Rivering consciousness Reflections on the Padma Bridge
Crossing a river has always inspired metaphysical reckonings. Can one cross the same river twice? The Greek philosopher Heraclitus, a native of Ephesus in Asia Minor, does not think so. He once stated that “you cannot step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.” What he means is that river water is in constant motion, therefore the river is never the same for someone to wade in again. River is like life, constantly moving along, with turns, twists, erosion, force, tranquility, joy, and melancholia. Here, Heraclitus’ broader project was language. Dominated by nouns, the philosopher reasons, language is an inadequate tool to portray the ceaseless flow of our lives, just as the word river cannot capture the quintessential transience of the idea of river. Could turning the noun river into a verb or “rivering” be an appropriate description of what we understand as river? Was Heraclitus “rivering” both life and metaphysics?
What, then, is the meaning of a river bridge? When a bridge, a noun, a fixed infrastructure, crosses over an ever-transient river, how does it complicate or alter the temporality, directionality, and ephemeral politics of a river? Is the bridge an arch nemesis of the river, an antithesis to the river’s motion? Does a bridge transform a river’s historicity and agency? Is the bridge a trope of humanity’s uber-reason—universalising in a Cartesian sense—conceptually taming the whims and instability of a river?
It was against these personal meditations on the meanings of river/bridge duality that I went to see the newly minted Padma Bridge. The sight of the bridge over an “oceanic” river seemed both magical and mystical. Whether you are standing on the bank of the mighty Padma River or on a boat in the water looking straight ahead, the bridge gradually fades into an infinite line or perhaps into the future. For a Bengali—rooted in the ethos and customs of a riverine delta—there was something special about the Padma Bridge.
Reflection One: How could technology conquer the legendary Padma River, the third widest river in the world, with such ease and simplicity? The bridge seemed like an arc that hovers over the river with a divine sweep, reconfiguring the Padma that we hold dear in our minds as both a geographic phenomenon and a culture-defining epic like Homer’s Odyssey. The authors of Rivers in History wrote: “Sources of both abundance and destruction, life and death, rivers have always had a powerful hold over humankind. They run through every human landscape, whether mythical or actual.” Rivers and civilisations are inseparable. The Nile created Egypt, the Indus Harappan civilisation, the Tigris and Euphrates Mesopotamia, the Yellow and Yangtze rivers China, and the Ganges Varanasi, Vedic culture, and, eventually, the idea of the Indian subcontinent. At the heart of Rome’s much celebrated public square, Piazza Navona, there is a beautiful sculpture called the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of Four Rivers). Designed in 1651 by the great Baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the fountain represents four great rivers of the world—the Nile for Africa, the Ganges for Asia, the Danube for Europe, and the Rio de la Plata for the Americas—as gods! Rivers have always captured civilisational imaginations. Is the Padma River not a Bengali epic?
When a colossal piece of engineering subjugates a river that we have long considered “culture” that powered us as people, it may perturb our cherished mental images of familiar locales and geographies. Seeing the Padma Bridge for the first time felt a bit unreal or even surreal—a technological behemoth poetically upending the tranquility of rural Bengal. Our soft mental image of pastoral Bengal—characterised by paddy fields, rivulets, homesteads, ponds, humble scale of things, and solitude—is challenged by the bridge’s godlike scale, cutting-edge technology, and futurist ambition.
What kind of mental chemical reactions do we experience when two opposites collide? Manik Bandopadhyay’s Padma has no giant bridge over it, only the perennial flow of water and the majhis who draw inspiration from it for their minimal survival. A mammoth bridge does not seem compatible with Tagore’s depiction of the Padma: “Idly my mind follows the sinuous sweep of the Padma roaming under a distant sky.” How would Manik Bandopadhyay’s majhis negotiate the presence of a gigantic superstructure that slices their familiar sky? In Sonar Tori, Tagore wrote, “I sit on the riverbank, sad and alone,” reflecting on life’s vagaries. How would a steel giant rising from the Padma’s “sinuous sweep” disrupt Tagore’s contemplation? What are the meanings of these apparent contradictions?
For the American literary critic Leo Marx, the meeting of two seemingly opposed forces—technology and the natural world or, in his words, “the machine in the garden,” created a fertile field of literary imagination. Marx developed the thesis that the image of a steam locomotive interrupting the idyllic American prairie or a steamboat monstrously lurking from the peaceful mist of the Mississippi River helped ignite the literary fire of such American giants as Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain.
How did I process the unlikely juxtaposition of my own mental image of the Padma River and an engineering marvel that tames it? A mystical veneration, a mix of spirituality and dread, attended my experience of the Padma Bridge. Philosophers have discussed the psychological effects of a “sublime” feeling. For the British political thinker Edmund Burke, the sublime, unlike the “beautiful,” could evoke an exalted emotional quality of attraction and fear. The sublime is grand and dangerous. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that the sublime has got to do something with the awe-inspiring scale and boundlessness of a phenomenon. In front of an ocean or a mountain, one could feel his or her insignificance, experiencing a sublime feeling.
In the twentieth century, American theorists like Perry Miller and later David Nye used the concept of the “technological sublime” to explain how technology’s provocation of ecstasy, bewilderment, and terror played an important role in shaping the modern American mind. Standing before the gigantic concrete superstructure of Hoover Dam, built on the Colorado River during the 1930s, I understood what technological sublime meant—a complex mix of wonder, admiration, and fear.
