Robi’s boat gently swayed in the cool evening breeze of the mighty Ganges at the mouth of the estuary as he prepared his supper in it for the night, a little bit of rice, a bowl of dal and two fried Tilapias. His life as a boatman in this part of the river, especially after dark was pretty lonely and it seemed he preferred it that way, a single man on a sixteen-foot wooden boat in a water world of solitary existence.
With no family or home on land, the boatman fancied spending his entire time on the waves itself. Staying on the river had become such an obsession, that it had been twenty years since he had stepped much beyond the banks and ventured on land to someplace else. Over the years he had lost the desire to do anything else. He had accepted life on the river but constantly questioned the purpose of his mortal presence.
To earn a living the boatman would occasionally ferry, men, their animals, and goods across the river, however, preferring to stay away from people as far as possible. Living a self-sustained life without the need for much money or material wealth, he seldom pondered on the reason for his earthly residence.
Robi relied on the forest and the river for his supplies. He avoided buying things as far as possible. Occasionally he would cast anchor and venture into the jungle on foot to cut wood or acquire honey, or get other supplies, always keeping an eye on his beloved watercraft, never too far from the tides and the swells.
At times when he needed to acquire certain unavoidable human manufactured supplies, he would buy them from traders and passengers who used his ferrying services. Though he hated it, rarely he would also need to buy a thing or two from a shop on some busy port close to the river’s edges.
Boats and water vessels were not uncommon in the region of the Sundarban delta formed by the confluence of the three legendary rivers, the revered Meghna, the mysterious Brahmaputra, and the mighty Ganges.
Here, there were several busy ports and river crossing where a boatman could earn a handsome living, Robi, however, preferred to conduct his business in the lesser-known interior regions of this mysterious aquatic-jungle domain. After all, it was not money that he was searching for, it was the reason for his being.
The life of a boatman was not a means to earn for him, he did not care much about money or wealth. Riding the boat on the river, living on the delta was all that he knew and did. Like a fish was meant to eat worms from a riverbed, like a crow was destined to pluck on rotten flesh, sailing through the delta was Robi’s existence.
He only wondered, was there a purpose to this existence. He questioned himself, that what good had he done to make the world a better place. Not many or hardly any boatman knew the maze of waterways as well as Robi in this ancient wet and wild hydro realm, but what good was his knowledge. He felt he had wasted his days, and this pushed him further to live a life of secluded existence.
Spanning from the river Hooghly in India’s West Bengal state to the Baleswar river in the neighbouring country of Bangladesh, pouring into the Bay of Bengal the Sundarban delta mainly comprised of more than ten thousand square kilometres of closed and open mangrove forests, agricultural tracts, mudflats, shape-shifting sandy islands, and barren lands intersected by innumerous tidal streams and channels.
In other words, it was a geological maze of ever-changing sea, river, land and forest. A region whose history could be traced back to around 200 AD to the days of Chand Sadagar, a rich and powerful river and sea merchant of the Bengal and Assam regions. After which, for more than a thousand two hundred years the area mostly remained wild, inaccessible, and uninhabited.
Then during the Mughal period, many criminals took refuge in these forests to escape Emperor Akbar’s advancing army when he annexed Bengal in 1576. As time passed people evading the law, or seeking a solitary existence found their way into these forests.
Over the seventeenth century, many of the hidden jungle dwellings built by the initial settler-felons fell in the hands of Portuguese pirates, salt smugglers, and dacoits. Robi came from this Mixed lineage of hardened and adaptable seafaring, land-exploring, sailor-fighter, river-jungle people.
Later in 1757, the area was obtained from the Mughal Emperor Alamgir II by the British East India Company, with the aim to extract any treasures that might be available. Having no expertise or adaptation experience in mangrove forests the Brits had to rely on locals for exploring the region, and Robi’s ancestors were the boatmen who made these British explorations possible. In 1769 they were the ones to help the British map the region.
It was not until nearly a century later in 1860 when for the first time the British took efforts to systematically manage Sundarban’s tracts of forest. Once again Robi’s forefathers were engaged to make these expeditions possible.
Finally, much later in 1997, four protected areas in Sundarbans were declared as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and Robi the boatman, a seed spawned from nearly two millennia of generational experience of local maritime and survival knowledge continued sailing on these waterways.
The region was home to 453 species of faunal wildlife, including 290 birds, 120 fishes, 42 mammals, 35 reptiles, and 8 amphibians, and while the fabled Royal Bengal Tiger was the king of this aquatic forest, Robi was undoubtedly the lord of the known rivers and the hidden water channels.
The maritime boundary between the two countries of India and Bangladesh was a bit hard to distinguish in this hydro-maze of mysterious floating forests and aquatic haze and Boatmen from one country would often drift into the waters of the other nation. It was not uncommon to happen. Robi was however never lost and exactly knew where he was at any given time or place in this labyrinth of waterways.
India’s Border Security Force or BSF and Bangladesh’s Border Guard Bangladesh or BGB had a daunting task at their hands to guard this sensitive border, where people of similar ethnicity and culture resided on opposite sides of imaginary fences. Men of both the nation’s bordering forces here knew Robi as the harmless boatman and overlooked his occasional maritime trespasses. At times they even took his help to navigate certain unknown parts of the region.
Though the land border between the two countries, the fifth-longest in the world, saw more action in terms of being an active human trafficking and smuggling route for food items, medicines, and drugs from India to Bangladesh, the deeper regions of the maritime border, being more difficult to access had lesser human interference.
That did not mean the place was void of human beings though. More than five million people inhabited 54 of the 102 islands on the Indian side alone. Still, the majority of the region, the unapproachable tracts, the wild interiors were mostly void of human presence.
