Stories From The Marginal Land

Days and Nights of ‘Kalitala’

Sumedha Dey

The river next to my rented room in one of those run-down lodges of the Sundarbans ran violently as I started to write down my daily notes to keep me reminded of day-to-day activities in my later years. I noticed that a full moon day seemed to make the river appear to be the most ferocious. It is referred to as ‘‘KurekhaliNodi’’ by the locals. The year 2022, upon which this article is based, had a late monsoon season. To be more specific, pretty late. The months of June and July were dry. The island did not receive its allotted amount of rainfall until October 2022. Electric supply is cut off during the rain. In this region of Indian map, there is no chance of having electricity while it rains. However, as they have only had the good fortune to benefit from power for the past ten years, the locals in the area aren't very bothered by this. Days go by when it rains a lot, and there is little chance that the power will be restored any time soon. For nearly six months, I was situated in a village in the ‘Hingalganj’ block of North 24- Parganas, West Bengal. The settlement is located on the very porous Indo-Bangladesh border of the Sundarbans, which allows for illegal infiltration, human trafficking, gold smuggling, illegal trade in animals, the spread of counterfeit currency, and the trade in drugs.

I relocated there for a specific reason. I was sitting back home looking for a job and ended up getting one in the Sundarbans. My primary duty at an NGO school was to instruct local kids in the subject of "English." I went to this risky place with two bags—one with as many books as I could fit into it, the other with my clothes—but more than anything else, this seclusion from the rest of the world was what my soul was desperately seeking. I was suffocated in the city and with the lifestyle which made me take the utmost risk to accept the job offer on two days’ notice literally. I packed my bags and reached Sundarbans, usually famous throughout the world for mangroves and for being home to endangered Royal-Bengal tigers.

My day would start early unlike what it usually is in the city. I would spend the whole day in a mud built school with the local kids, teaching them and later cycle back to my quarter in the afternoon. The rest of the afternoon passed away in resting and as the dusk pulled in, I would sit alone on the lean bench like structure made with the pillars of light post, beside the river with a cup of coffee and watch the local folks rowing back home, listening to the radio for weather reports while the women would drive the domestic animals like goats, ducks, hens, cows back to their shelters. There isn’t another place or another environment which heals me more than the scenic beauty of the village called ‘Kalitala’. Post sundown, there’s enough fear of the big cats crawling in the village so I would get inside my room and lock myself up from inside. The rest of the night would pass by listening to my offline-saved playlist and watch huge sized rats tip toeing in through different holes in the room and running away with my chapatis most of the night. As the network was weak, there was not much scope to listen to music online. On one such night, while listening to the same old music saved in my playlist, I thought to myself if I could do something to make the world know about the serene land I am getting an opportunity to live in, and the idea of writing hit me right away. Anybody who has read till here must have understood that this piece of writing is more like a personal account of my stay in a region primarily and majorly resided by the subalterns as well as the migrated citizens from the other part of the border thus making the place indifferent from the rest of Bengal. The life and lifestyle of the local people of this obscure village named ‘Kalitala’ under Kalitala Gram Panchayat, is not easy to understand, more because there is constant movement, in and out of this village, sometimes within the country while on other occasions cross border movements which in return makes it difficult to stick to a certain kind of culture specific to this area however through this write up, I intend to try my best to draw a picture of the gray clouds that surrounds the sunny side of the region on recent times but I also want to remain clear that I am no less than an outsider to the culture and my perspective is not the absolute representation of the concerns I am going to write about.

As per my observation, the village called ‘Kalitala’ is mostly resided by fishermen and farmer families who either row or swim through the rivers to reach the dense forest of the Sundarbans frequently to collect forest products and catch fish and crabs. There are very few families that have members in other job profiles. Given the culture I was born and brought up in, this place and its lifestyle seem extraordinarily strange and it bothered me how unaware I am of a culture that is very much a part of the same state I am part of. It is my opinion though that this particular village along the Indo-Bangladesh border lags far behind concerning development. Owning a smart-phone is the only kind of showcased status of development for most of the people of this region which to me seems more of a curse than a boon! Though I believe cultural relativism holds community as a basic social unit which appropriates an individual’s rights while universalism fails to reflect the real concerns of subalterns which creates a huge gap in the process of overall development of a society however, I cannot deny, practising the idea of accepting cultural relativism amongst our countrymen seems like a challenge as a result of the colonial hangover. Trying to accomplish our own needs is what we are taught generally. This whole practice is damaging. We often hear people talk about substantial living however, if we consider the real-life scenario, that statement is majorly a hoax!

Anyway, given the geographical location of Kalitala village, it is not hard to understand that the level of migration, both across the border as well as within the country is a natural scene here which makes women of this locality vulnerable beyond explanation. They are prone to various women-centric violence and the vilest part is, given their low rate of literacy, they fail to understand the consequences. Most girls in the age group of 14-16 years elope with their romantic interest (who could be of any age group) in longing of settling down in a better atmosphere in the cities. They as generational pattern, grow up with the shallow idea that once they find a romantic partner, they would not have to perform all the household work they are expected to perform in their parental home and can relax for most of the day. I closely observed for months how the girls as well as women of this locality are easily flattered by the idea of fashion and other material things which makes it easy for any man or woman connected with the trafficking trade to lure them and send them to cities, different states, or other countries for illegal purposes. Besides, the ones who are reported to settle down in the locality after marrying at an early age show a tendency to run away with other men after a few years leaving their child/children from the first marriage with the in-laws. As there is not much opportunity here to generate income apart from fishing or collecting forest products or farming their lands- the local people, irrespective of their gender, migrate to other states in hope of earning a better wage daily. While there are ample examples of women running away with other men, there are also numerous cases of record where the women who stay back with their children at home while their men are away for work get involved in affairs with other men of the locality or even outsiders who have come here for professional purposes. From what I observed, it seemed to me that marriage is no barrier to push anyone choose monogamy if that is not what their choice is. However, on an individual level, it becomes traumatising for some to accept this custom. I assume they are monogamous in nature. The local Panchayat passes anodyne verdicts to such cases stating that since the woman who ran away with other man/men did not file a divorce, it is in the onus of the legal husband to take her back and continue living under the same roof as husband and wife not caring of her past behaviours. Whatever the effect, the whole pattern of women practising their choice so openly interested me and it is what started digging deep and patterns I observed is what I am trying to document.

