Our first day on the workshop with students of Bijoynagar Adarsha Bidyamandir in Bali II Island of the Sundarbans – where the idea is to explore man’s relationship with his environment with Tagore’s Muktadhara as a starting point. And on the very first day itself, the Sundarbans has shown us exactly how powerful, unpredictable and awe-inspiring this landscape and environment can be. A cyclonic storm – something the Sundarbans is famous for – ripped through the area in the afternoon leaving us city-dwellers breathless with wonderment.
The storm had been brewing all day, and was apparently following us all along the drive from Calcutta. It rained on and off sporadically all the way along the 3-hour drive to Gadkhali, but there was no obvious warning of what the weather had in store for us. In fact, as we boarded the boat to Bali at Gadkhali, it was rather hot and sticky with bright sunshine. The only thing we noticed was the tremendously high tide – higher than we had ever seen before. So high, that a portion of the floating jetty approach had got submerged rendering the jetty proper inaccessible. But it had been a full moon the night before, so this was only to be expected.
We began the workshop with about 30 students at around 1pm. The sun had begun to play hide and seek with passing clouds by then, and a brisk breeze would sometimes invigorate the sultriness of the atmosphere. But there was still no sign of anything but a normal spell of rain. The clouds in fact inspired us to leave the small room we were in and conduct the physical warm up on the school field which is dominated by a towering Shirish tree, now full of pink blossoms. As we got closer to 2pm, the clouds gathered forming a grey blanket behind this tree, and the breeze began to pick up. Still no sign of anything resembling a cyclone – even the people who live there did not give it much thought. There lies the problem: unless you’re glued to the broadcasts of the met division, you don’t know a storm is coming until it’s almost upon you!
The first drops of rain began soon after 2pm and the breeze became a light wind. We broke for lunch, but the five of us from the city decided to walk across to the bund to look at the river – watching rain across a river is a beautiful experience anywhere, and an opportunity in the Sundarbans was not to be missed. We walked off in the now pattering rain, ignoring the warnings of the locals who had by now sensed that something major was on the way – and soon! Standing on the bund, we saw the river whipped into a frenzy. Thankfully, the tide had gone out: if it had still been high tide the river would have overflowed. The wind and rain was rushing across the swirling waters. We could see sheets of water literally picked up and blown across from bank to bank. Two little ferry boats struggled to make it to the ghat, and once they had managed, the people scurried off with fear in their eyes, marvelling briefly at us suicidal specimens.
The rain had turned to needles, and we headed back to the school. The open field in between the bund and the school wall was practically a mire of clayey mud, and we hopped from one grass patch to another to avoid slipping. Light was all but gone, and the sound of the gale filled our ears and heads. Within moments of our entering the sheltering veranda of the school, some children who were on adjacent covered stage yelled out: something was coming through the asbestos stage roof – hailstones. Calcutta has hailstorms too, we had one yesterday morning. But there, hail is the size of ice cubes you would put in a gin and tonic, not something akin to a cricket ball of packed and frozen snow that pelts through asbestos and takes 5 minutes to melt even in pouring rain! If anyone got hit by one of those, a serious head injury was the least one could expect.
The storm was reaching a peak now. Doors, windows were all shut but nothing could keep the determined water out and the floor was soon overrun with rivulets. We looked out of the grilled balcony behind the school office, and saw the field we had just crossed from the river now nothing more than an expanse of thrashing water. The trees seemed to be caught in some sort of spasmic dance, shaking and bending, all but snapping. The cycles in the bicycle shed had long since collapsed on each other, and three sheets of asbestos were ripped from the roof and smashed onto the path beyond. It was mayhem. The end of the world seemed nigh.
The storm abated only after 3pm. We sent the students home wondering what condition they would find their houses in. The proud Shirish tree in the once dusty field had lost about four major branches that now lay scattered as debris in a mud smothered arena. A bench on the third floor terrace had been snatched up and thrown to its destruction below. We received news that several houses had lost pieces of their asbestos roofing and some solar panels – the only source of light after dark – had been broken by the hailstones. But nothing had happened to the few traditional houses with mud walls and hay thatch roofs: but still, humankind insists on pukka houses as a symbol of their own progress. What is our progress over years compared to the unstoppable progress of such a storm in the space of an hour?!
But now, it seemed as if the storm never was. The sky cleared and carried a charming watercolour of gentle clouds, the rain thinned into barely a drizzle and then nothing, the gale went back to being a cool breeze which would have been welcomed with open arms at any other time. Nature seemed to be disclaiming all responsibility of what had just happened, of the performance of possessed power she had just displayed. “Nonsense!” she said as she tripped gracefully on in a benign manner that could arouse no suspicion. “You must have had a bad dream, that’s all.” And she stepped over the broken asbestos and the Shirish branches, patted our cheeks with a dew-smitten touch and hummed a tune to herself as she meandered on her way.
No, Nature is not kind here. She rules with an iron and often arbitrary hand. And yet she gives generously as well. But I think she would rather we receive from her, instead of take: that is a lesson that anyone living in the Sundarbans is born with. That is perhaps a lesson that we all – steeped as we are in lives that are moving further and further away from natural cycles and processes – need to re-learn.