From Sultanganj to Bhagalpur, it is 47km of suffering. In the middle there is nothing, just a half-drained stretch of river that betrays even the most expert boatmen, and a shepherd’s village. In three months, however, the monsoon season will come and the river will have the strength of a hurricane. It will wipe out everything, including villages whose inhabitants will only return at the end of the rain. As they have for thousands of years, they will rebuild their straw and bamboo houses from scratch. Today, however, I have to deal with the river at its seasonal minimum. It is no less dangerous, though, because where the river is shallow, whirlpools form more easily. In the last two months, the river has killed three people – dragged down into the vortex. As dying is the last thing I want right now, this morning I got a motor boat to navigate alongside me and when the high tide came at noon, I boarded the boat and went on to Bhagalpur.
The boat owner was very talkative and invited us to visit his village, located halfway between Sultanganj and Bhagalpur, where he was born and where he lives with his family. It is he who tells me that in three months this village will be completely submerged by water. I ask him why they don’t choose another place to settle permanently but he tells me there is no alternative.
‘This is our life and this all we have’ he says, moving his hand from left to right to show me the buffaloes – which they bring to the river banks every day to massage and douse with river water – and the fields nearby where they grow sugar cane, cauliflower, potatoes and onions.
He adds ‘If they ever offered me a place in the city I wouldn’t accept it because I wouldn’t know how to survive’.
While his wife is sifting the mustard seeds, he tells me that the Ganges is, indeed, a blessing for them because when the village ends up under water, the soil gets enriched by the minerals of the Himalayas that make it perfect for cultivation.
Water for irrigation, of course, comes from the Ganges, which in some stretches upstream has a concentration of faecal coliform bacteria 500,000 times greater than the limit for bathing water. It is the same water that, later, when we resume our journey, he will drink from a tin container.
I ask him ‘Why do you drink this water knowing that it contains bacteria?’
He replies ‘I have been drinking it since I was a child and because we basically have no alternative. Every year, during the monsoon season, the wells will be covered by mud and there is no point building wells every year. The river water is the only water left for us.’
Instead, he has an alternative, hidden in the corner of the boat – it is called bottled water!
He tells me that he can only afford the bottles when he works, on days like today.
Later, I watch him while he drinks a little and, in that second, all the irritation I had felt when he quoted me a price for his services – which I felt was excessively high -vanishes.
I believe we all have the birthright to drink safe water, even if it only comes in a bottle. I ask him how he is enjoying his drink and he tells me he still prefers the taste of river water. But today he is happy to be able to treat himself.
Bahgalpur is a place of the unexpected. It makes an impression with its grunge and damaged, abused beauty. This beauty can be seen in the derelict buildings of the Dutch and English businessman who lived here until the end of the 1800s. We enter one of these old, once marvellous mansions with a fountain at the entrance, rooms with high, decorated ceilings and rooftop gardens. Today nothing is left of the sumptuousness, but for some people they still represent a decent place to live – or maybe the only option. Three women, their children and three buffaloes occupy a small area of the building that is still standing. It is place of prostitution. It left me sad and speechless.