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Story – 37 Sunderbans – The gift of the river Ganga

Legend tells us that the descent of the mighty river Ganga from the heavens would have split the earth. However, lord Shiva averted such a calamity by taming the river by tying her torrents into his matted ash-smeared locks of hair, thus dissipating her force as she landed on earth. The braided river flows eastwards through a wide expanse of thirsty plains until it reaches its final stages in Bengal. Here, the braids gradually get undone, the loosened but as yet tangled strands break up into streams and rivulets that spread across the land like a wide network that breaks up the land mass into an archipelago of islands. This tide countryside called the Sunderban is interposed between the plains of Bengal and the waters of the Bay of Bengal that lie yonder. Some of these islands are large and inhabited, however many exist as mangrove forest lands inhabited by snakes, crocodiles and tigers. Some islands exist as sheer sand bars that have a transient existence as their boundaries  keep fluctuating and mutating with the currents and the tides.

A short train ride from Kolkata leads to Canning, the gateway to the tide country. Further travel is by motor boats and sail boats that leave Canning for other inhabited islands according to the tides.  Canning holds an important place in the lives of these islanders. It is the last bureaucratic outpost, people come to Canning for shopping, medical attention, selling their produce or for government work. It is the starting point for reaching out to the civilization existing beyond their confines.

Jonaki, now aged 14 years lived on the island of Nalbari. It could be approached only by small boats from Lusibari. The large island of Lusibari was well connected and was a regular stop on the navigation route of the motor boat or launches plying between Canning and Morichjhapi. Nalbari was a small island about fourteen square kilometers in area. There was a cluster of about 60 homes and beyond the centre of the island lay several clusters of  shanty huts, the population of about 1000 people on this island. Jonaki’s mother died from a snakebite when she was still very young. Jonaki could not remember her mother. She was brought up by her grand parents. Her father would stay away from home for many days whenever he went to sea on a fishing spree.

The monsoons were heavy that year, the edges of their island would often get inundated. The villagers would move cartloads of mud to create embankments to withstand the encroachments by the tides. Her father would return home from time to time. He would bring home purchases of utensils, clothes, flour, kerosene and other family needs from the nearby island of Lusibari.

During one such monsoon, when she was aged 12, Jonaki’s grand mother fell ill. Her grandfather had to hire a boat to carry her grandmother to a government dispensary located at Lusibari.  Before departing, Jonaki’s grand father warned her against the possible onslaught of floods, he instructed her to climb onto the peepal tree, in case the house got flooded. Just as he had predicted, under the onslaught of fierce winds and incessant rains, water started flooding the island. When Jonaki peeped out, she saw her neighbours moving to higher parts on the island. Water soon entered her hut. She picked up a few rations, tied them in a bundle in her grandma’s saree, she then climbed onto the peepal tree and patiently waited for the flood waters to recede. For two days she stayed perched on the tree, frightened, exhausted and hungry. On the third day, the rains subsided, the sun came out, but the flood waters were still swirling around her. She noticed a young man rowing towards her in a boat, he helped her to come down. She was saved in time. She moved in with villagers living in the upper dry reaches of Nalbari. A few days later she could return to her devastated hut.

After a week,  her grandfather returned home alone and crestfallen. Unfortunately, grandma could not recover from her illness. She died in the government hospital in Lusibari. He had to cremate her over there. After his return, for a few days he kept essentially to himself. He wept from time to time, but soon brought himself to facing the task of building their hut anew. Life returned to its original tone. Jonaki however found herself rudely thrown into the realities of life, and at her tender age, she was forced to assume adult responsibilities. She suddenly grew up many years. Her childhood was swept away in those floods.

Her father, Sondesh returned home after a week. He heard the news of the death of his mother with equanimity. In the tide country, the inhabitants are used to tragedies which seem to be lurking around the corner at all times. They have learnt to take life in their stride, thankful to the Lord for favours granted, and accepting all mishaps as their destiny. The inhabitants of the island prayed to the guardian spirit Bon Bibi to protect them from danger. After the monsoon, when the waters were calm, Sondesh once again set out on his boating expedition, this time on his return visit, he halted on the island of Rangbellito visit his cousin Bhobesh. During his stay there Sondesh was introduced to a young eligible bachelor named Dhrub, Sondesh decided that on his return home he would consult his father and Jonaki before sending a marriage proposal to Dhrub’s parents. Unfortunately, he could never return home because he fell prey to a tiger on an unhabited island where he had halted on his return journey.

