injustices, pollution, glacier melt, and lack of action on the political front. In many ways, the contemplative traditions that arose along the Ganga focused on de-armouring us from our conditioning so that we could see the river, and ourselves, afresh, remember that every moment is a new moment, and countless new possibilities can arise if we take the long view. The task for our generation is to reclaim what’s sacred about the river and decouple it from unjust practices and narratives.
The river is like a living poem, an epic in fact, and like poetry, it has a language of its own to which we need to listen with mind, body, and spirit, so that we can give the river our permanent attention.

Which books have you recently loved reading? Any bookish recommendations for our readers?
I recommend Monica Mody’s poetry. For those who like novels, I recommend Fresh Water by Akwaeke Emezi, a Tamil-Nigerian author.
In Non-fiction: Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying by Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush; The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang; and The Power of Ritual by Casper Ter Kuile.
For those who want to learn more about the subcontinent’s rivers, I strongly recommend Cheryl Colopy’s Dirty, Sacred Rivers: Confronting South Asia’s Water Crisis. And Georgina Drew’s River Dialogues. And Annu Jalais’ Forest of Tigers: People, Politics and Environment in the Sundarbans. And Ananya Jahanara Kabir’s Partition’s Post-Amnesias: 1947, 1971 and Modern South Asia.

Lastly, what are you working on next?
The next step for this book is adapting it to the international market and possibly adding a chapter or two. And I’m revising a comic screenplay about a P.I.O. in Kansas inspired in part by my experience of moving from Kolkata to Lawrence when I was 11.

‘Superhuman River: Stories of the Ganga’ by Bidisha Banerjee has been published by Aleph Book Company. Read more about the book here and buy it here.
Also Read: An excerpt from the book “Superhuman River”.

 

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