At the Mercy of a Changing River, a Town Lives in Limbo
Photographer Prasiit Sthapit captures the eerie atmosphere of a territory's eroding lands and the residents caught in the space in between.
Nepalese photographer Prasiit Sthapit grew up hearing snippets about a place named Susta on the news. The small village is disputed territory. The land, claimed in part by both India and Nepal, lies along the Gandaki (also known as the Narayani) River, serves as the informal border between the two countries. But that river is changing course, and with it the boundary changes too, leaving leaders in disagreement over who owns Susta. Meanwhile, those who live there are left in limbo.
To complicate matters, riverbank erosion is swiftly causing the land in question to disappear. As the river changes course, chunks of land are lost to the waters.
Sthapit was vaguely familiar with the story, but he never saw any in-depth coverage—just bits here and there about politics or erosion. So he wondered: What does it look like? Who lives there?
When he asked around, the response was discouraging. People told him to stay away. “They said, ‘Don’t go there. Only the hooligans live there.’” But his curiosity was strong enough to quell their voices. Through a friend of a friend of a friend (he eventually had luck with his sixth or seventh connection), he found a contact in Susta.
He crossed the Gandaki to get to the village. (From Nepal, it’s either do that, or travel through India, which is difficult with a camera.) When he arrived he was taken to the police station, where village elders were waiting to question his intentions. Where was he from? What was he doing? Since Susta lacks electricity and hotels, Sthapit stayed with the son of his original contact. The next morning, he received a warning welcome while he was out photographing. “Suddenly some guy was holding my collar and questioning me,” he says. “They were really suspicious of me taking pictures in Susta.”
But he managed to turn his camera, initially an object of mistrust, into an olive branch. In addition to documenting the town on that initial visit, Sthapit made family portraits. When he returned, he brought prints. “That was a bridge,” he says. “Now I can stay in any house. They are happy to have me.”
Sthapit, though, wasn’t happy with the story that his photos told after his first trip. So he returned to Susta several times. As he did, his connections grew and his style changed. At first his images were contrasty and journalistic, but through conversations with his photographic mentor, his photos began to literally lighten up. He started thinking more about the crux of the story and what word he could use to describe it.
“Isolation” became his mantra, influencing his work conceptually and visually. “White background, endless horizon, they’re stuck in the middle,” he says of his subjects. “Nepal doesn’t fully accept them—they want to, but they’re still neglecting—and India is neglecting. They’re neither here nor there. They’re stuck in the middle—three sides India, one side the huge Narayani River. They’re just an island that no one cares about.”
He tells the story of Ram Pyare Kurmi, a man who moved his house nine times, “mostly because of the river, and also because of Indian infiltration. He said if the river was not contained within two or three years, Susta would not be there at all.” But the man stayed. Susta is a fertile area, and many residents feel like they have nowhere else to go. “Resilience” is another key word Sthapit uses to describe the town.
A month ago, Sthapit visited Susta again. This time, he saw signs of hope: “They started building retaining walls, and there’s a plan to build a bridge as well.” These plans had been in the works before, but when the 2015 earthquake struck, government discourse shifted its focus to relief efforts. The work has since resumed. “Last time I went, there was a fast process,” he says. “To build a bridge, they have to build a retaining wall. Both of them are happening now.”
That bridge would be a game changer for Susta’s residents. One boy Sthapit met had to stop his schooling after the fifth grade. “In the village the school is only until grade five. [After that] you have to go to India or across the river to Nepal, and a lot of people can’t afford that. He said his life was ruined. He really wanted to see more and learn more, but there was nothing he could do. The way he put it was not sad; it felt like it was just the way it is, and that was even more sad to me,” Sthapit says.
That boy’s family was eventually able to put him in school in India, but for many others that’s not the case. For Kurmi, the man who moved his house, “His son has repeated fifth grade five times,” Sthapit says. “Not because he failed, but because there was nowhere else to go. I think that will change when they build the bridge.”
View more of Prasiit Sthapit's work on his website.
Becky Harlan is an associate photo editor for National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.