Ganga Ki Sagarika

I am Sagarika. I was born in Gangasagar, a small island in coastal West Bengal. I was 11 years old when cyclone Aila lashed through our village. It was the 25th of May 2009 when I saw, for the first time in my life, the tall coconut trees bow before snapping into two, thick groves of green bamboo being ripped off their leaves and the waves of the Ganga soaring up high as the strong winds from the Bay of Bengal ripped through the coast and headed inland.

The cyclone had wreaked considerable damage at Sagardwip, about 130 km from Kolkata. Fields full of the ripening paddy and vegetables were destroyed and freshwater fish in ponds died with the flood of salt water. Thatched mud huts were swept away, roofs of pucca houses of the village were ripped off and the residents’ clothes, pots and pans, plastic chairs, wooden cots and other household paraphernalia vanished before their eyes.

All of us had nowhere to take shelter, no food to eat, no water to drink. Having seen all our possessions disappearing skywards with the strong winds within nanoseconds, we sought comfort as I huddled close to my mother and father. This was the tragic scene at the small island in the Gangasagar region of Sunderbans.

The island’s uninteresting village Sagardwip, otherwise, had a quiet charm amidst the unspoilt and silvery beach on the estuary of the mighty Ganga. It was only in December and January during Makar Sankranti celebrated in mid-January every year that thousands of people would descend to take the holy dip at Sagardwip’s southern tip in the Ganges delta above the Bay of Bengal. All the villagers would look forward to the flood of pilgrims coming from mid-December onwards.

For the rest of the year, there were tourists, mostly from Kolkata, who were interested in seeing the attractions such as the beach, Marine Park, the lighthouse, Ramakrisna Mission Ashram, Sushama Devichowdhurani Marine Biological Research Institute, Chimaguri Mudflat which is the entry point to the mangrove forest and the windmills from which the Island gets its power.

My father used to set up a stall and sell maachh-bhaat (dish of rice and fish) to visitors while mother sat on a jute mat nearby selling marigold and desi gulab (red rose) garlands to pilgrims. The income generated till the end of January kept us simple villagers happy for the next few months.

The Gangasagar pilgrimage and fair is the second largest congregation of mankind after the holy Kumbha Mela. The latter is observed once in four years at alternate locations in north, central and central-west parts of the country whereas the Gangasagar pilgrimage is held annually.

The temple for which Gangasagar is held so sacred is the Kapil Muni temple at Sagardwip. This is the fourth constructed temple in the island. The first was razed by a tornado and the next two were destroyed by the sea. In 1961, funds were given to construct the present temple which was completed in 1973. Gangasagar is about five times bigger than the Vatican State and has the holy Ganga and the Bay of Bengal for company.

There is a common belief among the locals that girls who take the holy dip on Makar Sakranti get handsome grooms and boys get beautiful brides. On completion of the dip and other ritual obligations, devotees head towards the nearby Kapil Muni temple to worship the deity. It is said that holding the tail of the cow while wading in the Ganga wipes out the sins of the devotee. The pujaris (priests) borrow calves from local villagers to perform this ritual called Baitarani Par (cow worship).

I never had to look far for company or friends in the months of December and January. The sandswept coast was jam-packed with hundreds of thousands of devotees offering prayers and flowers, smashing coconuts, lighting sweet-smelling incense, offering sweets at the colourful Kapil Muni’s temple lending to it the typical and familiar aura of Hinduism. My friends and I roamed around in the mela the whole day and, at times, would wade in the Ganga waters to collect coins thrown by pilgrims into the Ganga.

Temporary stalls bedecked with silver and gold-coloured streamers made of paper sold food, clothes, clay gods, offerings like flowers, sweets, etc. Flower-sellers sit behind heaps of garlands made of golden and yellow-coloured gainda (marigold) flowers and the delicate red roses. Kirtans (devotional songs) are sung in rhythm with harmoniums and dhols (drums) by the devout. At night, the Kapil Muni temple is lit up by purple and blue light bulbs.

