From the Ganga to the Tay reviewed by Beth Junor

The myriad connections between India and Scotland, which for many years had been presenting themselves to the poet, finally succeeded in coercing her into this daunting creative project of travel, research, walking, sailing and photography to craft out her epic poem in which the rivers Ganga, mother goddess, and the Tay, masculine symbol of Celtic heritage, converse, question, exchange favourite words, and share history, mythology, fears and hopes. Anthropomorphism is the perfect device for fulfilling Fraser’s intentions, as Paul Robeson knew when he sang, Old man river, he must know somethin’. We attribute to rivers an omniscience, and beyond knowledge, wisdom. The Ganges and the Tay are timeless witnesses as well as key participants in the relationship between India and Scotland.

The rivers’ voices enable wideranging exploration through dialogue of mythology, architectural contrasts, geography, agricultural history, language, nature, the jute trade, engineering, fishing, ecology, threats of militarism, and India’s land reform movement. Technically, the poem is finely crafted. Rising and falling rhythms alternate in quick succession, just as river rapids tumble over rock. For example, in these lines, hear how the rising rhythm of the anapaests ‘which we hold’ ‘in our folds’ and ‘as we ride’ is broken suddenly by the falling rhythm of the next two lines: ‘we have our riches,/which we hold/in our folds/as we ride/high or subside –/treasures that/we cherish’. Splashing up as the water hits three boulders in succession, then the rhythm and rhyme carry you on downstream. Rhyme schemes intermingle too – couplets, internal rhymes and more elaborate schemes tumble through the poem – ‘we have courses/to run/at our own pace./Let this not be a race/to be done or won’. Rhythm and rhyme in spate like this propel the reader down through the poem. In form this is a concrete poem, with words flowing down the page like the rivers to which it gives voice. Photographs of Scotland and India by Kenny Munro and the poet gave this Scottish reader the twin pleasures of recognising the familiar and being refreshed by the unknown. The book is unobtrusively annotated. The Notes are well judged and lend depth, mainly for readers in the UK, although a few reflect awareness that some of Scotland’s history may not be known to the book’s readership in India, where it was enthusiastically received at the Kolkata Book Fair in 2009.

Beth Junor