Living with Water: Peoples, Lives and Livelihoods in Asia and Beyond

Courtney Work

This edited volume gathers together stories that together, attempt to ‘write a history of an amorphous entity’. Water does not, however conform to our limited, human notions of history, and the collection is a bit amorphous as well. This has a nice effect as a collection, once you get used to it, and the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Many of the individual essays are unsatisfying, inchoate, and feel in some ways like the presentation of raw data, left for the reader to pull together and analyse. But the overall effect of the collection is transformative, giving the reader little kaleidoscopic pieces from various perspectives, places, and times that explore water, humans, poetry, commerce, collecting, traveling, building, and more. There is one important piece missing, which is ironically what this reviewer hoped to find: A rich description of the intimate economies practiced by humans through time, and in the present, at the interstitial zones of land, river, and sea.

Cynthia Neri Zayas’ essay on tidal wiers does some of this work, but the wiers are relics of former economies, and cannot offer insight into living with the rivers, land, and sea. Annu Jalais’ essay could do this work, but takes a different, and interesting perspective. This gap notwithstanding, the volume has much to recommend it. Many of the essays make important analytical contributions to the ways we think about our human lives up next to the elements that support them. I will draw out some of the interesting themes that wind through the volume, and conclude by describing the essay by Jalais, which is quite worthy, not historically, and lies a bit outside the ebbs and flows of the rest of the volume.

The book opens with two essays, each taking up one side of the question of whether histories of amorphous entities are possible. The angst of history as human-centered and anchored to nations and commerce is acute in the essay by Michael Pearson. The oceans, for him, are voids between the real places of human activity, and he urges caution in attempts to ascribe history to them. Ryan Jones, on the other hand, decentralizes commerce and the activity of nations to focus on ecology, cognition, and connections. In this way, a history emerges that takes account of the water and all its users and inhabitants.

There is a suggestive contrast between the two articles that has echoes throughout the volume. Pearson sees the littoral regions as contact zones, cosmopolitan, where new ideas merge with ‘tradition’ and people are accepting of them and changeable. Jones also attends to the coastal areas, but finds continuity rather than change through the seal migrations from Japan to California that create similar rhythms and practices across the North Pacific. In Pearson’s history, the ocean is the backdrop upon which human actives happen; for Jones, the ocean provides the rhythms and raw materials through which human history is created.

There is also a tension between the history of commerce and state-making privileged by archival records, and the history of material and immaterial traces of humanity found through archeology and myth. Merchant archives present Bengal’s production and extraction in the 13th–15th century as, ‘strong enough to absorb the expanding money supply caused by the influx of outside silver (Shatarupa Bhattacharyya’s essay, p. 59),’ and its multiple rivers served as boundary markers through which kings and despots staked their claims (Suchandra Ghosh). The rivers of Asia also create imaginaries through the work of mapmakers that attest to their role is wealth building entities, but also their elusive, changing, and unknowable character (Rila Mukherjee).

Throughout the essays, water creates ecologies and economies, and just as easily destroys them. Some of the data present floods and shifting flows of the river as destructive forces where fortunes and kingdoms can be both made and lost (Radhika Seshan; Bhattacharyya). The making of fortunes and kingdoms provoke warnings in folklore, where boatmen are warned to avoid the markets and money lenders, and to know that the river is lustful and crocodiles await (Rimli Sengupta and Soumya Chakravarti). All improvements toward fortune through the river, which has both desire and mood, invite predation and humans both love and fear it (Sumanta Banerjee).

The river is also the source of safety and family. Desire, mood, consciousness, and body come together in Swadhin Sen and Wahid Palash’s essay, which centers the idea of prem as love, care, affection, and alterity. We learn that Bengali rivers are gendered, male is body and female is consciousness, and the rich alluvial landscapes are the children of this union. The body and consciousness are understood as part of the same ontological space, where possession and lust have no hold, and the bodies of rivers and of humans are in continuous and fluctuating processes.

Ryan Tucker Jones also works with how bodies and consciousness are produced through water. First, by tracing first ocean economies based on tides and animal migrations that create networks of people and places across the pacific rim, sharing practices, skills, and production cycles. Next, he shows how European traders, self-declared to be free of such dependence, experience the cycles of boom and bust and over time come to consider the ocean in ways quite similar to indigenous seafarers. Economic relationships are at the heart of human–water interactions and the cosmologies they produce. I will conclude this review in the ethnographic present, in which changing economies produce changing cosmological affiliations when mangrove forest dwellers become shrimp collectors.

Bonbibi is the goddess of the forest and has long protected those who subsist on the products of the mangrove in the Sundarbans of the Bengal Estuary. This is a very poor region, and Bonbibi protects the forest product collectors from the dangers of the forest, especially tigers, and also enables them to find what they seek. This, provided they enter the forest with a pure heart and empty hands. Ironically, her image is also displayed in the shrines connected to government forestry offices, while the individual officials keep the more dangerous and powerful Kali in their personal offices. In the Sundarbans, the caretaking Bonbibi enforces an ethos of collective conservatism, in which users are entitled to as much as they need, but not to excess, while the fierce Kali associates with violent, illegal, and risky occupations.

With the rise of commercial shrimp farming pointed toward global production, women moved away from gathering forest products, an occupation dominated by men, and started pursuing shrimping. Because their pursuit is now focused on excess, gathering as many shrimp seeds as possible from the interstitial river ways at the edge of the mangrove forest, Bonbibi can no longer protect them. In addition, their work subverts traditional norms, is dangerous, and is highly lucrative. For this, the women say, they need a deity that is up to the challenges of their experience. Kali, goddess of destruction and fortune, protector of government officials and wildlife poachers, is their deity of choice. Rituals to Kali are expensive, but she has the power to protect the women from crocodiles that kill and injure many of them, and all profit-seekers in the rivers. Kali also has the potential to buttress desires for recognition that are still withheld, despite the women’s growing wealth.

While not historical in the way that the other essays of this volume are, Jalais situates some of the themes of commerce, water, danger, personhood, and state-making in ways that connect the contemporary era to the other amorphous histories of water in this volume. The river and littoral zones where commerce and trade strengthened ancient states and absorbed capital expenditures, still produce that space. At the same time, individuals who ply those waterways in search of fortunes continue to fall prey to crocodiles and other predators, both human and non. These predators occupy the spaces where bodies and consciousness merge into particular types of economies and histories.