Lineages of those initial settlers – men from Chand Sadagar’s days, criminals evading the Moghul armies, Portuguese pirates, salt smugglers, dacoits, and others who came from different backgrounds and places had settled in the few habitable zones.
Now poor and impoverished fisherfolks, farmers, honey-collectors, and prawn seed gatherers in waist-deep waters, facing threats from crocodiles, sharks and the Royal Bengal Tiger had come to call the few livable regions in this damp and hostile ecosphere their home.
The southernmost populated sandy islands shifted their shapes nearly every day as a result of the changing course of river channels and powerful eroding tidal waves shifting land from one place and creating sandbanks somewhere else. Robi was pretty comfortable meandering his trusted boat through these fluctuating aqua-terra-scapes.
The deeper marshy jungles having stabler terrain was extremely hostile and inaccessible even to the BSF and BGB forces, and Robi was perhaps the only person alive to know some of these most interior segments and how to reach them. Knowledge of the ever-changing marshy terrain and tidal timings causing the rise and fall of the water level were critical to accessing these unreachable regions.
As the sixteen-footer gracefully rose and fell on the gentle river swell, as the cool evening breeze pushed inland from the salty bay, the boatman raised his head after slurping the last morsel of Tilapia from his plate, to smell the sublime scents of the sea, the river and the forest and to hear the nightly sounds that were music to his lonely ears at the end of the day.
Then suddenly he heard some noises, which were not expected. At first, he thought it was a mistake, but then he heard it again and then again. He was certain it was human voices wading through the water close to the bank but what were people doing in this uninhabited portion of the river. Human presence at that time in that place was just not possible.
Washing his hands and pushing his empty food plate aside Robi lifted his lantern and moved to the bow of the boat to have a better look at the side of the bank, from where he heard the noises. There in the faint light of the simmering kerosene lantern, the boatman saw a group of around twenty men, women and children in torn and tattered clothes with bodies covered in cuts and bruises and with the fear of death written all over their faces.
They were terrified to have been spotted by Robi. They panicked and got directionally disoriented. They tried to climb the muddy banks but mostly slipped back into the water along with their few belongings and baggage.
For a moment Robi did not know how to react, then realising the helplessness and fright of the people he spoke up to comfort them. “Hey! Do not be afraid, who are you people? Do not panic, stay still, let me help,” said the boatman in a reassuring voice, which eventually calmed the water-wading men, women and their children, who seemed to be understanding his actions better than the words that he said.
At that moment the boatman saw the bright halogen beam of a BSF patrol boat skim across the glassy surface of the river and scan the forest beyond the shore. The beam somehow missed the group of people huddled by the water’s edge, with their heads just above the surface.
“Please do not reveal us.” pleaded an elder from among the submerged group in a weird Bengali dialect, which Robi had never heard before. Realising that these were simple people in some kind of trouble, Robi decided to help. Reacting fast he rowed his vessel a few feet, just in time to hide the submerged people from view of the patrol boat of the BSF men.
“Hello sir, is everything okay, it is me Robi the boatman just finishing my supper before I hit the bed. Can I help you sirs in any way,” said Robi in a most cordial and friendly manner? After few minutes of interaction, the BSF patrol boat left Robi and went on its way.
The boatman then picked up the group into his boat one by one, till all of them were out of the water and safe. He told them to stay crouched and quiet till he rowed to a safer distance. After an hour of rowing, Robi saw that most of the group was fast asleep. It seemed like they had not rested in many days. Then at a very secluded spot in the river, where he felt they were safe, Robi released the anchor of his boat to take a little rest.
As the night progressed Robi broke a conversation with the elder who had spoken to him previously in the unknown and broken Bengali dialect. He came to know their story from the elder. He realised that they simply wanted to start a new and secluded life and forget something terrifying that they had experienced.
Over the course of the next few days, Robi took care of the group in his boat and sailed deeper and deeper into the delta, to a place only known to him and no one else. His intricate knowledge of the waterways helped to steer clear of the BSF and BGB patrol boats during this journey to the hidden place.
Somewhere deep in the labyrinth of the delta when he finally came to point in the waterway, which was blocked by a peculiar variety of thick mangrove trees, a gentle smile broke across Robi’s face. The group thought why had he brought them there to a dead end, to a seemingly impregnable marshy forest.
“Patience my friends,” said Robi and rammed his boat in between the mangrove trees at the river’s end. The people in the boat screamed realising that the boat would crash, and they would be stranded in this godforsaken place.
Just like the tip of a spear moves through muscle, the bow of the boat smoothly pushed the massive mangrove trees aside. The boat progressed moving more trees out of the way to create a passable waterway. As the boat moved ahead the trees in the back came back to their original places closing the channel. None of them had ever seen anything like this in their lives. They were floating mangrove trees appearing to be immobile but easily movable by simply pushing them aside.
At the end of the secret waterway, Robi welcomed the group to a beautiful portion of the forest. Here there were fish in the streams, game to hunt, fruits on the trees, and land to cultivate. Most importantly no one could ever find them there, the place was totally hidden and secluded.
Going back to that dreadful night when Robi had saved the group, the elder had shared their sad story with him. A horrifying tale of how they had escaped genocide and had paddled on rickety boats and walked on foot from a far-off region. That they were the only remaining people from their village, everyone else was slaughtered. Men were shot and hacked, women were raped and mutilated, children and babies were thrown into flames. How all they wanted to do was to start a new and secluded life and forget their pains.
In 2015 more than 50,000 belonging to the same ethnicity of this group were displaced from their country. Using rickety boats, they escaped to various Southeast Asian countries via the waters of the Strait of Malacca, Bay of Bengal, and the Andaman Sea. Around twenty of them found a paradise home deep in the jungles of the Sundarban delta region and a boatman found the purpose of his existence.
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
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