Atop a small hill, on the banks of the mighty Damodar river in the steel city of Durgapur in the Bankura district of the state of West Bengal in the Indian subcontinent stood a rickety little mud cottage. In front of this tiny earthen adobe towered a metal and concrete two-way vehicular bridge atop a colossal barrage, stretching across the ancient riverbed. At the break of dawn, every day, from this flimsy shanty emerged a bald old man with a long silver beard and a massive chest. No one knew his real name and called him Duburee, meaning a diver in the Bengali language.
Wearing only a tightly wrapped loincloth around his waist, he would spend the next hour applying a strong-smelling mustard oil all over his old but firm skin, especially inside his ears, naval, and on his colossal chest. Following this, he would perform another hour of yogic breathing and stretching exercises. Then he would climb on his fourteen feet long and old wooden boat and row into the river to tend to his daily business.
While man has always been very intrigued with the boundless realms of the sky above his head, he has been equally curious about what lay in the depths of the oceans, seas, rivers, and lakes. This curiosity fuelled man’s desire to venture into the abyss. Since then, freediving has proved to be a precious means of hunting and gathering food and other valuable resources.
The silver beard Duburee was a tiny spec in this fascinating world of underwater diving. While the art and technology of venturing into the abyss gradually evolved over the years, Duburee remained unaware of those advancements. While modern divers were using Atmospheric Diving Suits or ADSs, Duburee still relied on his massive lungs in his monstrous chest to venture into the depths.
Constructed in 1955 by the Damodar Valley Corporation or the DVC, the thirty-nine feet high and two-thousand-two-hundred-and-seventy feet long Durgapur dam was in Bankura and partly in West Bardhaman, dividing the two districts. As part of the Damodar River Valley Project on the river Damodar and its principal tributary, Konar, the barrage was constructed along with four main multipurpose dams built between 1953 to 1959 at Tilaiya, Konar, Maithon and Panchet.
Born in 1935, Duburee had been diving in the Damodar for more than twenty years before the barrage came into existence. Now in 1995, at sixty years of age, he was still diving in the same aquatic domain. Despite the industrial boom in the region in the mid-twentieth century and Durgapur being the most industrialised city in Eastern India and the second planned city in India, much had hardly changed on both the banks of the Damodar around the mighty barrage. It was still dotted with sparsely found sleepy little villages.
Duburee’s father Yogi Siladitya was an established frogman or an expert diver in the region. The Yogi knew that contrary to some beliefs, babies were not natural-born swimmers, irrespective of them, having primitive reflexes that made them look like they are. He knew well that babies were not old enough to hold their breath intentionally or strong enough to keep their heads above water and could not swim unassisted.
He also, however, knew that babies were unaware of the fear of water and, with proper training, right from the teething days, an infant could learn to float and eventually grow up to be a magnificent swimmer someday. Hence just at six months of age, Yogi Siladitya started to train Duburee to be a frogman like himself.
Sadly, when Duburee was just ten years of age, one day his father did not return from one of his dives to the riverbed. For three days, Duburee searched frantically but could not find his father in the depths. Nearly drowning, trying to search for his father, Duburee somehow lost the ability to speak ever again.
He had already lost his mother, who died giving him birth. Without any relatives or kin, the ten-year-old became a mute orphan in a tiny mud hut on the banks of a mighty river, growing up all by himself.
Not finding his father’s body would leave a lifelong scar on Duburee’s existence. This loss also helped him develop an extreme benevolence for the sorrow of others, and he dedicated his life to helping anyone else. The loss however also made him shy away from the world. From then, he preferred as little human interaction as possible. On one hand, he lived to help others, and on the other, he retreated from interacting with people.
His father’s diving skills were already well known, and soon Duburee’s name too came to resonate as an expert diver in the region. People who lost their precious belongings in the river would come to avail of his services. He would dive into the river to retrieve and return their treasures for anything in return to sustain himself or help the person without any kind of remuneration even.
He plunged into the Damodar every day to salvage various other things as well. He would keep all his salvaged goods in a massive junkyard around his earthen cottage on the hill for anyone to come and pick whatever they needed. They would leave behind anything, food or money, whatever they could afford to give.
The most profitable yet saddest thing that Duburee salvaged now and then were the dead bodies of drowned human beings. Drowning accidents and suicides had always been there, but with the construction of the dam, they grew in number as people who had given up all hope found it convenient to jump into the river from the barrage to end their mortal existence. The relatives of the diseased or the authorities were always ready to pay good money to retrieve these cadavers from the riverbed.
