Under the fading silver veil of a moonlit night, in the last hour before the dawn of morning light, on the glittery shores of a once turbulent river, an eighteen-year-old low-caste boy tirelessly shovelled grains of rock and coral into a banged-up truck’s weathered wooden cradle. The driver handed over five shiny ten-rupee coins to the boy for his tribe’s night-long clandestine labour in the wilderness. Threatening to return after two days for another load, he drove off around the undulating paths of the secluded and dug-up beach. Crossing the jungle through the unnamed road, he got on a metalled highway to deliver his precious cargo at a construction site somewhere in the constantly morphing concrete landscape of the Kolkata metropolis.
For many generations, Bali’s forefathers had lived and worked on the golden sandbanks of the Damodar River at the edge of the Tildanga Forest in the Burdwan district of India’s West Bengal state. Hailing from an unfavourable caste of the Indian society, they had known exploitation and oppression to be a part of their day-to-day life and existence.
One could say that suffering was ingrained in their DNA. Even the river that flowed in front of their mud and straw shacks, sustaining them with food and resources, had at times been cruel to them. Annually it would overflow, devastate their homes, kill their livestock, and even take their lives away.
For more than two centuries, from 1770 to 1943, the Damodar River flowing across the Indian states of Jharkhand and West Bengal was known as the ‘Sorrow of Bengal.’ Nearly every year, in the monsoon months between June and August, the neighbouring Chota Nagpur Plateau received heavy rainfall, which caused ravaging floods in the plains of West Bengal.
With the tides of civilisation in the twenty-first century, came many dams and barrages, which finally managed to tame the mighty Damodar and its raging tributaries. Now, industrial development had become both the boon and the bane of the region. By the year 2003, hundreds of factories systematically pouring their filth into the Damodar had managed to convert the mighty waterway into the dirtiest river in the subcontinent.
Though loose and fragmented, and nothing more than grains of weathered rocks in itself, as the second most consumed natural resource on Earth after water, it is the glue that binds together the world as we know of today. Sadly, it is not finite, and as a fast-depleting natural resource, one day would no longer be available. As one of the most important but least appreciated commodities of the 21st Century, there’s a little bit of sand in every human life, one could say.
Now this sand was that which had become a matter of life and death for Bali and his clan living on the edge of the Tildanga Forest on the banks of the Damodar River in India’s West Bengal State.
Sujan Sardar, a.k.a Kedu had risen through the rungs of poverty to make a name for himself. A name he was not very proud of but quite satisfying in terms of financial gain. At an early age, he had realised his strength was violence. Starting with petty theft, bootlegging, extortion, he finally became the biggest sand mafia in the region. He had laid his empire on a foundation of blood and bones.
Now, Bali and his clan were at the bottommost pit of Kedu’s illegal sand mining business. Their simple Tribe was the cheapest labour the mafia could locally find to extract sand from the riverbanks near the secluded Tildanga forest region. Bali and his kind were forced to fill Kedu’s trucks for a few pieces of coins, and the mafia lord sold the sand at lower than the market rates to build his booming empire.
Illegal sand mining from the riverbeds and riverbanks was rampant in several districts of West Bengal. The business ran into thousands of millions of rupees and worked through a nexus between local politicians, the administration, and the mafia. Bids in a legal auction could go up to twenty to thirty million rupees. Hence imagine the profit that Kedu made through illegal mining.
Clashes over the control of the riverbeds, which formed the bedrock of this booming and nefarious business, were common in the districts of Birbhum, Bankura, West Midnapore, Hooghly, Howrah, and Burdwan, and Kedu had mastered the tricks of this bloodstained trade.
“Oh Marang Buru, Supreme Deity, The Mighty Mountain God, Oh Thakur Ji, The Life-Giver, why do you allow these evil men to rule on us? Why have you abandoned us,” said Bali with tears in his eyes as he lit the funeral pyre to say adieu to his father’s mortal remains? The previous night his father had collapsed and died, filling two truckloads for the mafia, whose goons forced the old man to work beyond his exhaustion, thereby causing his sudden death.
“We are just a group of thirty, and half of us are old men, women and children. We don’t even have proper clothes to wear. What can we do against the armed goons? We can just pray that they inflict lesser harm on us every time they come to take away the sand from our golden beaches,” spoke up Tonka, the eldest member of the clan.
Bali and his Tribe had never rebelled in their lives. They had inherited the yoke of oppression from their forefathers who too were exploited in different ways by the evil men of their generations. They had no proper clothes, no tools, leave alone arms, no sturdy dwelling, only mud and straw shacks, for that matter they simply had nothing to stand against the large numbers of well-armed and hardened criminal enforcers of the mafia, the robbers of sand.
Two days after Bali’s father’s death, three trucks were back on the beach, along with a Toyota Fortuner SUV. From the silver-white four-by-four stepped out the stout and sturdy Kedu. The boss had not bloodied his hands for a long time and yearned to inflict some violence on the helpless.