The Padma Bridge is Bangladesh’s maiden example of technological sublime. Standing awed in front it, I wondered how the bridge would reshape our political consciousness, transform our cultural universe, and disrupt our understanding of a deltaic geography. Its sheer scale and innovation should not overwhelm us to not consider its practical value. The multipurpose bridge is 6.15 km (3.8 m) long, with a four-lane highway on the upper level and a single-track railway on the lower level. It is one of the longest river crossings in the world. It is capable of transporting 75,000 vehicles every day, increasing the GDP of the impoverished southwest region of the country by up to 2.5 percent. With the contribution of the bridge, national GDP is projected to rise by 1.2%. Furthermore, as research shows, every taka spent on the bridge is expected to generate about 2 takas of social good. This is a huge boost for the national economy and the country’s collective wellbeing.
Reflection Two: But beyond the engineering accomplishment of the Padma Bridge and its economic promises, what are its larger social and cultural meanings? Is it merely a bridge that would boost connectivity and economic productivity? What does the bridge mean, culturally, socially, and politically, for Bangladesh?
First, the underlying motivation for national confidence building has been obvious. Since the World Bank withdrew its funding for the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project on the allegation of corruption in 2012, there has been a national outrage, steeped in a postcolonial, nativist grievance against the “civilising mission” of Western powers. Self-funding and constructing the bridge became the symbolic catalyst for graduating the country from the infamous “basket case” to a self-confident nation, assertive on the world stage. Is the bridge Bangladesh’s coded message to world powers that the era of West-to-East, North-to-South political pontification was over?
Second, the bridge symbolises a direction opposite to that of the Indian subcontinent’s power diffusion along the Ganges-Padma river system. Rising in the Himalayas, the Ganges flows from northwest to southeast, entering Bangladesh at the northern edge of the Kushtia district. It then streams through the heart of the Bengal delta, eventually emptying into the Bay of Bengal. In Discovery of India (1946), Jawaharlal Nehru writes of the role the Ganges or Ganga played in the civilisational flow of India: “[The Ganges] has held India’s heart captive and drawn uncounted millions to her banks since the dawn of history. The story of the Ganges from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of India’s civilisation and culture, of the rise and fall of empires, of great and proud cities, of the adventure of man and the quest of the mind which has so occupied India’s thinkers, of the richness and fulfillment of life as well as its denial and renunciation, of ups and downs, of growth and decay, of life and death.”
The Gangetic trajectory has been the path of Vedic Brahmins, invaders, occupiers, dynastic rulers, military strongmen, traders, saints, and power-wielders to the Indian subcontinent. From Indo-Aryans and the Mauryas to the Mughals and colonial powers, all followed this path to arrive in Bengal. As Richard Eaton argues in The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760, this is the direction through which the frontier advanced from northwestern power centres to southeastern Bengal’s agrarian hinterlands. Bengal was the terminus of a continent-wide line of Turko-Mongol military expedition. In 1204, Muhammad Bakhtiyar’s Turkish cavalry followed this path. Mughal Subahdar Islam Khan Chishti arrived in Dhaka following this riverine trail. West Pakistan sought to control the political destiny of the people of East Pakistan. The symbolism of that power trajectory persists.
The Padma Bridge is a metaphorical countermovement—politically conceived to set in motion a new frontier to advance from southeast to northwest and southwest. It is an emblematic defiance of and resistance to the historical Gangetic trajectory, and, by extension, the West. It symbolises a reversal of a power arc that has traditionally defined the political structures and their diffusion in the Indian subcontinent. The bridge is a new geostrategic gesture from East to West, a resistive message from the Global South to the Global North about a shifting global power dynamic.
Finally, as much as it is about strengthening communications with southwest Bangladesh and eliminating the time-consuming ferry-crossing of the Padma River, the bridge is also about the people of Bangladesh. It hints at their anxieties and aspirations, and their fractious visions for the future. As the country builds the bridge, the people mitigate their geo-cultural vulnerabilities and celebrate their national advancements. They use the bridge as a mental backdrop for projecting their green-and-red patriotic exaltations. The Padma Bridge is the spatialisation of their national aspirations and a personification of the Bengali self. In this sense, I find a lot of similarities between the National Martyrs’ Memorial at Savar and the Padma Bridge. Both are monuments to our national consciousness.
Reflection Three: As I walked on the Padma Bridge before it was opened to traffic, I felt both euphoric and melancholic. Euphoric because the bridge has conquered a sea-like river, recalibrating the hydrogeography of Bangladesh for the 21st century, thanks to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s steadfast determination to take Bangladesh to new heights. Melancholic because in crossing the bridge in the comfort of a car or a bus in a few minutes, we may lose the psychological connection to the waters of the Padma River that has long animated artists, poets, novelists, boatmen, fishermen, and many other protagonists. Crossing a river by a boat always seems to present a spiritual dimension. One is in the water, not over it.
Perhaps the spirituality of being in and with the river could be channelled as a solemn reminder about our responsibility of safeguarding the riverine geography that continues to steward the environmental sustenance of our delta. In 2019, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to grant all its rivers the same legal rights as humans, a landmark ruling aimed at protecting rivers as Bengal’s existential membranes. This is a good step going forward. Meanwhile, the technological sublimity of the Padma Bridge is likely to inspire new types of cultural imaginations and geographic consciousnesses. Most important, the bridge will improve the socioeconomic lives of the country’s long neglected southwestern region through improved connectivity. In many ways, the bridge spans Bangladesh and the future.
Adnan Z Morshed is a professor, architect, architectural historian, and urbanist. He teaches at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and serves as Executive Director of the Centre for Inclusive Architecture and Urbanism at BRAC University, Dhaka.
Crossing a river has always inspired metaphysical reckonings. Can one cross the same river twice? The Greek philosopher Heraclitus, a native of Ephesus in Asia Minor, does not think so. He once stated that “you cannot step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.” What he means is…