By Utpal Borpujari
In the late 19th century, her countrymen scoured the interiors of Assam in search of the liquid gold called petroleum, but for Tess Joyce, a 20-something Briton who landed up in Assam as a volunteer for an NGO working in developing user-friendly cycle rickshaws, a different kind of liquid gold in the North-Eastern state has made her heart swoon. In her own words, “Across the river that glitters gold / I bow to you, my heart is sold.”
The gold she is talking about is the water of the mighty Brahmaputra river, which turn golden as it reflects the rays of the setting sun, and Joyce got so fascinated with the river’s all-encompassing nature that not only has she come up with a book of poems titled A Stanza of Sunlight on the Banks of Brahmaputra jointly with Assamese poet Arnab Jan Deka, but also has jointly with him started a campaign called “Save the Brahmaputra River”, pained as she was with the way people are treating the river, dumping garbage and pollutants into it.
Joyce’s brief stay in Assam for her volunteer work gave her ample opportunity to learn the role the river has played in shaping the Assamese society over centuries, and also how the river is being ill-treated by people, specifically having seen how people carelessly dump garbage onto the waters of the beautiful river. So, the Surrey-born girl did what she could do best – start an immediate campaign with like-minded people to save the river from degradation, something that she plans to take to an international level. This, even as she penned a series of poems on her experiences during her stay in Assam and visits to Meghalaya and Delhi.
Joyce, who plans to return to India soon to continue with her volunteer work, is passionate about the cause. “The thought of living in a land without water is a terrifying notion to many, yet it may soon be a reality for many people across the globe. Standing at the banks of the magnificent Brahmaputra river, these thoughts, of course, did not immediately cross my mind, as I was so overwhelmed by the all-encompassing size of this liquid plateau. My mind was imbibed with beautiful thoughts which I wanted to express in words, and I began composing poetry about the river, which find space in the book,” she says.
As Joyce, whose full name read Teresa Delia Joyce, puts it, the garbage dumped into the river, for that matter any river, ultimately harms living beings, as it enters the food chain through vegetation and fish. “That is what we have to make people aware about,” says the young poet-activist, who won an award for her very first Haiku that she had written while she was still in school. The Save the Brahmaputra River campaign, says Joyce who is its international coordinator, would initially focus on trying to protect those whose lives are wrecked by the river’s annual floods – “those who have been failed by the government and its pitiful flood prevention measures”. Concerned over media reports that China wants to divert water from the Brahmaputra and divert it to dams inside its territory, she says, “This would effectively destroy life as we know it in Assam, since its economy is largely based on agriculture. These are just some of the issues that we want to address through the campaign – to raise awareness, and to ameliorate the problems and find solutions.”
Joyce, a practising Buddhist and a strict vegetarian, says working with Deka has been a wonderful experience because of their shared love for poetry and environmental concerns. “I was fascinated by Assamese culture and enjoyed wearing the mekhala chadar (the traditional two-piece silk dress of Assamese women) and visiting the beautiful places like the Kaziranga National Park. I even attended an Assamese marriage and tried as hard as I could to learn some Assamese words as I wanted to incorporate my very limited knowledge about Assam in my poems; to give an ‘outsider’s perspective’ of this state. The poem ‘An Assamese village girl’ perhaps epitomises what I was trying to achieve through my poems through its constant transmutation of language,” she says.
Joyce is currently fine-tuning the agenda for the campaign, which has been launched under the banner of Assam Foundation India, jointly with Deka. The preliminary tasks set for the campaign include creation of awareness for prevention of waste disposal in Brahmaputra; prevention of tree-felling on its banks and creation of alternative agricultural practice so as not to affect Brahmaputra & to prevent erosion; finding scientific & eco-friendly ways to prevent flooding by the river and to improve current flood-prevention measures and improve living conditions of those affected by floods; raising awareness about the threats faced by declining species living in or around the river, and to find ways of ameliorating these threats; and creating awareness about the potential dangers of national and international dams already constructed or awaiting constructions in and around the Brahmaputra River, in India, Tibet and China.
She is also trying to get a distributor for the book, in which her original poems come side by side with Assamese transliterations by Deka and Deka’s original Assamese poems have been transliterated by her into English, in Delhi so that it can reach other parts of India, even as she has tied up with an organisation to distribute it in the UK. The book, she feels, will also play a crucial role in creating the kind of awareness she is trying to develop in the society. “I hope that the book will be well received in the UK, as it will be a wonderful way to introduce the Assamese culture to Britain and to evoke the magnificence of this fragile river to a wider readership,” she says. Also among the plans is a documentary which will highlight the main problems facing the river. “It will be used to raise awareness and to gain publicity for the campaign,” she adds, hoping that rivers, which are the cradles of civilizations across the world, will be saved by denizens of these very civilizations for their own good.