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The river has shaped the lives of couple Rahim and Jahanar Gazi. The bond that has been in the interface between nature and man, governed by the tide of the river, is in this connection in the tension between hope and discouragement.
The high tide of the full moon during rainy season turns situations from evil to worse by flooding the house, the vegetable garden and the surrounding areas. The tidal movement keeps them awake and gives them sleepless nights. It is only at early low tide in the rivers that they relax briefly. The changes that Rahim and Jahanara have been going through have gone on for the last years.
Houses of Mud and Golpatat
Once they were happy with what they had—houses made of mud and golpatat (Nipa palm), cow-shed, ponds and around three and a half acres of croplands. The production of Aman paddy-the crop from their land was enough to cover what is most needed. Besides, they had some additional income which was more of passion that includes collecting fish, honey, wood from Mangrove Sundarban.
“We were wealthy then. During winter season wage earners came from northern districts for harvesting rice. We called them parbashi. But the situation has been reversed. Now we visit their area for wage-earning from the rice harvesting,” reflecting on the destiny Rahim Gazi becomes emotional. Eight years back in such rice harvesting period in the month of May, Rahim Gazi went along with his neighbours Taleb, Kiron, Swapan and others from the Faridpur district, a neighbouring district in the North. One day at noon they got information on the mobile telephone from family members that cyclone Aila had devastated everything and they should come back immediately.
The cyclone is not new to Rahim Gazi and others in the coastal villages of the south-west part of Bangladesh. They also lost everything in a cyclone in 1988. That time breaches along the embankment accelerated river erosion which devoured croplands of Rahim Gazi. They had to start life afresh. But the cyclone Aila has no comparison with other cyclones. Rahim Gazi finds it difficult to identify his house and premises. Houses were demolished and levelled with the earth. The river water entering from the breaches of the embankment has inundated the area. All of his neighbours have taken shelter in the makeshift houses along the embankment. His family is also a part of this new settlement.
Restart the Life
In their new life after the cyclone, they found many people from outside. This is people from humanitarian organizations. Rahim Gazi did not like the situation, and he tried to keep his family members away from it. He and his neighbour’s search for livelihood. Taleb and Kiron came to him with questions like; “Uncle is there any income source? How long will we be able to survive with the income that we got from Boro harvesting in northern districts? We should follow others who are meeting with Union Parishad chairman and members for getting relief supports”. Rahim Gazi had no comment. He always prefers to keep a distance from Union Parishad chairman and members. However, he didn’t try to convince them this time. He went to Union Parishad several times but came back with a lot of frustration. Jahanara is very annoyed with Rahim Gazi for his failures for not getting relief supports. After all, she has to manage everything for the family, like collecting drinking water and firewood.
In the evenings, they all gather at the tea stall to get updated from each other about the latest development. Rahim Gazi is a part of this evening get-together. He gets attention for his storytelling when he tells about their own history. “Our forefathers came to this land some 150 years ago. The area was a part of Mangrove Sundarban and they made the land inhabitable and cultivatable. The new land was fertile and good for paddy production. We didn’t have embankment at that time. We had temporary dams for protecting croplands from saline water. We called it Shastomashi (temporary dams for six months) and Astomashi (temporary dams for eight months) dams. A good nexus was in place between river and croplands which helped the land to become fertile from the sediments. People were happy at that time. They had many festivals and events. During the 1960s the embankments were built along the rivers. We would call it WAPDA (Water and Power Development Authority) dams. Communication was improved. In many parts of the area single crop land turned into multi croplands. However, the situation lasted only a few years. Gradually, the environment started changing. The croplands were flooded with saline water from commercial shrimp cultivation. The croplands couldn’t produce paddy cultivation like before,” Rahim Gazi deplores.
His neighbour, Sanaton Mondal continued, “Since then we have been going through miseries. We the landowners are becoming poorer. The embankment that was built for our protection was left uncared and gradually became weak. The river is also dying due to over sedimentation. Now the high tides in the rivers are likely to overflow the embankment.” The recent history is familiar to the younger generation.
The evening gathering ended and everyone set off for their home. Only Rahim Gazi, Sanatan Mondal and few others of their age spend some more time together before they went back to their homes.
After Aila, the high tides, appear every six hours in the rivers and the tide is flooding the entire area. River erosion has also accelerated. Fishing in open water during the night has become the sole livelihood means to Rahim Gazi and his groups. They have to cover their family needs with whatever earnings they can make by selling their catches in the market. But how long will it last? They dream of a new embankment which will bring a new ray of hope for a new life.
In the evening gathering Karim Sana, the local ward member of Union Parishad brings news about new embankments. The high officials of the Water Development Board have visited the area several times. The construction of new embankment will be started in the winter. The tea stall certainly turns into a very important place for explaining in and out of the proposed embankment. Everyone gets updated that ten families at the farthest end of the village have been left outside of the proposed embankment. The reason is to protect the embankment from the river erosion. Rahim Gazi becomes speechless. After losing houses and land to the river erosion, he has a few pieces of lands along the river. In the new plan, he finds his land outside. He tries to convince the chairman, member and the high officials of the Water Development Board. But in vain. Some of his neighbours have already left their houses. But Rahim Gazi has no other option than to stay on his ancestors’ land only to go through a life heavily guided by the river and its tides.
Rahim Gazi has no idea when the struggle will end.
Lucubrate Magazine February 2020
The story was first published in Bengali in 2017 with the title “Jole Bhasa Jibon”.
The picture on the top of the article; Village in Sundarbans in Bangladesh by maciej (Adobe Stock)