04 July, 2010

Killing our Nagas

Kathmandu Post, Sunday, 2010/07/04

Every morning, on my way to work, I pass the Bishnumati river. From the turnoff from Kalimati, I can already smell the powerful stench of rotting offals from the wounded body of the water body. Like a dying snake it lies, surrounded by the filth of a city intent on smothering it with sewage. The water is dark black, like ink. Every day, I walk past that fetid stink. I can sense the entrails of buffaloes, the timbre of industrial chemicals, the fluffiness of dumped ice cream cones. Each time I decide to walk back from work, I curse myself for having forgotten, once again, what lies in wait for me. I hurry past, trying to hold my breath, but there is no escaping the causality of what my human actions have already done to this river. We have disrespected this life-giving force by covering it up with our shit. Astounding ignorance makes us use the artery of the city as a dumping site. This disrespect for nature, surely, will one day rear its head to strike this proud city.

Kathmandu is already paying a price for killing its rivers. One by one, we hunt them down—Bishnumati, Bagmati, Tukucha, Dhobikhola, all of them plundered and murdered through indifferent government action, non-existent municipal institutions, and the good urban life.

Illegal construction is a killer-the boundaries of rivers are slowly choked by concrete buildings. The detritus of civilisation do the rest. Near the Om Hospital, government bodies have decided to build a canal and let some water past the landfill, but the mud itself has become an archaeological dig of twentieth century artifacts—plastic bags stuffed with unidentified remains (my friend whispers about illegally aborted foetuses dragged out by dogs), tires, ripped and torn cement bags. Hundreds of feet of plastic mixes with what was once earth. Will water flow through this canal ever again? Do we care?

The Rig Veda is replete with hymns in praise of rivers. The Godavari, the Kaveri, the Narmada, the Ganga, the Yamuna, the Saraswoti. The names sound like goddesses. They are goddesses. They gushed down from the forehead of the Himalayas, ice-cold, washing away the heat and sweat of the sweltering plains. The Goddess of Wisdom, Saraswoti, had a river named after her. Now people don’t know where that river vanished to. Satellite imagery says the mighty river sunk into the ground and now traces of only its ghost remains. Other people say the Aryan migrants who brought the memory of that river left the material one behind where it originated, in Afghanistan. Whatever the story, the river no longer exists. And along with it, it took civilisations, communities, and maybe more wisdom than we will realise. There is confusion about the Rig Veda—was it, say some, the place where the idea of caste originated, leading to the horrific oppression of millions of people over thousands of years? But if you go back, say others, the first book makes no mention of caste. And then there are others who say the Purusa Stuti, inside the Rig Veda, is the first to use the metaphor of purusa, the man, with brahmans as its head, and shudras as its feet. But as one commentator

says so aptly: there was never any injunction in the book to treat feet with any less respect than the head. (Let

me say I don’t personally subscribe to either the head or the feet theory. You may say I can’t make head or tail out of this particular story.)

Our disembodied society also views the rivers as separate, rather than as part, of the social fabric. The rivers, instead of being an integral artery, are merely some polluted part to be cast to the margins. Unlike Jared Diamond, a public intellectual who’s gone back to find out why societies died out, and seen environmental collapse as the main reason for the extinction of established civilisations, we Nepalis believe that the dying rivers can merely be caste aside, like a snake’s sloughed off skin, and we can go on living our lives in the concrete jungle, fearing nothing. One after the other, we shall kill our rivers, watch them choke and die with the same indifference with which we watch our people die, whether of diarrhoea, or hunger, or suicide. A country which cannot feed its people, we justify, cannot really take care of its rivers. Can it?

On my way to work, a colleague reads out a story from the newspaper. He says that the people of his village can no longer get brides—because there is no water, parents won’t send their daughters there to be married. People drink milk instead of water. They go to Dhulikhel to take a bath. But surely people had no problems with water before? I ask. Yes, he said. They’d always lived there, they’d always had water. But now the sources are all drying out.

When we kill parts of our rivers, we forget how they are inextricably linked with each other—how a tiny vein of the Bagmati might feed a thirsting village somewhere downriver, how cutting off a watery vein here and a watery vein there, as we do with such indifference, may soon cause our green country to turn into a desert.

Scientists predict water shortages all over the subcontinent in the coming decades. Predictions are dire—millions may be without drinking water. We may have to use the same water management techniques as desert societies. Thirsty times have begun. In Dhankuta, an old man in a teashop told me six water-sources dried out in the last few years. How many of muhans across the country are now dry, a whisper of a bygone memory? Do we see how a river is connected, like artery to the heart, from gushing glacial river to the small tributaries to the water-muhans of small communities?

Killing snakes was forbidden in Vedic times. Snakes, myths said, were the embodiment of Nagas, serpent guardians of rivers and rains. They carried the elixir of immortality. When Nagas were protected, the monsoons arrived in time. In a book titled Delog, which I found in a Boudha bookstore, I read about a woman who travels to the realms beyond death, and returns to talk about it. Of the many stories she brings back is the story of a young girl wrapped in the agonising clutch of a giant black snake—this girl has killed a snake in a previous life, and now she is paying for her karmic sins.

Buddhist literature is so inventive and charming, I think condescendingly.

Only in the orange glow of evening, stumbling past the Bishnumati, I see with the clarity of imagination how that story is not so far off from our own reality—how the dying serpent of the Bishnumati rive, poisoned with our pitless ignorance, wraps around the

young, beautiful city, choking her in its agonised clutches. The city, proud and beautiful, is already wrapped in its sins, and paying the wages in its earthly hell. And we, in our blissful ignorance, don’t quite know it.


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