BOOKS ET AL.
31 JANUARY 2014 VOL 343 SCIENCE www.sciencemag.org 488
Rivers do not stand alone. They are complex systems, parts of the inter- connected ecological processes
among which both plant and human communities live. As an introductory account of
“people and life” on chars—small, flood-prone bits of land within the river courses
of West Bengal—Dancing with the River
provides a much-needed overview of the
marginal lands where poor immigrants and
refugees have settled. Poverty and political
turmoil (the result of, first, India’s 1947 partition and, then, the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971) spurred successive movements of people into historically uninhabited
riverine lands of West Bengal, some no more
than sandy spits covered in scrub vegetation.
The book touts itself as a study in “hybrid”
identity formation—an overworked postmod-ernist concept that fortunately plays no role
in subsequent chapters. Instead, geographers
Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt (Australian National
University) and Gopa Samanta (University of
Burdwan, India) provide a richly detailed and
jargon-free excursion into marginal lands and
people in riparian West Bengal, not far from
Kolkata and the border with Bangladesh.
The book focuses on the Damodar River
area, historically associated with the erstwhile princely state of
Burdwan. It begins by
introducing the chars and
describing their environmental uncertainties, making them, in the authors’
view, true representatives
of environmental borderlands. Chars come and
go, their existence dependent on seasonal floods
and the buildup of sediments. The same may be
said of the people, mostly
landless peasants, who
have settled there, either
as immigrants from elsewhere in India (mostly the
poor state of Bihar) or as
Life in a Fluid
Charles W. Nuckolls
The reviewer is at the Department
of Anthropology, Brigham Young
University, Provo, UT 84602, USA.
from Bangladesh. Many stay permanently,
while others move off the chars and onto
the “mainland” once their fortunes improve.
The chars were, until recently, one of the few
remaining wild areas available for settlement
to economically dispossessed and politically
After describing the geomorphological
environment of the area, the authors review
the tactics and strategies (some deliberate, others accidental) to control the Damodar River and its floodplains from colonial
times to the present. They next discuss the
relationship between the chars and the mainland, showing that as the latter became more prosperous
the chars served increasingly
as overflow territories largely
inhabited by the dispossessed.
The first of the ethno-
graphic chapters sketches the
history of the successive waves
of immigration into the chars.
Lahiri-Dutt and Samanta then
explore the dimensions of vul-
nerability and security. Biha-
ris and Bangladeshis have adjusted to the
chars of the Damodar in different ways. The
former generally grow wheat and the lat-
ter rice, reflecting the agricultural habits of
their homelands. One might have thought
that because both groups come from flood-
prone areas, the differences between them
would be slight. It turns out, however, that the
Biharis have found it harder to cope with the
changing ecology and therefore tend to move
out when they are able. The largely undocu-
mented Bangladeshis, by contrast, have flour-
ished by manipulating their land- and water-
based livelihoods in an area still largely
beyond government control.
The penultimate, and strongest, chapter
examines the fine points of everyday economic life, giving special attention to the
multifaceted earning strategies of the marginal population. It includes small case studies that allow the voices of the char-dwellers
to be heard.
Peculiarly absent is any substantial attention to caste. Perhaps the Damodar is the
exception to the rule everywhere else in India
that caste is always a first-order consideration in local
social relations. “Caste differences,” we are told, “are
not much pronounced in the
chars, since most households are from lower-caste
and lower economic classes.”
This, however, seems unlikely,
because even “lower” castes
are acutely conscious of their
positions—all the more so if
their economic status is precarious and weak.
It is hardly a coincidence that most economically marginal groups in South Asia are
also, generally, the lowest in the caste hierarchy. What accounts for the authors’ neglect?
The reader cannot know. The same is true of
marriage and kinship relations, despite the
fact that Lahiri-Dutt and Samanta acknowledge that family is the primary resource for
people who otherwise would be extremely
vulnerable to the vicissitudes of nature and
economy. But we are told
almost nothing about
marriage systems, sibling relations, and descent
patterns. Instead, the
authors devote most of
the last chapter to the role
of women—an important consideration, to be
sure, but not as useful as
it would have been if set
within the larger context
of kinship structure.
Dancing with the
River offers a richly panoramic study of a unique
geographical context. It
will be indispensable to
scholars of marginality,
poverty, and vulnerability,
as well as to geographers,
historians, and anthropologists of South Asia.
Dancing with the River
People and Life on the
Chars of South Asia
by Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt
and Gopa Samanta
Yale University Press,
New Haven, CT, 2013. 296 pp.
$65, £40. ISBN 9780300188301.
Yale Agrarian Studies.
Shyamal Baran Saha’s Impression of Chars (2008). 10.1126/science.1245713