Journeys along the Brahmaputra: Travel tales with Shahidul Alam

(This article was first published in 2016 on the Our Stories website, and it was commissioned by Tisha Srivastav.)

The first time I met Shahidul Alam was in August 2012. The renowned photographer, writer, activist, teacher and curator from Dhaka, Bangladesh, was in Bangalore to speak at the National Gallery of Modern Art. I was ignorant about his work on extra judicial killings, migrant labour, climate refugees, military insurgency, and various other forms of oppression. And his calm demeanour hardly gave the impression of someone who had spent much of his life fighting battles for human rights; much less, of someone who had received death threats for his disruptive political art.

The next time I met Alam was in December 2015 at Mehboob Studios in Mumbai. He was at the Times Lit Fest, soon after the world stood shaken by report after report of Bangladeshi bloggers, activists and publishers being hacked to death for raising questions about religious extremism. He was introduced by photographer-curator Ram Rahman as being on the hit-list of the anti-secular, right-wing forces in his country. It, therefore, came as a surprise to me, when I learnt that Alam, who is primarily associated with his work as a photographer and human rights campaigner, has now authored a book for children titled Brahmaputra Diary: A Journey To The Source of Asia’s Greatest River.

In the book, Alam writes, “Like a Hindu deity, the river has many incarnations, changing its name and nature as it flows along its 2900 km journey from its source near the holy mountains of Kailash through the icy glaciers in Tibet, the green mountains in India, and through the fertile plains of Bangladesh into the Bay of Bengal. Near the source, the river is called Tamchok Khambab Kangri, meaning ‘the river coming out of the horse’s mouth’. According to legend, Tamchok Khamabab spilled from a glacier in the Chemayudung Mountains. The Tibetans know it as the Yarlung Tsangpo, the purifier. In India, it is known as the Brahmaputra. In Bangladesh, it is also known as the Jamuna, the Padma and finally, the Meghna, before it opens into the sea.”

(Source: Pratham Books)

It has been published by Pratham Books in 2016, more than a decade after the photography exhibition it is based on was held in Kuala Lumpur in 2003. “My partner, Rahnuma Ahmed, has often told me that if I ever run out of work as a photographer, I can always get work as a baby sitter,” says Alam. “I love working with children but had never considered writing a book for them. I was thrilled to bits. Especially the fact that it is a cheap, affordable book with such a large print run!”

The 36-page book, which is diary, travelogue, photo essay, geography lesson, and cultural document all rolled into one, is priced at 60 Indian rupees. It is available in English, Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, and Urdu.

“I don’t think that Shahidul would have seen himself as a children’s book author in a stereotypical sense,” says Manisha Chaudhary, his editor at Pratham Books. “His great passion is visual communication, which goes beyond boundaries of age. He had text to accompany the exhibition. However, it needed some simplification, additions, and explanations to make it more accessible to children. Shahidul was willing to work with our constraints to create the best possible book for children without any dumbing down of the written text.”

(Source: Pratham Books)

The development of the book was supported by HDFC Asset Management Company Limited, and Alam’s journey itself was funded by a Bangladeshi industrial conglomerate called BEXIMCO. “I convinced them to bring out a series of calendars from 1999 to 2001,” says Alam, “but, of course, the images have been published in a range of ways, from the National Geographic, to a small gallery in Aleppo, Syria, which brings out postcards.”

Alam started planning the trip in 1997 but eventually set out only in 1998. “Much of it was on foot, the best mode of transport for a photographer, but I used a full range of transportation, from planes, trains, buses, trucks, bullock carts and, of course, boats,” he says.

The book speaks of political, cultural, racial boundaries, and crossing them — not only by gliding in and out through places but by immersing in local stories and folk songs. We learn about religious scholars, alpine vegetation, mythological lore, and nomadic life. We see Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the wind, bridges made of rocks, sheep seeking shelter, fisher folk going about their daily chores, and lamps being lit in temples and monasteries.

(Source: Pratham Books)

In the book, Alam writes, “No one is known to have traversed the entire run of this river. We take you on this journey, across the millennium, across three nations, through Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. From the icy trickle in the glaciers, along Pei in China, to where the river narrows into a rapid-filled gorge reaching phenomenal depths and amazing cascades.”

Though Alam undertook this journey with friends, did it also give him the opportunity to build close friendships with locals? Is he in touch with some of them? “Not as many as I’d have liked, as I often went to remote locations where there was no electricity and certainly no email,” says Alam. “Most of the places did not have a postal address, so maintaining contact was difficult. There were also language issues, particularly in Tibet. But I did strike up friendships which I think will last even if we never again meet.”

(Source: Pratham Books)

Alam is particularly grateful for the time he spent with San Geur, the nomad who took him to the source of the river. “I would never have found the source without him, but he was quite a character. I miss the old man,” he says. He wanted to make a film based on the stories of some of the people he met but that did not materialize.

Alam has so many anecdotes to share that many could not make it to the book. He recalls a trip he made after the book was written, to the border area near Kurigram where the river crosses into India. “I was arrested by the Border Security Force of India,” he says. “They are known to be trigger-happy, and had killed 96 people in the previous six months. So when they pointed their gun at me (I was on the Bangladeshi side of the fence), I knew running was not an option. I pretended I was a foreigner and, using my most posh English accent, convinced them that I was doing a story for the National Geographic. They agreed to let me call my editor, and I used that opportunity to call my partner and explain where I was. She was quick to press all the right hot buttons, and soon an international campaign was launched for my release. So, soon after being arrested, I became a VIP, and was released at the dead of night. But then I got arrested by the Bangladeshi border police! That’s another story.”

(Source: Pratham Books)

Another incident also involved an arrest but, this time, it was in China. “I managed to bluff my way out again, and then made a mad dash for Lhasa airport,” says Alam. “My body was aching all over when I arrived and, in a nearby hotel, I saw a woman getting a massage. It was expensive, but I felt I deserved it. They were very reluctant, but I tried to convince them that I really needed it. It was only when the treatment began that I realized what I had ordered was a facial!”

As he travelled along the Brahmaputra, what kind of cultural continuities or similarities did he notice among the people of various communities and countries? “There was a certain spirituality that I noticed amongst all the people who lived along the banks,” says Alam. “Their reverence to water. Their humility and their love of music. One day, I’d love to collect all the songs that lilt along the banks of the Brahmaputra.”

(Source: Pratham Books)

Writer, educator and researcher

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