Jonaki lived with her grandfather for the next two years, tending to her small vegetable patch, raising poultry and working as a part-time maid in the house of the well-to do families of Mr. Subhash Mazumdar who ran a grocery store and Mr. Tanmoy Ghosh who taught at the village school. One night, her grandfather complained of chest pain, she rushed to her neighbour for help but by the time they arrived – Grandpa had breathed his last. She was now left all alone to fend for herself. Mrs. Ghosh was very kind to her, but often worried about her future.

One day a group of visiting dignitaries from Kolkatta arrived at Nalbari. They identified themselves as social workers from Nari Seva – an NGO that worked for the welfare of widows, destitute and abandoned women, helping to rehabilitate them by training them in crafts to become self-supporting and independent. The social workers addressed the elders of Nalbari in the school premises and promised to help needy women from Nalbari by inducting them into trades like tailoring, embroidery, cooking, nursing, primary school teachers or anganbari workers. Mrs Ghosh, listened to these kindly souls with rapt attention. She perceived in their visit an opportunity to settle Jonaki. Accordingly, she persuaded Jonaki to improve her future prospects in life by getting trained in a profession. Jonaki, who had few options, accepted Mrs. Ghosh’s advice. The next day she, along with two other girls – Bhadra and Nilima from two poor families of coolies working at the jetty – decided to leave Nalbari along with their patrons. Her eyes dimmed as she watched her village disappearing into the horizon. She had now closed a chapter in her life, she looked forward to her future with mixed feelings of trepidation and anticipation.
On reaching Canning, these helpless women were given new clothes and then sold to leering pimps, who herded them to Kolkatta and sold them to agents running a flourishing flesh trade.

Jonaki was sold to Miriambi, who ran a music hall in downtown Kolkatta. There was no escape from this hell-hole. At first she resisted, but frequent beatings, starvation and scolding finally broke her rebellious spirit. She accepted her fate and decided to make the most of her life in the confines of the red-light district. Ten long years went by. Memories of Nalbari gradually became dim. She never thought that she would see her childhood home ever again.

One day, Horen aged 26 years now, the son of Mr.Ghosh of Nalbari came to Kolkatta to visit his relatives. His cousin Bhasker aged 24 years, a medical student,  took him out sight-seeing. After visiting the Victoria Memorial, they went for a stroll to Chowranghee, they watched a movie at the Metro. Bhasker treated him to the delights at Flurry’s, and finally persuaded Horen to savour the delights of the  redlight district. Here, after paying Madam for services at her den, they were led to different cubicles by a pimp. On entering the cubicle, Horen was shocked to come face to face with Jonaki. She was all painted with gaudy make-up and was scantily dressed. He averted her glance and tried to leave, when Jonaki held him back with her hand. She made him sit down on the couch and narrated her long sad story of deception and abandonment. She made polite enquiries about the people back home in Nalbari.

Horen asked her if she would like to come back to Nalbari – She hung her head in shame, staring at the floor she said – “I have been defiled, I am no longer fit to live amongst the bhadralok (genteel folks) at Nalbari. Here I am well looked after. I have some permanent clients who are considerate. But let me emphasize this universal truth – however unacceptable it may sound. We, the so called fallen women are looked down upon by society. The genteel women scorn us – but do they realize that they are safe in their homes – away from the roving eyes of sex hungry fiends and young unmarried men, college students and married men living away from their wives in this large uncaring metropolis. The unquenched fires in their loins drives them to us. We satisfy their manly needs so that other women may live in peace. You too came here to satisfy your lust. Who am I to judge you? All that I wish to say is that not many of us are here out of choice – Necessity often drives us into this trade.” She then went on to say “Swear to me not to breathe a word about our meeting when you go back home. Behave as though we had never met. May god be with you” – She then led him out of her cubicle – Life has to go on.