“If you shoot from this side, and I stand in the middle of the river, everyone will wonder how this film was made, when there is no boat, or way to go.”
There is a myth that Kamakhya and Umananda are connected through a staircase for the Gods. The people who live there have never built a bridge across the Brahmaputra River for fear of disturbing this celestial pathway. Instead, they move from one side to the other in small, overcrowded boats called Bhotbhotis.
Like metronomes keeping time on the river, the Bhotbhotis carry men, woman, bicycles and shopping bags from the rural North Guwahati to the urban South and back again. “You don’t get to see this every day,” says one of the boatmen proudly. “You need a boat to see this.”
His remark is directed at the cameraperson, as the shaky lens captures a bend in the river, houses on the shore and the wind-swept hair of a passenger, all in a single frame. The boatman, however, does get to see this every day. Through Desire Machine Collective’s Bhotbhoti Tales, recently featured at the New Museum’s exhibition ‘Walking Drifting Dragging’, we catch glimpses of the lives of these men who spend their days moving back and forth across the water.
What they know and breathe is the breadth of the river; the length of it remains a mystery. The origin of the Brahmaputra is a different place in the mind of each boatman. Some say it starts near Sadiya, others say Parashuram Kund. Most agree it begins high up, in mountains they have never seen. “I don’t know where it begins,” admits one of the boatmen, Bhaskar, “but I know where it ends. It goes into the ocean.”
At first glance, Bhaskar doesn’t look like a hero. He looks like a boatman, his slim body held still as water, boat and camera lens bob up and down around him. “I’ve saved two people,” he says matter-of-factly. His method of dealing with those who come to the river to end their lives is the same as the other boatmen: save them, slap them, send them to the police. Most suicides attempted from the Bhotbhotis seem to be because of unhappy love affairs or family problems, but it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of such all-consuming sadness. Even those who jump may not know where it began, but they know where it will end. The boatmen save as many as they can, but as another boatman, Naren, points out, “If they don’t want to be saved, we can’t save them.”
This, then, is the problem with an unwavering Will: it may lead you to the bottom of the river. The men, women, bicycles and shopping bags all have wills of their own. For them, the Bhotbhotis are intermediary; life takes place on the shore. They have a sense of coursing along in a specific direction, waiting to empty out into the sea. But unlike rivers, life is not unidirectional. We travel back and forth, walking, drifting, dragging, occasionally pausing to rescue a drowning person or two, while Gods trample overhead.
Simone Dinshaw is a writer living and working in Mumbai.
Desire Machine Collective, founded by Sonal Jain and Mriganka Madhukaillya, is a nomadic enterprise that temporarily docked at the New Museum in New York as part of their exhibition 'Walking Drifting Dragging'.
'Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners. So that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many—either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry—why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. [WS, Othello, III.3]Read More
By Simone Dinshaw, Issue 19, Will: A Desire and A Destination, March 2013