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A Deity Needing a Bath: Saving Ganga (Review)

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Victor Mallet. 2018.
River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future
Oxford: Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780198786177

The River as Mirror
Rivers, like ourselves, contain, carry, and embody wide, and often contradictory elements. As the title of journalist Victor Mallet’s account of the Ganges highlights, the same thing (or person or deity) can bring both life and death. Mallet’s overall aim is to paint the Ganges from multiple angles but ultimately raise awareness of the river’s poor and unhealthy condition, and ideally spur a needed, wide-ranging (but very expensive) clean up. The once sullied Thames or flammable Rhône are examples of past-adulterated rivers now on the verge (or in the bloom) of health (here I may also add New York’s Hudson River). What may have once seemed hopeless regarding those rivers has come about through greater environmental awareness, laws, enforcement, and money. Clean up of the Ganges will not be easy, especially in light of the government corruption which Mallet highlights, but as his subtitle hints at, a healthy Ganges is needed for a prosperous and healthy India.

Overall, while individual chapters in the book could have benefitted from subheadings to make reading more enjoyable, and a few facts overlap in chapters (evidently culled from previously published newspaper reports), the book, like the Ganges, is stately, somewhat meandering, but fascinating and nourishing, and well worth a visit. It is at its best when daily life on the Ganges is observed and the voices of the common people (interspersed with the environmentalists, religious gurus, experts, and government ministers) are turned to for opinion, poetry, wisdom, and needed enlightenment.

Between Blasphemy and Blindness
For many devout Hindus, the river Ganges is godlike; she purifies and cleanses. As such, talk about the need to use science, laws, and other human-made devices to restore or cleanse her can seem misplaced. The evidence, however, is overwhelming. Climate change, for example, is causing havoc in the Indian subcontinent, leading to further predictions of ‘intense and more variable monsoon rains and a sharp rise in average temperatures in the north of the Indian subcontinent’ (p. 14). The extremes of both flooding and low water levels (through various dam and irrigation projects) mean opportunities to live safely and healthily near or on the Ganges are unreliable and dangerous. Human pollution remains the nadir of everything, as raw sewage and industrial waste flow into the Ganges, unmolested, but harming those who come in sustained contact with its waters. At Okhla, ‘at the downstream end of Dehli’, pollution from human waste in the water is so severe that it contains ‘half a million times the maximum level of faecal coliform bacteria established as the Indian standard for bathing water’ (pp. xvi and 91). Such a level of waste, exacerbated by the rise of what are called superbugs, not only can harm and kill people, but make individuals less resistant to modern antibiotics (p. 97).

As noted government ineptitude and corruption make matters worse. Often politicians make promises, set-up committees, pledge money, but the will and effort to combat systemic and underlying issues remain weak and sporadic. Likewise, Western nations can claim little moral high ground as the call to clean Ganga will not be heard unless western corporations begin to lose profit and profitability – and so, feel forced to act.

Despite the Doom, Enduring Life
The gloom and doom of statistics presented in the book are overwhelming. Readers of this review with deep familiarity of the Ganges can testify about the health and state of their river. While the most important theme in the book is how to overcome this environmental and health catastrophe, it is the life of and on the river Ganges that continues to inspire, fascinate, and in truth, also repel. Mallet thus gives outsiders glimpses into the history and present state of the river from historical, literary, cinematic, and scientific perspectives. He includes chapters on the wildlife of the river, both in the past and species surviving today, as well as analysing movies where the Ganges is the key backdrop, or even character, to how foreigners in their travels have described and interpreted the Ganges. The effect is encyclopaedic but humanized with Mallet’s interviews with individuals from all walks of life.

As an aside, the book reminded me of an often forgotten episode in my own life; namely when syringes, hospital waste, and blood vials washed ashore a beach – where I had played and swam as a child – along with other beaches in the New York areas in the 1980s. To this day, a stigma remains, even as claims of a clean up have been verified and certified. Such beaches, of course, had no link to any religious foundation, but human belief that actions could not affect such forces of nature were similarly misplaced. What is occurring with the Ganges is happening in similar ways to many of our lakes, rivers, oceans, fields, forests, and mountains. Whether deified or not, they are all in need of saving – even as the requirement to save and heal ourselves remain a crucial part of that process.

Such healing involves a greater awareness of the oneness of our world, regardless of differing ethnicity, nation, creed, caste, class, gender, or faith – and a deeper appreciation of humanity’s interconnectedness to all life. Such basic truths, however, have consequences, especially economic and political ones – and here is where much of the problem lies. Can we overcome an insatiable need for greed, be more content with needs and not wants, funnel money into helping the poor and making sure everyone has basic rights like access to clean water and food? These are the kinds of questions that must be addressed when discussing how and why a magisterial river like the Ganges is so polluted. Until such questions are addressed, namely whether we ourselves are rivers of life or rivers of death, the fate of the Ganges, of India, and of the world, remains in peril.

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