Mr. Basu, who was fifty years old, stretched in his easy chair. The aroma of the coffee beans called out to him as he picked up the newspaper, ‘The Tribune’. Although the coffee’s fragrance was delightful, it never reached his lips as the coffee mug came crashing down after Mr. Monotosh Basu read the headline, “Cyclone AILA Swallows Coastal West Bengal”
That moment, he understood what it was like when the heart skips a beat and the mind stops thinking.
The green waters of the creeks were slowly flowing, with the aid of a gentle breeze and the guidance of the dim moonlight. The swampy and marshy land looked darker and greener than ever. Life was almost at a standstill. Time stopped in this liquid Eden, in Bhatir-desh, tide-country, Sundarbans. Even in the seemingly tranquil surroundings, danger always lurked in the form of shiningly green-eyed tigers peeping around the branches of the mangroves and crocodiles lazing inside the placid waters.
These omnipresent dangers were nowhere close to impending peril to the tide-country.
The predators who preyed on the bountiful fauna of this fragile ecosystem would soon be preyed upon, because in the face of nature’s fury, predator and prey are alike.
If only things were as peaceful as they are now, if only...
But again, destiny had different plans for tide-country and its inhabitants, tiger and man, deer and fish. Their life would never be the same again ever again...
Not knowing the ordeal that awaited him, not knowing that in the next few days, he would be on the verge of the precipice called life. The only thought that revolved in his mind was that he wasn’t Vishal Basu anymore and that he wasn’t Monotosh Basu’s son. He felt numb, when he learnt that he wasn’t his father’s own son. He was shocked to learn that he was adopted.
It all began on a fine Wednesday morning, 20th May, in Chandigarh where he was on a vacation, in his father’s house. At around 11 am, when he was solving a crossword puzzle, a post arrived and slid into the letterbox with an ominous click. His father took out the wad of letters and classified them but when he saw the letter from Lusibari - a place in Bengal, he was shocked!
He immediately went to his study place and read the letter. Later, reappearing with bloodshot eyes, he spilled the whole truth out by showing his father, the letter that revealed he was adopted. He told his father that the letter was from his real mother who wanted to see him once, before she left the mortal world.
Vishal was wounded and heartbroken. He left his father’s place and made up his mind to never to see him again. Before he left, his father asked him for one last favour which was to take the letter with him. He took it and decided to throw it away as soon as possible. He travelled to his friend’s place, and every time he wanted to throw the letter, he couldn’t. He read and re-read it and every time he read it, the letter made him feel guilty. He was confused, angry, frustrated and lost.
In the end, he went to see his real mother because the void his adopted mother left after her death last year hadn’t yet been filled and neither would it ever be filled. However, the letter from his real mother moved him to tears and pushed him to meet her.
Lusibari – one small island among 102, in the Sundarbans – that is where his mother lived. Although he eagerly wanted to meet her, he had no clue of the conversation that would take place between them. He wondered how she would react. He, however, wanted to see his birth mother to fulfil her last wish.
Vishal sat in a train that goes to Canning, the nearest railhead to Lusibari. Vishala wished to be a professional photographer and looking at the dark, damp and dank islands of silt and the naturalness of the whole environs, he was awestruck. At the same time, he was also shocked by the squalor of the town. He saw the signs of metropolitan pollution seeping into this small town. He was taken aback by the size of the nearby river, which rather looked like a nalah.
On the ferry to Lusibari, he was the only one who wasn’t engaged in animated chatter about all the sundry. He felt out of place wearing lee cooper pants and Italian leather shoes while the people around him were wore rags and were engaged in a fight for basics, two square meals a day and shelter.
In Lusibari, he felt like he had stepped back into the past where life’s pace was dictated by seasons and climate, where even a drop of water would have echoed everywhere, where in life, times and people were almost prehistoric.
He met his ailing mother for the first time in a two-storeyed, pucca-building in the village. It was a hospital which also served as a Cyclone Protection Camp.
His mother, Gauri, 57 years old, finally met her only son, her own blood. She said it was one of the best moments in her life. She held him in her arms and said, “Bhogowan tumako ashirbad koruk (God bless you)”
She was given sedatives and put to sleep. Vishal was happy to see her but at the same time was shocked too. He wanted his mother to tell him, his story, the story of his life. He wanted answers.
