December 2017 Winner

Shagor – The Sea by Afia Khatun

The large, plump and well-fed brown speckled ducks laid the tastiest huge eggs, which were boiled and de-shelled, lightly dusted yellow with turmeric, then fried a golden brown on all sides, before being curried in an oil rich red gravy, where they bobbed up and down in the juicy sauce; or they were smashed and whisked into delicious, oniony, coriander fragranced, bright yellow colour omelettes, fried with small, but potent red-hot green chilis, that left a satisfying sharp sting on the tongue, relieving the heavy, drowsy monsoon heat.

The ducks tried to stretch their wide wings in the cramped dark space under the rice store, where they were penned together securely. They quacked incessantly throughout the night, fretting, jostling, and squabbling with each other for space in the small, cramped coup. A few feathers were shed after each ferocious argument or altercation, lightly carpeting the ground. These were scraped away and cleaned in the morning, along with the sticky, chalky white droppings they had adhered to.

In the distance, the sound of a giant horse galloping across the waters of the haor echoed across its black darkness. But for the moonlight reflected across its surface, resting wild waterfowl, migratory birds, and freshwater fish and snakes of all varieties swimming in its secretive depths, for all intents and purposes, the haor appeared to be completely devoid of any human habitation.

The haor was the vast, undulating wetland lake surrounding the village, stretching for thousands upon thousands of miles in every direction, swallowing nearly every inch of verdant land in its path, reducing the small, slow villages of the entire region into irregular microscopic dots of tiny islands on a watery map with no border, boundaries or edges. It eventually joined the other haors of the region, forming a limitless body of water within one gigantic basin. The only signs of human habitation in this formless, shapeless, wilderness were these distant and remote stranded houses, surrounded by clusters of trees, their bright green leaves in sharp contrast to the dullness of the water and the sky.

The haor had grown naturally following the customary seasonal monsoon rains that had started several months earlier in April. The villagers called it the haor, meaning shagor (sea), but dropped the ‘h’, to ‘aor’. The aor was unique to the region, and held many mysteries, including fearful stories of terrified travellers, marooned at night in boats, seduced by beautiful women with long black hair, appearing out of the darkness, offering to guide them back home, as the weak yellow white light of the hurricane lamp, depleted of oil, flickered and died.

There was nothing but swirling dark water as far as the eye could see, and long thin tired white snakes swam out of the aor onto any land they could find, slithering frantically along a slippery muddy courtyard, and up the steps to the house, crowding near the wooden brown door like beggars, forked tongues flickering, seeking refuge from the water. Not poisonous, they were picked up by the tail and carelessly flung into the bushes, thus foiling their escape from the heavy current of torrential rainwater that poured non-stop from the sky, day and night, night and day, for months and months.

The rain could only be properly described as a deluge from the heavens, an outpouring from the skies. The heavy falling raindrops splashed loudly onto already drenched and saturated dark heads, rolling over soaked, rain blinded eyes, to plop loudly to the ground, bouncing up again with the force of the impact, and splashing down again, in a shimmering, iridescent display. The deep, heavy, dense cascade of rain obscured the view completely. Its tumbling roar was deafening, and as it splashed and splattered onto the ground, it dissolved the hard dry clay soil into a light, foaming mass that expanded multiple fold, like a soufflé that could be stirred easily by a housewife with an ordinary wooden cooking spoon.

The pale grey clay soil, soft, wet, watery, runny, muddy, and slippery, squelched under the rubbery soles of cheap flip-flops, creating a suction action, threatening to throw the wearer off balance. Every single step had to be taken judiciously, to avoid a fall. Men wearing red and blue, white and grey, and green and orange chequered lungis, walked painstakingly slowly, as if doing a ballet dance, balancing themselves delicately, holding their lungi up tightly in one brown, clenched fist, and a large black umbrella up in the other hand.

They tried to maintain a dignified appearance, carefully placing one foot in front of the other. Each footstep threatened to bring its owner skidding and sliding, before flying unceremoniously onto their backs, feet flailing in the air, flip-flops flying off their feet. Sometimes, the sole of the flip-flop got stuck in the mud, jerking the plastic toe joint of the sandal out of its hole, forcing the remainder of the journey home to be carried out bare foot, the toe-joint to be re-inserted later, if it hadn’t broken completely. The flip-flops, costing just a few takas, came in a myriad of colours, ranging from red, green, blue and orange to purple and black.

