Vol. 5 Num 295 Sat. March 26, 2005  

Two bays, one world: Struggle for life

In a wintry November morning last year, the spectacularly ornate Benjamin Franklin Room of the U.S. State Department in Washington DC was abuzz with the excitement and chattering of youngsters. As a Bangladeshi, I found it quite surreal to hear from a group of American middle school students about, yes, the ecology, environment, and culture of a quintessentially Bengali frontier: the Bay of Bengal (hereafter BoB). The State Department hosted a colorful reception for the students who gathered to celebrate the completion of what the Department evocatively called the "Two Bays, One World" (hereafter TBOW) project. Sponsored by the State Department's Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, in fall 2004, the TBOW project provided middle school students from the U.S. capital region and the William Carey International School in Chittagong with a multi-cultural educational forum to compare and contrast Maryland's Chesapeake Bay and the BoB.

In this intriguing pilot project juxtaposing two important water bodies on opposite sides of the globe, middle school students from two disparate cultural regions were asked to see beyond received knowledge that often fails to underscore how far-flung geographies and their peoples reveal common human traits or, conversely, what environmental, social, and economic issues make them unique. The project was designed to foster collaboration and increase cross-cultural understanding between the youth of the United States and the youth of Bangladesh -- an effort especially poignant in a current ideologically divisive world.

The project proposed that the young generations must be made aware of the need to conserve the earth's geographic riches. John Turner, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, summed up the objective eloquently: "It is our duty as stewards of this precious blue orb entrusted to our care to give young people -- the Earth's future caretakers -- the tools necessary to ensure its conservation for generations to come." A collective consciousness of the interconnectivity of geographies and peoples across the globe was the locus classicus in the speech of the ceremony's chief guest: former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, a forceful man with a disarming sense of humor. Quoting Rabindranath Tagore, Secretary Armitage presented a compelling idea to the local as well as Chittagong students who were tuning in via satellite (although it was well past their bedtime): "Tagore once wrote, 'The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world.' Indeed, just as soil erosion in the Himalayas can cause flooding in the Port of Chittagong, or runoff from a stream in New York can pollute the waters of the Potomac, we are all part of a great human watershed where what happens on distant shores can have a direct effect on our daily lives here at home." Armitage's Tagorian viewpoint encapsulated the mission of the TBOW.

Alongside its core components -- geographic and cultural studies carried on by middle school students and their teachers -- the TBOW invited a number of guest speakers to reflect upon various aspects of the Chesapeake Bay and the BoB. My good friend Adham Loutfi at the State Department, one of the organisers of the TBOW project, invited me to speak on the coastal life of Bangladesh. Would not it be illuminating, I thought, to explore how the harsh, austere, and often anonymous life in the coastal chars plays out in the Bengali imagination?

The BoB is literally our frontier. The meeting point of the Bay and the complex river system of Bangladesh, the vast estuary comprises the chars: a maze-like network of silt islands or landmasses. Home to over five million of predominantly poor, migrant, and landless people of Bangladesh, these low-lying, barely-above-the-water chars have no lasting boundaries, no sense of permanence, and are epitomised by an extreme set of conflicting conditions.

On the one hand, the chars are highly vulnerable to sudden and forceful tidal surges as well as erosion and loss of land, which make life in the chars both hazardous and insecure. People endure extremely inhospitable environments. Uncertainty perpetually hovers over their meager lives. Lacking energy and communication infrastructure, health and government services, employment opportunities, and economic prosperity, the chars are both literally and socially the fringe of the country: the terra incognita of the marginal people. As if the extreme hostility of the land is not enough, the char-dwellers often find themselves at the mercy of the jotdars -- greedy, brutal land-grabbers -- and their armed cadres, the lathial bahini.