Just then a nurse by the name of Mamta came and led him to the guest house where he would stay for the next few days. The guest house was surprisingly modern for a place where the only vehicles were cycles. The guest house had a study place, a four poster in the bedroom, a tap in the bathroom and lots of mosquito protection nets. The house was on stilts to protect it from the tidewater.
From the window, Vishal saw the mangroves of Sundarbans; they were deep, dark and extremely terrifying. In these forests, lurked the Royal Bengal tigers and the thought of them shuddered him. That night, he even had a nightmare of being killed by a tiger.
Early next morning, as the nurse forewarned, there was a snake in the room and Vishal left the room as cautiously as possible. His real father was the village headmaster for a decade and this was his parents’ house. His mother was a social worker who worked very hard to set up a health centre in the land of swamps, storms and scorpions, in the middle of a Mangrove island.
After he got ready, he went to the hospital to meet his mother, to spend more time with her and perhaps lift her spirits a little. Just then, Mamta, a nurse, entered with her breakfast. It was a simple meal of potato curry and rice, but was well prepared. After pleading the nurse with his twinkling eyes, she accepted to show the places around in Lusibari.
The narrow mucky streets and bright greenery with kids playing around was such a surreal scene for Vishal. He felt as if he was watching a piece of art of Dali’s.
While being around her, he got to know a great deal about Mamta. He could see that she was married as suggested by the vermillion smeared on her parting, and her kohl lined eyes made them twinkle all the more.
She explained him, the history of Lusibari saying that a British shipping inspector named Henry Piddington bought large tracts of Sundarbans from the Government in the hope of making his eutopian vision of a free country, freed from the shackles of caste, religion, creed, language and ethnicity. He then built houses for his relatives in most of these large islands and the house he built for Lucy on this island is known as Lusibari. The word bari means a house in Bengali. She also told him about places like Jamespur, Gosaba island etc.
She was also a firm believer in God and prayed to the local deity. The deity of the Sundarbans is believed to be the saviour of all plants and the animals and is called Bon Bibi- the jungle goddess.
Mamta was very ambitious woman and wanted to scale great heights. Her marriage to a local fisherman did not least affect her dream to study nursing, moreover, her resolve only grew stronger.
A few hours later, both of them were back at the hospital where Vishal had pleasant talks with his mother. She tried to explain why she had to give him up for adoption. She also asked for forgiveness, to repent for her folly. She explained to him that all she wanted was for him to have a good education and a good life, something that she experienced before coming to this primitive tide-country.
She told him how she swore her service to this little sleepy, swampy town and when time came for her to choose between her son and service, she chose to serve. It was not that she didn’t love her son, but loved to serve more. All she ever wanted for her son was to have a good life faraway from the troubles and the trails of having to live in Lusibari.
She cried and regretted for what she did. She did not want her son’s wrath hanging over her and carry the burden to her after-life. At last, she felt that she deserves peace for the work and sacrifice she has done. All she needed in her final moments was some peace of mind.
She talked of his adopted father sometimes and also told him about his real father. His father didn’t even know that Vishal existed as he believed that his son had died in the crib.
After listening to his mother, Vishal understood many things about life. He never believed his mother would give him away for a good life to serve the people of Lusibari for the greater good.
After knowing about his father, he wondered how he looked and what sort of a person he was.
The more he thought about him, the more curious he became. He was slowly sinking into quagmire of thoughts - of different generations of time. He felt that he was being called upon by both the past and the present, but he truly belonged to neither. He wished it would just be a dream, a dream that would soon end.
Despite everything going on in his mind, he observed Lusibari and her people. The eyes of people lit up when they walked past the hospital building. It gave them the hope and it was pivotal to lead a safe and secure life. As days passed by, he realised that his mother’s sacrifice gifted the inhabitants hope.
The trip on the other hand was turning to be a long one, as he couldn’t leave his mother nor could stay forever. The place attracted him with its tranquillity and the dangers that lurked behind the dark curtain of tranquillity repelled him. Over time, he started to understand why his mother stayed back to serve.
Day in and day out, he spent his time by his mother’s side or wandering through the rich paddy fields, lost in his thoughts. He didn’t talk much to his mother but maybe his mere presence acted as a catalyst and made her want to live again.
During his stay, there were times when he wanted to talk to his adopted father as he loved him nevertheless, but he couldn’t use his phone as there was no network.
