17 December 2011

The Sundarbans trip: Bali, Pakhiraloy and Burirdabri (10 to 12 December 2011)

The Sundarbans trip: Bali, Pakhiraloy and Burirdabri (10 to 12 December 2011)

- Vikram Iyengar

We set off at 6.30am for Gadkhali via Basanti – three cars meeting at Science City before two Sumos veered off left. Thick fog you could cut with a knife enveloped us, barely letting us see the road before us and only occasionally revealing the surroundings – ponds dotted with pink and white lotuses, houses which moved from concrete into mud constructions, and sudden busy wholesale markets of vegetables and fish. Breakfasted on the local petai paratha at Basanti and finally arrived into Gadkhali at about 10.30am – about an hour late thanks to the fog. 

We were to spend the day on Bali island visiting schools and villagers with Shri Sukumar Paira, headmaster of Bijoynagar Adarsha Bidya Mandir, who has made Bali his home for the last 33 years. His work has gone far beyond education, involving students, their parents and the larger community in areas and issues of conservation awareness and action, sustainable and alternative livelihoods which are eco-friendly, disaster relief work and much more. The school itself is an example of a holistic education including arts, sports (local games too), work education and nature education as part of the curriculum. From being an island with no schools at all in 1970, Bali now has about 24 schools spanning primary and secondary levels and a respect for education among both parents and children – both boys and girls. Shri Paira did not start the school: he was asked to come in for some time (three months between his BA and MA) by the gentleman who envisioned the school. Those 3 months have now become 33 years.

Our time at Bali was divided between the primary school in an Adivasi area and the main secondary school – Bijoynagar Adarsha Bidyamandir. At the first stop we met some villagers from the community including a 98-year old farmer, some children who were studying there while their parents worked elsewhere, and the teacher in charge. Conversations ranged from the current condition of agriculture in Bali especially post the Aila cyclone of May 2009 to education and aspirations and much more. The second experience included a long conversation with Shri Sukumar Paira himself touching on a host of experiences and observations, meetings with some students talking about the school Nature Club and their aspirations for the future, conversations with some farmers, and a visit to the newly inaugurated Girls’ Hostel. We then left for out two-night stay at Aponjon, Pakhiralay.

It is impossible to detail out the varied and rich nature of the experiences in a blog piece – and indeed, it would do no justice. Bare facts are one thing, a human experience and engagement is quite another. This evening – 24 hours later – the ten of us sat around and talked about any one thing that we took away from the two days we have spent here – today being a day-long launch trip into the astonishing Sundarbans forests to and from the Burirdabri watchtower which is on the border river of Raimangal, looking across the wide swathe of water at the Khulna district of Bangladesh .

A heavily paraphrased illustration of what and how ten very different individuals remembered and were affected over both these days is perhaps a better evocation of this incredible experience.

(Ranan repertory member, actress and production person, freelance work with children in various schools through music and drama)
“In a conversation I was having with Jo on the launch today, we both thought we would love to visit and stay in one of the villages we were passing – only she was thinking for a week and I was thinking for 24 hours. What am I scared of? Perhaps scared is not the word. I’m not bothered about amenities or the lack of them. But what would I be doing for a week? The complete lack of knowledge about that. I’ve spent time in rural areas with school, but there is a whole gaggle of girls there! What is the experience of just me and the village – that’s both scary and exciting.”

(Producer with Transport Theatre, Stage Manager)
“What really struck me was the huge community that I encountered as I got off the boat at Bali. I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t that. They were all with us when the boat came in, all with us in the beautiful schoolroom, and all with us when we left again. They were together with us the whole time. I felt very supported even though I couldn’t communicate with them directly. I was struck by the generosity of the sharing.”

(Ranan repertory and core group member and Administrator, actress and dancer, works in Insurance Sales)
“My day-job involves selling insurance for a company. Gosaba is one of the branch offices under me, and when I went to Bali with my agent, I was also interested in how I could develop business here.
In the classroom at the Secondary School when we spoke to the children about their aspirations, many of them said that they wanted to stay on in the Sundarbans in what they did in the future. An observation made by Sukumar Paira at that point has been haunting me. He said that they are not yet aware of the realities and practicalities of living in the Sundarbans. Once they are faced with that, they may well leave for good.
And my professional self was asking, how can I even think of developing business somewhere as poverty ridden as this in a country where the idea of life insurance hardly exists in rural areas.”

(Dancer, Ranan repertory member, learning to be an actress)
“I went with Romoni – one of the girls I met at the Primary School – to her house nearby. She was affected with polio when she was 8 and is now about 19 years old. She does intricate zari embroidery on saris and gets just about Rs. 200 for each sari even though it can sell at Rs. 5000 or Rs. 6000 in Calcutta shops and up to Rs. 20000 in a branded boutique. That too, she gets paid much after she has done the work. Her mother works harvesting paddy on others’ lands and get paid Rs. 100 per month per family she works for. Her father does not work.
And yet she spoke to me frankly, sang me two songs and pressed me to stay for lunch. As I was leaving both she and her father asked if I could do anything to help them. That was when I felt most helpless – it was a pathetic moment for me.”

(Ranan repertory and core group member, Production Coordinator and Movement Trainer, Actor)
“Yesterday evening after we arrived at Aponjon, I got a call from Sukumar babu asking if everything was ok. He has already helped us so much in organising the day at Bali, there was no need for him to call me after we had left. That touched me a lot.”

(Artistic Director of Transport)
“The classroom in the Secondary School at Bali with the students talking about their dreams and aspirations. The optimism in the midst of so much adversity, even from children who haven’t seen their parents for nine months – parents who work away from home. The people’s stories and careers / jobs that came out of that exchange. What would be the level of optimism and aspirations I a deprived school in Kent? And they were so well-behaved!”

(Ranan repertory and core group member, actress, architect)
“We always think of roots as life-giving, but here I felt they were life-taking. NO one decided to be born here, it just happened. And then they are caught. Like when the roots of the mangroves go down, it’s as if the soil starts clutching onto it so they can’t break away. Where would I be today if I had been born here?”

(Artistic Collaborator on The Edge project, actress, producer)
“I see the mangrove tree roots as the place where earth and water meet. Intermeshing, interlocking, connecting – a community working together. Each tree is a symbol of that strength.”

(Captain and sailor)
The drive here, having never been in India before! And the sense of community and family, and their connectivity to their life support system / natural environment. How the community rooted in a place responds together. We speak from an urban perspective – what does a ‘better life’ actually mean?”

(Artistic Director, repertory and core group member of Ranan, dancer, choreographer, theatre director)
“What struck me most on the launch trip into the forests and at the watchtower was the quality of silence, and the quality of listening it demands from you. The quality of stillness. It has a grace and a majesty, a dignity that commands respect. Do we actually take it in at all?”

[read more on the India phase of The Edge project]

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