The hungry tides in Gabura

Travelling by motorbike to my field site Photos: Raka Sen

A sociologist-to-be investigates salinity issues in Gabura

After being called Piya enough times, I decided to pick up a copy of The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh. Like Piya, the protagonist, I am an American of Bengali descent studying the Sundarbans. Unlike Piya, I am a proud Bengali speaker, though my accent betrays my bideshi roots. While reading, I was surprised to find that what stood out to me the most was not the  Raka-Piya parallels, but instead Ghosh’s portrayal of the Sundarbans:

“Staring at it now, she was struck by the way greenery worked to confound the eye. It was not just that it was a barrier, like a screen or a wall: It seemed to trick the human gaze in the manner of a cleverly drawn optical illusion. There was such a profusion of shapes, forms, hues, and textures, that even things that were in plain view seemed to disappear, vanishing into the tangle of lines like the hidden objects in children’s puzzles.” – the Hungry Tide (Ghosh, 125)

Being the sociologist-in-training that I am, I perceived echoes of Ghosh’s words everywhere I looked, noting parallels between the Sundarbans’ natural illusions and the illusory nature of the people who live within it.

Notes from the Field (July, 2018)

We stopped abruptly in front of a semi-stable wooden treehouse perched upon slender stilts atop a small canal, rather than a traditional tree for stability. People were yelling “Bideshi eshe gatche!” — the foreigners are here! I reflected on my own upbringing in the United States, my jonmosthan, which is a 24-hour flight (layover somewhere in the Middle East), 4 hour drive, 30 minute boat ride and a 20 minute motorcycle ride away from Gabura Upazila in Shyamnagar, Bangladesh where I now found myself. I quickly hopped off the motorbike and was directed towards the treehouse. I was wary of entering, as doing so meant balancing on a thin plank that was sure to give out beneath my newly formed bhat (rice) belly that was currently concealed beneath my freshly-purchased maternity clothes from Aarong. Almost instantaneously, the empty treehouse, a makeshift meeting room for the villagers of Gabura, was teeming with people staring at me with an intensified curiosity. As I contemplated confessing that I, too, like my sugar with a tiny bit of tea in it to establish a connection, I realized that one of the things I haven’t yet learned after my first year of graduate school is whether to embrace being an outsider or attempt to blend in. I’m early enough in my PhD in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania that I have yet to outgrow my Britney-Spears-not-a-girl-not-yet-a-sociologist complex.

Concrete embankments are built to keep high tide out of the in-land .Photo Source: Dhaka Tribune

Before starting my PhD, I spent two years working at Rebuild by Design — a design competition to make the northeast United States more resilient after Hurricane Sandy devastated New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut in late 2012. In that time I had many conversations with community members about climate change and resilience issues, but I had a feeling that none of those skills would help here. Using the lens of climate justice and gender and development inequalities, my research focuses on addressing the question of how the disaster changed gender relations in the disaster-prone Sundarban region of India and Bangladesh by forcing a shift from agriculture to more informal work in cities for the men of the region. The methodology for selecting this site was simple: I chose one of the most vulnerable areas in one of the most vulnerable regions. Gabura was just the beginning.

Within five minutes of our arrival, a group of village women, realizing that the treehouse was too loud for my interviews, whisked me away to a neighbouring home, made of mud and wooden ornamentation. The women placed chairs on the square foot of mud that comprised the front porch area and we sat before a smaller, more intimate crowd. While I had a plastic chair, the women themselves all sat on the surrounding ground as if to acknowledge a hierarchy between us. I quickly removed the chair and sat down with the others, beginning the interview with questions about whether all the houses looked the same and whether they were comfortable. The first woman I interviewed fanned me with a slab of styrofoam as we chatted. We soon moved on to their personal backgrounds: Whether they were married, what type of work their family did, their age, the age of their children. Each interview slowly moved towards questions about the women’s experiences and recollections of the Cyclone Aila that had devastated Gabura.

Gabura, like most of the islands of the Sundarbans, is protected by a berm of elevated land around the edge, or a bandh, in Bangla. During Aila, this bandh was completely destroyed, and it took the gramer lok (village people) about 9 months to fix it. Meanwhile each house in Gabura would flood again twice a day during high tide. I was shocked by the timing; in New York, borders would be repaired in weeks, not months. Time itself in Gabura was marked by the pre-Aila golden age of “mishti pani” (translates to sweet-water but means fresh-water) and the post-Aila “lobon pani” (salt-water). It has been more than 9 years and Gabura has not recovered.

In The Hungry Tide, Ghosh discusses time in the Sundarbans as one of the forest’s many illusions:

“The tide country’s jungle was an emptiness, where time stood still. I saw now that this was an illusion, that exactly the opposite was true. What was happening here, I realized, was that the wheel of time was spinning too fast to be seen. In other places it took decades, even centuries, for a river to change course; it took an epoch for an island to appear. But here in the tide country, transformation is the rule of life: Rivers stray from week to week, and islands are made and unmade in days. In other places forests take centuries, even millennia, to regenerate; but mangroves can recolonize a denuded island in 10 to 15years. Could it be that the very rhythms of the earth were quickened here so that they unfolded at an accelerated pace?” (Ghosh, 168).

Ghosh’s words put me on the lookout for remnants of these super-speed changes in the surrounding landscape. The lives of the people had slowed almost to a halt after the rebuilding of the bandh and their homes had been completed. The salinity has rendered both the land and water unusable. Traces of Aila were everywhere. One home had a beautifully carved wooden shelving unit in the kitchen, but the missing glass was a constant reminder of what once was.

Pre-Aila Gabura was a land of plenty, where the people, though remote, lived off the land, growing and catching their own food. Aila robbed Gabura of the ability to do this. It had simultaneously slowed time in Gabura while rushing its people into super speed: They now needed to add new tasks such as fetching water from 3 kilometers away, finding work outside of the island (with the associated commute), and tirelessly shaping their newly salty lives to  resemble their previously mishti ones.

Gabura is a small village still devastated by the impacts of cyclone Alia in 2009

What struck me most during these interviews was the sheer will to survive in the face of crippling adversity — this, I think, is the biggest illusion of all: that such a beautiful place could mask so much suffering, which is in turn connected to a deep sense of community. I say this not to romanticize poverty, but to emphasize that life in Gabura is so much work that one must make a daily commitment to living. One interviewee referred to her life in Gabura as “shob shomay ashanti” — always without peace. The only peace to be found, according to her, was in being surrounded by her family and suffering together. It was utterly impossible to interview just one person: Every question was met with a chorus of responses, to the chagrin of my transcriber.  The women of Gabura’s voices are collective, as are their thoughts. Deeply personal questions were answered by the people around the interviewee, seemingly to spare the affected party. At one point I asked them how often they think about leaving. The women replied that they discuss it often, but they have nowhere to go. This is their jonmosthan and they are stuck here.

For me, Gabura is a paradox. Time seems to stand still while moving at light speed. A place of many illusions, yet one thing remains clear. Gabura and its people agree that it is becoming increasingly unlivable. As I continue my research and learn more about the social changes caused by climate change, Gabura will always be the first people who bring the words off the page and into reality: A place of deep suffering and beauty, a place of peace and no peace at all.

Originally this article was published on July 19, 2018 at Climate-Tribune (Dhaka Tribune). The author  Raka Sen is a visiting researcher at ICCCAD and doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania studying the sociology of climate change, development, and disasters.