July is one of those gloriously wet months of the year, when the monsoon has truly arrived. Heavy, rain-bearing clouds from the Arabian sea slam into the Western Ghats emptying much of their load over the hills, rainforests, dendritic streams and rivers and the coastal plains. I had just disembarked from an overnight bus somewhere on the windward side of the ghats – by the Sharavathy river to be precise. The sky was a leaden grey just as dawn was breaking.
As expected, but hoping otherwise, I was greeted by a blast of rain as I waited for the auto-rickshaw that I had arranged to take me to the far side of the river – a good eight kilometres away. It could have been a pleasant walk with an eye out for birds and the trees, but I was weighed down for the moment, with an assortment of luggage that included an inflatable kayak.
The west-flowing Sharavathy must have been the most beautiful river in the Western Ghats before engineers reached her banks. She drops over 900 metres to form India’s highest waterfall – the Jog falls – and flows through deep valleys cloaked in rainforests and Myristica swamps, before slowing down in the coastal plains spanning westwards from Nagarabastikeri. The engineers erected a series of dams, reducing the 140-km stretch of the river into a demure, shackled body of water. I reached her banks six decades too late to see a river whose fate had been decided by men working round the clock to open and close gates that let her out or kept her in based on the power requirements of a city hundreds of miles away. The only thing they should have done was to watch her flow like she had for eons.
We drove past the last dam on the Sharavathy at Gerusoppa, which throttled the river with a vice grip, making it seem like an act of generosity when the gates opened twice a day.
The real reason I’d come here was to see the pounding rain, feel the needle-like drops of a squall and be miserable and wet to the bone. I was here was to stop the incessant pounding of the dark rain inside my head. I say, to simply meet the river. Rain exploded all around me, and for a change, the din without was louder than the din within. There was forest all around – forest that had reclaimed its land from a bustling trade centre over five centuries ago. I could hear the rain approaching from quite a distance by listening to the trees and the wind. The place I found myself in is famous for its well-preserved centuries-old Jain temple, the Chaturmukha Basadi.
But I was drawn to the ruins, scattered among the now-luxuriant flora. Deep wells, walls, pillars, inscribed stones all lay scattered around me. Nobody knows why this place had emptied out despite having been a bustling trading hub for the famous black spice, pepper. It is said that the Portuguese ships sailed all the way up the Sharavathy to trade with Queen Chennabhairadevi of the Saluva dynasty.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) guide at the site told me this place had been home to over 100,000 people between the ninth and 15th centuries AD. There is still a fort on a hill a few hours away, watched over by trees – Ficus grows over its walls – and bats that have made the cave-like dark chambers their home. It is known as Kanooru kote, and it is truly a magical place now protected by virtue of being part of the Sharavathy Wildlife Sanctuary.
The Indian giant squirrel and the Indian giant flying squirrel now traverse the canopies of trees around the temple and the forest, one during the day and the other at night. The staccato calls of the diurnal Indian giant squirrel can be heard from a distance in the same place that must have echoed with the calls of vendors only a few centuries ago. The place abounds in wild varieties of mangoes, and the locals say sloth bears make frequent trips to these trees during the fruiting season.
I even heard about a tiger that many had sighted in the vicinity. There were gaur, sambar and lion-tailed monkeys in the hills around, and otters in the Sharavathy and its tributaries. The nearest village is Nagarabastikeri, across the tributary, four kilometres away. A hanging bridge connects the two worlds – one peopled, the other unpeopled.
I spent the first day walking around. My trips to the Sharavathy have been only possible because of the hospitality of the local people: Venkatramana, the ASI guide and the caretaker Srikanth and his family at Chaturmukha Basadi. There were more than a hundred different sounds for the rain here, and there was water everywhere. It was impossible to stay dry in such a gloriously wet place. I alternated between falling asleep in my hammock and exploring the place.
I reconnoitred the place we usually start from – a tributary flowing down from the hills to join the Sharavathy, a normally placid stream that was now a swollen river carrying silt from the hills and past the fields. I was restless and worried: the stream looked rather rough and I could get easily pinned under an overhanging tree in the now-flooded riverside forest. I wanted to be here and I didn’t want to be here. I wondered why I had traded the comfortable life of the city and the company of my dog Noah to a mosquito-infested swamp.
I inhabited a world between these places, and it was not peaceful. But the real reason I was here was something else: a know of cold growing, tightening inside of me. I was still trying to be the person I used to be, a field biologist who’s at home outdoors. I have lived mostly in the city over the last four years, with short trips out to prove I hadn’t lost my ability to sniff out otters, follow the tracks of a leopard or know how it feels to walk along a stream across the seasons. Being out was my only link to my past, and my only way of staying sane and ready for what I really wanted to do.
I have been under medication for nearly a decade to treat bipolar, and in the course have undertaken some of my best work along the Cauvery studying otters and understanding their relationship with a rapidly changing riverscape. I have also lived through some of my worst times in this period, adrift and having tried twice to take my own life. That was before Noah showed up and dropped anchor. Life with wild otters had changed to life with an unruly, rather wild, rescued dog. There was a lot to do to show him that people could be trusted. We were both healing together. But the thing about mental illness is it never leaves.
