Western UP’s dry brown countryside had turned a vivid green with the rains. The lonely road, a long leafy boulevard, was a car killer. Broken and jagged, it rattled bones and churned the marrow. But the sight of sugar cane fields beside an open road; women in ghungats suppressing a shy giggle as I ask for directions; the dappled light of a mango orchard and the whiff of dung cakes baking in the sun… aah.. my city sore senses couldn’t care less.
And then, as the poets might’ve, or at the very least, should’ve said, ‘the lover can walk over broken glass as if he was walking over petals when he knows his beloved awaits him at his journey’s end’. The beloved I sought was a dolphin. Now, don’t raise that eyebrow and wonder what might a dolphin be doing so far from the sea, for I speak of the other dolphin – the river dolphin. Once found through the length and breadth of most of India’s and China’s rivers, pollution, hunting and fishing nets had greatly reduced their numbers. A few can still be seen along stretches of the Ganges. News recently came in from China though that they had lost the Yangtze river dolphin-the baiji- to its polluted waterways, though some reports speak of a lone dolphin having been spotted. Never having seen one, and having heard of the near extinction of its Chinese cousin, I couldn’t resist the thought of paying them a visit when I heard from friends at WWF that one could see them, if lucky, a mere 200 kms from Delhi, at the Ganga Barrage in Narora.
Enroute, I passed a bunch of schoolboys piled atop a mule cart returning from school. “Susu (go ahead! Open any book or website worth opening and you’ll find that that is what the dolphins are called in hindi) kahan milega?” I asked them. They looked at me as one might at a circus elephant- a mixture of awe and mirth, and then started repeating my question, individually, then in chorus, and broke up into peals of laughter. The wagon rolled off, the driver shaking his head, his passengers rolling, laughing, pointing fingers at me as the sky filled up with the cry of ‘susu kahan milega?’. As I drove off, I saw a group of elderly ladies sitting on a string cot next to their buffaloes. They’ll know for sure, I thought. But even as I got down from the car, I realised that while the school kids had spared me the misunderstanding, these grand dames, with dung cakes within easy reach, were less likely to. I stopped myself and drove on, in search of susu, wondering all the while why it couldn’t have had a more innocuous name. Next, I saw a policeman. Couldn’t risk the law misunderstanding yours truly, so I threw in the towel and tried the tamer ‘dolphin kahan..?’ ‘Oh sus!’ he exclaimed, and pointed me straight toward the barrage. Damn the extra ‘u’, I thought.
At the Barrage, the river stretched out into a narrow channel. I scanned the waters for a while and then drifted toward some villagers who had gathered by the banks. I meant to ask them about the sus and where and when they might surface. What surfaced instead was years of collective anger and frustration. The village, Jairampur, is a fishing village, and like every civilisation in history, their lives and fortunes are inextricably intertwined with that of the river that runs through their lands and lives. That river was dying. Totaram, a village elder, railed against the sugar mills of Simbhaoli, which, come winter, released untreated effluents, ‘kala paani’ in the river every year. It killed everything in the river - the fish they caught, the sus they revered, the lives they lived. Faces, voices - Charan Singh the Panch, Puran, the drunkard, Manzoor, the fish contractor, they all begged me to try and do all I could, otherwise the ‘kala paani’ they said, would kill off not just the sus, but all of Jairampur.
Jairampur isn’t alone. The once holy Ganges is a toxic river today. It poisons those who live off it and those who live in it. I didn’t see the dolphins – indicators of the river’s health – this time, but I did see a whole lot more. The waters of life now stink of the dead, and unless we act soon, the stink will spread. So lets fight and write and lobby and labour, to save the river, because the destiny of Jairampur is as indicative of our own destiny, as the dolphin’s destiny is indicative of Jairampur’s.