By Preeti Kaur Bharj
“Baba, have you seen my science book? I am unable to find it!”, Palab asked his father with a tone of frustration. He is a dedicated student, and wants to grow up to be a gentleman one day, like the men that visit his village for safari, white shirts and fitted pants stopping just at the ankles and black polished boots. Residing in Sundarban, his father, Riju, feel blessed to have a government school available for his son to continue his education. Riju is a fisherman, living a poverty-stricken life, lost his wife during childbirth, and his world revolves around him and his son. He, too, wants his son to have a life worth living, a life of luxury, and most importantly, a life that promises three meals a day. Riju appreciates his son’s zeal for education, though he never had any education for himself, and grew up with his fisherman father, all he learned was to catch fish in the mornings and drown in alcohol in the evenings. Riju lost his father at a young age, drunken one evening he was trying to catch fish and fell prey to an alligator instead. From then on, Riju didn’t want to turn out to be that father for his son. Sundarban is beautiful from a visitor’s perspective but for a native, it is a terrifying place, with people dying of sickness, wildness, and most importantly poverty. Hence, Riju was sleep-deprived, worried about Palab’s future and how was he to raise him alone. There were times he would curse his dead wife for leaving him alone with responsibilities. Riju was pained and suffered through time, unable to bring food on the table, poverty engraved so deep in him, that he lost hope, until Palab’s birth which changed his life for the better, giving him hope and he could almost see the silver line and nothing mattered to him more than Palab’s future outside debt and penury.
“I don’t know baba, what is the colour of the book?” Riju asked Palab, to him it was impossible to identify a book by its name for he couldn’t read, it was the colour on the cover that would help him find the lost book. To any urban family, a lost book is not a thing of concern, they can always opt for a new one, or education is a privilege that they are not bothered appreciating. However, to Riju and Palab losing a book is losing their shot at education. Palab has been searching for the past two hours, now frustrated and worried, his eyes mount up water, ready to fall from the corners and heartbreaking with each beat. Still a child, Palab is just eight with the ambition of a grown-up man, education was an opportunity for him to give his father a comfortable old age. He loved his father and witnessed his hardship, he never demanded anything, night after night, he slept hungrily but didn’t complain, but he wanted an end to this lifestyle. He wanted a promised income, to eat and live a life of comfort, and not end up in the clutter of burden his father is currently bearing. Riju was trying to be calmed and composed, he wanted to find the book desperately, for it was a way to escape their present reality.
“It’s blue and old, the back cover is torn and you will find pencil lines on the writings.” This description was enough for Riju to find the book lying at the foot of the bed, the cover having drops of candles now hardened. Perhaps, Palab might have left it there the previous night before going to bed. Palab read under candlelight as Riju is unable to afford electricity. Palab had never complained about that to his father, he loved his house, a poorly built, mud shanty, without electricity and water resources, yet it gave him comfort, it smelled like his father, of sweat and damp walls, yet a hope always lingering in the atmosphere, he could not ask for anything else at that moment. The candlelight served little to help him study but he never thought that to be a problem. At such a young age, he has seen poverty from such close vicinity that all these things are irrelevant to him, he was thankful for his ability to educate and nothing else mattered. When his father found the book, he couldn’t contain his happiness and was grateful for the same, he was so terrified of losing the book that he didn’t try and see it in the most common places.
When coming from an urban family, books are readily available in the market, with the parent’s money ready at the cash counter. It is not a big deal for their children to get an academic book, those books are not something extravagant and a thing that is worth appreciation. It is expected by the kids to get them from their parents each academic year along with new uniforms and shoes. To Palab, this was not the case. To him, books were luxury, something fancy yet important. His father worked through day and night, saving throughout the year to buy him a set of second-hand books, for which they would skip meals and drown in hunger. The books were their most expensive possession. Palab had no uniform or shoes, his school had no requirement for those. The school barely had any students, most kids were put to work by their families as nothing was more important than feeding and fighting poverty. Palab’s school was twenty minutes' walk from his place, he would put on his old stained t-shirt and his father’s lungi and walk barefoot to his school. His valuable books were packed in another lungi tied and turned into a bag. He loved his school and never missed a day, he didn’t have many friends there, most of them working in fields or fishing in a river, he was alone. But he would get excited about the lesions that would take him one step close to his ambition. Today, however, the school was shut down for a cyclone approaching its way.
Sundarban is a cyclone-prone place, always hit by storms now and then. It was not a big deal for the natives. They were used to this. The school would shut down and mandatory government announcements would be made to stay indoors and safe. To natives, it was not worth putting ears to. They would still choose to go about with their lives, trying to earn a little extra from their babus, padrone. Riju was no different. He heard the announcements and warnings but for him, a day without work is a night without food. He could not afford that. After completing his chores, fetching water from the river, cleaning his shanty, and cooking boiled rice and potato for his son, he left for work. Palab was to stay indoors, wait for his father to return in the afternoon, and eat with him. Life was like that to them, simple in every way possible, plain and insufficient, yet they were happy. They appreciated and loved each other, where the father was there for his son and the son was there for his father.
