Jennifer Nandi recounts her travels along the Shitalakhya River in Bangladesh in the first of a multi-part series on exploring the intriguing mangrove forests of the Sundarbans, by boat
Sitting in a geography class in school, burning images of impenetrable monsoon forests to memory, I had, in my impressible youth, dreamed of visiting them one day. Now, some two score years later, my dreams were about to come true.
But first that knowledge of India, in its north-eastern reaches, required eking out. My imagination needed to be exercised – memories fleshed out, dreams re-run to produce both texture and depth to sustained, yet weak, hopes. Not easy, when the record is so richly confused; when layers needed peeling. The possibility of visiting that remote corner of India – where the Himalayan mountain chain bends to fracture into less substantial hills, where the mighty Brahmaputra must also change direction to flow through Bangladesh before it enters the sea – grew more remote as I grew older. But the bud was there, slowly exfoliating.
My travels were to take me to the north-east corner of the subcontinent, where boundary lines were drawn arbitrarily – dividing the village headman’s home into two – one-half in India, the other in Myanmar; where bits of land lie disputed between China and India; where a river, known by various names, originates in one country, flows through another and reaches its delta of destiny in a third.
True, the trip had been in the womb of the future for a year. The itinerary I drew up would span over one quarter of 2010 – an implausible idea when you think of the political instability that is normally associated with the North-east. To the more substantial citizens of India, its established character is one of unrest, of being a hot-bed of violence, of a people that seem to have more in common with our Eastern neighbours. The cargo of implications of attempting to route a very important client through this area of insurgency were truly radical. Still, I gave it a try.
Ken arrived at Delhi airport carrying his majesty of manner rather well. Crippling conditions of fog were as yet absent, considering this was early January. Not so in Kolkata, where we had to spend a night enroute to Dhaka. Finally we flew under lifting mists to arrive very late at a truly luxurious hotel, the Oberoi Grand. We were admitted just before closing time for dinner at the hotel’s fabulous Thai Restaurant. The experience rejuvenated us sufficiently – we needed to re-pack before retiring for the night so that we could leave luggage behind and travel light on our journey into Bangladesh and back.
Packing and re-packing was to be on the agenda and had to be taken seriously. We had, between the two of us 4 bags each. In addition, I carried 2 duffel bags that contained very important items such folding chairs and table, pretty table cloths and napkins, a well-stocked picnic basket, supplies of canned food, pasta, olive oil, Lavazza coffee with a coffee percolator, a selection of Darjeeling black and green teas, flasks, sheets, towels, pillows, sleeping bags… As the need arose, we would buy our stock of liquor – beer, Bombay Sapphire gin and Smirnoff vodka. Getting the tonic water was a problem but with some planning ahead, we sourced enough of that too!
With half the number of bags left at the Oberoi Grand, for we were to re-visit it on five occasions, we left for the airport, optimistically believing that our flight would indeed leave at 5 am. It left at mid-day! Mercifully, the flight to Dhaka was short. It was just the beginning of a long trip and we were already much fatigued. Worse was to follow. What looked like a rehearsal for final chaos awaited us at Dhaka airport. Weather conditions had forced all flights to arrive Dhaka at the same time. This left us no place to stand. Signboards for queuing meant little. The locals queued up in the foreigners’ line because it was shorter! Ken and I split, taking our stand in different queues. Finally we were through. Then the luggage. Anarchy prevailed. Bales of cloth were strewn across every available floorspace. Overburdened conveyor belts did not display flight numbers. For a while we lost each other. Then Ken found me in the general scrum, bent over, hauling bags in an untidy corner. Importantly, we did locate the luggage amongst a hundred others, did meet our escort and all was well in the end.
Our woes soon forgotten, we were transferred to a luxurious brand new Westin Hotel, some 23 stories high! The afternoon was to be spent on a boat – all arranged by Guide Tours, our Travel Agency for the Bangladesh sector. We drove for two hours to Demra, the point of boarding for the cruise down the Shitalakhya River. Our launch looked a lot sturdier compared to what the local people were using as a ferry. Refreshments were provided by the boat’s cook. After the city’s crush, to cruise serenely, waving at kids rowing out to greet us, was a sweet pleasure. But one had to take the reality in.
Between the cement factories, the dredgers and the anchored ocean liners discharging their cargo or loading up, weak attempts at farming showed up as squash-growing, carefully trained on trellises. A vast anonymous mass of humanity works and lives in this commercial and industrial squalor. Children run along the water’s edge, calling and waving, skirting and tripping over human and farmyard ordure. But their faces are bright.
Mountain heaps of scrap, untidy hangars, rusty corrugated sheeting, dominate the water’s edge. The huge industry on the river, we were told, was ship-building. Destined for the less developed countries in the Pacific Ocean, ship-building provides some badly paid employment. Scrap metal is beaten into shape by hand and unbelievably, a ship emerges. They are cheap and sea-worthy. Work was being carried out at a frenetic pace to finish before the monsoons, still a few months away, when the water level would rise several feet high, enough to launch the hand-beaten ships.
We stopped at a 19th century landlord’s mansion, which now functions as a college, and at a private Hindu temple, which, given its eclectic style didn’t look like a temple at all. They were built by an enterprising Hindu merchant who had made his commercial successes during the days of the British. Several architectural styles were combined on the front façade of the mansion, and sometimes even on a single arch. We tried to pick out the different styles – Persian, Islamic, Greek, Corinthian. Both the temple and the building are in sad disrepair, its interior walls burdened with political posters. The large pond where the merchant no doubt bathed still had water but was much diminished. The women’s quarters were housed within even more beautiful courtyards.
The grounds surrounding the palace now provide space for an army camp. The OIC came up to speak to us very politely and in excellent English. We chatted for a while, and then left for the long journey back. Late evening traffic was horrendous. It did much to diminish our spirits. We slept for much of the way. It seemed to be the easier option. Later, we dined at the hotel’s Italian restaurant where a live band played. Both were very good. Another late night – more re-packing – to leave more mountainous bags behind to be collected on our return from the Sundarbans. It was well past midnight and we were truly tired.