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A group of men transport food for the inhabitants of Gherirpaar village, in Chakpatali, near Hasnabad, North 24 Parganas. (Photo: Saibal Das)
A group of men transport food for the inhabitants of Gherirpaar village, in Chakpatali, near Hasnabad, North 24 Parganas. (Photo: Saibal Das)

PHOTOS: Life in the Sundarbans after cyclone Amphan

Photographer Saibal Das documented the aftermath of cyclone Amphan in remote parts of coastal Bengal, where he travelled with a relief team

In the middle of May, as cyclone Amphan crashed upon Bengal, it proved to be the last straw for thousands of homeless and destitute people, already suffering from hunger and unemployment due to weeks of lockdown. In his home town Chandannagar, near Kolkata, photographer Saibal Das had already been witness to untold suffering. The sight of starving beggars and daily-wage earners left without income prompted him to raise funds to provide meals to as many as he could.

“It started with a humble budget of 500, with which I fed six people on the first day," Das says on the phone. But after he put out a crowdfunding call on Facebook, support from friends across India and abroad began to pour in. Over the next 50-odd days, Das organized a community kitchen with the 3.5 lakh he raised and provided two meals to nearly 200 people, morning and evening. Then the cyclone struck.

Amphan caused damage worth 1.02 trillion to Bengal, according to state government estimates. But the scale of the tragedy begins to feel real only when we start putting a human face to such numbers. In June, Das travelled with some members of the Ramakrishna Mission in Chandannagore to remote parts of Hasnabad and Sandeshkhali in the Sunderbans, North 24 Parganas to provide relief. With the help of aid workers, charities, and the leftover money from Das’ earlier fund-raiser, community kitchens were established in these villages—some so obscure that they could only be accessed by boats ferried across choppy waters. In the end, nearly 5,000 people were fed over the four days that the kitchen ran. Thousands more are still waiting for government relief to reach them.

In his nearly 30-year-long career as staff photographer for major Indian newspapers and magazines, Das has covered a range of news and features stories. His seasoned eye for detail, human drama, and gift for catching the decisive moment is evident in the best of these photographs. “After I stopped working as a daily news photographer, I began to develop my individual style," he says, “though my experience as a photojournalist still informs my sensibility."

In spite of the bleak, storm-ravaged landscape Das captures, there is in his photographs an abundant intimation of the beauty. The people who populate his frames do not merely belong to the faceless millions. Every stare, hand reaching out for food, face breaking into smile or crumbling into grief, lithe young boy tumbling into the riverine expanse, has a story to tell. To look at the photographs by Das is to hear these many unspoken tales, to hear the strains of loss and devastation a little more clearly.

As Bengal continues to pick itself up in the aftermath of Amphan while grappling with the menace of the pandemic, Das says his heart is full from the “abundance of love" he received from the people he fed and those who joined him in his mission to achieve it.

A woman from a village on the banks of the Vidyadhari river heads home with food for her family, collected from the relief team.
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A woman from a village on the banks of the Vidyadhari river heads home with food for her family, collected from the relief team. (Photo: Saibal Das)
A scene of devastation at a village in Sandeshkhali. A mud hut had been flattened by the force of the cyclone.
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A scene of devastation at a village in Sandeshkhali. A mud hut had been flattened by the force of the cyclone. (Photo: Saibal Das)
Das says this face of a girl, looking up at the clouds gathering in the sky, is one of the most cinematic images he took during the trip.
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Das says this face of a girl, looking up at the clouds gathering in the sky, is one of the most cinematic images he took during the trip. (Photo: Saibal Das)
Women wait all day by the banks of the Vidyadhari river for provisions to arrive.
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Women wait all day by the banks of the Vidyadhari river for provisions to arrive. (Photo: Saibal Das)
On the way to Jamaipara village in Sandeshkhali. Food for some 2,000 inhabitants along the Vidyadhari river was ferried in boats.
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On the way to Jamaipara village in Sandeshkhali. Food for some 2,000 inhabitants along the Vidyadhari river was ferried in boats. (Photo: Saibal Das)
Women walk through the flooded roads of Chakpatali village, near Hasnabad, to meet teams that have arrived with basic provisions.
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Women walk through the flooded roads of Chakpatali village, near Hasnabad, to meet teams that have arrived with basic provisions. (Photo: Saibal Das)
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