West Bengal: Visiting the Sundarbans in the Aftermath of Aila
By Dr. Swati Dasgupta
I knew intuitively that working out the details of our tour was unnecessary.
I did ask Raj about diseases prevalent there and he said that diseases of poverty with a lack of basic medical care were the constant affliction.
I said tentatively that maybe we could provide a little medical help for the people in the three and a half days we would be there.
Raj spoke to Sambhuda and arranged a medical camp for the first day we were to be there. We worked out details of medicines to be arranged but later on we found that the camp was well equipped with all that could be required, as there was a kind-hearted doctor who came all the way from Canning every fortnight to serve the people of Bali Island.
A Devastating Cyclone in West Bengal
Raj also told us of the terror of the Aila cyclone of May 2009. He said that quite a number of compassionate people from around the globe, who knew the Sundarbans, had come to Bali immediately after the Aila to help in whatever way they could. There used to be a medical camp at a HelpTourism cottage in those miserable days, till life limped back to some sort of stability.
Gautam and I headed for Kolkata from Siliguri in our Mahindra Logan in the first week of March. On our way we enjoyed a panoramic view of spring in West Bengal. The mango blossoms were everywhere, heralding a good crop.
Spring was there with the lush green paddy fields, ponds with ducks swimming lazily, the sunburnt farmer tending to his fields and an occasional bright blue kingfisher diving for food. As we left behind the coolness of North Bengal, we had to turn on the air-conditioning.
We spent the night quite comfortably at Bahrampur tourist lodge. We could not spare time to see the historically rich palaces and monuments of Hazarduari and left for Kolkata the next day. At noon we were at Salt Lake City, Kolkata.
We spent the weekend there for a family reunion and on Monday we were off to the Sundarbans. It was a pleasant four-hour drive from Kolkata to a place called Gadkhali which is a tiny little port town.
Touring the Countryside
Sambhuda and Ganesh, the driver of the Qualis [autos] in which we traveled, gave us a comprehensive idea about the suburban regions we passed. There were wide expanses of cultivated fields and wetlands for fish-farming on the way.
At a place called Ghatakpukur, we had to prevent a disappointed Sambhuda from buying rosogolla for desert from his steady sweetshop for us. We went by Malancha, a large wholesale fish market and Sarberia where we stopped for tea.
There, a lady whose tiny little grandchild had never been photographed generously let us use her facilities. I took pictures of the three generations of womenfolk and shyly they asked me to send them the pictures.
At eleven we were at Gadkahli boarding the Help Tourism boat named Sundari, after the mangrove which has also given the delta its name.
A surprisingly cordial welcome by the crew gave us an indication of the hospitality that awaited us. They gave us a delicious breakfast of luchi, aloo sabzi, Sundarbans honey, eggs, fruit juice, tea, all served to perfection.
Later on, I learned that almost everyone in the boat was a multi-tasker with the ability to cook, steer and be a guide for tourists.
Survival in a place like the Sundarban delta, where there is no electricity on most of the inhabited islands, where the rivers abound with fish as well as preying crocodiles and sharks, where the man-eating tiger prowls on land and water too, where poisonous snakes too, live on land and water, makes a person a combatant against inclement forces.
Simple and Stoical
The people of the delta are simple, stoical, bereft of the pettiness of urbanization. The inhospitable land has endowed them with values and a sense of hospitality that moves the outsider.
We reached Bali Island at twelve noon. The Help Tourism establishment is part of Bali village, blending evenly into the landscape with quaint mud huts with thatched roofs and a garden which is a haven for many species of birds.
Spotted owlets lived in a tree behind the cottage we occupied and on sunny days they went under its thatched roof. The hut was equipped with comforts necessary for urbanites like us. A generator provided electricity in the otherwise non electrified island.
A short rest, then lunch, and we were off to the village marketplace for the scheduled medical camp. Sambhuda took us in a van with the engine of a motorbike, a popular means of transport in rural places. We were given the two seats beside the driver and had a lovely view of the island as we drove about half a kilometer to the village.
The weekly market was going on when we reached there. Moyna and Archana, two experienced health workers were there to welcome us to the camp. The medical camp was not well attended by patients. We realized that the people chose to rely on the sustained support of the good-hearted doctor from Canning who came to them regularly.
The Terror of the Cyclone
A few villagers came out of curiosity, also for a chat and maybe some medicines. For me, it was a brief cross-sectional look into the mind and diseases of the delta people. I could empathize with the terror of the Aila cyclone of May 2009 that was indelible in the minds of its victims. For most of them, it was life before and after Aila.
Archana said she felt she would die of the pain of seeing her beloved home being slowly flooded by the murky waters. Left without options, the victims limped back to life afterward but the flood of brackish water made the soil infertile for crops. The small freshwater ponds became too salty for the carp, which died.
No one knew how long it would take to rid the soil of the excess salts. I wish there were scientists who could tell the cultivators how and when to plant in saline soils.
Swati Dasgupta writes “I am a government doctor working in a large district hospital in Siliguri, near Darjeeling in the state of West Bengal, India. Travel, writing and an insatiable interest in people sustain me through life.”