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I went to India a few years ago and I couldn't help thinking about this novel and another one called "A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry. Back to your question. The river in the novel has a history of its own. Generations of men, children, women, grandparents, cows and everything else swim, defecate, pray and cremate in it. To the western eye, it is rather unappealing. To the people around the river, it is their past, present and future. Early in the novel we are let in on memories of a family grieving around a drowned child's coffin. The river is the giver of life and the taker of life as well. The River is shrouded in religious symbolism. It is not only a connection with past generations but with the Gods themselves. It is unfit for swimming and has a nasty smell, but the people who own the nearby hotel tout the area as "God's Own Country." Although the people at the hotel like to point out that the area is steeped in tradition, much of the place has been converted to suit tourists. I suppose that this hints at the river’s place in the future.