The River

Hindu pilgrims bathing in the Ganges, Prayagraj, India, 2013
Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos
Hindu pilgrims bathing in the Ganges, Prayagraj, India, 2013

In 1981, Sunil Amrith tells us in Unruly Waters, the historian Bernard Bailyn drew a distinction between what he called “manifest” processes in history, by which he meant those that were apparent to people at the time they happened, and “latent” processes, whose occurrence—and hence significance—were only discerned later. In an example of the latter, Bailyn wrote that “no one in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake colonies knew that population growth was slowing in Britain…in ways that contracted the flow of white indentured servants to the colonies; the planters only knew that they found themselves relying…on the labor of black slaves.”

Linking English fertility to slavery in Virginia became straightforward with the rise of population studies in the twentieth century, but latent history is more complicated when it involves the interaction of humanity with elements of the natural world. Unruly Waters is about India’s water, the men (almost exclusively) who entered the historical record by trying to control it, and the many millions of largely unnamed people whose destinies have been determined by it. The period Amrith concentrates on runs from the British Raj to the present day, during which climate went from being a mysterious force whose unreliable character might be summarized with a laconic phrase like “the monsoon rains failed” to atmospheric processes whose effects could be mitigated or exacerbated by political decisions.

All the while, as the laissez-faire policies of British rule gave way to the economic planning of independent India, as factories and power stations were built, forests leveled, and tube wells sunk, nature—vengeful, unforgiving; the human epithets return with irresistible force—was generating a response of its own. As early as 1958, scientists were warning of the consequences of turning the Indian Ocean into a “dump for the waste products of industrial civilization,” and in particular wondering about its influence on “climatic change, especially in absorbing the carbon dioxide spewed into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned.”

We often reach for martial vocabulary when trying to describe nature, calling droughts and cyclones our enemy, and yet this isn’t a struggle that nature knows it’s waging. It’s about us, our hunger, our fertility, our longevity, our greed. To anyone who surveys the Ganges from one of the industrial towns along its course—Moradabad, for example, or Kanpur—humankind can seem peculiarly negligent of its own long-term interests. The exposed banks run with factory effluents while pigs snuffle untreated sewage and India’s poorest people pan for metal in the toxic shallows. Partially cremated corpses and devotional sculptures that have been committed to the waters drift downstream alongside vast quantities of plastic and the odd dead dog. In the plangent words of Sudipta Sen, a history professor at the University of California at Davis and the author of Ganges,…

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