Tributary tales
April 8, 2012
Lead review

Tracing the route River Kaveri takes through the southern states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, this book records the river’s rich history through stories that make up its past, writes Revathi Siva Kumar

The authors begin their book with the wry Tamil aphorism that the origin of sages and rivers — rishi mulam and nadi mulam — should not be probed. You are grateful indeed that the writers decided to disregard this sage advice, and instead have filled every line of this book with glittering ore. It Happened Along the Kaveri, by Padma Seshadri and Padma Malini Sundararaghavan, subtitled A Journey through Space and Time, is about the holy river that links and divides two southern states, as well as the earth and the
heavens.

The book traces the Kaveri’s roots in Talacauvery, and meanders up to its exit point, the ancient port of Poompuhar. However, the authors traverse much more than the termini. The route is not linear, but fans out into the huge states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
The authors avoid contemporary industry, pollution and politics, except for a
serious note of warning in the appendix. Thus, the reader is drawn more into Kaveri’s dazzling historical beauty than its dark modern realities.

They explore the distributaries that run through the real as well as imagined history, socio-economic and political evolutions and compulsions, folklore, mythology, prose, poetry, songs, rumour, hearsay, religion, philosophy, flora, fauna, ecology and architecture. The more you dig the treasure trove, the more you unearth
invaluable gems.

There are interesting nuggets on the biographies and stories of the kings, leaders, saints, architects, poets and other luminaries who lived, loved and shaped the fortunes of the riparian areas for centuries –— starting from the era of the Vedic gods themselves.
Ancient kings and dynasties, such as the Hoysalas, Wodeyars, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, Cholas, Nayaks and Marathas, the British and the French spring to life. While wars are recorded, the peace time activities of nation building and administration occupy more space and focus.

The mind boggles at the information overload, and it would be a struggle to read or remember too much of it at one sitting. At times, it does seem a bit of an onslaught on the understanding, especially as so much is completely new.

What saves the book is the careful structuring and classification, alternating fact with fiction and history with lore. Luminous stories interweave gently and seamlessly through the tough fibre of fact and history.

Hence, you learn for instance that Nandi, Shiva’s vaahana, was once so puffed up with
pride that Shiva was forced to crush her with a lock of his hair. At Kodagu, the family hockey festival was started in 1997 to encourage the sport among Kodavas — who have gifted seven Olympic players to the country — and by 2003, it drew 280 teams. By a remarkable coincidence, the numeric value of Hyder Ali’s name coincides with the year of his death. Fascinating details such as these are the breezes that blow your senses and understanding forward.

The authors’ struggle is not just to sift, sort and shuffle, but also to comment and overlay it with their own perspective. For instance, one story goes that Kaveri is a joint gift from Brahma and Vishnu to Kavera, the King of Vidarbha, while another calls her a gift of Siva to Sage Agastya. In true Hindu tradition, the authors concede the existence of contradictory elements, but advocate reconcilable stories. Hence, they cite the most amiable theory that opines: “First, she was the mind-born daughter of Brahma, then she became Kavera Raja’s child. Then again she was in the pot of Sage Agastya, and aided by him she became a flowing river.”

The prose is simple, straightforward and ambles like the river, with a gentle, meandering logic of its own. The authors remain objective about their facts, yet they give a quiet and understated value judgement on most of the events they document. For instance: “In a show of amity untouched by sectarian rivalry on Ramanavami, Rama is brought from his abode…”

There is a dry irony that lends a sparkle, such as: “Hyder assured them that Kunde Rao was his old servant and not only would his life be spared but he would be cherished like a parakeet. He was true to his word — Kunde Rao spent the rest of his life in an iron cage and was fed with rice and milk…”

One weak point in the book is the lack of illustrations and photographs. Although there are a few at the end — almost as an afterthought — a generous interweave of images through the narrative would have helped to illuminate and lighten the load of the reader.
However, you can overlook the aberration. Ultimately, the book leaves you with the breathless feeling that you are on an infinite, timeless journey that lasts 802 km and about 450 pages. Dive in then, to share its treasures!

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