I picked this book up for 20 bucks from a raddiwala and the many times Mr. Aitken's views angered me, I wanted to fling it out of the window, knowing not much money would be wasted. But because Mr. Aitken is a mad man (like all men of faith are), he struck a love-hate chord with this mad woman. His oscillation between reverence and philistinism had my opinion of him swinging equally wildly. One page, I would be smiling at the Scotsman recognising the sanctity of our rivers, and the next page would have me raging, because how dare this foreigner criticise our ways?
But slowly I softened as I realised how uncomfortable Hindu discriminations - that we take as the normal order of things - must feel to an outsider. I began to understand the resentment he felt for our commercialisation of religion and nature - a worshipper as he was of the pristine. But what I did not agree with till the end was his condescending tone. Perhaps it is how the white man thinks/speaks, but to me he sounded only like one extremely ungrateful guest.
So this guest, in his sojourn across India, sought to understand our seven sacred rivers: Sindhu, Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Godavari, Narmada and Kaveri. As he tried to follow each of their courses, he encountered more than just geological entities. Each river brought forth lessons in culture, history, geography, religion, nature and whatnot. While Bill Aitken's writing is a tad cold and objective, one cannot help but feel the warmth of a human touch here and there. Laced with wry humour, the author tells of the many adventures and misadventures of a solo traveller on a shoestring budget.
One laughs and frowns at many an interesting account. His experiences of ashram life and Gandhians are mixed; he admires the likes of Sundarlal Bahuguna, while the 'pompous' Vinoba Bhave he loathes. North India turns him off with priests being obnoxious, small businessmen being greedy, and everything generally being unclean and poverty-stricken. His admiration for South India is obvious with him finding the states cleaner, better organised, and the people better educated. Among the rivers too, he loves the southern Narmada better than any other, although he describes well his short romances with every river he meets.
Aitken is impressed by the Ganga and the Indus in their beautiful settings and might, whereas the Yamuna and Saraswati let him down. The Kaveri and Godavari cast their respective mild impressions on him, but Narmada has his heart. He goes off on trails of several other uncelebrated rivers and questions their religious statures, or lack of them. He traces several historical chapters, whereby ancient Buddhist pilgrim centres have either been seized by the Hindu order, or cast away in a bid for religious supremacy. He talks about several interesting religious cults and practices that have become strongly associated with each of these rivers.
However, Aitken's travels are too extensive and his account too hurried. Before you can drink in the locales of Kerala, he has already moved on to Ladakh. His fast-paced name-dropping is too dizzying even for a resident of India, and there is little time to savour the beauty of any of the rivers. Nevertheless, one is carried adrift in this journey - languorously, beautifully, pitifully, adventurously, mightily, crazily, softly or raucously - at different times with different rivers.