An Illustrated Supplement to Deep Water

(All captions from the text)

Part One: India

To Struggle Is To Live

Photographs by Robert Dawson

Medha was kneeling on the floor, alternately reading her mail and talking on the Indian equivalent of a ’60s-vintage Princess phone. She was playing her usual role of administrator/organizer/headmistress/advocate/host, while around her swirled a ceaseless whirlpool of volunteers, oustees, admirers, and bystanders. As always, she was in constant motion, even as she sat. She knelt, crossed her legs, then resumed kneeling; she leaned forward, then back, then to the side; her free hand gestured emphatically, cupped her cheek, rested on her hip. Beyond her, a rotating cast of visitors stood or sat by her, waiting to get in a word.


No other Indian river inspires as much imagining as the Narmada. The Puranas, a holy Hindu text, says that a person can gain salvation by bathing in the Ganges, but the same goal can be achieved merely by catching sight of the Narmada. Lingams, the gray, phallic stones worshipped as Shiva, are found only in the Narmada’s beds. Until reservoirs inundated many of their temples and trails, each year hundreds of loincloth-clad mendicants known as sadhus and a roughly equal number of their female, sari-clad counterparts set off on treks of precisely three years, three months, and three days to circumambulate the river, from its mouth at the Gulf of Khambhat to its source in the Deccan Plateau and back, more than 800 miles each way.


We looked down into the canal’s symmetrical, brick-lined V, and saw near the bottom a pane of nearly motionless steel-blue water— the canal was nearly empty. In a certain way, the dam was a technological marvel, but the women at the water’s edge were cleaning clothes in the traditional fashion, pounding their fabrics into submission against the canal wall.


Through the reservoir’s surface protruded monstrosities: half-submerged trees and bushes, most of their visible portions already gray and shriveled. A smaller number were still green, still resisting the inundation— activists of a sort.


Both our hut and the tent-like assembly place next to it were calefactory sandwiches, two slices of heat-trapping blue plastic tarps on the roofs and mud floors with a slab of wilting humanity in-between. In the daytime, the tarp lent the tent’s occupants a garish blue cast— in that way (and that way alone), the participants looked like the stars of a gaudy Bollywood movie.


The Andolan outpost— two large huts and a covered outdoor meeting place— was squeezed onto a patch of slope that was otherwise entirely covered with chest-high corn: the hills looked like a soft, green undulating brush.


I asked our guide, a “deputy engineer,” a question or two about Sardar Sarovar’s technical aspects, and he was delighted to expound. He got so wrapped up in explaining his colleagues’ unique solution to the dam’s foundation problems that he didn’t notice when Bob slipped away, retrieved his camera from the car, and shot some images of the dam through the guard rail.


I walked to the edge of a low cliff above the river, rounded a corner, and found myself looking directly at a temple, modestly proportioned, exquisitely spired, dangling over the river like a tarnished earring. Ordinarily, at this time of year, its stone steps descend into the river, but right now the Narmada flowed ten or fifteen yards beneath the lowest rung. No matter: children in the temple smiled and waved.


At the river’s edge, squatting women produced the timeless thwack of cloth against stone, and fishermen tossed nets into the river with swings as graceful as Joe DiMaggio’s. It took effort to pull my eye from these slow-motion discus-throwers to a point much farther downstream and yet above us, where towers loomed that signified the impending death of all of the above. Because the reservoir would eventually inundate the existing Badwani bridge, a higher bridge was being constructed. Now its two-dozen still-unlinked stanchions marched across the river like scouts of an invading army.


The wall directly opposite comprised a perfect mural. Here the broad blue swath along the bottom half contained a darkening horizontal smear, signifying the number of backs that had leaned against it over the years and at the same time evoking the Narmada, as if the river had already risen to this line and left its unruly mark. At the junction with the ceiling, much of the white paint had fallen away, revealing the bare wood beams above. Just below them was a single horizontal fluorescent tube, unlit, and beneath that, a row of Medha’s awards: the Right Livelihood Award, 1991; the Goldman Environmental Prize, 1992; the Calcutta Chamber of Commerce award, 1993; and so on. One of the awards was an imitation scroll, covered in plastic and hung crookedly with yarn. Its lower left-hand corner hid part of a child’s painting, attached to the wall with masking tape, which depicted a village submergence: only the top half of trees and huts was visible above a blue lake; birds fled from the trees. The painting was flanked by more sayings of the Mahatma. Below them, someone had painted an inscription directly on the wall. In neat red and green Hindi letters nearly a foot high, it said, “To struggle is to live.”


The hut felt as cozy as any room adorned chiefly with political banners could possibly be. (“We want development, not displacement,” said the banner behind Medha’s head.) A few feet away from us, a tribal woman and her small boy lay asleep on the plastic mat that covered the hardened mud floor. Medha was still at work. She’d arranged herself behind a writing table that was less than a foot high, tucking her feet beneath her in a way that reminded me of Gandhi at his spinning wheel.


The room contained four installations, the biggest of which, maybe fifteen feet square, showed the dam area in three dimensions. The installation resembled a giant sandbox whose filling had been replaced by a congealed, garishly painted plastic that failed to support the intended theme of heroic structure. You could see the dam and the powerhouses , the beginning of the canal, even some unconvincing puddles meant to represent bodies of water. It reminded me of the electric train sets I’d coveted as a kid, without the electricity and the trains.


After a few minutes, Medha crossed the street to a vacant lot to hold a press conference. There, the activists had erected a canvas roof, which kept out direct light at the cost of amplifying the body heat collecting beneath it. Journalists crowded around Medha until sweat ran in rivulets down her cheeks and neck. With shouting no longer necessary, her voice softened to her customary raspy whisper. She called for a review of all the large dams in India, and charged government officials with abetting the felling and smuggling of trees from the Valley in the name of rehabilitation. She answered every question calmly, even when a journalist asked whether the Andolan was in decline. Alluding to calls by the Madhya Pradesh deputy chief minister to outlaw the Andolan, she said, “If the Andolan is declining, then why is there a hue and cry to ban it?”


Medha sat down on the blue tarp, at the center of the concentric circles formed by her followers: together, they formed a columbine, of which she was the gold pistil and they the multi-colored petals.