However wanting to contact his father, he wrote a letter to him. He decided to go to Canning to post it himself even though anyone from the hospital could have done that small favour.
In the letter, he apologised for his rude behaviour and for causing grief to the man who unconditionally loved and cared by giving him, a second chance in life. He finished by hoping that his father would forgive him.
With the letter in hand and hope in his heart, he went to his mother. His mother thought he was leaving forever and gave him his real father’s letter, a few hours before his death.
With his choked voice, he took his mother’s blessings and went to the quay where all the boats were anchored. Lusibari, being a large town compared to the other islands had all kinds of boats, from rickety old ones to diesel run motor boats called Bhotbhoti (named due to the sound they made) with small, fragile looking oar boats.
Mamta accompanied him for his safety. She brought along her daughter Kusum, a sweet little girl dressed in a red frock and kohl lined eyes just like her mother.
Mamta took him to the far end of the mucky and muddy quay and introduced him to her husband. His name was Fawad and he offered to take Vishal to Canning for free because of his mother .
After he balanced himself on the narrow plank provided for sitting, Vishal wondered where Fawad would sit as the whole boat was already occupied. To his surprise, Fawad tied his Gamchcha – the chequered towel that every Bengali man believes to be his lucky charm and very sacred. Then, he slowly rowed, they made slow and steady progress in the west direction, with the harsh sunlight falling on their backs and burning them.
Fawad rowed bare-chested with salty sweat glistening on his body. He wasn’t very strongly built but could keep on rowing for hours. As he monotonously rowed towards Canning, it grew hotter every minute. At the same time, the mangrove roots became darker and Vishal’s mind started wandering — he illusioned even a benign flash of sunlight to be a tiger’s gilded stripe. When they reached a narrow meandering creek, he illusioned a crocodile but it was just a stray piece of dead wood creating ripples on the placid water.
To help Fawad, Vishal also took a pair of oars and started rowing. He got adaptive to the new action and began doing it mechanically to let free his thoughts. He began to think of the power of tides that could swallow and regurgitate the whole islands. He wondered how Fawad managed to do such a treacherous job to earn a living. It seemed like, the minuet of life and death was danced out daily in the tide-country.
Sundarbans was the place where the word “CYCLONE” was first created to describe the un-walled rage unleashed on the wild and to exposed the tide-country.
He felt that he could observe Sundarbans forever and yet couldn’t understand it. He learnt that the tides here rise and fall 18 times in a day.
He dared not wonder what it would be like if a cyclone attacked now and his thoughts ran back and forth like an eddy, swirling and flowing. He observed Fawad carefully. It had been around 3 hours since they left and he hadn’t uttered a single word. Everytime he looked at Fawad, he thought of his daughter Kusum mainly because they had the same thin and prime mouth, small and closed, the only difference being Kusum smiled a lot and Fawad didn’t.
The thought of Kusum made him realize that if he had grown up here with his real mother, he might have been just like Fawad. Maybe fishing, catching crabs, hisla, lobsters and rowing everyday.
Although forgiving his mother was tough, he started to understand her. This thought filled him with the sweet feeling of satisfaction that had been evading him a long time. He, at last, felt peaceful.
Again, he checked on the physical reminders and wasn’t sure if it was a dream or reality. He held two letters, one that his real father had written for him and the other one that was written by him to his adopted father. The letter that he hoped would set things right between him and his adopted father.
In this happy mood, he started taking pictures of unseemingly beautiful Bhatir Desh.
He wasn’t interested in the dark green canopy formed by the mangroves. What attracted him the most, was the marshy land, the huge roots, the ones which were so convoluted that it was difficult for Fawad to row them to the land. As they got closer, out of eagerness, he kept the letters on the plank itself and was immersed in his work.
Just then, the tide began decreasing, and the plank hit an unforeseen mound of silt.
The letters kept on the edge of the plank, fell into the water and were carried away by the undercurrents.
Thankfully, Vishal had noticed the pale yellow shining plastic of the envelopes before they were carried away, and hurried to help row the boat towards the letters. The letters were now turning at a corner and going into a small creek that ran through an uninhabited island. They rowed faster than ever but the letters seemed far away. He knew that if they don’t make it in time, he would never be able to read his real father’s letter.
They finally reached the dark creek. Finally, holding the letters with plastic cover letters, Vishal heaved a sigh of relief and thanked the God.