Kedu was short and plump but built like stone. All his life, he had fought and killed men with his bare hands. He was a monster who took sadistic pleasure in bludgeoning his victims to death. The ten massive tungsten carbide tipped steel rings with gold trims on his fingers were not mere ornaments of display of his immense power and wealth but close combat weapons, with which he could crush bones and rip apart flesh.
“Who is this Bali I hear of from my men. Come forward you troublemaker, and I will teach you an apt lesson,” thundered the boss of goons in all his power and might. “We do not want any trouble, my lord. We will do as you command. Please spare our lives. Be merciful sahib,” spoke up Tonka, the eldest member of the clan.
“No, Tonka Baba, we will not do as he says. We have suffered under his oppression for far too long. We will not shovel a single speck of sand into his trucks today or any other day,” spoke up Bali stepping forward from amidst the trembling crowd of sand-dwellers.
“What are you doing Bali! Please control yourself, my child. These men will kill you. Oh God, please help us and put some sense into this boy’s head,” pleaded Tonka and the other members of his clan.
“God will only help those who help themselves. For generations, we have never stood up against our oppressors. Perhaps that’s why God has never helped us. I won’t die that easily, not before taking down a few of these bastards under the sand with me. Do you have the stones to face me all by yourself Kedu, or will you let your men do your evil bidding,” declared Bali, confidently taking up a crude boxing stance?
Bali was not that tall, an inch taller than Kedu. He had never fought anyone in his life and hated violence. He was lean without an ounce of fat on him. His bones were hard, his muscles were malnourished and less but cut like rock, and his black sunburnt skin was tough as leather. He was not much to look at but certainly had a bit of undiscovered strength built through years of living in nature and shovelling sand.
“Hold on everyone. No one makes a move. This feisty bugger is all mine. After a long time, I have found a worthy opponent. Taking him down will give me great joy,” saying these words, the fat and scary mafia kingpin pounced on the thin and courageous Tribal boy.
He landed the first blow on Bali’s jaw, inflicting a gashing wound across the right side of the young boy’s face. The goon’s henchmen cheered in volleys of applaud on their master’s initial triumph of violence, while the scared clan of beach-dwellers pleaded in fear and wailed.
Bali fell on the ground and stood up after a minute of being disoriented. At that moment the Tribal boy realised that he had summoned the courage to fight but lacked the skills to defeat his hardened and experienced opponent, however, he also discovered that he could get back on his feet, overcoming unbearable agony. His strength was not to fight but to bear the physical pain.
One blow after the other, on the face, in the torso, Kedu kept on hitting the young lad. Every hit from the skin-piercing bone-crushing tungsten carbide tipped steel rings ripped gashing wounds on the leathery skin of the defiant Tribal boy. The determined lad got back on his feet after every impact. Blood, gore, sweat, and tears from his body drenched the golden sands. He stood his grounds in a display of unbelievable defiance against the cruelty of a tyrant.
After the longest fifteen minutes of excruciating pain that he had ever faced in his life, Bali stood up for one last time. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” cried the Tribal boy. At that moment came the shrill noise of sirens from the unnamed road inside the forest. To Kedu and his men, it sounded like the trumpets played by the seven angles on the Judgement Day.
Within moments swarms of armed policemen poured onto the beach in their jeeps. Before Kedu and his men could react, they were well surrounded. On Wednesday the 25th of August in 2021, the Asansol-Durgapur Police apprehended Sujan Sardar, a.k.a Kedu, the biggest sand mafia in the region.
With encouragement and strict directive from the Chief Minister to curb illegal sand mining in the state, the police had been cracking down on the sand mafias in the region. For the past few months, they had been planning to apprehend Kedu red-handed. All their attempts had failed till now, as the ruffian had not come out in the open.
In the next seven days, with critical information extracted from Kedu, the police were able to nab three dozen sand smugglers and seize ten thousand cubic feet of sand mined illegally from Damodar and Ajay rivers from across the West Burdwan region.
It was as if God had worked through Bali and his clan to lure out the kingpin from his den. Acting on a timely tip from an informant, the police were able to catch up with the ruffian at the right moment. Bali’s courage to stand up against Kedu proved vital in keeping him on the beach till the cops arrived that day.
Though scarred and disfigured for life, today Bali lives on with his clan members, enjoying a happier existence. If you happen to ever visit this region of the West Bengal state, who knows you may come across a group of skimpily clad forest dwellers leading a simple life on the riverbank of the Damodar River at the edge of the Tildanga forest. Do take a moment to meet and greet them, and if possible, tell them that you know about their unsung hero, Bali, and the story of their ‘Tears On The Sand.’
Copyright © 2022 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. Some characters, incidents, places, and facts may be real while some fictitious. 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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