Duburee had a peculiar way of conducting his business. Anybody who wanted to avail of his services had to strictly abide by the rules he had established. He would never meet anyone face-to-face. A villager or customer would usually come and stand outside his cottage. When that person saw Duburee move inside his hut or saw him doing some work in the salvage yard, the person would shout out his problem and leave after receiving a nod from the old man from a distance.
Within the next few days, Duburee would usually find the lost item or dead body and place it in a central place in his salvage yard for the owner to come by and pick it up at his convenience. His customers usually left behind whatever money or offerings they could pay.
All went well, till in the summer month of 1995 when the villagers saw sixty-year-old Duburee drown trying to save a cow that had fallen into the river near the barrage. To everyone’s relief the next day they saw Duburee go about his usual business. It seemed the expert diver was able to save himself.
After this incident, Duburee became even more aloof from everyone. Hardly anyone would see him around. His junkyard gradually became more unkempt, however, he kept on listening to the villagers’ pleas from a distance for recovering their lost things and dead beings from the riverbed.
The years passed like this, and people saw Duburee continue with his detached existence on the banks of the Damodar river beside the Durgapur barrage. With age Duburee’s skills only seem to enhance as he became better and better at his business. Previously there were occasions when he had failed to retrieve an object or a dead body from the riverbed, but after the near-drowning accident, he seemed to never fail at a job ever again.
Unlike many others, old age did not seem to have any dampening effect on his looks, wellbeing and health. Now at the age of eighty-two, though covered in greys and a bit slower, from a distance it looked like Duburee had not aged a single day in the past two decades and had become even more efficient with years of experience.
Following heavy rains in the month of July and August in 2017, the state of West Bengal was badly affected by severe flooding. This had caused the Damodar river and its tributaries to swell up pretty wildly. Though the waters receded in the next three months to controllable levels, it put a heavy toll on the dams and barrages in the region.
The night of 23rd November 2017 was exceptionally chilly. People living next to the barrage heard a sudden and massive metal bending sound coming from under the water surface.
Rushing out of their hut, some villagers ran to take a closer look at what had happened. A few hours earlier, the barrage gates were opened to let water out, and now it seemed that right when they were being lowered, the 1st lock gate got tilted and bent. Now with every cubic inch of increasing water pressure, the mammoth gate was only bending further. Within an hour, the gate had bent to the maximum extent possible.
Now massive amounts of water were gushing out of the reservoir towards the riverbank villages. The sharp sound of the flood alarm soon broke the nightly silence. Sleepy villagers sprang from their beds to save themselves. Climbing atop trees and on roofs of the one or two concrete houses, they tried to save themselves from the increasing floodwaters that gradually engulfed the tiny riverbank villages.
At the height of the disaster in the middle of the moonlit night, the villagers saw old man Duburee rush out of his cottage and climb onto his boat, and row into the river to save as many lives as possible.
As dawn broke the next morning and the first rays of the sun, kissed the glistening waters of the Damodar, the villagers refuged on higher grounds saw Duburee’s ark floating, filled with animals and human beings. It seemed like the old diver had saved many lives, but no one could locate him. The survivors said that their memory of the night was vague, the old man was lightning fast in the water, and after saving them miraculously, he could not be seen or located.
The villagers knew that Duburee had finally met his maker. It took a few days for the waters to gradually recede and normalcy to return to the villages once again. To the surprise of everyone, Duburee was once again seen moving about in his junkyard. Everyone was relieved that the old man had made it.
A few days later, a group of villagers gathered and went to the silver beard’s hut to thank him personally. He had saved many lives on that dreadful night of 23rd November. For that matter, he had saved so many lives over the years, retrieved so many lost treasures and brought back so many dead bodies enabling grieving relatives to perform last rites.
At the hut, after calling out to him for quite some time, they finally saw the old man moving inside the cottage. The villagers had never ventured into his hut but that day they were determined to thank him personally. As they entered the shanty there was no one there.
Since the cottage was on top of a hill, the floodwaters had not entered inside it. Everything inside was covered in cobwebs and looked like nothing had been touched for more than twenty years at least. Everyone was shocked and did not know what to believe.
They say that still today if you visit and stand in front of the tiny hut in the salvage yard on top of the small hill on the banks of the Damodar river in front of the Durgapur barrage and shout out about what you have lost in the river, you may see a silver beard old man for a moment. If he nods his head, do come back after a few days, and you would find what you had lost to the riverbed lying in the middle of the salvage yard in front of the rickety little mud cottage.
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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