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Dancing with the River

Dancing with the River: People and Life on the Chars of South Asia

Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt
Gopa Samanta
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Dancing with the River
    Book Description:

    With this book Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt and Gopa Samanta offer an intimate glimpse into the microcosmic world of "hybrid landscapes." Focusing on chars-the part-land, part-water, low-lying sandy masses that exist within the riverbeds in the floodplains of lower Bengal-the authors show how, both as real-life examples and as metaphors, chars straddle the conventional categories of land and water, and how people who live on them fluctuate between legitimacy and illegitimacy. The result, a study of human habitation in the nebulous space between land and water, charts a new way of thinking about land, people, and people's ways of life.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18957-5
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Technology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  6. CHAPTER 1 Introducing Chars: Where Lands Float on Water
    (pp. 1-30)

    This book is about people living on chars. The Bengali termchar, orcharbhumi,¹ denotes a piece of land that rises from the bed of a river. In this book, we present the chars ashybrid environments, not just a mixture of land and water, but a uniquely fluid environment where the demarcation between land and water is neither well defined nor permanent. The use of a contested and much-maligned term like “hybrid” requires some explanation. Many years ago, art historian Paul Zucker (1961) interpreted ruins as “aesthetic hybrids” because one could not be sure if they belonged to the...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Char Jage: A Char Rises
    (pp. 31-50)

    As the rivers descend from the mountains and make their way to the seas, they bring down sediments off the mountains, eroded over long periods of time, that ultimately arrive at the mouths of the rivers. But before being dumped into the sea, much of this sandy, silty material is stored temporarily along the way. The river stores the material in its own “banks”: floodplains and channels (see Morisawa 1985: 116). This is how chars are born:¹ they originate as part of a river’s natural processes and are an integral part of the ecologies of almost all floodplains. To make...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Controlling the River to Free Up Land
    (pp. 51-77)

    In the epigraph, David Lowenthal is speaking of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), an American river-control project that became the model for controlling the Damodar. But a similar utilitarian and functional view of rivers and land, seen as “resources” waiting to be “developed,” also prevailed in Bengal. The worldview arrived in Bengal with European colonizers attempting to tame the lands and waters to raise revenues. This worldview is also intricately connected to, and responsible for, the formation of chars. In the previous chapter, we explained chars as parts of the natural ecology of floodplains; in this chapter, we show that...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Bhitar o Bahir Katha: Inside and Outside Stories of Chars and the Mainland
    (pp. 78-97)

    The inhabitants, villages, and livelihoods in the Damodar chars are marginal from, yet interact with, the people, settlements, and occupations in the lands that lie across the banks of the river. The land beyond is locally known asdanga jami; it is higher and drier land that is almost always beyond the water—the land that most people recognize asland proper.¹ To char dwellers, the world lies within and ends inside the bandhs. It is not unsurprising, then, that char dwellers perceive the land that lies beyond the embankment asbandher bhitarer jami(land lyinginsidethe embankments), that...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Silent Footfalls: Peopling the Chars
    (pp. 98-134)

    The peopling of the Damodar chars took place primarily during the last one hundred years, but it is only since India’s independence that these lands have become well settled. The need to “use” what was seen as “waste” land was the key factor in the earliest phase, when the Maharaja of Burdwan tried to populate the chars by designating them as baze zameen and then granting rights of ownership and access of these lands to certain communities. The chars, however, remained sparsely inhabited until around the early 1900s. In the second, post-Partition phase, chars have experienced waves of immigration of...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Living with Risk: Beyond Vulnerability/Security
    (pp. 135-149)

    The silty and sandy chars lie literally on the margins of land and water worlds, at “edges” where earth and water ecologies and cultures meet on the fringe of human habitation. The human use of these borderline lands throws up a rich reservoir of metaphors (the “edge effect” of “the bringing together of people, ideas and institutions” as described by McCay 2000), unique questions of environmental dynamics and management (EGIS 2000; Sarker et al. 2003), and debates around resilience and adaptation. We are particularly interested in examining poor people’s resilience in marginal and vulnerable environments. The fragility inherent in the...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Livelihoods Defined by Water: Nadir Sathe Baas
    (pp. 150-199)

    Char dwellers survive in an environment that is characterized by extreme resource constraints. In the earlier chapters, it was shown that floods and riverbank erosion affect their living conditions the most, constantly making them aware of the fragility of their daily lives. The exclusion from mainland services and poor availability of infrastructure also exacerbate their vulnerabilities. To live here means to survive somehow, “konomate benche thaka,” as one char dweller put it. Such living requires that every bit of any local resource is put to use. Water from the river as well as from below the sand on the riverbed...

  13. CHAPTER 8 Living on Chars, Drifting with Rivers
    (pp. 200-208)

    Coming from two different ecological contexts, the first from the lands of sand and thirst and the second from the floodplains of the Ganga, which are one of the wetter parts of the world, the two epigraphs both reflect a passionate, age-old reverence and respect for and attachment to water. Of water in all its forms, rivers have probably been the most loved by humans. As the ancient Egyptians intuitively realized, water flowing in the rivers is one of the most powerful and awe-inspiring of all natural forces, and we are dependent on it. Other cultures have attributed primacy to...

  14. Appendix: Full Census Data for Surveyed Chars
    (pp. 209-216)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 217-230)
  16. Glossary
    (pp. 231-236)
  17. References
    (pp. 237-262)
  18. Index
    (pp. 263-272)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 273-274)