I didn’t sleep well that night, and by the next morning I had decided I would start paddling downstream from the confluence, where the waters were much calmer. I bid adieu to my friends, who were still incredulous that I had chosen the monsoon to visit. It took me ten minutes to inflate the kayak though I had spent more than 24 hours worrying about it.
On the river, the kayak becomes an extension of oneself and the sound of the paddle dipping into the water with each stroke can be meditative. There was a lull in the rain and the wind, and the water’s surface was glassy, calm. It felt good being on the river and I was paddling with the current. There was a shade of grey on everything, even on the green of foliage.
Living by my time meant little on the river. Here, time was measured by the tides, and outflows from the dam. The normally skulking cinnamon bittern surprised me when I saw one fly across the river out in the open, and a pair of lesser whistling teals kept me company for a while, flying low close to the bank, alighting and taking off each time I neared.
“Water doesn’t give a damn” – David Berman
I had come this far to have an honest conversation with myself, and with the river. While Noah has been my rock the last four years and has certainly kept me alive, the depression has been incessant. I felt trapped in the city when all I wanted to do was to be outside of it.
Not far into the morning, I heard a wall of rain approaching me from downriver, from the west. I was soon engulfed in a heavy and stinging squall and thought I would cry freely along the river, like floodgates being thrown open, but there were no tears – just the rain. I was floating on a thin cushion of air in a rainstorm without knowing how to swim. I wasn’t scared of the river. I had nearly drowned once while visiting the Andaman Islands. I had gone on to work along rivers and streams long after that.
It was only natural that I’d be haunted by waters after all these years. I had felt like I always needed an option when the time came. When you can swim, it is very difficult to fight your instincts to swim to safety. I was growing weary. I often wondered how people had the energy and motivation to get out of bed and go through another whole day, all over again. Each day is different, I would tell myself, but it never seemed to matter. It was always too much effort. I was able to do it only because I had a large dog that looked at me and seemed to say, “let’s go!”. He kept me going. He could read my mind.
Choosing this time of year to kayak had its advantages. Along with the sheer beauty and tranquility of the monsoon along the river, I didn’t encounter sand-miners dredging the riverbed for. I have sand-mining mushrooming along the Sharavathy in the last five years. People far removed from the river have been employed to gouge sand out of a river that meant little to them, as if it was too painful to employ locals who had grown up alongside it. In this world, money has increasingly trumped beauty, relationships and tradition, and the banks of the Sharavathy weren’t exempt.
I paddled past anchored sand-mining boats waiting for the rains to stop, waiting for the sunny days when the sand would flow again in a river that would be shackled once again. What the series of dams had done to the river was also visible in how the sea had moved in to replace the flow – or the lack of – of freshwater from the hills. With the river’s current that usually kept the sea at bay stalled by the dam, sea water would steadily move up the river. There is always the influence of the tides along any river close to the sea, with sea water moving up the river at high tide and freshwater moving out during low tide.
But the dams meant the sea water moved further upriver, seeping even into wells containing drinking water, rendering the groundwater saline and leaving the land inarable. This in turn meant sea water was staying further upriver for longer and only getting flushed down if the dam’s gates were opened to generate electricity.
Sediment from the Sharavathy was largely locked behind the series of dams, something that fed and nourished aquatic life and the paddy fields all along the way to the sea. People depended on this, as did the fish. Otters depended on these fishes in turn. But now, with the dams and sand miners acting in concert – it is only a matter of time before things – agriculture, biodiversity and the way of life starts to unravel and fall apart.
There is a precedence to this in the collapse of the bivalve cottage industry along the Sharavathy. But too often, people forget and move on. Memory is not infallible, I have realised. Nobody would notice the disappearance of otters and fishes in this hyper-connected world, barring a few. Aghanashini, not far to the north, is still largely undammed and supports a thriving bivalve cottage industry. But keeping a river undammed is a struggle. So much water flowing down to the sea! It is surprising how much easier it is to build a dam, or many dams, along a river than to let it flow unhindered.
Jawaharlal Nehru had called dams the ‘temples’ of modern India but the logic underpinning this proclamation seems vague at best, for it is not science and morality that drives these decisions but dirty politics and money. I still wait for the day when I can see a dam being broken down, reversing a historic injustice meted upon the river; I might have to wait forever.
I paddled through more rain and wind, and soon all I could think of was my next stroke when the paddle dipped into the river and the arc of water droplets when I lifted it. My shoulders were going numb with pain from paddling. I hollered when I saw somebody within audible range and batted the same question: What are you doing here? I’m paddling to the sea, I said. I watched Malabar pied hornbills fly across the river and perch on coconut trees. Where was their riverside forest?
