Despite my best efforts, there were a few problems that needed my re-visiting the Olive Ridley Shelter, aka Bnasher Kella four weekends ago. The place wore a forlorn look. The floor had not been swept; plastic glasses lay strewn about despite my specific instructions towards garbage disposal. The dug out boat by Prasun was in ruin and the clay models of the children had disintegrated during the last shower – ashes to ashes, dust to dust and that was how it was meant to be. The house wore a hang-dog look, like it was no one’s baby; Phelu – the abandoned kid.
Amal Babu along with Shona - the neighbour’s son, who shimmies up coconut trees like a real pro was there to receive me. The presence of Shona meant a welcome drink of fresh coconut water. We were still going through the throes of an immense heat wave and this was more than welcome. Shona’s bright –eyed, sweet-faced demeanour is in itself a gift that could quench parched souls. For a moment, his shy smile lifts my spirit and Phelu smiles. I imagine the squeals of delight and the laughter of children, I imagine voices talking animatedly – the Bnasher Kella re-awakens from a fortnights’ slumber.
|Ashramites at the "Bnasher Kella"|
It’s just been two weeks since this place was a hive of activity and it makes me think how people define a place. As long as we were there and working, the chatter of workers, their banter, the coming and going of children, as well as adults, energised the space despite its stand alone location. Amal Babu left for the Ashram and asked me to meet him there later. I sat there in the shade without any particular reason and could not understand why I felt troubled. The fields around had turned a lush shade of green with the first pre-monsoon shower and the light breeze was laden with moisture.
I must have dozed off, because the next thing I remember was being gently nudged awake by a smiling Diganta. I bade him to sit down and asked him how he was doing, “Kyamon aachhish?” I asked.
His response seemed like the performance of a seasoned actor. He erased his smile and his eyes wore a far-away look as he answered me in a tired monologue, as if in a kind of a trance, “Like I always am, nothing different happens here, a humdrum life…school, studies, daily chores and living in the Ashram. Nothing to look forward to until I finish school and then maybe life could be different, maybe…I don’t know”. Coming from a thirteen year old this troubled me a bit. Did I touch a raw nerve there? I immediately rued asking him a seemingly innocuous question. Should I have just said hello and smiled and left it at that? Diganta – the boy who found amusement in fish swimming on the flooded school playground, had he grown up in such a short time to question his lot? Or was I blind to the reality of a destitute child abandoned by his father?
In the few months that I have been living in the Ashram, the children have come to accept me for what I am. No illusions there. They have learnt that this elderly, white-bearded Kaku (uncle) is kind, but will not pamper them. He will not scold, but neither will he stand unruliness. A hurt, displeased look in my eyes would quieten them. But, my questions would be eagerly answered. If I listened to their ghost stories with unblinking attention, I qualified as a friend! Children far away from home (if they have a home that is) need so little to be happy and one needs to do so little to earn their trust!
Diganta too started trusting me ever since our ‘quality time’ on that moonlit night of ‘Dol Purnima’- the night he narrated the story of the fishes swimming on the flooded school playground. Later he trusted me enough to show me his mimicry of kung-fu kicks with appropriate yells. He told me that he liked History and English. I took a bit of an interest in his studies and helped him write a few essays in English – going over his tenses and mixed-up genders. His confused use of ‘he’ and ‘she’ became a contest between him and me.
“Diganta is a boy. She has red ribbons in her hair and she wears a frock!” I challenged.
“No! Diganta has short hair and he wears pants!” he countered angrily.
“Diganta is a boy. She has red ribbons in her hair and she wears a frock!” I teased.
“No! Diganta has short hair and he wears pants!” he laughed.
That exchange I think put paid to his gender-bender English. No self-respecting boy of thirteen likes being called a girl. I don’t know whether this strategy would work with a girl of that age. Our own daughter reveled in being a girl and she had no problems with language except for her wayward spelling! She has of course come a long way and I like her writing style.
On the issue of gender, I once asked Diganta if he knew girls of his own age, except the ones at school. He looked wistfully into nothingness. I let him a have a moment of ‘personal time’ and then waved my hand in front of his eyes. He came back to earth with an embarrassed smile and said “Yes, I did once,” and paused.
I respected his reticence and decided not to press the issue any further. But, to my surprise he continued as if in a reverie, “Payel and Shrabonti – two girls older than me.”
“Who were they?” I asked encouraged by this revelation.
“They were just two girls who had come to stay at our Ashram. I was about seven and one of them was two years older than me and the older one maybe three years older than me. They left after a very short stay,” Diganta volunteered as information.
I kept quiet. I remembered Amal Babu mentioning this to me once and had told me that he had to let the two girls go as the Ashram did not have the infra-structure or separate facilities for girls and in a village such as Maheshpur – tongues wag! There is a largish facility for girls just before you hit Shibganj, which is where one of the girls went.
“Those were the most memorable days of my childhood,” Diganta concluded.
“What about the time you saw fish swimming on the playing field?” I playfully jabbed him in the ribs. Diganta giggled like any thirteen years old would.
“…and what do you remember about home?” I asked.
“Yes. I had a home once. My mother was always sick. My father left us and married again. Mother passed away. When things became difficult for him, he became a sadhu. I hate such people,” he replied in one breath.
“You have no other relatives?” I prodded.
“Yes I have. My Mashi (maternal aunt) lives with my grandma close to Kolkata. I visit them during vacations. I went there during Durga Puja. I like it there. Otherwise I like it here in the Ashram” he confided.
“…and what happened to your father?” I asked.
“He once visited me here looking like a sadhu – long beard and all and offered me a fifty rupee note. I refused it and told him never to return.”
We rose to our feet and I gave Diganta a hug. We walked over the bamboo bridge and Diganto rode off on his bicycle. I started walking towards the Ashram with Diganta’s last sentence ringing in my ears.
Just as I climbed on to the brick road, Diganta returned and started walking with me. “Go ahead. You don’t have to walk,” I tell him.
“No. I will walk with you. I like talking to you,’ he said in a matter of fact manner.
We walked back with Diganta chattering away incessantly about nothing in particular and then as we came near the Ashram, Diganta said “There is much that you will not understand about us. You don’t believe in ghosts!”
He gave me a conspiratorial smile and pedaled away, turning the bend and vanishing into the school compound. I stood there laughing to myself until the younger kids at the Ashram spotted me. “Kaku! Kaku! Kaku! Kaku!” they chanted surrounding me with gleeful smiles.
Dr. Annu Jalais about whom I had written in one of my earlier posts invited me to participate in a workshop "Forests, Sociality, Borderlands: revisiting issues in Deltaic Bengal" held at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti, New Delhi, on 6th and 7th July 2012. It was jointly organised by her and Dr. Amites Mukhopadhyay. Apart from speaking about my own work in Maheshpur, I heard the other speakers with great interest. Here was a group of men and women who have worked and some are still working in the Sundarbans. I felt enriched by all of this. I made a couple of friends like Dr. Sutapa Chatterjee Sarkar, Sayantan Bera, Neelambari Phalke, Priyanka Ghosh, Niranjan Jaladas, Aviroop Sengupta, Anirban Bandopadhyay and Dr. Garga Chatterjee.
Some people here in Kolkata keep asking me whether all my efforts were worth it. I can’t help but suppress a chuckle. Was it really worth it? I will let you decide…