Updated: Jun 25
| This is the 464th story of Our Life Logs |
I grew up in a small village in the heart of Sunderbans inside the reserved forest in India. I was born around 20 years ago as the middle child. Besides my parents and two sisters, Puja and Rinki, my grandmother also lived with us. Our village was surrounded by the forest on all sides, but those were not forests children could play in, because there were tigers and other wild animals. So, my sisters and I would only play within the compound where we lived. Puja and I used to make small figurines with clay, to whom we would give names and play make-believe. Those simple toys always had a central, all powerful idol called the “Dakhin Rai”—God of the tigers.
We lived a simple, frugal life. My father was a fisherman, and he also had to risk going into the forest every day to find food for us. Our community was deeply religious, and most residents lived simple lives bound by a strict caste system. It was the way they believed they were meant to live. If Father caught maybe ten small prawns in a day in his shoddy, low-lying boat, we would term it a feast. We lived with so little that the boat he used was on a loan from the village moneylender. Sometimes Father would go into the forest to hunt for honeycombs. I should probably tell you that all these activities were illegal, but our people had no other source of food than what the nature provided.
There were no schools around, so we didn’t attend any. Sons were supposed to take up their father’s job in an unending cycle of poverty. Despite all this, we were a happy and satisfied family. For anything we require, we would pray to Dakhin Rai to provide. Many other parts of society were considered deities, including the network of ever-changing water channels that lied within the forest and our village.
One night when I was about 13, the channels, without any warning, swept away our mud hut and almost my whole family with it. My grandmother didn’t make it, but the rest of my family somehow survived the night, clinging to the banks of an island. We reunited with the rest of the village in the morning. Though deeply sad, we moved on. Life and death are at a constant struggle in this environment and life continues unabated with only a slight pause at someone’s demise. When you’re struggling to survive, you become desensitized to hardship.
Father worked with the priest to read the rites required for grandmother’s passing. If not done correctly, it was believed it could attract bad luck to the village given that they thought the river goddess was angry with our family. To appease the gods, Father was ordered to feed 13 people. But we had no money to do so. Whatever small possessions we had were already swept away in the flood.
Father was advised to sell my older sister Puja, or as our community termed it—marry her off for a dowry. In our section of society, girls were seen as the property of the males. With no other option, Father reluctantly agreed. Puja cried with Mother while the village women dressed up her face with little dots of red sindoor before sending her off with the moneylender to be sold. Her beautiful eyes were filled with fear and sadness as I last saw them. To this day, I have no idea where my sister is or if she is even alive.
Soon after this, I started accompanying Father on his trips into the forbidden forest to hunt and to collect honey. Father taught me how to identify the tracks and the gait of animals. I could pick out tracks of swamp deer, porcupines, jackals, pythons, and crocodiles. I also learned to avoid the dangerous animals like bears and poisonous snakes, and to always be aware of the yellow flower bobbing on the water in the distance or anywhere in the forest, which was known as a sure shot sign of a tiger. Tigers in this area were known man-eaters who would not shy away from grabbing a man or child from within the boats and sometimes even from inside the houses of the villages.
A year went by since my grandmother had passed away, and I was still out helping my father pay off the debt from her death. But I had been lazy and slept till late one day. That day, Father had left me at home to fish in the Suderbans delta alone. Night came and my family sat up until it was very late, waiting for my father’s return. But he never came. Only the next morning did we find his boat with three prawns caught in the net. Father was nowhere to be found. It was assumed that Dakhin Rai, God of the tigers, had taken another victim. Perhaps if I had gone with Father that day, I could have been a second pair of eyes, but I don’t think there was much I could have done against the tiger. Maybe it was God’s will that I was spared? Our hearts saddened.
Like for my grandmother, to appease the gods, my family had to feed another 13 people or there would be dire consequences. But much like before, we had no money. Yet, religion is not something you go against in my village, ever, at least not directly. So, to buy ourselves time, I postponed the feast by telling the village elders and priests, “We have lost everything with my father. We need some time to gather resources and we will have the feast soon.”
With Father gone, it was now my responsibility at 15 years old to feed my family through my half-baked education of the forest and its denizens. The priest returned in a few days, suggesting that my younger sister Rinki, who was now around 12, could also be sold off to get the money. A rush of anger blew through me, and I refused point blank.
This refusal, of course, infuriated the priest who nearly cursed us all before going away. A curse from a priest is a dangerous thing in our land, which can give you bad luck for your next 13 lifetimes. Thankfully, he spared us.
