Chintan Girish Modi talks to Shahidul Alam on his latest book Brahmaputra Diary: A Journey To The Source of Asia’s Greatest River. 'Brahmaputra Diary' is our recently published book which is a travelogue about one of the mightiest rivers of the world - Brahmaputra.
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Alam is a human rights campaigner and a disruptive political artist from Bangladesh who is on the hit list of the anti-secular, extremist forces in the country.
It, therefore, came as a surprise to me, when I learnt that Alam, who is primarily associated with his work as a photographer and human rights campaigner, has now authored a book for children titled Brahmaputra Diary: A Journey To The Source of Asia’s Greatest River.
In the book, Alam writes, “Like a Hindu deity, the river has many incarnations, changing its name and nature as it flows along its 2900 km journey from its source near the holy mountains of Kailash through the icy glaciers in Tibet, the green mountains in India, and through the fertile plains of Bangladesh into the Bay of Bengal. Near the source, the river is called Tamchok Khambab Kangri, meaning ‘the river coming out of the horse’s mouth’. According to legend, Tamchok Khamabab spilled from a glacier in the Chemayudung Mountains. The Tibetans know it as the Yarlung Tsangpo, the purifier. In India, it is known as the Brahmaputra. In Bangladesh, it is also known as the Jamuna, the Padma and finally, the Meghna, before it opens into the sea.”
It has been published by Pratham Books in 2016, more than a decade after the photography exhibition it is based on was held in Kuala Lumpur in 2003. “My partner, Rahnuma Ahmed, has often told me that if I ever run out of work as a photographer, I can always get work as a baby sitter,” says Alam. “I love working with children but had never considered writing a book for them. I was thrilled to bits. Especially the fact that it is a cheap, affordable book with such a large print run!”
“I don’t think that Shahidul would have seen himself as a children’s book author in a stereotypical sense,” says Manisha Chaudhary, his editor at Pratham Books. “His great passion is visual communication, which goes beyond boundaries of age. He had text to accompany the exhibition. However, it needed some simplification, additions, and explanations to make it more accessible to children. Shahidul was willing to work with our constraints to create the best possible book for children without any dumbing down of the written text.”
The book speaks of political, cultural, racial boundaries, and crossing them — not only by gliding in and out through places but by immersing in local stories and folk songs. We learn about religious scholars, alpine vegetation, mythological lore, and nomadic life. We see Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the wind, bridges made of rocks, sheep seeking shelter, fisher folk going about their daily chores, and lamps being lit in temples and monasteries.
In the book, Alam writes, “No one is known to have traversed the entire run of this river. We take you on this journey, across the millennium, across three nations, through Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. From the icy trickle in the glaciers, along Pei in China, to where the river narrows into a rapid-filled gorge reaching phenomenal depths and amazing cascades.”