Image used for representation.
Image used for representation.

The river of life

Everything converged on the river banks, the water itself leaving its impressions on the daily loves and lives of the avian and human community around it. Everything organised itself around water.

During the wait for the monsoon, it is rewarding to walk along a river.

We went along the Painganga near the Godavari in Telangana and Maharashtra. On the baked earth, drone shots revealed the river for what it was—a silvery set of arteries bringing oxygenated life to the landscape.

Dark rocks shone like volcanic remnants from the silver of the water. Like birds and animals, trees seemed to be panting under the blazing sun too. Leaves were browned. Yet, there was some green in the new leaves of the Palash trees, which have just gone through a massive life-cycle—they dropped their leaves at the beginning of summer, put out toothed, molten-orange flowers, then dropped the flowers and sprouted a fresh flush of leaves.

On the banks of Painganga, I watched birds delight in the lean-season flow of the water. A solitary River lapwing foraged on the rocky banks. A Paddy field pipit was frozen on a boulder—looking at something, transfixed. Swallows wheeled above the water. A Great thick-knee, a bird that loves rocks—even hot ones baked by the merciless sun—called.

A family crossed the river on foot, something that is not possible once the monsoon comes. Some people sat on the banks, dipping their feet into the water. It was the best kind of doing nothing that we miss out on in the cities. The water was warm, but it was the warmth of a fresh roti pressed on to the tongue—much more comforting than the temperature of the soil, the sand and the rocks.

Everything converged on the river banks, the water itself leaving its impressions on the daily loves and lives of the avian and human community around it. Everything organised itself around water.

There is great currency in letting a river flow the way it wants. Often, rivers will change course, bringing silt to new areas. Sandy islands form and re-form—a kind of terraforming of the land.

Riverine areas will usually be flanked with fields (and now, illegal mining of sand and rocks). But in the areas where rivers run through forests, little birds delight in the cool, leaf-covered ground. I watched the resplendent, nine-coloured Indian pitta run through the leaves, looking for insects. An Orange-headed thrush hopped on branches above. The moist leaves, a contrast from the dry scrub forests untouched by water, were redolent with insects and life.

So often we forget rivers, their names and tributaries. Until they flood. Then, we remember river names, and we also remember to curse them. For many, seeing a river in spate is seeing an antagonist, a dark villain. But seeing a river before the rains is seeing a life-support system. It is watching the light getting distilled in the waters the river brings right to you. It is hearing the vast absence of noise in the river banks.

There are bird sounds that pinprick the silence, but the area has a way of bending away the harsh sounds of mechanisation. The sounds and the sights, and the distilling of both light and space, are a reminder of why civilisation often started at the banks of a river.

Neha Sinha

Conservation biologist and author

Views expressed are personal

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The New Indian Express
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