Joy of Sunderbans

Keya Dutt

The sea was playing with Joy, gently lifting him, picking him up, and dropping him. Drops of water fell into his mouth. How sweet was the taste...the water trickled into his parched throat and Joy seemed to leap up as do the fast disappearing Gangetic porpoises, nose in the air, arms spread.

A sudden loud crashing sound awoke him with a start. His little eight year old body shook in fear and he cried out ‘Ma!’

His mother awoke and said, it must be part of the embankment that had breached. ‘It’s been raining so hard for the last one week, it’s a wonder the embankment did not break earlier.’ Below, the waters noisily gurgled, greedily throwing fierce small waves against the low bamboo ladder that led up to their home. Joy heard the rustle of the plastic sheets that made his mother’s bed on the floor.

Joy shouted in the dark ‘Ma, I’m scared.’

His mother made some comforting sounds and asked him to come to her. The rains raged overhead and their fragile shelter shook. Looking at the empty bed beside him, he asked his mother when will his father return. And he knew from her silence that she did not know, or could not surmise.

Joy jumped to his feet as a sharp white lightening struck. At once, he felt his way in the dark to his mother. The second plank on the floor was loose and through the crack he could see the rising waters below, reaching for him. Terrified, he launched himself on his mother over the next two planks. He remembered his father had pulled out the two rotten planks from the wreck of their old home, disgustedly commenting that the wood was fit only for firewood and would not last them even a week. And yet, his father never changed the planks in the next three years.

His mother pulled him close, above them the rain sounded louder than the waters below.

Joy tried to swallow his own spit, but his dry throat hurt. He remembered seeing about an inch or so of of drinking water in the bucket. Joy reluctantly asked his mother for water. His mother tightened her hold on him. Then rocked him and whispered, ‘as soon as the rain stops I will fetch water.’ Neither of them admitted that the rain did not look like letting up. Ever. He knew his mother could not go through the knee-high muddy water in the dark to fetch drinking water. As the rains came and came he hated seeing her trudge through sea water just to fetch drinking water.

As it is, theirs was the only shelter by the embankment the rest of the village had fled to the new Flood House built on pillars. Joy had once sneaked in there and was surprised to  see a water pump on the first floor.

Joy could never understand why his father had built a rickety precarious shelter beside the embankment, at the very edge of the village. He remembered no one had come to help his father as he built the ramshackle shelter on bamboo stilts for fear of the rising water. He remembered seeing his mother weeping. And then one morning, Joy learnt that his father was gone.

Now Joy’s eyes grew heavy, but every time he tried to sleep, his dry throat hurt. Joy must have drifted off when he heard the clatter of the pans where his mother stored the water downstairs, below their sleeping space. His mother softly called up ‘I am fetching water for you.’ Joy tried to protest but his tongue seemed to have thickened and stuck to the roof of his mouth. He lay flat and from the corner of the broken plank watched his mother go down into the darkness below their shelter. He heard her splash into the water. The waters had risen to her waist. He saw her struggle against the wind by the light of the zigzagging lightening. Then the darkness and the earsplitting sounds of the roaring sea, enveloped her. And for a long time the darkness remained. He was frightened for his mother.

If only he was big enough to  bring the water himself.

Joy did not know how much time had lapsed, but just when he felt there was no hope and his mother was lost forever, he saw by a forking lightning that brought into focus his mother, with a bucket in hand. Soon, he felt his mother cup water into his mouth. Bliss!

Joy swallowed some more water and hoarsely asked ‘Ma why don’t we go and stay on the Roy house porch? Their house is so high the water won’t reach ever.’

His mother pulled her wet sari around her to stay warm but the raging winds sent in fingers of cool through the gaps between the wooden planks and plastic sheets. She softly muttered, ‘we can’t go to the Roy’s. Your father...he stole from them... Joy felt a hollow fear in the pit of his stomach. But in a fit of bravado said, ‘They will let you and I stay in a corner...Ma we can’t stay here.’

As if the elements heard him, a sudden wind howled in through the planks of wood and carried away the overhead plastic sheet. The shelter creaked and shook. Joy pulled his mother up and shouted above the wind to run. As they clambered down the ladder a high wave of water roared above them and crashed on them.

When they reached the Roy’s, they turned to see their home floating away. The sea that had till then been some distance away, now seemed to pursue them.

...And then the first  lick of the sea  lapped around the newest climate refugees ankles.

Note: One of the first areas to go under water in India is predicted to be the Sunderbans region of the Bay of Bengal. But it has already begun, it is no longer a future prediction.

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