A River Called Titas
Titas, a tributary of the mighty Meghna, holds a particular place in Bangala literature owing to the timeless classic 'Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Called Titas) by Adwaita Mallabarman (1914-1951). This novel tells the everyday tales of the lower caste Hindu fishing community 'Mallabarman' or the 'Malos' and their neighboring Hindu agrarian and Muslim fishermen communities who have been dwelling on the banks of Titas in Brahmanbaria, Comilla over the ages. The novel is set during the first half of the 20th century.
So far in the history of Bengali literature, three classics are notable in their portrayal of the lives of fishermen communities. Apart from Adwaita's novel, the other two are Padma Nadir Majhi (Fishermen of the River Padma) by Manik Bandopadhya and Ganga (Ganges) by Samaresh Basu. Again, of these three authors, only Adwaita Mallabarman directly emerges from the fishermen community while the rest two were born in educated, middle-class and upper caste Hindu families. As such, it is not surprising when a fiery Adwaita reportedly says, 'Manik Bandopadhya is a master writer. But, he comes from the literate Brahmin class or upper caste. Ami Jaular pola (I am a son of the fishermen community).' Surely Adwait had the right to be atleast a little boastful of possessing 'true experience' of the hardships and plight of the fishermen. It is still amazing how he educated himself in a community where boys go fishing and girls start home-making even before attaining puberty, in a life of hard-core poverty that offers no other option. Adwaita succeeded in becoming a reputed journalist of his time and author of a classic in our literature. Hrittik Ghatak, the outstanding film maker of the sub-continent, filmed this novel with stars from both Bangladesh and West Bengal.
This contributor visited Gokarnaghat, the theme village of the novel where Adwaita was born on 1st January, 1914. My sole aim was to research the present condition of the 'Malo's. Are they still living there and continuing with their profession after all this time?
'Although Adwaita excelled as a journalist and author from the down-trodden Malo community, our community is yet to produce another genius like him. Higher education is still very rare within us. I am, however, studying in the second year of Honors in Economics at a college of Brahmmanbaria,' said Sanjiv Chandra Barman (age 23).
As I reached the Malopara by noon, adult men were all outside fishing on Titas. The women had just finished cooking.
When I requested them to sing a song of Maghmandali brata (the auspicious ritual of the Malo maiden in winter), some of them denied shyly while some older women said, 'Give us money and we will sing. So many people come with cameras and note-books, but we have no money!'
Do the little girls and young maiden among the Malos still make chauwari ghar (decoration items of chopped banana tree and colored papers) on the last day of winter and offer those in the river to find a suitable groom? I ask them as the sad tale of the novel begins with such a sequence. 'Yes, you can come at Magh (January) and watch the whole ritual then,' they nodded.
It was learnt from the Malo women that between 120-150 Malo families still live in Gokarnaghat and the total number of Malo community in this village and river port are around 1500. 'Most of the Malos have migrated to India after partition in 1947 and the sangram in 1971. Still we are living here as considering this ancestral land to be sacred,' says Sunil Chandra Barman (age 40), a fisherman of Titas.
'Titas is shrinking everyday and a number of fishermen are abandoning their hereditary profession. Now-a-days, lots of Malo men are occupied in owing shops, running a saloon, working as a carpenter and other trades. We have hardly any land to cultivate. I, however, wish to die as a fisherman. I earn 50-100 taka per day through fishing,' he added.
The village suffers from dire shortage of proper sanitation and toilet facilities although I saw a Malo woman talking over mobile and a color TV with dish channels at a Malo house. Women still give birth to child at home with the help of traditional mid-wives and girls get married at adolescence. So, no significant changes have been achieved in last 70-80 years.
Gokarna ghat is still an internal river port where launches and steamers come. On the other side of the Titas there are villages like Rasulpur, Jagatbazar, Ananda bazar, Shukdevpur, Ujaninagar portrayed in the novel. Kamal Hossain, a local tea shop owner, showed me an old man (age: 85) who has seen the author.
'My name is Harisadhan Malla Barman. I was ten years younger than the writer. I have seen him till he was 25-26 years old and then he left this village permanently for Kolkata, never to return,' he said.
'I can read very little but I know what he has written in his novel. It was the strange tale of his own life,' Harisadhan added.
The story-line of Adwaita's novel reads like this: Vasanti, a little girl of seven or eight, seeks help from two neighboring adolescent boys named Kishore and Subal to make her a decoration piece for the winter ritual. Of the two boys, Subal is two or three years younger to Kishore and hence Vasanti's parents choose Kishore as the suitable groom for their daughter. After some five or six years, Kishore and his friend Subal abandon their studies and go to a different village for fishing. Kishore was supposed to marry Vasanti on his return from the assignment. But, in the distant village, he finds a beautiful maiden on the spring festival. He rescues the maiden from a sudden attack of dacoits and the villagers happily give the hands of the girl to him in marriage. Kishore tells his friend Subal that he thinks of Vasanti as his sister, for he has seen her since her childhood and Subal can marry her. On their way to return, the dacoits attacked their boat again and the bride jumps on the river to save honor. Kishore returns home with the sudden onset of insanity. Subal marries Vasanti but dies of a river accident soon after the marriage. Kishore's wife, however, is saved by an old couple of another village and gives birth to a baby. After three or four years, she comes to the village of her husband all alone. Her husband told her the name of his village many times. She settles there as a widow with her son Ananta and recognizes her lunatic husband. But, she can disclose it to none for any women in those days who were ever heard off to be attacked by dacoits could not return to society. She only hopes that once her husband regains his sanity, he will recognize her and they would be happy again. She also makes good friends with Vasanti. At end of the year, at the spring festival, the mysterious, newcomer widow of the village looks into the eyes of her husband amidst the festival. The mad man suddenly recognizes her rushes towards his wife to embrace her. An angry mob then beats him up to death, and this is soon followed by death of the extremely depressed widow within a couple of days. A child-less Vasanti brings up this ill-fated couple's child. At end of the novel, shoal lands rise on Titas and farmers settle there. The fishermen migrate to remote cities and become beggars.
Adwaita authored three other novels namely Rangamati (Red Clay), Shada Hawa (White Winds) and Bharater Chithi: Pearl Buck Quay (Letters of India: To Pearl Buck). A life-long bachelor, he died at the age of 41. His tale of the tranquil Titas still haunts and enthralls us today.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009