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The school, the only concrete building, had people milling about it when we reached. Khan Dadu and his Ammi wept bitterly. She informed him that more of their land had been washed away.
I met him on my visit home from the hostel. I saw him digging away in the lush green lawn. He looked up to take a look at me through his blank, deep set eyes and then got back to his work again. The first rains of the season had just paid our town a visit. The small garden in front of my house was sparkling, the pristine drops of rain still hanging on to the leaves and flower petals. I had never seen him before, but figured he must be the new gardener my mother spoke about. As I turned back to look at him, while waiting for someone to open the door, I noticed him talking to a brown string around his finger and then it wriggled – a worm?
I saw him again the next morning amidst the blooming red hibiscus and the scarlet Gulmohar, painstakingly planting saplings. It looked to me that he was wiping off his tears, but I couldn’t be sure because it was still drizzling.
The incessant rains had made it impossible to go out. I loitered around the house most of the morning, admiring the riot of colours that our garden was. Ah! What bliss it is to sit in the comfort of your house and watch the rain splashed surroundings followed by a long leisurely lunch. As I was about to settle down for my afternoon siesta, I was summoned by my mother.
She sat in the rocking chair on the veranda, trying unsuccessfully to console the gardener, who sat at her feet beating his head with his dark, heavily veined hands.
‘Can you find out the phone number of the post office in Ghoramara?’ My mother demanded.
I hadn’t even heard of this place.
‘Ghoramara, in the Sundarbans’
‘I am not sure, I can try,’ I said even as I typed furiously on my phone.
‘It is like a hungry animal you cannot satiate. It eats and eats and eats. Last year my brother’s house was washed away, that is when we decided to leave, but my mother refused. I don’t know if I will ever see her alive. Here you people rejoice when the rains descend, for us it is a curse from the heavens,’ he wept.
After a few hours of searching the internet, I gave up. I wondered if the post office there even had a telephone. When I came out, I saw him sitting exactly where I had left him. My mother was back inside the house. When he saw me, I think I saw a glint of hope in his eyes, but it died down as soon as he saw my face. I did not have to say anything; he slowly lifted himself up and walked away.
I followed him out of the gate and made my way to the post office, maybe they would have a number, but apparently they did not. I could send a post they offered.
On my way back home, I had decided on the subject for my photo project!
When he came the next morning, I told him I wanted to go with him to Ghoramara;
He looked at me in disbelief.
‘There is nothing to see there, only destruction and the hungry sea.’
‘We can at least find out how your mother is, maybe I can help do something about it.’
His pale yellow eyes dissolved in tears.
That night as I packed my bag, I wondered if I was being a fool…I looked at my notebook, the Indian temple trail, the subject of my photo project, 20 pages of research done over the last 2 months. I had friends going to Paris, Prague, Ladakh… But here I was getting ready for my blind date with Ghoramara…the sinking islands of the Sundarbans!
The journey till the nearest town was quite an experience with the bus winding through the narrow rain-washed streets lined with beetle nut trees. The trees were swaying lightly in the rainy breeze, their long feathery leaves allowing thin rays of the cool sun to shine on the glass panes of the bus. We were dropped off at the last bus stop, post which we had to make our way on a rickety rickshaw which maneuvered its way through the muddy lanes amidst bright green beetle leaf plantations. Our rickshaw puller however was an experienced chap so we averted falling over as we made our way through puddles of mud and kaccha rasta, pretty much like my elderly companion; my gardener, Khan Dadu. Wasn’t he too surviving the cruel spokes of destiny’s wheels trampling his already broken will to live?
We treaded through ankle deep slush and water to reach the ferry. The rains had stopped for now and the sun was beating down our heads ferociously as if it were avenging the rains. We rode through the open seas before making way through a thicket of mangrove forests. We were deep into the middle of the river where the mangrove was at its thickest when the boatman asked everyone to keep absolutely still and quite. We rode on in silence through the narrow strip of water surrounded by the forest on both sides.
‘There are tigers around, they at times jump onto the ferry,’ Khan Dadu informed me almost matter-of-factly. His composure surprised me. The boatman noticed my surprise and told me how tiger attacks had become very common.
‘What do we do? We need to survive and so do they,’ he said looking away into the deep forest, ‘hopefully it’s my day today.’
It was only when we came to a lesser dense part of the mangrove that Khan Dadu pulled at my sleeves.
‘Do you see that black hump on the tree?’ he said pointing to a particular tree in the distance. I nodded.
‘Those are bees,’ this was the first time during this long journey that my companion had initiated a conversation.
‘Wow!’ I said to egg him on as I focussed my camera onto the trees. Scores of brown and black bees swarmed the tree.
‘I used to come here with my father to collect honey. My father was a renowned honey collector and so was my grandfather. My grandfather had once gifted some honey to the king. He had liked it very much and that’s when he allotted my grandfather a large piece of land at Ghoramara.’
I saw his excitement die down at the mention of Ghoramara.
‘You mentioned you collected honey too?’ I asked attempting to cheer him up.
‘Yes, I was pretty good at it. Have you tasted honey straight from the beehive? It is so sweet, the sweetest thing on this earth. At the end of the day when you taste this heavenly nectar, the bee stings, the fear of the tiger everything seems worth.’