Only then he realized that they were in the middle of nowhere, and were completely lost. For a few seconds, nothing moved, a blanket of darkness had settled upon them.
The sounds of the forest made by hoots of disturbed owls, the scratching of a tiger’s tail against the tree bark, the swish, and the sudden jump of a kingfisher catching its prey terrified him all the more. Fawad didn’t want Vishal to get panicky, so, he tried moving the boat but then again, they were stuck in the mud because all the water drained away due to the low tide. Now, they had to wait till a high tide moved the boat.
They dared not make a sound or get down, in case a tiger or a crocodile lurked by. Fawad prayed to Bon Bibi, the goddess of the jungle for the safety of their lives. He promised not to go to Dokhin Rai, the forest demon’s territory even if the territory had all the fish in the world.
But slowly the water started refilling into the creek. The leaves began rustling, the birds became restless, it was as if the whole forest was agitating because of something.
In just 10 minutes, all of the nearby mangroves became devoid of living organisms. Sensing that something was wrong and dreading the worst, Fawad got out of the boat, pulled and dragged it out of the creek. Slowly, in the main channel, they began experiencing high and wild winds that burnt their eyes. At the same time, dark clouds gathered and the sky darkened. Suddenly, it began pouring down so hard that it felt like bullets were falling from heaven.
They rowed faster and faster but the gale force acted in the opposite direction and they were stopped. Knowing that they were now stranded in a fast approaching cyclone storm that was expected a week later, they were doomed to die on what was supposed to be a short trip to Canning. They stopped at a mangrove tree that was quite dense and strong and climbed it. Vishal even tripped at a place or two but was caught just in time by Fawad.
They climbed onto a branch and tied themselves to the tree with the help of the Gamchcha. They now waited for the cyclone to exert its full force and then hopefully abate as fast as it could. Vishal checked again if the plastic covered letters were safely kept in his shirt. He hoped that they would survive the night.
As the cyclone raged at its full strength, Vishal realised that Fawad was acting like a barrier from branches, splinters and twigs and was saving him from injury risking his own life. The cyclone didn’t show any sign of abating and it didn’t even falter but grew stronger every minute.
The pounding rain and the sound of the gale made him lose consciousness repeatedly. Vishal prayed and it was that not only for himself but also for his mother as well as she was emotionally dependent on him. Lightning, thunder and a continuous torrents of rain went on and on. Everyone stared at each other and all they could sense was his fear. The primeval fear was like when they are facing an enemy far more powerful than they were.
Just then, branches with sharp and jagged ends started flying around, and one just brushed past Vishal’s arm. Within a second, another sharp branch came directly towards them. All that was blurred became clear in an instant and the sharp branch pierced into Fawad’s back. He became lifeless while his eyes were wide open in shock and his small mouth closed just like his daughter.
Vishal couldn't believe what he saw, his eyes seemed like they were cheating him. The man who saved his life a few moments back was dead right in front of him. The time felt frozen for a few minutes and just as he got back to his senses, he noticed that the storm passed ahead.
After the storm abated, a sudden calmness descended over the area and Vishal got down. He found the boat and whatever remained after the cyclone had its way. However, thankfully it was still in working order.
With some difficulty, he put the corpse on the boat and started rowing towards the west. With his mind still blurred, he rowed on and on.
Finally, he reached what appeared to be an inhabited island.He walked with the corpse of his lifesaver in his arms and the letters in his shirt. He walked into the destructed remains of the town and most of the people were in the cyclone protection camp building. There, he kept the dead body and in his dazed state he took a Bhotbhoti to Lusibari as he got to know that the devastation was worse.
Seeing Lusibari, Vishal completely understood the power of a cyclone as it was devastated. There were no paddy fields or houses left apart from the guest house. The school and hospital survived but many people died.
Mamta was inconsolable as her whole world had fallen apart and she wasn’t the only one who lost her vermillion and bangles in her parting that day.
There was not much food, drinking water or anything for that matter.
Vishal learned that in the time of crisis, neither education, caste, religion nor intelligence matters. If there’s anything that matters, it is the basic instinct for survival, the instinct to breathe once more, to see, to feel, to smell, to touch and hear the sights and sounds of the world again.