Dharamshalas and temporary shelters set up by charitable organizations, religious bodies, social activists, government authorities, non-governmental organizations, etc. are where many of the thousands of pilgrims stay for two-three days. If not praying or picking up souvenirs from the temporary shops, they frequent the restaurants dispensing sweet tea in earthen pots or eating freshly-made puri-alu and maachh-bhaat on pattals (leaf plates).

At Sagardwip, the Bharat Sevashram Sangha temple, while not as religiously significant as the Kapil Muni temple, is larger. The Sangha’s Ashram has hundreds of rooms for pilgrims, a charitable dispensary and monastery, a primary school, a free hostel for its students and other facilities.

The Ramakrishna Mission Ashram at Mansadwip is actually a school but for the duration of the pilgrimage, turns into a shelter for devotees. Volunteers make arrangements for the provision of meals during most of the night on the main Sankranti Snan (holy timing for taking bath in Gangasagar) event.

A year after the 2009 cyclone Alia, when my parents could not subsist on their meagre earnings, they decided to shift to Kolkata and try to improve their prospects. Leaving Sagardwip was another first for me. After Dussehra in 2010, my parents packed our few belongings and caught a bus to Kochuberia to cross the Ganga by ferry and reached Hardwood. A local tempo took us to Kakdwip from where we caught a train to Sealdah railway station.

We stayed for a few days with my Manu masi (mother’s sister) till my father found a job in a restaurant and mother secured work as a housemaid. As we could now afford to live in our own hut, we shifted to a para (colony) in Shibpur, Howrah.

Soon my mother found me a job and I started working at a house near a very large park which was known by the name of Indian Botanical Gardens. It is famous for the Great Banyan Tree which, it is claimed, has the largest canopy in the world. I had, over a few months of working, never seen the tree and had not gone into the park.

That is what the memsahib told me once when she came to the kitchen to see the preparations for the dinner. The cook had gone to the market nearby for some last-minute purchases. I was sitting alone on the floor chopping vegetables with the boti (chopper). She came and sat beside me. She is always dressed in simple but stylishly printed cotton saris when at home. I felt the scent of her perfume overpowering.

Stroking my back slowly and firmly with one hand and gently patting my cheeks, squeezing my nose, tugging at my lips with the other hand, she said: “Do you know how beautiful you are? Your eyes are like a deer’s, your lips are so shapely and the way your figure is developing, so, so beautifully. You will never run short of admirers.” She stopped speaking, rubbed her face with her sari pallu, got up with a start and left the kitchen.

I was puzzled. Memsahib had seen me on a number of occasions and had ignored me. This was the first time that she had spoken to me. So when the cook returned, I told him that I was going for a walk and would be back in 10 minutes. I needed to calm my nerves. I headed straight for the park and sat down on a bench which was coated with green paint. Then I saw a youth, a little older than me, coming in my direction.

He wished me “tumhee bhalo” (“how are you”) when he came near and sat next to me. For a few minutes, he sat silently. Then he started telling me about his background. His name was Shantu and was from a village in Sundarbans near J Block beyond Raidighi. He had run away from home to earn a livelihood in Kolkata. For the past two years, he had been working in a godown where potatoes were stored and his job involved carrying heavy sacks of potatoes on his back to load on or off trucks whenever necessary.

One afternoon, Shantu took me to the Howrah Bridge. I had never seen such an impressive construction. Shantu said there were beautiful temples in the city but we had no time to visit them. He named a few such as the Kali Bari, Belur Math, Dakshineshwar and Birla Temple. He talked of places known as the Victoria Memorial, Eden Gardens, Birla Planetarium and a lady called Mother Teresa who worked for the downtrodden. He had visited these places and happily described them to me.

I started frequenting the park every afternoon to meet my one and only friend in the city. I told him how I missed my village, those stolen rides on the rickshaw vans, the sound of the cock crowing at dawn, the sight of ducks paddling noisily around muddy pools, the country boats in the bay and fishing nets spread everywhere. He relived his memories, mostly about life, before the cyclone had changed the lives of the people.

Then one day, we decided to run away. Shantu said his parents would welcome him back and he would introduce me as his wife. I did not inform my parents and did not appreciate playing the “wifey” role. So on the evening that we “eloped”, we went to a temple where Shantu applied the red-coloured teeka to my maang (forehead) and only after that did we headed to Raidighi in a bus. The journey was uneventful, considering that we were a “newly-married” couple.