Yet, on the other hand, the chars are also an opportunity for the landless mass that simply has no other alternative but to embrace a peripheral life that constantly oscillates between danger and faint hope. For the disenfranchised and the downtrodden, the char is a utopia, where they can at least eke out a minimal existence by dueling with nature and destiny. There are few opportunities for employment, yet the resilient people of the chars survive by growing crops, raising cattle, and harvesting fish. Within the bureaucratic alleys of governmental policies and in the mainstream media, the chars have consistently been perceived in terms of their natural and social vulnerability. Ironically, what has often remained silent in the official narrative is the char-life as a heroic tale of human endurance and struggle. In my presentation at the State Department, I chose to highlight this aspect of the chars.

The chars are the arena where the original settler embarked upon, and the "mythical" peasant harvested his crop against the forces of nature and the domination of feudal landlords. The original settler, the peasant, the fisherman, and the boatman are the archetypal Bengali heroes -- figures that animate the deltaic land's popular imagination. These figures recur across the spectrum of Bengali literature, painting, poetry, drama, songs, and films.

The legendary Bangladeshi painter, S.M. Sultan, has poignantly captured the essence of the mythical peasant, the original settler of the chars, who cultivates the land and rises against all forms of social injustice and poverty. While the peasants in the chars are in reality the epitome of impoverishment and skeletal victims of jotdars, Sultan's peasants are vigorously masculine and resolute in the face of destitution. For him the muscular physique represented the visual crystallisation of the peasant's superheroic struggle against natural calamity, economic hardship, and social deprivation. The Bengali nationalism has political roots in the mythical peasant. He was a nineteenth-century protagonist in the fight against the British colonial rule: When the colonial traders forced him to grow the coveted indigo-producing plant instead of the rice paddy, he waged an unrelenting fight against the alien masters until 1859 when the British government ratified a legislation in favour of the protection of peasants from enforced cultivation of the blue plant.

The intertwining saga of the coastal belt, riverbanks, and the struggling rural populace is fundamental to understanding the Bengali vernacular. Bengali classic novels and films are, in one way or another, the stories of the water, rivers, boats, and the people who survive the wrath of nature and social injustice that afflicts their lives. Ritwik Ghatak's Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (1973) chronicles the classic survival story of the people of the riverbank. Drawing upon the lives of the fishermen, their dreams, aspirations, and agonies, Ghatak painted a penetrating portrait of the Bengali psyche itself. The winner of Bangladesh's first national film award, Lathial (1975) depicts the archetypal fight between the mohajons, jotdars, and morols on the one side and the landless peasants, the victims of an oppressive feudal nexus, on the other. Lathial offered an insight into the evil design of the landlords to cleanse the chars of the hungry, oppressed people who desperately cling on to their last refuge -- the land itself. Based on a novel by Shohidullah Kaiser and directed by Abdullah al-Mamun, Sareng Bou (1978) was another epic film that captured the quintessential role of the water, boat, and people in collectively forming the archetypal Bengali narrative.

Life on the coastal belt or the riverbank is not the whole story of Bangladesh since in the past three decades or so the country has witnessed rapid urbanisation. Far away from the country's political and social centres, the chars are a seldom understood periphery where the downtrodden's sagas of frontier spirit continue to unfold -- stories that rarely impact national politics. Yet, the char-dwellers' concomitant struggle against nature's vengeance and predatory jotdars defines the notion of shongram that has long inspired the Bengali literary mind.

It is exceedingly difficult to convey the Bengali sense of shongram in English. The word embodies a unique sense of resilience of the Bengali people in their fight to survive. Each nation has its own imagination of shongram. Ma Joad, John Steinbeck's protagonist in The Grapes of Wrath (1939), comes subliminally close to defining shongram in American history. The embodiment of the deep anxiety caused by poverty, unemployment, and social alienation in 1930s Depression-stricken America, Ma Joad insisted, "We're the people that live. Can't nobody wipe us out...We'll go on forever." Perhaps it is the notion of shongram -- expressed in various hues, tones, and shades across nations and languages -- that makes the world One World. I did not anticipate that my lecture for the TBOW project would eventually allow me to inquire into my own culture from the multi-focal vision of a global citizen.

Dr. Adnan Morshed is an assistant professor in the School of Architecture at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.

The phenomenal chars