Alongside the Jamuna A photographic mediation

Alongside the Jamuna A photographic mediation

I worked in the Jamuna chars between 2011 and 2015, and intermittently since then. The curious figure, the chance encounter, the inexplicable presence, the uncertainty as to why I took a particular picture are what motivate this arrangement of photographs that I took in the five plus years I navigated the Brahmaputra-Jamuna River. I was not striving for a particular sense of the river as much as giving expression to the joy I took at simply looking at/with those who considered it their home. There is some indecisiveness here because I was so often directed to take a photograph, rather than snapping them on my own volition, that I feel these images are acts of mutual looking and not just the capturing of moments for research purposes.

Photos 4, 6, 7, 8 & 5 (Clockwise from top left)

Once, I asked Shariat Kha, my friend who operated a largish boat on which he transported people, animals, and goods to and from qayim, as the mainland was called, where he had been, as I hadn’t caught sight of him for many weeks (photo 1 and 2). “Ugh,” he moaned, I have been busier than “noti,” he said, indicating that he had been making more trips than usual. “What is noti?” I asked. He grinned glancing at Shohidul, my research assistant, and said, “I will point it out if the opportunity ever arises.” One night, Shohidul, Salam majhi (who transported me on the river when not out fishing) and I ventured out on the dark waters to attend a local jatra that had come to the bazaar of Fulhara village. It wasn’t like any theatre troupe I had ever seen in Bangladesh as there were mostly half-clad women dancing on the stage with men crowding around them. Shariat Kha came up to me with yet another bashful grin on his face; pointing to a dancing woman, he said, “that’s noti.” This was my first encounter with the genre of jatras called ghetu jatra.

Photo 9

I was walking back to the NGO office in Dokhin Teguri where I made my home in the chars. I ran into Mukhtar bhai and his family on their way to get their nephew, married to someone in the mainland (photo 4). This was only the first of many boat trips they would have to undertake to get to the designated site. The path was long, and the family was dressed up and excited to be taking this rare outing. Mukhtar bhai asked to be photographed—as if he were a hero in a film casually flicking water (photo 5). His wife and two sisters-in-law wanted to have their pictures taken with the serious expressions that they like to assume for photographs (photo 6). I kept cracking jokes. They must have been funny or at least stupid enough to produce the laughter that kept leaking out of them and that they kept trying to suppress (photos 7, 8). The groom, with a silver garland around his neck and his best men, came in a later boat, standing on it as it carried them over the thin branch of the river whose depth they chose not to test in their fancy clothes. They were even carrying a suitcase, about which I was very curious, but now was not the time to ply them with questions (photo 9). They wanted their pictures taken. Mukhtar’s young brother looked sharp in his yellow T-shirt, jeans and eyeglasses donned, I think, just for this occasion to give him some gravitas (photo 10). He was very much the man in charge until he wasn’t. Soon there were raised voices and when I looked around from taking pictures of his sisters-in-law, he was stalking off in the other direction, walking through the water to make clear that he had no intention of returning. I resisted taking a picture of his huffy retreat but regretted it later.

Photo 10

I was fascinated by the dogs in the chars. I even wrote a paper about them. This brutal image of dead cows being set upon by dogs and crows stayed with me for a long time as they reminded me of the line from the Upanishads which opens Robert Gardner’s documentary Forest of Bliss, “Everything in this world is eater or eaten. The seed is food and the fire is eater”. The first image of Forest of Bliss is also of dogs fighting amongst themselves over something that we later realise is human remains from the Ganges River. That year the cows were dying of anthrax in the chars. I also took pictures of kites flying above the scene (photo 12). They too were part of this process of eating and being eaten. Only later was I told that vultures, eagles, and ravens were missing from my pictures. Though once they too were to be found circling corpses, they had now become extinct due to the poisons in the remains that they took as their food. I don’t know why I felt so sad, as if we had failed them in the contract that humans and scavenger birds had evolved over time, to give them our waste, but free of poison to ensure their continuity as they ensured ours.

Photo 12

Then there were the times I took pictures of what the bank looked like when large sections of it collapsed into the water. I was busy taking pictures of the exposed faces of the banks but caught the faces of people gathered above them. They waited for passenger boats to somehow come close enough to them so that they might attempt leaps onto them (photo 14). One pulled a boat filled with his grass cuttings alongside him so that he could make parallel use of firm ground and the fluidity afforded by the waters to reduce his burden. Another rowed his little boat so close to the edges of the banks that he appeared to risk chunks of earth falling on him. I was told this was because the water was deeper and faster along the edges than in the middle of the river. People walked perilously close to the edge as it afforded them the shortest albeit shaky path to where they had to get (photo 17). While most just gave me long stares, one came upon me very unexpectedly, curious to know who I was (photo 18).

Photo 14

These are some photographs of those who lived alongside the Jamuna River as they crossed my path and I crossed theirs. I suppose the river appears as incidental to the images, a scenic site that afforded me the opportunity to photograph. However, and as everyone knows, the river is not just a mere setting. The river runs through these lives. If you look closely, you can see its waters ebbing and flowing in the bodies and through the landscapes.

Photo 17
Photo 18
Photo 3
Photo 11
Photo 13
Photo 16

Naveeda Khan is associate professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Muslim Becoming: Aspiration and Skepticism in Pakistan (2012) and editor of Beyond Crisis: Reevaluating Pakistan (2010). Her books River Life and the Upspring of Nature and In Quest of a Shared Planet: Negotiating Climate from the Global South are forthcoming.

I worked in the Jamuna chars between 2011 and 2015, and intermittently since then. The curious figure, the chance encounter, the inexplicable presence, the uncertainty as to why I took a particular picture are what motivate this arrangement of photographs that I took in the five plus years I navigated the Brahmaputra-Jamuna River. I was…

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