The cyclone storm was Aila which means coming in Bengali. The cyclone-storm hit Sundarbans on 25 May 2009 at 03:05 hrs. It had affected Kolkata, coast of West Bengal and coast of Orissa. Along the way, it killed 82 people in all of West Bengal, 14 in Kolkata alone and 17 were killed in Sundarbans. It also killed many tigers, boars, spotted deers, crocodiles.
After a few days of the storm when natural life returned to Lusibari, Vishal went to Kolkata and sold his pictures of the mangroves, the destruction around and thus collected funds for the rehabilitation of the Bhatir-desh people. He mobilised people through the internet, collected funds, and signed petitions for the betterment of the lives of people in the tide-country.
Vishal Basu became a renowned nature photographer and also a permanent resident of Lusibari. He renamed the school of which he later became the headmaster, as Fawad Primary School. He educated Mamta and made her the first qualified nurse at the Lusibari hospital. His father Monotosh Basu settled along with him in Lusibari. Vishal never got to read what his real father had written to him because it was lost in the storm that changed his life. That unknown island where he buried Fawad turned out to be Gosaba island. His real mother died happily in her sleep knowing that her only son had forgiven her and as for Vishal, he continued in his attempt to unravel the veiled mysteries of nature in Bhatir-desh, tide-country, Sundarbans, his home.
For as long as I can remember, Amma had a secret special box on the kitchen platform which was always tantalizingly close but was just out of reach. When I was five years of age, I’ve always wanted nothing more than to open the box and see its mysterious contents.
Nothing seemed fancier to me. Neither the blue flames erupting from the stove nor the sharp knife glinting under the harsh tube light. Even the colorful display of various cereals and pulses didn’t draw my attention as much as this box drew me towards it.
In reality, there wasn’t anything unique about the way the box looked. It was just like most others. A little steel utensil, plain and unobtrusive. However, it was inconspicuous to everyone but me and so I wanted to know everything it possessed.
My fascination started when I was four years of age. I still remember returning from the hospital after a vaccination. I was bawling and the horrendous hospital smell was everywhere adding to my woes. I was red and misty with chocolate smeared over my round face. It was my parent’s last-ditch attempt to pacify me.
Even after Dad was wiping my tears and carrying me around to divert my attention, I was screaming. Until I smelt a wondrous aroma which made me silent.
When I asked my Dad to take me kitchen suspecting it to be the aroma’s source. As usual, Amma was at the platform cooking something which sizzled. There were various vessels placed around the stove with a tray filled with chopped vegetables. I couldn’t find the source for the aroma but my father noticed that I was silent and he let me stay there for a while.
It’s not like the aroma was a new experience. I must have smelt it many times while I passed the kitchen. Yet that was the moment I realized its true taste.
Even to this day even after twenty years of spouting words and yapping about anything and everything. I’m still unable to describe the aroma that took my breath away and more importantly stopped a tantrum from reaching danger alert levels.
I kept entering the kitchen after my first experience even after my mother denied me from doing so paying her flimsy and random excuses. All I hoped for was to smell the heavenly aroma again.
As the days passed by, I started inquiring my mother about the contents of each box in the kitchen until one day I did arrive at the special box. I knew the rest of the contents didn’t make this aroma possible based on the little knowledge I had about them.
I had an inkling that maybe the contents of this special box were the cause for my happiness and to my disadvantage, the box was always jutting out of reach and my mother denied to reveal its contents noticing my undying curiosity and a worrying concern about me harming myself.
In time, I could always see the top lid of the box from my low vantage point. If I stood on my tiptoes, I could even see the special box in all its glory. I could even touch the box by stretching my hands. My fingertips could feel the cold steel after a little effort. With my mother refusing to tell the contents, I wanted to know more about them to know if it is the source behind my heavenly experience.
After being denied for years, I reached an age when I could get a hold of the box myself. After many failed attempts, I held the most curious thing I have always wanted to explore. When I opened the lid, I could rejoice the scent for a moment before noticing that it was nothing more than a spice box.
A box with compartments to hold commonly used spices like turmeric, cumin, paprika among others. A commonplace and bland box present in every household. A box that wasn’t particularly special except for my fascination. Thought it felt anticlimax exploring the contents, it gave me a gateway back to my childhood. A meandering walk down memory lane, a shot of nostalgia back to simpler times, a reason to smile when cutting onions, a silent hope for the trampled inner child in me and even after all these years, Amma’s special box will always be more than just a spice box for me.
Add your opinion on the short story in the comments and thank you for your time - WP Team.