I was in a ramshackle bus that bumped over craters, swinging vigorously at every turn, as we left the tiny airport at Sylhet, Bangladesh, for Srimongol. As we careened forward, the driver kept honking, announcing his imminent arrival, but the villagers ignored this 20th century intrusion into their pastoral lives.
Our bus was filled not only with passengers, but with life. One jhalmoori-wallah (a local snack hawker) continued doing his business while inside the bus, deftly mixing his chana, mirchi, and onions, while his radio blared a Mohammed Rafi song. A woman casually unbuttoned her blouse and breastfed an infant. Nobody noticed; nobody thought anything was unusual about that.
Impressions: Every corner of Srimongol’s landscape is reminiscent of imagery from Pather Panchali. AFP
We reached Srimongol; at the roadside, the stalls sold soft drinks, masala shrimp and roasted peanuts. Yes, masala shrimp: They eat things differently in Sylhet, I was told later.
I hired a Land Rover to take me deeper, towards Lawachara National Park, a rainforest. We were still on a paved road, and in the ditches along the road, growing in careless abandon, I saw little violet flowers that my driver told me were called kochuripana. It was a long time before a friend who grew up in Dhaka told me that the flowers were water hyacinths. The hyacinths grew everywhere, without warning, and they formed a natural border between where the tarred 20th century ended, and where Satyajit Ray territory unfolded.
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All around me I saw vast stretches of fields, shining as sunlight rested temporarily on the blades of the swaying crops. I saw little children running in the field; they could have been Apu and Durga. I saw tea garden labourers wearing conical hats which seemed to have gone out of fashion with Vietnam. I saw women in red and green saris, sans blouses, who could be stepping out of Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder). And I saw a shimmering lake on the horizon.
Soon, we were in the rainforest. The trees grew dense; their leaves, bright and translucent, covered the foliage, vibrating lightly in the breeze, rustling softly, as if they were murmuring to one another, changing light and shapes as if in a kaleidoscope, as a gentle shaft of light penetrated the shrouded greenery. In my mind, I was humming the theme tune of Pather Panchali (Song of the Road).
We were climbing a steep, rocky hill now; the Land Rover could no longer ascend the path. So we got off and I walked, at peace, quietly taking photographs. The forest grew more dense—forget history, certain areas of this forest had not even experienced sunlight. I could smell the freshness of earth. I saw a spider tenaciously building a huge cobweb between the branches of a tree. It was an artist’s delight, sunlight resting on its edges, making its outline gleam.
We had walked a few miles, and I heard a sound I hadn’t expected, the sound of this century, penetrating the silence. It was the puffing of a railway engine. It was delightful because it was so unexpected; it was the pleasure of the unknown—ochenar anondo—as Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay called the chapter that described Apu’s and Durga’s discovery of the train dissecting the kaashphool (kans grass) field in Pather Panchali. But this was not a black-and-white world; I saw the clear red of the train compartments of the Chittagong Pahari Express making its way, disturbing the tranquillity only briefly, before leaving us in that spot of timelessness.
I saw a woman racing down the hill, nimbly carrying firewood. Perhaps she lived in one of the huts I saw on my way. Perhaps those children in the field were hers. And perhaps that labourer was her husband.
Later that night, at the forest rest house, while sipping tea made from freshly plucked leaves from the garden nearby, I wondered: The train must pass through the landscape often enough, perhaps even daily. Was the reality Ray captured so commonplace? Or did he elevate what seemed ubiquitous to an aesthetic height?
There is something haunting about Bangladesh’s landscape. Ritwik Ghatak went to Bangladesh and made the film Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Called Titash, 1973) in the newly-independent country. The border between India and Bangladesh established a boundary, but it did not really separate the people—you can’t tear apart a language. And Ray and Rabindranath Tagore— despite Bangladesh’s independence—continued to reappear, reassuring me of the ties that re-emerge when border lines cease to be battlefields.
On my second night, Nazrul Islam, a forest ranger, invited me to his home, and prepared Horlicks for me. On his walls, I saw posters of Sridevi, Tagore and Gen. Zia. As if on cue, the lights went off, as they often do in this part of the world, and he lit a lantern. Then his wife arrived. Her name was Rashida. After some hesitation, she sang a Tagore song. She insisted I eat fish and rice with them. That night, Nazrul walked with me, a bright candle in his hand, finding me a cycle rickshaw with little bells that tinkled. I reached the ferry point, which would take me southward.
There are forests with more diverse wildlife in the world, and there are prettier lakes. Trains run through picturesque tea garden territory all the time. But that week, in Lawachara, near Srimongol, I saw a confluence of these images and, for that brief moment, stepped into the landscape glimpsed only in imagination. It was unexpected—I had gone to write about politics— which made the pleasure all the more memorable. Ochenar anondo.
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