The shanty was built with mud and was flimsy and unstable. The wind outside was growling and through the window, Palab could see the trees dancing with the rhythm of the storm. The sound of thunder blasted while its light claimed the soul of the place with its terrifying glow. Palab was scared. He wanted his father to come back. He clenched the bed sheet so tight it could rip if he was a grown man. The little kid was terrified, fighting the urge to cry. Faced so many storms in his lifetime, that he never saw anything like this. The noise from the outside made the house tremble and shake, water dripping from the leaks in the roof. The water dripped falling directly on the books and getting them wet. Palab mustered courage, got up from the bed, and covered his book with a ruptured sheet, hoping it might save the books. He didn’t know how else he could save them, he knew the water will flood their house, and hence, there was no point hiding the books under the bed. He wanted his father to come. He was worried about Riju’s safety too for all he had left in this world is his father.
It's been two hours since the storm started, darkness consuming the surrounding. Water seeps from the floor, flooding the house gradually. The now muddied walls are chipping down with the constant shaking, and the rice straw roof, now completely drenched and ruined is unable to stop the rainwater pouring. None of this concerned Palab. The only thing that mattered to him at that moment was his father and his books. Suddenly the door opened and Riju entered the shanty, all soaked in water, and shivering, he was exhausted yet, when he saw his son’s face, he was relieved. A calmness surfaced on his face and there was a reassuring smile that promised, they are going to make it through this. He opened his wet t-shirt, and made his way down to the scared little boy, cooed with a calm voice, and asked, “Baba, did you eat boy?”. Palab remained quiet and threw his quivering arms around his father and buried his face in Riju’s chest. “Baba, what is this? We never witnessed something so horrifying, Baba, what is this?” Riju had heard some government officials talk and discuss the storm before it came, “Amphan is coming, it’s going to claim a lot of life” one of them had said. Riju didn’t want to think of that now, he was happy to see his son safe, nothing else mattered to him. But the question lay, for how long will they be safe? The house was not made of concrete, he knew they had to flee before it collapsed. Where will they go? Perhaps, at school or the hospital, he had heard that those places were giving shelter for today. Both of them held each other for a very long time, Palab crying and Riju soothing his child.
Riju knew they don’t have much time left they need to leave now. Riju got up to pack whatever was left of them, the food, previously prepared, is now drowning in water. It was almost enough to break Riju for it was not just food for him, it was everything he ever worked for. But he stayed strong for his son, he had to. Palab should never see his father broken because to achieve what he wants he needs to be strong too. As Riju got up, a tree fell directly on the other side of the shanty, breaking the roof, and almost breaking the mud house in two. Riju didn’t have time, he picked his son on his shoulders and ran. All of his households were left behind to be ruined. He didn’t care. His son was his most prized possession. He needed to get him to a safe place. Running through water and woods, he was terrified of all that could claim their life. From the rain and storm to the rapids and all that lingers under water and the pitched black darkness. He was reminded of his father’s death he didn’t want the same fate for his son and him. He tried keeping his head clear and moving, feet faltering and trembling, falling on his knees sometimes, struggling to move with the stream, he knew he had to do so for his son.
With much struggle, he reached school. He was happy to see light, it resonated with hope. He was safe, and most importantly his son was safe. Palab was exhausted. His face, however, lit up when he saw his teacher and he too felt safe. The teacher smiled and greeted Palab, “here comes my favourite child.” Palab hugged her and sighed. He was relieved and that was his happy place. The night went on, the storm still growling from outside. It was a scary night. The father and his son took a corner for themselves and slept away with other survivors that remain. The night ended in a flash and now came the dreaded morning. They were not ready to leave their comfort, to go and witness their destroyed fate. But they had to. The shelter was temporary, kind enough to save them but reality awaits them, unwelcoming, true but they need to return to it still.
They were provided breakfast, not something they are very aware of. Two meals a day was all they could get back then. They were hungry and hence, they feasted on four pieces of bread and a boiled egg. Something they never tasted before. After having their breakfast they finally made their way to their broken stay. The water that flooded the path had gone down, but dead animals and fishes were covering them. Broken trees and branches acted as barriers slowing their pace. Finally, they reached what once was their house. It was shattered, muddied, and almost as if it had never been a house, where two people lived. All their belongings were buried under mud, they couldn’t stand it. Where will they go now? He has no money to build another house. Where will he cook what he brings home? Most importantly, where will Palab study now? It was then that realization hit them both. In the meads of all that occurred the previous night, they forgot to take Palab’s book. Palab immediately ran to where he had left his books covered under a sheet, now drenched in mud and water. Not a single line could be read. Palab cried so loud in pain as if he was already dead. “Baba, my books, Baba my books!” He said. They lost hope. Palab turned to his father, now lying on the road with dead animals and fishes, the river of water pouring from his eyes, he had reached his end.
By Preeti Kaur Bharj