Saturday, April 14, 2012

Of Nor'westers & Earthquakes

Working in the Sundarbans, constructing the Olive Ridley shelter poses its own set of challenges as underlined in my earlier posts.  These challenges increase manifold when the weather becomes as unforgiving as it has been this past week.  Ever since I was old enough to understand what a Nor’wester or a Kal Baishakhi is – the sudden appearance of clouds on the horizon in late April or early May, darkening the sky within minutes and bringing with it rain and storm was all child's play. It was all so enjoyable from the dry comfort of home that we would wish that they came more frequently. But, our wishes were hardly ever met. In fact, it was just last year that we rued that they arrived late to quench this parched land.  One took its seasonal advent for granted and never bothered to listen to weather forecasts on the radio and television or discussed it on facebook.  The changing weather was a topic for casual comment and it still is among the fortunate classes.

Dark clouds. Picture courtesy Anirban Dasmahapatra

Back in the Sundarbans, perceptions are different. If it rains when it is supposed to rain, translates to a good crop - that is all.  Because, agriculture here is dependant on rain despite these islands being surrounded by water. The river waters are saline and is unusable for the purpose.  If the rains are delayed it is another story. If it rains too much there is the fear of floods. If storms are frequent and strong, it means loss or damage to life and property.  There is no romanticizing about the weather – that bit of luxury belongs in the domain of the more fortunate urban elite.  The unusual daily occurrence of Nor’westers this past week or so was therefore disturbing to the people of Maheshpur. The first storm had blown away walls and roofing of the most unfortunate of the village residents. They still sleep in makeshift shelters and are just about trying to stitch back their lives with odds and ends that can at best be considered temporary, even in good weather.  With Haradhan Babu on leave, Amal Babu worried about the safety of the children at the Ashram.

Then on last Thursday, the waters in the many ponds dotting this village started to sway. The effects of a distant earthquake manifested itself in this most interesting form. Everyone including women and children gathered around the larger ponds to watch this rare phenomenon.  That was when cell phones began ringing – people from Kolkata and nearby towns with access to TV started relaying news of the magnitude of the earthquake near Sumatra.  The TV channels went viral, trying to sensationalise the extent of the quakes’ effect on the city.  An old crack on a building was being passed off as a new one.  People panicked and to top it off there was a Tsunami warning.  All of this reached the ears of the people of Maheshpur. It got them worried.  The regular Nor’westers had already made their life difficult and such news reports only added to their dread.

The ebullient Laurent Fournier on the roof
Throughout the week I met people who have weathered many storms and they were all very eager to narrate their experiences from both sides of the border. They spoke not only of the magnitude of these storms and floods, but, also of the horrors they witnessed in their wake.  Having seen unimaginable destruction to life and property – living at the edge of civilization and at the mercy of relentless natural forces, they are wary even of small storms.

My work suffered a series of set backs due to slushy conditions. It rained heavily since the early hours of last Friday. The workers arrived and some of them left, thinking that there would be no work that day.  Seeing this, I told them that I did not intend to give up so easily. “The rain will have to stop sometime and we are going to apply the first coat of plaster to the outer dome”, I said.  So, the workers came back as did the Sun. Under the ebullient supervision of Laurent, work started in earnest.

Olive Ridley Update

We had organized a generator for lights in case we had to work after sunset – which we actually had to do, having lost a few hours to the rain in the morning. Then again, in the evening the skies rumbled and the lightning that tore up the darkness, revealed ominous thunderclouds. We were concerned that the plaster would get damaged, so, under windy conditions we managed to wrap the whole roof with fishing nets over plastic sheets.

The next morning as I was about to come back to Kolkata, I was relieved to hear that the covering had held.

The Olive Ridley shelter at night

All the bamboo work is done. The first coat of plaster has held and we plan to start on the mud floor and walls from Monday. Doors and windows have been designed and ordered. A few pieces of basic furniture with bamboo will also be made. This now boils down to how long it would take to dry out if this weather continues and we could move in for a five-day artists’ workshop before my eventful ‘daily passengery’ to Maheshpur will come to an end.

Coconut coir fibre inserted into the roof grid resembled "a hairy bug just about to start walking", said Laurent. Bottom right: The plaster work in progress.
Next week I hope to share with you pictures of a nearly complete Olive Ridley Shelter without the bamboo scaffolding coming in the way.


Ladymegnanimous said...

The structure looks more impressive each week

Jayati Bawari said...

I am wondering, how is the plaster holding on to the bamboo grid....! And what is the function of the coir

All this time I was under the impression that the roofing would end with'dorma' or the like, with a false ceiling maybe.... interesting Abhi.ty

michele said...

The photos of the interior bamboo weave are beautiful!


Do u know Anirban das Mahapatra personally ? Is he associated with your set-up ? If so, can I pl hv his contact no and/or e-mail ID ?

Best wishes.