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The River

“The story of the Ganges, from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of India's civilization and culture, of the rise and fall of empires, of great and proud cities, of adventures of man…”

Jawaharlal Nehru

Few rivers evoke the robust humidity of humanity as does the Ganges. How many billions of human beings, past, present and future, owe their livelihood to its waters? And if the above passage is to be believed, how much of the story of Earth, and its human inhabitants, is the story of one-billion strong India, and its mother river, the Ganges?

The first act of the story of the Ganges begins, naturally, at its source high in the Himalayas. The action slopes eastward through the plains of its middle acts, passing through the holy cities of Hinduism and the mangrove forests of the
Sundarbans until it reaches its denouement in the Bay of Bengal.

No small wonder then Rumer Godden chose the Ganges as the setting of The River, the writer’s tribute to childhood and India. The spiritual and cultural importance of the Ganges cannot be underestimated. Hindus worship it as a god. They drink it with their last breath, and immerse the ashes of cremated kin in it, both to ensure passage into heaven. It is not uncommon for Hindu families to contain a vile of its water in their homes, and some also believe that life is incomplete without at least one bath in its sacred waters. The world’s largest human gatherings takes place along its banks; 70 million Hindus congregated along its banks in January 2007 in observance of Kumbh Mela in Prayag.

Beyond the spiritual nourishment that the Ganges offers, wherever it flows millions South Asians depend on it for their livelihood. The river and its numerous tributaries irrigate countless fields of crops, including chilies, mustards, sesame and rice. And despite its rampant pollution, it is also heavily fished. Tourism and pilgrimages to its holy sites is also a substantial industry.

The River concentrates on the West Bengal section of the Ganges. Bengal had served as a British colonial satellite for centuries. Kolkata served as its capital, a political, cultural and scientific center until Indian independence in 1947. Not surprisingly, the city played a key role in the Indian independence movement, and the city is still considered to be a major cultural capital of modern India.

The story takes place around World War II, and focuses on an English family whose father operates a jute factory. An extremely strong and versatile natural fiber, jute is considered second only to cotton in terms of its global importance. While far less in demand today, jute has a played an important role in the economic development of the region of West Bengal and Bangladesh, where it once served as the backbone of the national economy.

The River was the first color film to be shot in India, allowing the viewer the full spectrum of color that India is famous for. The movie captures some of the fluvial elements of life along the Ganges. The steady parade of boats, children splashing along its shores, the temples built steps from water’s edge.

In an area steeped in religious tradition, The River also offers its audience a glimpse at West Bengal’s religious side. Spectacular Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is shown. And considerable attention is given to Rangoli, the Hindu tradition of floor painting. In addition, the area’s multiculturalism can be seen through the presence of a Sikh, a fringe character who acts as a kind of butler for the English family.

In a cruel twist of fate for a river system that has given humanity so much, perhaps it has given, and humans have taken, too much. The Ganges’ pollution has long been well-known, contaminated by industry and human waste. Now
environmentalists warn that the Ganges is under serious threat from global warming.

The Ganges’ source, Gangotri Glacier, is disappearing at an accelerated rate. Some specialists predict that the Ganges will eventually become a seasonal river, largely dependent on monsoon rains. The social and cultural effects of this possibility are potentially devastating. The spiritual ramifications for Hinduism reach deep into its core beliefs, and the loss of this crucial water supply threatens the livelihood of millions of South Asians.


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