Fresh from his Western junket, journalist Sujoy Dhar gets an assignment to flood-ravaged Birbhum. He went there counting his allowance, and came back guilty.
The hangover remained. The memories of New York’s Times Square and London’s Leicester Square, were heady — the bright lights, the funky joints, the ritzy crowds, the music. So even as the native returned to the squalor and pollution of Calcutta, the month-long experience abroad kept me in high spirits. Writing all those feel-good stories of travel, about successful desis, and the NRI fashion designer in a New York ramp show.
But reality had to strike. When the chief reporter asked me to visit the flood-ravaged Birbhum district in West Bengal for an aftermath coverage, I took it up as just another assignment, and especially counted on the travelling allowance. Little did I know that I would be returning with a permanentally guilty conscience.
I needed to see the helplessness of Sajahan and Nemai Mondol from two villages of Birbhum, to realise where I belonged and where I did not. The ravages of the floods which visit rural folk is the reality of the larger portion of Indians—not the fashion ramps and luxury cars of the topmost demographic bubble.
In the flood-wrought Bhujung village of contaminated ponds, razed mud houses, murky cesspools and bloated carcasses, Sajahan greeted me on 1 October. The water had receded long ago. But for the past 10 days, he, like thousands of others, has been waiting for a tarpaulin sheet for shelter. A figure of stoic endurance, he was standing near the rubble of his house beneath which his mother and his son were found embraced in death. The flood had also consumed his wife, along with three members of neighbour Aiyazul Islam, in whose house she had taken shelter. Sajahan and his daughter had survived because he had gone to town for work, and the girl had found a branch to hold on to for three days.
Bhujung’s pond water was no longer fit for basic uses. Dogs were fighting over rotten flesh of dead cows floating on the ponds. The stench was overpowering. “We have disposed of about 500 carcasses while many more are still floating in the ponds,” said a panchayat member.
“Water is everywhere, but not for drinking,” said Sajahan, who had gone without food or drink for nearly four days after 19 September when the waters of Brahmani river had risen with unprecedented fury. His crops were gone, as well as his stored grains. He was surviving on the dole of chira (flattened rice) provided to the village. Sajahan’s son and mother were buried under the shade of a tree, while his wife’s body was not found.
Bhujung is under Nalhati, a block of Rampurhat sub-division. It is one of the worst hit villages, with only 10 percent of the houses having survived the flood. The village lost 36 lives. About 3500 cows, an equal number of chicken, nearly 6000 goats and sheep, and 9000 ducks also perished.
Villagers said that whatever relief they got was from organisations like Bharat Sevasram and clubs from other villages. “If the government provides us food, we can live. Otherwise it is starvation as the crop has been destroyed and all our belongings washed away,” said Sajahan.
The panchayat building in Bhujung had become a relief camp. The villagers were only going back to their colonies during daytime to rummage through the debris hoping to find some valuables, or else for work. All returned to the camp by sundown. The panchayat members, irrespective of party affiliation, seemed helpless in bringing relief. Bhujung was still cut off, with large stretches of road washed away. It looked a ‘model’ village of devastation, despair and distress.
Over by what remained of the main road, the soil was still loose on the grave of Sajahan’s mother and son. Maybe they were lucky after all, looking at the son and father’s living despair. Sajahan’s face showed no emotions. He only pointed me to the site. I slipped a 100-rupee note in his hand. A 100-rupee note for a man who had lost all bearings in life. He took it silently, but 1 dared not look him in his eyes.
Next day, I was in Narayanpur village, in another part of Birbhum, under Ilambazar block. There I saw vestiges of two lost human habitations. One was a centuries’ old potential archaeological hotspot that emerged due to force of the erosion caused by the flood waters. People from faraway, including archaeologists, were pouring into Narayan-pur to see the site. The other was of a village which had pulsated with life till the night of 20 September.
I met a bare-torsoed Nemai Mondal standing over a ‘sand dune’ which used to be his cropland. “I now wait for the dole to feed myself, my wife and infant. I lost over three bighas of land, and a trunk with my life’s savings,” said Nemai. His village had been wiped out by the gushing waters of the river Ajay.
The villages of Birbhum, immortalised by the writings of Rabindranath Tagore and the eloquent strokes of painter Baij Ramkinkar, now resemble a barren stretch of sandy desert. “We can now never cultivate anything here,” said Nemai standing under the blazing sun at a place where his mud house had stood. “I don’t even have an utensil left to serve food to my baby,” said Nemai whose wife had taken shelter on a tree-top with their baby on that fateful night as water swelled. He, meanwhile, had fought futilely to save his trunk.
Fellow farmer Dulal, who lost his father and sister in an earlier year’s flood, said, “Our village used to have the best yield in the entire block.” For both Nemai and Dulal, the future is the worry. With no land left to cultivate, starvation stares them in their face. Relief was not adequate. Other than the efforts made by local clubs and the Ramkrishna Mission, no one was helping.
I took another look at Nemai. A man in his early 30s, moving about without a shirt because he had none. I squeezed a 100-rupee note into his for taking me around, for telling me about his plight, and perhaps for providing me with good copy. What lessened my guilt was that I too belonged to a West Bengal that has lost all its renaissance humanitarian sheen, led by a communist chief minister for 24 years, whose government never thought of setting up a reliable disaster management system despite floods taking their annual toll. What is left of Bengal today are mere intellectual pretensions; a celebrated just-retired chief minister who loves his holidays in London; and an opposition leader who amazes one by her loudmouthed political immaturity.
I did get a copy that my editor liked. But I will no longer be the same.