I kept an eye out for smooth-coated otters that a friend had once seen. But the creek was flooded with runoff from the hills and I couldn’t linger. I did see large-sized fish leaping over the water, all evidently moving upriver, a seasonal call to move to the headwaters maybe. I didn’t want to disappoint them by pointing out the dams lying all along. There was no way they would make it up the main river. The tributaries, maybe. Into waiting nets, certainly. I could relate to what was happening along the river.
I had journeyed along the Cauvery a few years earlier and came away shell-shocked. I was in the throes of depression then and the only thing inspiring along the river had been that otters were able to adapt (to an extent) to a fast-changing, rapidly degrading river. But luck can only be pushed so much. I had visited the Tungabhadra near Hampi and here also the story was similar. I had tried to change tack and had walked a minor nevertheless beautiful stream in Wayanad over the seasons, recording the stream changing with time.
The depression of then and earlier had never really left. It was contained to some extent by Noah’s presence. By building a routine into my life that mostly revolved around our walks and runs I was somewhat functional. But I was growing increasingly restless. My medication hadn’t reduced in years, books were gathering dust and guitars lying unplayed. I was part of a group, which I helped start, that tried normalising conversations around mental health, and made an effort to build a community around it.
I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the depression had only grown through all of this and things were not working. I have always struggled to meet my own expectations and struggling I was, still. The essays I wrote a couple of years back about coping with the illness seemed alien to me now, as if someone else had written them. I was flooded with emails immediately after, emails that I had archived for the dark days but never got to reading. The only joy I derived was from watching Noah change from the scared and insecure dog he was at the shelter to the amazing person he is now – trusting and caring, with a large community of friends.
I had worked hard to build this knowing I wouldn’t get back from a trip one day and he would have somebody to care for him. All these thoughts flashed through my mind while paddling, and I was not distraught. This is how things would turn out. I would go this way, someday. Water doesn’t give a damn!
I paddled past people casting nets to catch the many species of fish making their annual pilgrimage upriver to spawn. Some knowing it was a one-way trip. The thought had crossed my mind if this would be my one-way trip out of the misery and frustration. That was one of the reasons in coming this far: to debate and to come away feeling better if I survived it. I stayed in a village by the river that night, and spent the evening watching rain and wind lash the surface of the river just after I had pulled in. I wouldn’t have made it through that storm. The thought chilled me.
The next morning I started early knowing I had to paddle against the tide. My host helped me get the kayak back in the river, and stood watching as I paddled away. I was quickly swamped by a deluge. The river widened here, and the wake from passing boats tossed the kayak and sent water splashing in. I had to ride out the storm and find a place to stop and bail the water out for the kayak had started to fill in. I felt insignificant on this river in the storm.
By now, I had gone past the realm of freshwater and entered brackish water. Small stands of mangroves had started to appear, and the river was very wide, well over two kilometres. Last night, well inland, when the rains and wind had subsided, I had heard a constant crashing sound in the background. I knew it was the waves driven by the monsoon winds crashing into the coast. The crashing of waves got louder as I approached the coast. I paddled past railway and road bridges, past dugouts that looked scarily upright in choppy waters while men cast nets in the rain, past the harbour where the trawlers were parked seeking shelter from the storm.
One of my favourite parts of the journey down the Sharavathy was the end, where the river meets the sea. Here, only a thin strip of sandy beach separates the Arabian Sea from the river which flows parallel, takes a wide curve and joins the sea. This beach was dynamic and changed form every monsoon. It was also unlittered and undiscovered by the hordes of tourists who thronged popular beaches to the north and south. Here, I would only run into fishermen opportunistically casting their nets out at the river mouth. I had heard them talk about the dolphins that would swim up the mouth at high tide. Dolphins I had never seen but I was assured were common.
As I cleared the harbour and jetty and closed in on the beach, I saw what looked like large cranes on the patch of sand that I had so looked forward to seeing. Only when I neared did it dawn on me that there would be a port here pretty soon. The New Honnavar Port would soon be reality on a strip of sand that defined the river at the very end.
Even here, the river was not left unmolested. From the headwaters all the way to the sea, the river was constantly harassed by dams, mining and now another port when there were other ports nearby. The few fishermen I spoke to indicated that they were powerless to stop it: “Why will they listen to us?” It didn’t make sense, and at the same time, it all did.
‘Solastalgia’ would give me at least 12 points if I were playing scrabble. It stands for the mental or existential distress caused by damage to parts of the environment we care about. I had spent close to three days along the river, debating, and wrestling with thoughts while the river itself was dying a slow death. I knew I would come back to the river to continue the conversation. I quickly left the beach to the cranes which seemed to have replaced the gulls and to engineers who were fast replacing fishermen.
Noah was waiting for me back home, and I was looking forward to the welcome I received when I returned from a trip away. I had survived another trip to the river but the depression and solastalgia were too deeply ingrained for me to shake off. I knew I would go with them, one day.
Nisarg Prakash is a wildlife biologist who has been enchanted by wild spaces for as long as he can remember. He has been studying otters since 2009. Borrowing a line from Norman Maclean, he can comfortably say he is haunted by waters.