Magazine article Geographical

RIVER OF LIFE, RIVER OF DEATH: The Ganges and India's Future

Magazine article Geographical

RIVER OF LIFE, RIVER OF DEATH: The Ganges and India's Future

Article excerpt

RIVER OF LIFE, RIVER OF DEATH: The Ganges and India's Future by Victor Mallet

Oxford University Press * [pounds sterling]20 (hardback/eBook)

* 'Where is this going?' That is the question at the heart of River of Life, River of Death, as author Victor Mallet travels the length of the Ganges. Beginning at its ice cave source in the Himalayan foothills, he follows the water through the holy confluence at Allahabad, the spindly banks of Veranasi city and onwards to the delta in Bangladesh, where 'in its parting gift to the land, the river spews millions of tonnes of fertile silt on to the rice fields of Bengal and the mangroves of the Sundarbans.'

It is the same question he asks about the treatment of the Ganges, both good and bad. The river leads a double life, being the most worshipped waterway in the world and also one of the most polluted. The Ganges and its tributaries are now subject to sewage pollution that is 'half a million times over the Indian recommended limit for bathing' in places, not to mention the unchecked runoff from heavy metals, fertilisers, carcinogens and the occasional corpse.

As Mallet observes, the danger of contamination does not put off the millions of revellers at Kumbh Mela, where under 'orange sodium floodlights' and the din of loudspeakers, they crowd on its banks to bathe in the water. It is a Hindu pilgrimage 'thought to be the largest gathering of people anywhere', described to him as 'a spiritual expo... where you will be talking one moment to a visiting Mumbai businessman and the next to a marijuana-stoned yogi'. He suggests the pollution might never deter them. He is told by one bather: 'we do believe that anyone who takes in this water, he becomes pure also, because it is always pure.' There is a collective sense that the spirit of the Ganges is so sacred that she can never be spoiled.

It is with a contagious fervour that Mallet joins in and describes such scenes. However, having been a Financial Times correspondent based in Delhi for four years, he makes the most of his skills with his matter-of-fact interviewing and quoting from Indian environmentalists, engineers and religious leaders. …

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