If you run a search on Google for Pakhiraloy, the links and images that pop-up is all feel good! A beautiful eco-tourism destination, a bird watcher’s paradise. Pakhiraloy literally means the ‘abode of birds” hundreds of them can be seen here, especially during the winter months. So, you get links to hotels, you get video feeds on the serenity and beauty of this village on the largest deltaic island of the Sunderbans – Gosaba! Even today, when hundreds of philanthropists are rushing there with relief aids, when all that is left of that place are broken damaged houses and inundated paddy fields, washed away by two major cyclones in two consecutive years and people clamouring for bare necessities wading through waist-deep water, Google still shows it as one of the tourist locations in Sundarbans where “All is well”.
Let me talk about a different Pakhiraloy today. One that got introduced to me by a very special person – my senior from school whom I call ‘didi’. One that got me so bad, I can’t get over my need to do something! Alas, with my limited capacity all I can do is try but I don’t want to stop trying – I don’t want to give up on this one the way I did with a few other things that have left me regretting to date!
Paschimpara is a quiet hamlet, one of the three in the Pakhiraloy village under the Rangabelia Panchayat of Gosaba gram Panchayat adjacent to the Sajnekhali buffer zone of the Sunderban Tiger Reserve. Incidentally, Gosaba happens to be the largest of the deltaic islands in this region bordered by the Matla, Raimangal and Bidyedhori rivers and Zilli creeks. Like most villages on the island, Paschimpara stands deep inside the island and is not a tourist destination in itself, but among the 250 odd residents from about 64 households of the village, a large number are into tourism-based livelihood including running shops for basics and souvenirs, working in the hotels or if they are slightly well off – running a boat for any one of the nearby hotels. That apart, the primary occupation of these inhabitants includes agriculture and honey and crab collection from the jungles deep in the creeks. Typical to any village in the area, Bonbibi is the resident goddess and though there have been stray instances of the Big Cat haunting the banks and the areas thereof, they generally leave such hamlets to the reptiles who are generally handled more or less comfortably by the villagers.
And then came 2020 – the year the world stopped in its tracks.
When I was a child and when the world still depended on tape recorders, Doordarshan and newspapers for infotainment, I would always end up crying by the end of the song “Kono ek gnayer bodhur kotha tomay shonai shono”. His voice always left a haunting picture as he sang the last couple of lines – “Aajo jodi tumi kono gnaaye dekho bhanga kutirero shaari – jeno shei khane, she gnaayer bodhu, asha sokoler o, somadhi”. But then I would tell myself, that this is just a song – a poet’s imagination! But when Joyita di gave me a picture of how real this can be, I was left dumbstruck! Cyclones have been a regular feature for the residents of Sundarbans, but they held on – for years, even before independence. What happened in 2020 was a double-pronged attack by nature! Covid put the world on halt, and for these people, it meant no tourists and hence no income from that front at all! They would perhaps have still survived by harvesting paddy and collecting honey and crabs. But then, like that mayhem that shook and overnight destroyed the little village in Hemanta Mukherjee’s song, one June evening came cyclone Umphun and with it carried away their last bit of belongings leaving their agricultural lands inundated with saltwater and unfit for that year’s harvest! Wanting for basic needs like food and shelter, they awaited a seemingly dreadful imminent monsoon.
My image of Sundarban, the tourist destination shattered, all I could do, in my state of inability to travel and personally be of any help, was to try and get more and more sensitive, like-minded people to share what they have to ensure these people could get the basics – funds… and they poured in from my friends living all over the world! Yet again, my faith in humanity seemed to be in repair mode! The world was not such a bad place after all – people still cared for one another!
And then there were people like Joyita di, who along with her batchmates Swati di and Prakriti di went all the way to ensure that all the relief was delivered to Prodyut – the lone young man in the hamlet with an android phone, who generally coordinated with Joyita di. Prodyut, preparing for his Higher Secondary exams and even sitting through them through the disaster, along with some people from the village ensured that all the relief items including vegetables, rice and pulses, masala, oil and other necessary food items, mosquito nets, tarpaulins, bedding items, books for children reading in classes 9-12, clothes, sanitary napkins, and other things of basic necessity.
When Joyita di started sending me pictures regularly, the state of the children was the one that gave me a jolt! Almost for no fault of his, I felt irritated with my son when one evening he complained about not having enough exercise books to cover all his subjects. But then, I realized it is not his fault that he was fortunately born in the privileged section of the society where necessities of childhood seem boundless. Then I showed him how childhood was for some of the children living in this village – a world far away and very different from his own – a world that failed to equip them to fight it out in the long run, with children like my son – a world where luxury and necessity stands clearly demarcated. I, however, was in for a surprise when I showed him the same pictures. He told me “Ma, I don’t want a birthday gift. Can you give it to them?” We did and I am still counting the blessings showered on him.
It took them a while, but such is the resilience embedded in the very DNA of these people of this hamlet, like many more all around them, that they had bounced back and even as tourism was slowly beginning to start, everything looked like a picture of hope. But the ordeal was far from over for them. With the second wave of Covid shaking the very roots of the country’s economy, tourism stopped once more and once more these people were trying to make do with whatever they could manage. Nature, however, seemed to take a differently vicious form this time with a new name – cyclone Yaas. And for a second time in consecutive years, nature snatched from them what they valued most – their dignity! And yet they stood holding the dams with their rain-soaked bodies as water seeped in from every side, and yet they never stopped raising the height of the embankments even as the rains lashed on, and they never gave up on their cattle or their hope!
In all these years that numerous natural calamities have ravaged these islands, these people have always braved every storm and have risen from the ashes like phoenixes without asking for any help from anyone. Yes, it was difficult, but they still managed. However, this time around, there was nothing left for them to grab on to and start afresh! And so, they reached out for help – and like last year, all they need are basic amenities – grains, rice, vegetables, clothes…only the stuff one needs to live! With their crops and houses washed away, taking with them every item of necessity, all that they have is hope and different categories of reptiles for company!
So, yet again, I tagged along as Joyita di continued her personal mission of empowering these people and preparing them for the next blow. I can’t thank her enough for the new vision she has given me – of a world where people don’t give up – come what may. For people like her still hope, and as they say, hope springs eternal! Whenever I think of all the people, like Joyita di, for whom even these lives matter… and this second wave and Yaas showed me that there are thousands of such people, a dull ache emanates from within me… a desperate need to be meaningful in my existence, a longing to share the same dedication and determination to give people what they care for most – The right to live!
So, let’s all pray together and hope that these people never ever have to ask for help again, that they can live their simple, basic lives with dignity and respect, that Sunderban remains a beautiful natural tourist destination and these people can live their quiet simple lives in the villages deep inside the islands.
Pricture Courtesy: Prodyut and Joyita Di