Disheartened by the yard experience, I started walking back to the guest house. On my way, something struck me! No, not the thing that explodes on contact. An observation I had made. There used to be only one community SP in all of Ghoshpara, one for the school, and one in all of Sahapara, when I grew up there. I saw too many SP mandaps (temporary temples) along my path. Many individual families were holding SP in their households. SP used to be a community event, not a family event. I thought for a while, while walking on the dimly-lit college road to the guest house. It was not that number of Ghosh or Saha families had increased. In fact, they had decreased, some moving to India. Then a headlight hit me!
'It's money, stupid!' I rephrased what James Carville, a political strategist, said during Bill Clinton's 1992 successful presidential campaign. In my days, business-minded Ghosh and Saha families did not value education as much, even though Matlab J.B. High School was founded by two Matlab businessmen: Jagabandhu Saha and Biswanath Ghosh, in 1917. Education did not bring as much money as business, in those days. Business meant Lakhsmi, the Goddess of Wealth. Non-business people also needed money. So every Hindu family worshipped Lakhsmi, Swarasati's sister. But over the years, Swarasati's stock rose in Matlab. And there was a good reason for that. From my 2010 trip to Bangladesh, I came to know that some village students had gone to other countries and brought in more money than business people in the village could make --- money not as in Taka, but money as in Riyal, Dirham, Euro, Dollar, Pound Sterling, Krona, money that got multiplied by large numbers like 50 to 150 to become Taka, money that built multi-storied buildings, generating more rent money. The avenue to bring money from abroad was education. 'And who is the Goddess of Education?' I asked and answered my own question. 'The one dressed in white with a bina in her left hand and a swan at her feet.'
A guard at the front gate came out of his small resting room, scrutinized my face, and raised his right hand to his forehead, pointing his palm toward me. He then opened the square 'safe human in' window of the locked gate to let me in, while wishing peace be showered on me, in Arabic.
I came to Room 203, getting blessed by two: the Goddess for education and the gate keeper for peace.
Matlab looked tranquil and peaceful to me, at night. Rickshaw and CNG drivers confirmed my night observation at day time as well. Political or communal violence in Matlab had been rare or non-existent for many years, one driver affirmed. That was not too far off from what I had heard from my parents and what I noticed growing up there. 'Does Matlab School have anything to do with that?' I wondered. 'Or could it be the goodness in the Matlab people?'
A lackadaisical winter day dawned on the ICDDR'B complex. Crows and roosters were shouting wake-up calls for their respective species, each sounding louder than the one before. The Imams from the mosques in the north were singing calls for prayers. I opened the balcony door to inhale and smell the Matlab morning air. The branches of debdaru, coconut and mango trees were trying their best to prolong the sleep-time of the only guest in the guest house by absorbing the light from the east sky, and then slightly reddened by rays of the yet-to-rise sun. The tension of Dhaka morning was not felt in Matlab morning. Fog was there, but it did not look as foggy, as gray, or as menacing as the Dhaka fog. On the path by the pond to the south, a guard was on a gentle, aimless stroll, his head and neck areas were fully covered in winter gears. He was outside in a cold winter night among mosquitoes, so I could be safe in a warm bed, inside a mosquito net. Standing there, I missed seeing my Ghoshpara yard after waking up in the morning, the way I used to do. "A yard without the mango trees", I said, "would be distressing." It was like being in our childhood house without 'Swapan, Tapan' --- us, the two brothers.
The eastern sky was getting warmer. The sad thought of losing the trees was partially replaced with the anticipatory thought of what waited me in Bishnupur. The palm tree, the only tree left from my childhood days, there became more important to me than before, like a father losing a child, longing to be closer to the one who is still around.
I boarded the motor launch. It had been resting all night at Matlab station after bringing me and others from Dhaka. The crews and store staff, who slept in it, woke up and were getting ready for the journey back. Bishnupur was on the way, the fourth stop from Matlab.
In the launch, 'Good morning, Uncle' was coming from left and right, from front and behind. In our time, 'Uncle', an English salutation, was not used at all. It was either 'Chacha' for Muslims or 'Kaku' for Hindus, to address a person who could be elder than the caller's father, but younger than his or her grandfather. But both salutations carried the risk of offending the person being addressed, if his faith was not known to the caller. 'Uncle' is faith-neutral. It solved a tricky calling problem.
The surface of Dhonagoda River was covered with water hyacinths. They are considered a nuisance by most, but beautiful by some. Their green, round velvety leaves with bulbous leafstalks, their beautiful clustered lavender flowers with a distinctive yellow pattern in one petal, their effortless floating on water, their long human hair-like roots garnering nutrients from water --- all make them desirable as ornamental plants for garden ponds in some countries. Those would have been great features for promulgating their popularity and desirability, if they could only control their urge for procreation, like water lilies, and stop spreading like a virus to other waterways, covering the surface of water with up to 3 feet of immobile mats, depriving other plants and fish underneath of much-needed sun light and oxygen. They are a menace!
From the upper deck of the launch, Matlab, back-lit by the rising sun, looked mostly greyish-green, with sporadic hints of white or gray buildings. Fish-loving pankauri birds were still sleeping on bamboo poles planted, in a circular arrangement, on the river floor, by the fishermen. Water hyacinths invaded that area too. I could see a man-driven boat struggling to paddle forward through the thick growth. Another motor-driven boat was making progress by bushwhacking the water hyacinths on its way.
Devastating Dhonagoda was still swallowing its south bank, extracting the nutrients and depositing the undigested sand on the north side, keeping its body width more or less the same, but moving to the south, as if to get blended with the Bay of Bengal, its final destination, its heaven on earth. It was breaking one bank and building another. The line sounds very poetic, and a song with a similar line with a soothing tune still sounds melodious. But in reality, people lost their houses and farming lands by the cruel action of the river. Some lost their lives when fights erupted over new land on the north side. Some 50 years ago, I saw a victim of a land fight, a three-pronged spear stuck to his face, barely missing the eyes. He was waiting for hours at the Matlab Charitable Dispensary, for an operation, for which there was not a surgeon or a qualified doctor.
Standing there on the upper deck, I remembered taking the river route either by boats or by motor launches, so many times. My father made his last journey from Matlab to Bishnupur in the spring of 1961. His body, shrouded in a white cloth, was resting on the boat floor, shaded by a semi-cylindrical roof of bamboo and tin. Four of us: mother, brother, a priest and I, were sitting in the open, on each side of the roof. Father's wish was to be cremated in his ancestral home in Bishnupur. The palm tree that I saw still standing there in 2010 was a witness to that cruel night.
My station came. I walked precariously on a shaky ladder, laid from the launch to the land below --- the ladder shifting slowly, as the launch was shifting with the tide --- sliding my right palm over a pole held by one staff standing on the launch and the other on the ground, and carrying my orange carry-on in the free hand over the open river. I disembarked. That is how we also used to do in the nineteen-fifties to seventies. No advance had been made in disembarking from a motor launch over the years, even though some passengers were donning high-tech Smartphones over their left ears, one even when he was climbing down the shaky ladder, oblivious to his surroundings.r (The next instalment of this article will appear next week.)
Tapan Chakrabarty, a seven-continent marathon finisher and an inventor, writes from Calgary, Canada