A young woman explores the melody of cyclone-hit villages of the Sunderbans

Forest of Tides
The Untold Story of the Sunderbans
Book Excerpt 

A lone heron struggled to find a safe perch, flapping its wings helplessly against the strong winds that were threatening to blow away trees, uproot mangroves, capsize boats and destroy everything that came in their way. People ran helter-skelter, unsure whether they should try to save the humble thatch-roofs of their tiny houses, the meagre goods they owned, or their paddy and potatoes, which they needed for survival for the rest of the year.

But the wind and the rain seemed determined to destroy everything. I was cooped up in my room, in an unfamiliar place, unable to decide what sounded more dangerous: the eerie wind as it howled through the village, the crash of a falling tree, the hull of a boat dashing against the concrete and steel of the jetty, or the collective sounds of panic emanating from birds, beasts and humans alike. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Perhaps this was nature’s not-so-subtle way of initiating me into the Sunderbans.

After almost three hours, the wind and rain finally abated. The cyclone had ravaged everything in its wake. The rice fields and huts were damaged; the mangroves were uprooted, causing the embankment that encircled and protected the village to break down at places; cracks had appeared along the ground as a result of which the tidal waters were seeping into the village through the many breaches. Water – a source of life – had, yet again, destroyed the lives that people here so carefully tried to maintain.

The morning after the cyclone – only three days after I had arrived in the Sunderbans, in January 2013 – I was at the jetty, standing on brackish silt, where the blue of the sky, the green of the mangroves, and the muddy, brown waters of the Bidya river stretched as far as the eye could see. The cyclone had left in its wake contrastingly serene weather. A solitary boat on the river added to the tranquillity of the landscape. Coming down from Godkhali, where the Gosaba and Bidya rivers meet, on the left bank was the island of Gosaba and on the right bank was the island of Bali. The two were united in the destruction that the cyclone, or ghurnijhar, had caused, but the damage was little in comparison to that caused by the cyclone Aila. I was to later realize that cyclones of such small intensity were aplenty. They did not even get named unless they were as large in magnitude and as destructive as Aila.

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Subsequently, each time I stood there, the vastness of the river filled me with a sense of awe and reverence. The landscape took on myriad shades, particularly during the immensely beautiful sunrises and sunsets, when their hues became more intense, as if nature was ruminating on the richness of life. It was surreal to witness this natural, ethereal glory.

The jetty that I stood on was hardly a year old, and already it showed signs of being worn down by the seasons and storms it had witnessed. It had two platforms and a few steps to aid movement during the changing water levels. During low tide most of the structure was visible while during high tide everything except the upper platform was submerged. The force of the tides pulled and pushed the solid concrete in opposite directions, resulting in cracks.

No amount of reading or research could have prepared me for a life in this forest of mangroves and tides where everything was governed by jwaar and bhaata: the arrival and departure of boats; the time of day when fishing commenced and people went into the forest to collect firewood; work along the embankment, either for repairs or for building new boats; or making fishing nets and even a visit to a bank!

Behind the jetty were paddy and sweet potato fields at different stages of growth. Beyond that stretched the village of Bijaynagar, where there were no roads, as with everywhere else in the Sunderbans, barring the island of Gosaba. The popular mode of transportation was boats, or walking. Later, I would find out that carts powered by motorized engines were also used to transport people.

Each day, I grew accustomed to a life of no frills, yet one that remained as mellifluous as the waves. Initially, I marvelled at how people lived without electricity. Later, I got used to it. I considered myself lucky if there was sufficient charge in the solar-powered battery to charge my phone and laptop, and if the ceiling fan functioned at least for half the night! Such thoughts faded away as I realized there were more pressing needs that had to be addressed, such as clean water and basic medical facilities. The locals – born into hardship and having minimal interaction with the world beyond the Sunderbans – accept life and all its trying situations with immense grace and humility.

Walking around the village in the aftermath of the cyclone, I could see people repairing their homes. Later in the day, I ensured that the roof of my dwelling was anchored to the ground with aluminium wires to prevent it from being blown away. This was to save me from being roofless in the cyclones, of which there were at least five during my two-year stay at Bali.

The locals viewed me as a strange young woman who had come to live with them on the island. While some greeted me politely, most were curious and yet suspicious about my motives. Why would a single woman leave behind city life and choose to live in a remote village on an island in the Bay of Bengal, surrounded by mangrove forests? The shopkeeper who sold me the aluminium wire did not hesitate to let me know that the delta was no place for a woman who was not born here; that I should return home after some sightseeing.

Walking around the village of Bijaynagar one evening, I came upon melodious voices raised in song. Drawn by the sounds, I entered a small hut where three men were praising god Krishna:

Janama saphala ta’ra, Krishna darasana ya’ra
Bhagye hoeichey ek bara

Bikasiya hrin-nayana kari Krishna darasana
Chade jiva chitera bikara
(One’s birth is successful if, by some stroke of luck, one can have Krishna’s darshan even once.
By seeing Krishna through the openness of one’s heart, one can view the world through a new consciousness.)

They welcomed me with smiles, and the lady of the house offered me a chair. Sensing my interest, they sang with more vigour. I was moved to tears. On finishing the bhajan, they encouraged me to join them the following evening and promised to teach me how to sing. This warm welcome was perhaps the first that I had received since my arrival at Bali.

However, I couldn’t go back to them for a long time. Exploring and acclimatizing myself was demanding. I had to learn about the landscape and how to navigate it. Moreover, the hospital project had to be set into motion.

[Excerpted from the chapter 'Land']

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