Two Rivers: A Shared Heritage
The book is certainly a conceptual and poetic achievement...
From the Ganges to the Tay is a long poem that winds across the pages in a deliberate setting that mimics the flow of a river. In the pages of this neatly produced paperback, the River Ganges and the River Tay speak to each other of their origins and the different countries through which they flow. It is, given the unique nature of both the rivers and the character of their native lands, a joint fable that spans myth, legend, history and geography.
From the Ganges to the Tay is an exploration of the historical importance of the ties between India and Scotland and their contemporary relevance as a natural symbol of continuity and peace. The choice of subject is due partly to the fact that Scotland and Bengal have been working hand in the cause of literature and that this year Scotland was the theme country at the Kolkata Book Fair. However, setting that aside, the book is certainly a conceptual and poetic achievement.
Fraser maintains her narration unfalteringly covering the differences and similarities between the two rivers, with twists and turns of rhyme. For an Indian reviewer one has to maintain balance between a partiality for the Ganga - that most mythical and sacred of rivers - and unfamiliarity with the Tay. One begins by taking the Ganga's superiority for granted and moving on to concede that the more modest Tay, a male river at that, has its virtues
The form is ultimately a dialogue between the two rivers where they discuss their shared history. For the most part, as is important in a poem of cultural exchange like this one, the two rivers share experiences of the historic links between the Ganges and the Tay through jute and engineering. Patrick Geddes is brought in along with his respect for the architecture of Varanasi, which led him to leave the city untouched even though ordered to modernise it for the purpose of more efficient administration by the British government. There are other interesting anecdotes put in, made more amazing by the fact that they are told in verse.
The poem is described as an epic, but presumably Fraser meant 'epic' in the sense of a wide canvas since the poem can hardly be defined as one in the traditional sense of the word - an epic poem after all celebrates heroic achievement of gods and heroes, starting with the ***Mahabharata*** and trailing onwards. The rivers, the two largest in their respective countries, are sources of life, conflict and industrial and historical change and in that sense can perhaps be looked at as epic - certainly the Ganges journey through the locks of Shiva's hair past Haridwar down to the Bay of Bengal is epic, but the qualifier is not really required since the stories and exchanged dialogue are amazing enough.
The poem dialogue is given body by photographs taken along the courses of the two rivers and the people who live and work alongside. Size would have greatly enhanced the effect, complementing word and image, but presumably there were economies of scale to be taken into consideration.
All in all the work is well worth reading both for those interested in Scotland's links with India and for those who enjoy verse for verse's sake.
(The reviewer is a freelance contributor)