Solitary Market Place at the Remote Island

Gautam Kumar Das

One day in the dazzling dusk at the river bank of Sibua of the K-Plot Island of the Sunderbans, Arjun Das, a veteran islander, standing on the river embankment, said, “Do you like to go to Sombarer hat of I-Plot crossing over the Sibua River by ferry as Bhairab Opera will come tonight to perform their jatrapala?” I agreed and prepared to see the jatrapala (play acting on the temporary stage) to be performed by Bhairab Opera of Kolkata that night. By the by, I lived then at K-Plot, an isolated island under Patharpratima block of the Sunderbans for my own research and survey works during late eighties of the last century. As per our talk, by nine o’clock in the evening, after arrival near the spot of jatra stage, I saw a huge pandals covered with tarpaulin at the top supported by bamboo posts, though that entire area is a market (hat) i.e. a public place for buying and selling of local produce or other household materials with a fixed rate or flexible value or price. This weekly periodical market (hat) is scheduled to commence only on Monday (som bar) and that’s why it is known as Sombarer hat to all. At first a local zamindar founded a Bishalakshmi temple in the nineteenth century at the bank of river Sibua of I-Plot just opposite to K-Plot. A fair has been arranged since then on the month of Baisakh on the occasion of annual puja festival of local goddess Bisalakshmi. Once the fair ground for puja, with necessity, gradually becomes a market place fixed for Monday not only for locals, but for all other islanders surrounding the island. Market place is the social, political and cultural assemblage of these islands of the Sunderbans. The local political leaders use these market places for public meeting during Panchayet, Assembly or Parliamentary polls. Markets of the Sunderbans serve dual purposes, firstly the produce of the island-villagers particularly the brackish water prawn and fishes enter into the urban-market particularly for the Kolkata people. On the other hand, most essential produce particularly vegetables, seeds, saplings etc sold by a few island-villagers in the rural market, bought by the rest of the dwellers of the island, enter in the rural huts i.e. village produce distributed among the inhabitants as per market rates.

Markets of the Sunderbans are well-known for fish transport particularly of Hilsa fishes, caught in the deep sea, sometimes 80 km away from the coastal Sunderbans. Fish trawlers release their huge Hilsa–catch at fishing harbours like Fraserganj, Namkhana, Raidighi, Kakdwip, Ramganga etc. Fishing harbours, actually the market place of a different kind is controlled by the wholesale fish godown owners where boatmen, helpers, labours are engaged in fish transport and processing round the clock. So, therefore, the market having varieties of shops including rice hotels with availability of adequate prepared meals open for day and night time and serve the others in this way. Further, fishing harbour like Fraserganj attracts tourists and of late enlisted in the tourism map of West Bengal.

Exchange of the most essential produce in the market place among the people of the islands or outside islanders not only fulfill the household necessity but it caters amusements or exchange of talks between the families of both buyers and sellers that sometimes bounds even in the matrimonial relationship between the families. Further, only the market places of different islands of the Sunderbans get the government facilities like national or rural banking, cooperative banking, letters or money order communications through post office or getting access of stores in the godown. There are one or two markets in each island of the Sunderbans and these markets are commenced either weekly or bi-weekly like Namkhana commenced on Thursday and Sunday; Kakdwip on Wednesday and Saturday; Patharpratima only on Monday (weekly) etc. Everywhere material transport of to and fro direction from different markets either by indigenous boat or by mechanized boats are the means of communications. Once local zamindars of the islands allotted land for fixation of the market with the objectives of enhancement of revenues from the sellers and for holding own head high, having a defiant attitude. Very few market places of the Sunderbans are at present upgraded to the category of small town like Canning town, Kakdwip, Namkhana, Patharpratima etc that stood on the banks of different rivers, although “there are no river-side towns in the Sunderbans, but several river-side trading villages are situated on the border between the settled Districts to the north and the Sundarbans on the south. Periodical markets are regularly held at these villages, to which the cultivators bring their rice for sale, and where they purchase in return their little home stores and necessaries” (W.W. Hunter; A Statistical Account of Bengal, Sundarbans, 1875).

In view, zamindar of I-Plot established market of ‘Sombarer hat’ (Monday market) at the river bank of Sibua, where Monday is scheduled as market day (hat bar), convenience of sale trading that only one day in the week, by Tuesday morning the market place is deserted for another week as because on the market day  - “by the evening the business is done; the husbandmen turn their boats homewards; the hawkers go off to the next market–village or procure fresh supplies” (W.W. Hunter, 1875).

Remembering and recapitulating those market days (hat bar) of Rabibarer hat (Sunday market) of K-Plot of the Sunderbans where I lived for about six years as a paying guest at Santosh Mondal’s residence adjacent to the market place. On one Sunday afternoon, in the market place, my eye noticed the stalls of huge vegetables and greens, stall of spices and oil, fresh foods like ghugni, tele-bhaja, papad and sweets like jilipi, gaja, parakee etc; a diarrhea patient lying at the portico  of quack doctor’s chamber with injected interveinous saline bottle hanging from the roof thatched with straw; peon of the island post office distributed letters and money orders among the recipients present in the market place; poor village chowkidar managed to collect a pair of Martaman bananas free of costs; shades of tamarind tree stood at the Westside of the market place gradually invites darkness after dusk surrounded with huts; the lamp lit inside the temple of goddess Kali in the evening; by 8 pm all marketers including buyers and sellers desert the market with all baskets and belongings leaving the entire place into a solitude.

Aug 22, 2018

Gautam Kumar Das [email protected]

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