Tag Archives: Amitav Ghosh

Sundarbans: Bhatir Desh

Sunderbans, the very name sends the imagination reeling about a amphibian land in the south of Kolkata spread over the maze work of islands created by Ganga, Brahmputra and Meghna rivers. These rivers which seem to abandon their discipline and break up like a fan in this land. It is labyrinth of channels encircling the islands which contain the most fertile soil in their upper crust.

The name seems to be associated with the conspicuous sundari trees which are called Heritiera macrophylla by the botanists. But Mughals, as narrated by Amitav Ghosh in his beautiful novel “The Hungry Tide”, called it Bhati  Desh which means Ebb tide country. This became Bhatir Desh over time.

It is the land which is so surreal that there is no line of demarcation between reality and imagination. There are eighteen islands which is why it is also called “Atharo Bhatir Desh”, the land of eighteen lands. There are tigers which can swim miles and miles after their quarries. Crocodiles and dolphins abound here.

There is one chapter in the famous book “Midnights Children” by Salman Rushdie in which three young soldiers of West Pakistan who were the part of army sent to East Pakistan and committed heinous crimes like their army, after getting lost, land up in a boat in this Jungle. Rushdie then go on to weave a superb web about the description of the place. He tells that in rainy season, the Jungle seems to grow literally before the eyes. The fruits from the Nipa Palms fall and crack on the ground. In no time the ants swoop on the fruit juice. Since the light never reaches inside many parts, there live snakes which are transparent. Jungle begins to take a complete control of your mind and you forget about the time dimension. Clearly it is the work of great creative imagination of the writer but the author builds these things making base as some real stories.

The Jungle is so dense that if one goes inside, he will forget about the concept of time. The jungle has the power to suspend the time. The land is famous for the mangroves which grow copiously and sometimes discard so much dead leaves and wood that they seem to be doing harakiri or suicide, if it were not for the crabs who live there and work as scavengers. They are the janitors who see to it that everything is spic and span or tickety-boo.

The people who live there have adapted themselves to the treacheries of the jungle. They invoke the Goddess “Bonbibi” before going to jungle to gather the honey and wax. The jungle is lorded by Dekkan Rai, who stalks in the form of tiger. The legend is that Dekkan rai ruled over the entire Bhatir Desh but he became obsessed with human flesh. According to story, he accosted a convoy of boats which had come there for gathering valuables from jungle, he promised them to give the untold gifts of honey and wax in liu of one human flesh. As planned by the convoy, they left one person behind and when Dekkan rai came to eat him in the garb of tiger, but he prayed to Banbibi, who then with the help of her brother fought and defeated Dekkan Rai. In the end it was decided that Dekkan Rai will rule only the dense jungle.

That is why, whenever inhabitants cross over to jungle, they worship not only Bonbibi but also the Dekkan rai, the tiger. It is the place where the womenfolk wear the white saris like widows when there menfolks go to jungle for hunting and gathering honey and wax.

The rivers which have spawned these islands bring with them so much fertile soil from Himalayas that they seem to be playing a game of erecting and erasing the islands at will. Many islands are said to have been buried and no longer exist now. New ones can be born anytime.

There exist so many biomes which harbour myriad kinds of flora and fauna. Storms break where minutes before it was so still that everything looked like a still picture.

It is not far away from Kolkata and yet it is entirely a different world, breathtaking and beautiful and at the same time extremely harsh and unforgiving to the inhabitants.

Lascars: Indian Sailors on European Ships

Lascars were sailors on the European ships mostly on the British ships when the European powers were locked in great tussle for taking control of the routes and spices found in India. The British finally ousted all others and took control of India, first as East India Company and from 1857’s mutiny onwards for almost 100 years as British India Empire.

The term “Lascar” is derived from Persian word “Lashkar” which means army or a group of soldiers. They worked on the foreign ships under Lascar agreement which gave the owners more powers under which lascars could be shifted from one ship to another and also to work continuously on a single ship.

Lascars were mostly drawn from Silchar in Bengal, Goa and Gujarat coastal areas. The number of Lascars increased sharply on the ships because of their being better adaptability and sturdiness than their European counterparts. So much so that the British Government was alarmed and passed a law according to which a minimum of 75% crew should be whites.

Many of these Lascars settled in England where they intermarried white women despite the scorn shown by many British people. Many of them went out of job and became very poor and lived in squalid conditions.

The ranks of Lascars were different from their counterpart Europeans. For example equivalent of Bosun on the deck was Serang in Lascars, quartermaster’s equivalent was seacunny,¬† carpenter was mistree, Lascar cook was called Bhandari. Over the years, Lascars developed a unique language of their own.

Lascar’s life has been described most elaborately¬† by the writer Amitav Ghosh in his great novel “The sea of poppies”.

Calcutta Chromosome

Recently my reading capacity has dwindled quite a lot. Though in normal circumstances, I don’t read the books in one go. I can’t. For me it is not possible. I am the one who don’t swallow big chunks without properly chewing. I read about 10 pages at the maximum in one sitting.

But, it was different with Amitav Ghosh‘s novel “Calcutta Chromosome“. I purchased it few days back and was occasionally reading two three pages at the time of going to bed. Generally I read in leisure lying down in the bed and many a times very powerful but brief sleep overtakes me. It lasts about ten to fifteen minutes but it is like becoming dead.

But, on Saturday, I was having a bad time and picked up the book to while away some time. But as I was reading, I got hooked up to the story. It so happened that by the end of the day, I had read the entire book which though is not a thick volume. It was so thrilling and full of suspense. The characters were crafted brilliantly and spooky happenings were just like addiction to the mind. It was always expecting more and more.

I have become a fan of Amitav Ghosh. A few months back, I read an article by him regarding the religious fanaticism in India. Though it was titled like this but actually it was about Babur and his adventurous life. It was about how the circumstances forced him towards India though he did not want to and tried his luck towards west. He was utterly defeated and many a times escaped the death and everything fell into his line in Afghanistan. Babur used to drink a lot and was a liberal. Mr.Ghosh wanted to drive home the point that in this democratic country man of us have become more intolerant of other religion than our own.

The Calcutta Chromosome

The Calcutta Chromosome (Photo credit: Wikipedia)