A Rhapsodic Take on Assam’s Chance with Corona


After  a moment when India’s democracy index has been brought down to a record low of 6.9 after the tumultuous Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 in the last thirty years, the new phantom that has hit the land is the perpetual paranoia and repressed anxiety created by the pandemic Covid 19. Till now Assam is not on the fatal count, lockdown is maintained, yet the dangers physical, economic, social and mental is lurking large at our heads. Only a systematic social distance, personal hygiene, civic sense and cultural resilience can save the syncretic Brahmaputra valley erstwhile swept by songs of protest resonating with the tide across the country into becoming a valley of impending death with songs of melancholy.

However, the scope of this article is not on the global health crisis but on the folkloristic aspect of our beautiful land and its river songs.  Rivers are deeply embedded with the folk life of the region and the syncretic riverine culture is an integral part of life and literatures from the Northeast, especially Assam also called as the land of Shankar and Ajaan, after Vaishnavite Saint Srimanta Shankardeva and Sufi saint Ajaan Peer who imbibed Sankardeva’s ideals in religion. The rivers are the testimonies of geo-physical change as well as of recurring personal and socio-cultural memories and democratic people’s movements. Rivers co-exist with life, space and memory imbibing fertility as well as debris with potential for redemption as well as regeneration.

Poetry, folklore, songs from North-East both in English as well as vernacular is replete with metaphors of the river as an eco-spiritual entity notwithstanding the inherent role of fatalism evoking the ideas of death and destruction.  In fact the confluence of rivers makes inter-cultural negotiations open both physically as well as literally besides their ritualistic aspect so basic in Indian culture. At this hour of Covid-19 contagion it is the aspect of refrain that the people of Northeast has to learn from the natural force of the mighty Brahmaputra to prevent community crisis.

 The Brahmaputra Valley has been the space for assimilation for people from different races and one can find large number of languages and dialects in the region. Moreover the Northeastern region is the ethnological transition zone between India and the neighbouring countries of Bhutan, Tibet, Burma and Bangladesh. Literally meaning the “Son Of Brahma”, Brahmaputra is a male river in a country dominant with the tradition of celebrating and worshipping female rivers. The river Brahmaputra geologically is the youngest among the major rivers of the world and is also considered by researchers as a moving ocean because of its properties. Rivers are the living resonance of revolutionary spirit, be it the memory of the historical battle of Sariaghat or the on-going peaceful resistances for the preservation of indigenous Assamese identity, meandering around the beautiful hills and plains of Assam. 

The famous song of Bharat Ratna Bhupen Hazarika entitled “Bistirna Parore Akhonxya Janore/Hahakar Xuniyu /Nisabde Nirobe/Burha Luit Tumi Buwa Koi? ” questions the resilience of the mighty old river and its silence amidst the misery of its people along the banks that speaks volumes of the populist struggles along the banks of river Brahmaputra. The river has witnessed sagas of pain yet it still remains passively reticent as the singer laments. This song has a cross-cultural significance and is resonant with the American masterpiece, Paul Robeson’s “Ol’ Man River” that talks of the hardships and struggles of African-American life of civil war against slavery along the river Mississippi through the medium of folklore. Rivers are indeed a flowing and resplendent heritage of one’s cultural past and living present. Again, in another song written in 1942 during the Quit India Movement “Luitor Parore Ami Deka Lora Moribole Voi Nai” poet, lyricist, and the father of Assamese cinema Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla, sings in praise of the revolutionary young blood that flows amidst the banks of the red river whose determination of social cause makes them undaunted even for facing death. These immortal Assamese songs  regained their meaningful significance in the recent populist protest movement initiated by the students all over Assam and the country at large over the burning issue of the citizenship act and some of the draconian measures to counter the same that turned fatal for a few young people.

 The river Brahmaputra has been studied, analysed and debated over the issue of building a dam over its tributary Subansiri and the issue remains only partially settled with its vocal leader in Assam still behind the bars for indefinite period. Known as the Yarlung Zangbo in China, the Brahmaputra enters Arunachal Pradesh near Gelling from where it is known as Siang. The Siang River meets the two other major tributaries of Brahmaputra, Dibang and Lohit in the west of Sadiya, at a place named Kobo. From this confluence point, the river is known as Brahmaputra till it enters Bangladesh. The bone of discord around the building of dam at Siang valley is the issue of ecology and the adverse effect on indigenous livelihood of the region which the locals feared to have been undermined in the jargon of hydroelectric growth and progress; however the concern still lingers on.

The Brahmaputra is the lifeline of Assam and various attempts have been made by concerned citizens, student bodies and social activists and sometimes government to save the river from pollution and other man –made destructions.  The old Brahmaputra or “Burha Luit” as the bard calls it still flows on with its unfathomable vistas of the repeated political gimmicks of the state machinery through decades over infiltrated embankments and porous borders that have deeply affected the cultural geography and demographical pattern of the state of Assam at large and the entire Northeast in particular. Rivers are also rivers of meandering hope and dynamism of life despite its turbulence, devastating floods and changing of courses. One can hope that “Burha Luit” shall bear testimony to testing times. As the corona pandemic has proven to be a great leveller affecting the prince to the pauper, it is the resilience and scientific social restrain of our people that can save our valley from its fatal crisis and dreaded mayhem.

The government policies at the health front seem to be commendable right at the moment. However, the eminent economic and emotional crisis can only be met in days to come through solidarity among masses, different classes and political groups to evolve a panacea for this sweeping disaster on humanity at large and the land of Brahmaputra in particular. Let us hope that our future generation may not have to sing songs of death over the pandemic like our European brethren.

Dr Sabreen Ahmed teaches English at Nowgong College, Assam. She can be reached at Sabreen54321@gmail.com