Someone had taken some red bricks from the abandoned building site where the village primary school was supposed to be built, and laid them in a neat line on the muddy ground to create a narrow footbridge. The school building project had started years earlier, but following the delivery of thousands of ochre red bricks that were unloaded from a lorry on the wide and dusty, virtually deserted main highway, and carried two miles along the village road in small hampers by a long line of thin, under-fed, tightly muscled workmen, the planned works had come to a halt with a certain vagueness. The bricks had been dumped unceremoniously next to the existing primary school in a chaotic heap, as if they were throwing baskets of soft brown green cow dung onto the ground, to shape into sticks to dry for burning in the clay stove, and not hard rectangular bricks that had been pressed to order by a large machine miles away in a factory in Sunamgonj, before being dried in a kiln.

Following the delivery of the tons of bricks, the villagers waited expectantly for the well-known and trusted Hindu builder to arrive with his workmen to arrive to lay the foundations of the building, but time passed and nothing happened. They continued to gauge the situation for a few more months, curiously noting the vast mound of newly manufactured red bricks every day, before they began to surreptitiously sneak them away in small unnoticeable quantities to create makeshift elevated footpaths, as if they were a rural highways department.

These red bricks were scattered across the entire village, creating a mosaic of bright brick paths that zigzagged through it, cutting across the multiplicities of family courtyards that formed the stop and start pedestrian thoroughfare, past each household, rich or poor, busy with their daily chores, or sitting perspiring and fanning themselves on the veranda, against the backdrop of the pouring rain.

There was already a long, tin roofed adobe school building on one level. A former resident living abroad had sent money for the bricks, which had been ordered to build a more substantial structure for the school, but the donor of the bricks lived 12,000 miles away, and without direction, the plans, if there had been any, not being within the capacity of the person upon whom the responsibility for arranging the building works had been placed, fell quietly to the wayside.

Flurries of handwritten instructions in blue overseas envelopes arrived, which were read, then folded away tidily in a pile with the rest. The purchase of the bricks, the main construction material for a brick building, did not therefore lead to the materialization of a building large enough to house 200 children, as had been hoped. The huge mound of bricks, as high as the school’s tin roof, lay discarded reproachfully on an empty plot next to it for years, the pupils waiting in expectation, until so much time had passed, they had finished primary school. Since the primary school had not been built, the plans for the building of a secondary school were delayed.

The headmaster, hearing of the planned improvements, waited for the construction of the brick building too. In the meantime, he continued beating up the children who came for lessons with his long bamboo cane. ‘wack, wack!’ Anyone walking past the school could hear the sound of the long rod making contact with flesh, followed by cries and the headmaster shouting, ‘Hey, you! Stop crying!’ The child who had been punished nursed his or her wounds on the narrow village path leading home, and was not seen in school again for a few weeks.

The aor had formed in the deep basins of paddy fields surrounding the village and the only transport now were the wooden noaka boats moored along the long irrigation canal running across the rear of the village. Banana, lychee and jack-fruit fruit trees that had been planted in the back gardens of the houses, bordered the canal.

The vast green mosaic like expanse of lush paddy fields, maturing slowly and changing over the months from tiny pale green shoots, to a forest of long swaying stalks, where a man in a hurry could easily relieve himself without being seen (and often did), was replaced with what seemed like a desolate expanse of deep flowing water, complete with the danger of snakes and blood sucking leeches, the latter of which clamped themselves onto field workers who entered the aor bare legged.

In their search for land, snakes of all sizes swam rapidly past clumps of white lotus plants that had bunched together in vast swathes that floated slowly along the aor, as if searching for a mooring themselves. Wooden boats moved slowly, their long brown oars dipping rhythmically in and out of the water, pushing and swishing against the dense underwater jungle of drowned paddy stalks, pressed back and forth by the waves, on the brink of being uprooted and washed away.

In the morning, the ducks were led to the canal where they spent the day bobbing up and down in a group, waddling back together at dusk in an orderly, but noisy, gaggling single file. The hurricane lamp was filled with greasy smelling kerosene and lit in the kitchen, the knob turned high to increase the soft light for Bibi’s preparation of the evening meal.

It had rained all day and night, and the water from the aor had risen and spilled over into the courtyard. To the consternation of the householder, it continued to creep and rise slowly over the next few days. ‘Bibi, we have to leave! – let us go to uncle’s house – it is higher up.’

