Navigating Ganga again 35 years later

By Sukant Deepak

It may have been decades that he walked the Ganges from its source in the snow bound Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal for his book, but he insists that it has never left him. “It has never disappeared, always remained a constant companion inside,” says Paris-based author Vijay Singh, whose cult classic Jaya Ganga which he also made into a film is now available in Hindi, translated by the late poet Manglesh Dabral.

After the English version, which sold thousands of copies and the subsequent film that was screened at more than 100 film festivals and ran for 49 weeks in Paris, Singh now wants to do another journey with the Ganga. “Like, Jaya Ganga is a portrait of India of 1985, why not show what all has changed after forty years through a film? We have adequate formats and platforms in contemporary times. I have not personally met anyone who has done such a journey from top to bottom on a boat. Even today people do not go beyond five kilometers on the river on boats owing to the high crime rate.”

Singh remembers that it all started when a publisher in France offered him an advance to do a book on India. “Though I insisted it was tough to sketch a portrayal of India, he refused to relent. I thought going down the Ganga would be an excellent thread to tie different fragments and snippets. Little did I know that there was no navigation in the river.”

It was poet and friend Ashok Vajpeyi who suggested that the book should be translated into Hindi. Another Hindi writer friend introduced him to poet Manglesh Dabral, and the French embassy was willing to pay the translator. “He was a wonderful writer, a beautiful poet. I love his minimalism. It is always good to have a translator that understands you. I told him to feel free to rephrase whatever he wanted to in order to get the message across better. And when he found out that my Hindi was good, we worked on certain parts together. There were chapters he went through like water. I might write in English. But, what was my childhood all about — Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi… It’s such a big loss that he is longer with us. He reminded me of film editor Renu Saluja who worked on ‘Jaya Ganga’ – the movie.”

As the conversation veers towards the part in the book where he mentions floating corpses in Ganga, and dogs and vultures feeding on them, something that has a striking similarity to what everyone saw on television screens during the ongoing pandemic, Singh says, “When I read about it, I knew such cases had gone up, but in itself it did not surprise me at all. But when it started surprising others, the Indian press, I was like, ‘Gosh! How little do the intellectuals and journalists know about what happens in India?’ It is an every-day affair. And it is the same logic, which they found out forty years later. I had asked a boatman, ‘What is this, brother?’ He said, ‘Where do I begin? The poor don’t have the resources to burn the dead body. So they think it is as pure to immerse it in the river’.”

The author and filmmaker moved to France for Surrealism and Andre Breton, whose work, ‘Soluble Fish’ he discovered in the campus library of JNU. Packing his bags after getting a scholarship to pursue a PhD degree there, he says, “It is not the great French writers and filmmakers that I treasure most about the city– of course I have learnt a lot from them. What continues to fascinate me most about here is the fact that everyone is a bit of a poet. The very strong sense of art in Paris is unmissable.

“The French Revolution went very deep into the consciousness of the people — what is it to be a free man? Similarly,  art and literary freedom is imbued in everyone. I refuse to believe that Delhi is India’s intellectual capital — just a few intellectuals doesn’t make it that. Yes, Delhi reeks of power, but not intellect. Bangalore and Chennai may be better, or maybe parts of Mumbai. You judge the soul of a city by the omnipresence of an artistic idea. And if there is one, then it is not one which is inhabited by twenty-five intellectuals. It is the whole city which must exude that. It is like a fragrance.”

Vijay Singh’s 1985 book had mentioned corpses floating in the Ganga, so he is surprised that intellectuals and journalists were surprised and felt outraged by the scenes on television during the ongoing pandemic in India.

Image courtesy of (Photos courtesy Vijay Singh)

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