The day after the near-cursing, the moneylender repossessed our boat since we had not paid for a while. I could see that this was the priest’s doing and could smell a rat but was completely dejected. I swore to my mother that we would not let Rinki be sold and never to be seen again like Puja. This was the moment when I started to question my society and its unwritten rules, but only in private. I knew if I aired my views or opposed the village openly, I could have easily lost my life.
Instead, I rebelled in small ways, behind the scenes. I decided that I would make money with or without the boat. Without telling anybody of my intentions, I began trekking the dangerous jungle path every day to the visitor center some three hours away so I could work as a guide. The forest in the morning and evening was terrifying, and I knew that any turn in the forest could bring me face to face with Dakhin Rai and death. But, the lure of money was stronger than the fear of the tiger.
I made more money showing people around the forest in a week than I could earn in a whole month through fishing. But the moneylender, through his devious ways, complained to the forest rangers about my work as an unlicensed guide, and I was soon let go. I spent the next three months sulking.
The priest, the moneylender, and the elders in the village soon turned up to pester me about the feast. Although I now had enough money to hold the feast, I did not want to host it. As I heard the village elders suggest once more that I sell my sister, I made up my mind. I’d had enough. I realized that I needed to get out of this mad society, run away from it all. I listened to the elders very patiently that day, agreeing to make a decision in the morning. Then, in the night, I had my mother and sister pack up what little we had, and together we escaped into the forest to the visitor center and then on a bus to Kolkata.
Finally, we were free! But new problems arose in Kolkata. It was like an alien planet to us with its huge crowds, choking vehicular fumes, and deafening noises. After roaming around for some time, we wound up at a railway station. We boarded a train to rest and fell into a deep sleep. When we woke, we found ourselves lurching to an unknown destination. Fellow train goers told us that we’d have a better life in New Delhi, and so that was where we ended up going.
In New Delhi, we slept on the roadside under a flyover. I went to find work every day, sometimes at a construction site as a manual laborer to dig up pits, sometimes at a roadside shop cleaning dishes. My mother and sister too looked for any sort of work in the day and we met up at night under the flyover. Sometimes we had to run in the middle of the night from the police who would simply throw us in jail for staying there, but we settled into this new life okay.
For the next five years, we found work where we could and came back together in the evening to sleep. Sometimes I went to ask for work and would be turned away, as I knew only Bangla then and people in Delhi spoke Hindi. Many would call me a Bangladeshi immigrant and threaten to report me. I soon learned the Hindi language to keep that from happening as often.
One day, on my usual rounds to find work, I came across a tea stall run by an Indian Bengali who took me in and gave me permanent work. As this place was some distance away from the railway we resided, we moved closer. Later, mother found work in this area, and Rinki also found work at a nearby roadside eatery cleaning dishes.
Things have improved. We’ve found a living space in a makeshift one-room home in a nearby unauthorized slum cluster. Now we are much safer from the local authorities who do not suddenly raid in the middle of the night. Our temporary dwelling does not have running water, but we do have electricity for which we pay the authorities a small fee every month. They allow us to illegally draw electricity from the pole. Still, that is a blessing.
Our needs are few. We get food at our places of work, and we get clothes from people who donate at Gurudwara. My priority these days is to save whatever money we make. Without proper papers, I can’t open a bank account, so at present, I save money by digging a shallow hole in the ground and marking it with a stone. This hideout is a secret place, not known to anyone but me. Next on my list of items is to buy a house for Mother to live when she grows old, which shall not be taken away by the flood waters.
I am still poor, but I am better off than I was in the village. I see it as a great achievement to be free of the controlling people and traditions in the village and to have the opportunity to strive for a better life. I remember our fear of the tigers in the forest, but I think we’ve made it out stronger than the tigers. While things are still not fully settled, we are contented. We are free, and we have love, and we are improving. That is what truly matters.
This is the story of Prothom “Chottu” Das
Prothom currently stays with his mother and his sister in a slum in Delhi, India. Living in poverty in a village surrounded by forests, Prothom lost his grandmother, his older sister, and later his father. When the village elders asked him to keep up with traditions, he questioned the rules and eventually, escaped with his mother and younger sister to Delhi to start a new life. While he and his family are still under the constant threat of being evicted from his home, or worse, deported to another unknown land, he thinks they’re far better off than when they were in the village. Life has improved. He is a simple fellow who has been thrown into an unpredictable and polluted world which has made him bitter sometimes, while he retains his innocent smile. Prothom is now looking for a suitable boy for Rinki to marry her for real, not to be sold the way his older sister Puja was. Prothom keeps a lookout for authorities in Delhi who may be able to help him find his older sister. He hopes that one day, he will find her safe and then they shall again be one big happy family.
This story first touched our hearts on December 5, 2019.
| Writer: P. Kasturi Rangan | Editor: Kristen Petronio, MJ |