The elderly woman was carried along the slippery track to the foreigner uncle’s huge house, with its endless rooms. It was on the scale of a mansion compared to her own small modest home in this out-of-the-way village, one room leading to another, then to another and another, in a maze of square, whitewashed chambers. Most of the year the house was virtually empty, but today, all the villagers had come to the highest ground and huddled together, shaken.

The flood waters had reached the interior of Bibi’s earthen, tin roofed house, and her large round aluminium water pots, that were scoured to a high silver gleam with a handful of straw and clay by the little girl she kept to help her, floated and bobbed in the rising water as if doing a sad dance. ‘Amina!’ she had shouted, ‘where are you? Stop messing! Come and fill the pots. Then come back and start crushing the red chili paste – I have to put the cooking on the stove. The men will be hungry!’

Bibi knew it was just a matter of days before the aor swallowed up the house entirely. The dam had broken and the flooding had been calamitous. The ducks had drowned in the aor, and their lifeless feathery brown bodies floated upside down in the water, swirled around at the mercy of the ever growing current.

Bibi looked back sadly through her furrowed brown eyes. The water rose rapidly each day, and her house with the tin roof, and the two rooms she had built with her own hands with clay and bamboo and straw, shrank further and further from sight, slowly disappearing under the force of the huge crashing waves.

When the waters receded, only an empty muddy patch of ground remained where Bibi’s house had once stood. It was littered with debris and rotting carcasses of snakes, fish and black water rats the size of cats. Everything crawled with maggots. The banana trees she had planted for shade had fallen to the ground. Flies swarmed around in the air. The floor of her house had been made of clay, and when she stepped onto the ground, her feet sank. The grain store holding the year’s supply of neatly packed round baskets of milled rice had been washed away. The stench of decaying animal and plant matter filled the restless hot air. Bibi wiped away the perspiration running down her face with the end of her crumpled white sari.

The flood had ripped the new silver coloured tin roof off completely and Bibi had watched from uncle’s house as it bobbed and swirled around in the water of the aor for miles, like a giant’s hat. Her four poster wooden bed had been tossed and turned by the waves, smashing against other debris, before landing in smashed pieces, at the shores of villages miles away.

Amina, who was 8 or 9, had also returned and was standing guiltily near the decaying limp trunk of one of the trees that had once been green. She was wearing a pair of old faded red shorts, tied at the front with a piece of string. Her small thin brown legs and feet were caked with dried mud and her shoulder length reddish dark brown hair was dry and matted in one piece at the back of her head, like a flat mud-cake. To Bibi’s astonishment, one or two water pots remained, embedded upside down in the mud, only their flat bottoms visible. They had been dented by waves battering them against the wooden bedpost, the door, and finally against the tin roof, before it was ripped away by a huge wave and carried away.

The water pots had banged against the tin roof for hours, singing in a drowning, deep, throbbing, watery, musical symphony, with no audience to appreciate its ironic beauty. Miraculously, the pots had not been carried away by the waves, but had remained upright, bobbing up and down above the spot where Bibi’s small kitchen had once stood, their round shape and graceful narrow necks reminiscent of the poor ducks that had drowned. After a while, Amina spoke. ‘Shall I wash the pots, Bibi?’

‘So now you’re here!’ the old woman groaned. ‘How do you think I can feed you after this…this calamity! Her thin body shook with grief. ‘Where am I going to get food for myself, let alone you!’ She continued, her voice rising, ‘Go! Go! Go back to your bari!.’ Distraught, she looked for something to hold onto, but there was nothing.

Amina, head hanging despondently, dug her big toe into the ground, drawing circles with it in the mud, like the waves of the aor that had circled around them. A tear fell, splashing onto the dried, caked mud plastering her foot, looking up sorrowfully, she said, ‘Bibi, I,…I…promise to be good…from now on.’

Bibi reached her hand out, and the little girl, sliding and slithering awkwardly on her small bare feet across the still slippery ground, came to her, grasping her thin arm. Slowly and carefully, the pair inched their way back to uncle’s house to decide what to do. It had stopped raining and their feet squelched on the wet ground. The pools of water everywhere would dry out soon. The monsoon was over, once again. They had no food, but with the grace of God, had survived another year without being carried away into the haor. They did not know what would happen next year, but for now, they were safe.