Though this might sound liberating in the history of sexuality and the whole idea of monogamy came into existence only during and after the renaissance however in my opinion, as per the observed condition of the studied region, a woman practising polygamy post-marriage certainly takes a toll on the mental health of the husband and is very damaging to the next generation (children) while placed as an example. Given the fact, the interaction of gender with other power structures such as patriarchy is still awaiting far more exploration, I will refrain from drawing a generalised conclusion and put my limited thoughts to work, but as I am also getting an opportunity to interact with the children whose parent/parents are involved in such practices, I can confirm that the children here suffer from major psychological problems like abandonment issues and trust issues when their mother runs away leaving them alone while the husbands along with other men in the families and amongst friend circle are developing commitment phobias(the idea was drawn from counselling session). This is not it, they face massive harassment in society and fall prey to mockery in their peer group which in turn makes the school-going children quit school at an early age and get engaged in alcohol consumption or betting games which is increasing due to the availability of smartphones. There are boys aged as young as nine years who are spotted in the locality in an intoxicated state.

Not many days ago, the woman who cook food for me narrated an incident where a local boy approached her to allow five young girls aged between fifteen years to twenty-five years and a young boy of around sixteen years, to wait at her home which is near the river, for half -an- hour. Given their innocent faces she allowed them to wait at her place but to her dismay, the boy never returned until 2 a.m. Bearing in mind grave situations, she underwent looking for the identity proofs of the girls and the boys and from inquiring about them she found out they were all citizens of Bangladesh who got trafficked the night before via the river and were on the verge of getting sold to clients. She added she did send all of them back to Bangladesh using her local connections however that still does not solve the problem in my understanding. It indicates that the locals are quite aware of these incidents and they have well-knitted connections to get involved in the trade if they chose to make money. Since India shares a riverine border with Bangladesh on this side of the map, cross border trafficking is a casual crime here and this happens under the supervision of powerful local people using the local folks to perform the illegal works in return for money. Not just trafficking, the locals have also made me aware of unimaginable violations caused to women by the river pirates who dwell in the depth of dense jungle and loots the fishermen's boats from time to time. Apart from bashing and thrashing the men until they fall half dead, these pirates sexually violate the women who accompany their men. It might sound like the plot of a thriller movie, however during my stay, I have heard of two incidents of the pirate attack in the same locality where I was situated.

Initially, it seemed to me that this place is a perfect example of matriarchy, however as days passed, from self-inquiry and self-introspection, I could slowly find out the in-depth explanation of the gender-based issues prevailing in this area. The girls here are admitted to schools but due to their tendency of running away (to escape the drudgery of doing all household chores besides maintaining educational pressure), most of them get married before eighteen years of age and the matter is not strongly supervised by the respective government officials because if it was looked after, the practice would not be continued to date. In reality, the literacy rate of women remains low though there are many schemes invented by the state government to bring the females to school. The patriarchal violence (not necessarily practised by male only), treating women as goods and not humans remain intact in this society which could also be a reason for the women to run away with other men, risking their, as well as their children, lives in the loop making the next generation commitment-phobic as well as vulnerable and insecure from their traumatic experiences. Additionally, I think a man who is a husband and a father, when elopes with another woman has the same impact on the family members, particularly on his wife and child (ren), but because the practice is so widespread in our society, the pain felt by the wife and the children in such cases is downplayed.

If a child’s mental health is to be considered, actions like eloping of either parent surely hold a similar effect of adversity on the child’s mind; however, our society imposes all the responsibility on a woman’s shoulder and tries to enable a man to live a considerably stress-free life. The dream of living in an egalitarian society seems like an unachievable goal, therefore! That a woman migrant labour eloping with another man makes news in this area however a man doing the same act of infidelity gets the benefit of doubt. The older women from this region randomly ask younger women if they could give birth to a son yet. In case one did not, the elder woman immediately passes misogynist comments which certainly affects the younger one but due to lack of liberating ideas, such patriarchal behaviours are not questioned. If giving birth to a son still makes a woman superior to a woman who has given birth to one or many women, I am afraid I need write more about the social condition of the region in more details and try to explain why only women who elope with other men makes headlines in every second interaction of the local people. The male supremacy is such that it is taken for granted that males cannot be wrong, even if they are totally dehumanised and turned out an oppressor in the process. Now, having said that I don't think a woman practising infidelity is okay.

This is my preliminary research of the location and through this write-up, I intend to bring to the notice of relevant people that even in the 21st century, parts of our country remain so unbelievably prone to crimes and social imbalance which surely adds up to the misery of our nation when it comes to overall development status. There is a massive need to help these people fix their day-to-day problems while also guiding the women to choose to live a life of dignity.

I would like to conclude my writing by stating that, the government should plan strategies and develop frameworks best fitted to eliminate gender discrimination and take initiatives to work on the mental health of the people of all age groups in all parts of the state as well as in the country, stressing more on the rural belts and critical areas adjacent to borders.

1. I am grateful to the anonymous local women and the men for providing insightful comments regarding their day-to-day life struggles.

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Vol 56, No. 25, Dec 17 - 23, 2023