The boatman’s calling

Peeyush Sekhsaria | Updated on April 18, 2014


A man who knows the Ganges river dolphin as intimately as he knows the waters of Patna

An old hand, Rajendra Sahni, a fisherman, river patroller, diver, retriever of dead bodies and river dolphin specialist, pares your expectations down even before you set out on a boat ride with him in the hope of seeing the Ganges river dolphin: “They are wild animals. In the next 2-3 hours, I’ll try my best to help you spot one. But there’s no guarantee. I hope you understand.” We’re at Patna’s Gandhi Ghat and Sahni, I’m told, is one of the few tenuous links to this fast disappearing species. Confined to the Indus, Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna and the Karnaphuli-Sangu river systems, the Ganges river dolphin was categorised as ‘endangered’ two years ago by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Bihar Tourism even initiated a dolphin-spotting package in end 2012 — but it has since been discontinued due to a “lack of response”.

I reassure the boatman that I’m happy just to be out on Gangaji — a common form of address in Patna, even though, barring a few ghats, the river is the dump yard of the city, revered and abused in equal measure. As his boat (and its diesel engine) chugs along, the mighty river, its expanse, gentle flow and quiet power take over. “The best place to see dolphins is at the confluence of Gandak and Ganga, but they can surprise you by showing up anywhere at all,” says Sahni, while keeping a keen, meditative lookout. We talk about Ganga and the powerful Gandak, which forces its way down from the Himalayas. “Its force was such we would hear its roar over all the sounds of this land,” he says emphatically. As we turn to enter the main course of the Ganga, with the massive Gandhi Bridge as the backdrop… “There,” he spots a dolphin. I don’t (I was busy taking notes!).

A veritable encyclopaedia on the dolphin, the sacred river and its tributaries, all of which he has surveyed, sometimes for weeks at a stretch, as part of a small, dedicated group of researchers led by Professor RK Sinha, Sahni has been a key cog in the wheel for 30 odd years. Dr Gopal Sharma, a scientist with the Gangetic Plains Regional Centre, Zoological Survey of India, Patna, says his knowledge of the river, its meanderings and its geo-morphology, is legendary. He also reports dolphin sightings, especially young ones, and deaths.

When he’s not helping researchers, Sahni continues to fish. His livelihood depends primarily on patrolling the river during festivities and diving for bodies. A sought after diver (with gothakhor printed proudly on his visiting card), Sahni’s moment of glory arrived when he got a State medal for rescuing three women who had accidentally fallen into the river. Sought by the police and local administration, he and his team (adding up to 100 men at times), will be patrolling 32 ghats during the Chhath Pooja later this year. “My job is demanding and risky. But while an unskilled labourer gets ₹300 a day, I get a mere ₹249. I also wish we had a good, even if small, submarine in Patna to make our jobs easier. I’ve trained in one in Kolkata,” he says.

Later, coursing closer to the confluence, we see a number of dolphins. They come up for air, sometimes rewarding us with a spectacular jump. But as the sun sets and a chilly breeze picks up, Sahni steers his boat, as he must, towards the crowded shore.

Call Rajendra Sahni (09852235261) to see dolphins, early morning or late afternoon.

(The writer is an architect and geographer)

Published on April 11, 2014

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