‘These leaves, yes those narrow pointed ones, these are the tiger ferns, we burn these to drive away the bees,’ he explained pointing at some plants. ‘But everything is dwindling now. God knows what will happen to people living here,’ he said wiping his tears with the end of his long shirt.
We were out into the open sea soon. I heard the ladies at the back of the ferry say a silent prayer, may be for having made it alive.
As we made our way onto the shore and then towards Khan Dadu’s house, the havoc that the rains had created was visible everywhere. Beetle nut trees lay around uprooted. Very few trees still stood on their mangled roots, the roots visible over the ground because the sea had washed away the soil below. The roots held their ground with all their might, pretty much like we had held on to our breaths through the thick mangrove, death staring them into the face. The first few houses had caved in and were abandoned. Khan Dadu now hardly seemed to have any strength to keep walking. He had slowed down, was one these houses his? I wondered.
‘Where is your house?’ I ventured to ask.
He pointed to the west ‘If it is still there,’ he whispered.
He was informed by a villager cycling by that all the villagers had taken shelter in the school building.
‘Ammi?’ he asked trepid, the villager smiled.
The school, the only concrete building, had people milling about it when we reached. Khan Dadu and his Ammi wept bitterly. She informed him that more of their land had been washed away. Pal, the school headmaster agreed to take me around the village the next day.
Pal took me to his house a little distance away. Khan Dadu also insisted I will be more comfortable there. I slept fitfully that night amidst the roaring sea and the sound of crickets.
I ventured deeper into the island the next morning with Pal, it was a beautiful view. Clusters of palm-thatched huts surrounded by the nimble beetle nut trees were strewn about in the island.
‘It almost looks like the almighty has painted it,’ I remarked as I captured another shot with my camera.
Pal laughed out loud, ‘Yes, he just drew it with water colours which run.’
‘Can people not move in here?’
‘They have, after every monsoon we keep moving inside and cutting down the mangrove. And then the tiger comes and drags us away’
‘Is there no way? Can’t the government do something?’
‘They are evacuating villages. Maybe it will be our turn very soon. What will we do there anyways?’ Khan Chacha had the biggest beetle leaf plantation here, look what he is doing now’ he said wiping off his eyes with his sleeves, before continuing ’Even I have decided to move out from here. My son will finish his 10th standard next year and then I will go too.’
‘But you should have had thought about it before cutting away the entire mangrove from the embankments. I am sorry if I sound harsh.’
‘Haven’t we all done that? It’s just that we are facing brunt of Mother Nature first. But she is unforgiving, she will seek her revenge. How long would have the mangroves protected us from her wrath when all her greens are being destroyed the world over. This was inevitable.’
We walked the rest of the way in silence. The cool breeze was no longer soothing; the sun was no longer an ally.
As we neared the school for our lunch, Pal gently touched my shoulder and said, ‘Will you use your camera to drill some sense into this world? One Ghoramara is enough, let not there be others.’
In the evening Pal informed me the villagers had arranged a feast for me. The sky looked clear and they anticipated no rains for the next couple of days, so they were anyways upbeat, and the arrival of a Camera Babu from the city was an added bonus.
It was a night I will never forget. It was a full moon night, the sky strewn with bright stars. Even through the chatter you could hear the waves break onto the shore. Earthen pots with rice wine were dug up from the ground. As the villagers swayed to the sound of drums, the beetle trees seemed to join in the revelry as they swayed from side to side like a sensuous woman.
On our way back to Pal’s house I asked him if we could take a stroll on the beach. He agreed. The white foamy sea splashed around the shore, the waves riding high to romance the moon.
‘She is beautiful.’
Pal laughed out loud, his laughter reverberating through the silence, challenging the roaring seas.
I was set to depart to next day. Khan Dadu asked if he could come after the rains. He wanted to stay back to repair the house, so his mother could live there.
‘How will she live here alone, what is left here?’
‘She refuses to leave her bhite, I have tried my best.’
I decided to speak to his mother.
‘Ammi, why don’t you come with us? Your son is there, your grandchildren are there. They worry about you.’
‘I came here when I was 16, son, I have been here all my life. This was the house I stepped into as a married woman. This is where my husband cared for me; this is where my children were born. This is the soil which sustained us. How can I leave?’
‘But there is nothing left here, the sea has washed away everything.’
‘Let it wash me away along with it. This soil is where my father-in-law, my mother-in-law and my husband are sleeping. I cannot close my eyes anywhere else. The deepest bottom of this sea is my only solace,’ she said determinedly.
I realized there was no way I could convince her. May be she had become the sea, strong, resilient, unafraid. And maybe one day the sea will become her.
Ammi insisted she wanted to accompany us to the ferry. She had difficulty walking and sat down at the feet of a tree. As I looked back from the ferry, she was still sitting there. Below the orange sky, a tiny frail woman, clad in black, sat at the mangled root of a dying beetle nut tree. The strong winds blew her sparse grey hair onto her face warning her of the doom awaiting her on this island, but she continued staring at the hungry tides unperturbed, her face, a story of a life well lived, a death impending.
I took out my notebook… scratched out the temple trail and wrote ‘#The Hungry Tides’ I had found the right subject for my project and for life!
A version of this was first published here.
Image source: YouTube
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