Sanchayan Nath shares his experiences of a tropical storm in Bangladesh.
The month of May can be very humid in the coastal parts of Bangladesh. But that Friday afternoon was notably cloudy and gloomy. We were all sweating profusely. Nonetheless, our workshop with local stakeholders on land governance in the area had gone off well and therefore our post-workshop lunch of tasty desi-chicken curry was characterized by light-hearted banter. Nonetheless, we were also a little pensive as I would be returning to India, my home country.
Everybody was telling me about how deep the epar-opar connection was, and that political boundaries cannot destroy the bonds of love between Bengali hearts. (epar-opar: this side-that side. India’s Bengal province under British rule was divided into West Bengal as part of India and East Bengal as part of Pakistan during partition-cum-independence. East Bengal subsequently became an independent nation, Bangladesh)
Such conversations have always been my favourite moments in Bangladesh … and also, the food … One cannot but fall in love with spicy Bangladeshi food and the warm-hearted people who join you at the table.
As I boarded the car to leave, my colleague, a professor at Khulna University, looked up at the sky and said, "This does not look good." "Take care of Sanchayan," he told the research assistant accompanying me. When I said, "Uff! What can happen! I have travelled this road before," he gave me a knowing smile.
Little did I know that in a few hours, I would have one of the most profound experiences of my life. As we laughed and shared jokes, the car sped towards Jessore airport. The view outside was lovely – lush green paddy fields, brimming ponds, and a cool breeze wafted through the window.
We may have dozed off a bit when the cool breeze had turned rather fierce, and huge drops of rain were hammering the car. The trees on both sides of the road were swaying ominously, as if an army of giant jinns (or djinns / spirits) was trying to uproot and slam them onto our car. We began to feel threatened. As my colleague had predicted, we were in the midst of a monstrous tropical storm.
Our driver however, appeared calm. Obviously, he had been through such situations before. He parked the car on the side of the road and asked us to relax. He reassured us: "The storm will pass, and we will reach the airport in no time."
However, the winds began to hit our car with increasing ferocity. The jinns seemed to be at war with us. Our car began to rock from side to side. Our driver drove it to the middle of the road and parked it at an angle. "The wind’s effect will get nullified if the car is parked in this way and we will be safe," he said and smiled reassuringly.
Half an hour passed, and just as the driver had predicted the winds began to die down and the rain lessened. A bit of sunshine appeared in the horizon. The worst had passed. Or so we thought.
But then something strange began to happen. The direction of the winds changed and began to hammer our car from the opposite direction, with increasing ferocity. The jinns had just been taking a break, I guess.
Now, the driver too was worried, and parked the car at an opposite angle to counter the winds’ changed direction. The car began to shake again, and he appeared slightly alarmed, "We may need to spend the night in the car."
As soon as he made that remark, the tree in front of us crashed on the road. Our driver panicked and as he turned the car around, the tree behind us also fell. We were now trapped between two uprooted trees, in the middle of nowhere, with not a single human habitation in sight. The jinns had succeeded in encircling us.
We were sure that the jinns would not devour us: they were just teasing us. The Sundarbans was not near and therefore the Royal Bengal Tigers too would take some time to arrive. But, dacoits? We were not so sure. Only the creator knew how long it would take for the government to clear this mess and save us. We had no choice but to wait.
However, the jinns soon got bored. The winds weakened and the rains reduced. Our car stopped shaking. We heaved a sigh of relief. We were safe but trapped between two giant trees.
And then we heard voices … not those of jinns, but of real humans; not those of dacoits but local farmers. They had walked from the nearest village with axes in hand … not to kill us but to save us. They began to chop the uprooted trees. We joined them. At that moment, it didn’t matter who we were or where we came from. We were all ordinary human beings working together, hand in hand, so that the babus (educated men) in fancy cars could leave for the airport and the poor men could have some firewood.
After the road was cleared and our car sped into the darkness, I remembered what my doctoral advisor, the late Dr Elinor Ostrom had taught us: In the absence of the state, ordinary people can and will successfully work together to solve their common problems.
At that point, relief agencies and local public officials were probably not aware of our problem. The nearest government office was miles away and most officials had probably retreated into the safety of their homes. But the local people who had been through this knew what to do and they took charge of the situation.
We had set aside our differences. Trusting each other, we had chipped away at the wood, and cleared the road. Had we not set aside our differences and worked collectively hand-in-hand to get ourselves out of this mess, the consequence of collective inaction could have been quite troublesome.
For instance, we could have been stranded in the middle of nowhere for a long time; overnight the storm could have returned with increased ferocity and the road could have gotten flooded – we could have run out of food and the saline-water around us may not have been fit for consumption. In other words, what could have turned into a major crisis, was solved in no time!
As I ruminated over our choices and the consequences of our actions, suddenly I felt somebody’s hand on my shoulder. I turned to my side and saw my driver smiling at me. "We have reached the airport. Goodbye!"