Field Notes from a Waterborne Land: Bengal Beyond the Bhadralok review: Lives of ecological refugees, and others on the margins

Shining a light on an invisible majority in Bengal that is trying to make ends meet in a land threatened by climate change and poverty

Published - April 16, 2022 04:49 pm IST

In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh recalls the experience of his ancestors, “ecological refugees long before the term was invented.” One day, residents found that the river Padma (now in Bangladesh) had suddenly changed course, drowning their village. They were forced to move westward till they reached the banks of another river, the Ganga, which too has a mind of its own, often flowing off in a different direction, or causing floods and leaving mudflats (or chars) behind.

Researching for his book in the Sunderbans, Ghosh wrote in his notes: “I do believe it to be true that the land here is demonstrably alive — overnight a stretch of riverbank will disappear, sometimes taking houses and people with it, but elsewhere a shallow mudbank will arise and within weeks the shore will have broadened by several feet.”

Parimal Bhattacharya shines a light on people who live on such mudflats, or others on the edge of cities, in Field Notes from a Waterborne Land. If his memoir, No Path in Darjeeling is Straight (2017), gave readers a sense of the place and its people, in Field Notes, he shares insights from places he travelled to in the late 2000s, meeting those living in the shadows, in the Sundarbans, villages on the Bangladesh border or around Santiniketan, and the tribals in the Simlipal forests of Odisha. Through the book, he uses the thread of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s famous debut novel, Pather Panchali, the story of two children, Durga and Apu, growing up poor in a village otherwise filled with rich forests, a river and many ponds, and a rail track.

In Apu’s world

Bhattacharya compares notes with the book and Satyajit Ray’s trilogy based on it. Ray had been taken in by Bibhutibhushan’s encyclopaedic map of rural Bengal, which is mostly gone, and its people, and the contrasts between “the rich and the poor, the laughter and the tears, the beauty of the countryside and the grimness of poverty existing in it.” Bhattacharya remembers Apu’s world as he visits several places associated with Bibhutibhushan. The bokul tree at the writer’s home at Chalki-Barrackpur by the river Ichamati is still standing, but little else remains from that time.

In a waterborne land, the story of loss begins with the drying up of swamps and tributaries, and frequent floods. With these occurrences, “a whole way of life” disappears. Flood refugees of Nabadwip are constantly thinking of ways to survive the next wave of water. “Our foremost priority is human lives. Then we’ll think of livestock, then the lands, and then comes lyakapora (reading and writing or education),” a panchayat leader tells Bhattacharya.

A fisherman uprooted by the river a dozen times says settlers on the char cannot afford to be scared of floods, but as sand mining proliferates, erosion too has increased and chunks of land vanish into the river in the blink of an eye.

Rafi’s tragedy

In seven chapters, Bhattacharya introduces readers to many unforgettable characters, but perhaps the most poignant story is of Rafiqul Islam, the only boy from Sheikhpara who is in Class 10 but had not been coming to school for a month. His teacher Ananda Roy decided to find out why.

At the village, Roy and the writer found Rafiqul’s father Uchiar Ali stirring a pot of amber liquid (date palm syrup). His father explained the absence — Rafiqul has to help with the gur (jaggery)-making. Questions about syllabus and exams hang in the air. Rafi will never finish school but his mother thanks the teacher for always understanding whether her son had eaten or not. You cannot ask, explains Roy, you need to study their faces to know the truth.

In Field Notes, Bhattacharya has studied faces of people who live on the margins to narrate a story of deep loss and remarkable survival.

Field Notes from a Waterborne Land: Bengal Beyond the Bhadralok; Parimal Bhattacharya, HarperCollins, ₹499.

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