The early morning breeze at Raidighi was very pleasant. One of the tributaries of the Ganga flows through Raidighi. It was a welcome sight, of water bubbles kissing the river banks, of the fast flow of the currents and the swirling waters shining in the sunlight. The sludge-filled Hooghly in Kolkata cannot be compared with this happy sight. My spirits were lifted. I was happy to be closer to home.

Our reception at Shantu’s parents’ home was a happy experience. They were happy to have their son back and, that too, with such an attractive ever-smiling bahu (daughter-in-law). A month passed in bliss for me. Shantu found work as a mechanic at a garage. I took care of my in-laws during the daytime and Shantu took care of me at night.

But my parents had never rested ever since the loss of their beloved daughter. In a small world comprising of only static villages, flowing rivers and wagging tongues, news travels fast. My parents learnt of my so-called marriage and the name of the village where I was living.

So on one pleasant day, while I was rubbing oil in my sasuma’s (mother-in-law’s) hair, I saw the familiar sight of my parents walking down the narrow ribbon of upraised soil, that we called a road, to the thatched hut that we called home. “So you have run away from us to this ramshackle village!” my father shouted when they had reached within hearing distance. I started trembling as I knew the outcome of their visit.

As I said, news travels fast and within 10 minutes, Shantu along with half the village’s population had reached the “battleground”. My parents stood firm. There was no documentary of the proof of our marriage and neither Shantu’s family nor any of the villagers had witnessed any ceremony.

After some arguments, my mother caught me by my wrist and started walking back to the main cemented road where their taxi was parked. My father spat angrily on the road, took out a paan (betel leaf) from a foiled paper and contentedly parked it in the side of his mouth. Mission Accomplished, the signal seemed to say. Caught but not guilty, I was howling. Shantu and my in-laws stood dazed watching the drama unfold. That was the last time that I saw Shantu.

Back to Kolkata and a return to backbreaking work at the homes of the rich. Then I met Deb. A whirlwind romance followed. Knowledge of the newly-discovered pleasures of the flesh learnt with Shantu were further enriched with Deb. He presented me with a mobile phone and I talked to him in my spare time. One day, the memsahib caught me with the mobile and called my parents. After I spilt the beans to them about Deb, they decided to pack me off to Delhi where my pishi (father’s sister) lived.

Another train journey, another city, another life. Shreya pishi lost no time in securing a 24-hour job at a flat in Gurgaon. Living in a 3 bedroom flat on the 10th floor of a multi-storeyed building with security guards strictly checking visitors to the Sector 30 colony, I missed the freedom and fresh air of Gangasagar. The family I served consisted of the husband and wife with one daughter who studied in a school in Nainital and came home only during her vacations.

The sahib left for his office by 9 a.m. to return by 7 p.m. six days of the week. The memsahib had friends visiting her for gossip sessions or she watched Hindi serials on TV. She was very conscious about her figure, exercising daily in a skin-tight track suit and watching what she ate. Sometimes she allowed me to watch Bangla serials and films. On those occasions, she’d sit on the sofa and make me sit in front of her with my back resting on her legs. She loved to stroke my long tresses, play with my ears, stroke my neck and rub my shoulders.

As her fingers explored my shoulders, she loved to ask me about my experiences in Kolkata and the villages where I had stayed. I told her about my romantic attachments, the short-lived affairs, and the meaningless excitement in an otherwise dull existence. At that time, I had not known where I was headed to and even now, I was living directionless. Little did I know about the vast ocean of love that was heading in my direction that would turn around my entire life.

One fine morning when her husband went to office earlier than usual, she complained of pain in her lower back, a result of the bending exercises she had done that morning. She told me, after having a light breakfast, to come to her bedroom with the massage oil. I helped her take her t-shirt off and started massaging oil on her spine, shapely hips and slim waist.

After some time, she turned around and I, Sagarika, was thrown roughly into the strong waves of cyclone Aila. I am Sagarika. I was born in Gangasagar. I am 19 years old and the date today is the 25th of May 2017. I have been drowned of my own choice and as I love my karma and the ebb and flow of the tide, refuse to be rescued.

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