Dec 17, 2020 5 min read

The ferryman of the Shukhata Bazar

The ferryman of the Shukhata Bazar
A boat on the river in Nikli, Bangladesh. Photo: Rajib Raju

Unseen forces are driving change around Bangladesh's bustling Shukhata Bazar. Storyteller Shekhar Kanti Ray takes us through this marketplace and into the life of Nandaram, a ferry operator who finds his ancestral livelihood in jeopardy.

Shukhata Bazar is a marketplace like many others in the vicinity of the Sundarban mangrove. The grocery stores, tailoring shops, restaurants, salon, and local doctors' chamber — all have made the place a vital part of the local community.

On weekly market day, Shukhata Bazar becomes a melting pot of grocers and shoppers from far and wide. The place is unique in its close proximity to the school, hospital, various NGO offices and the Union Parishad office. Throughout the day the market is frequented by people of all walks of life. Students and office-goers pass through in the morning, and in the evening occupational groups make the market even busier.

The evening is the best part of the day, when the market draws large gatherings at its intersections, tea stalls and at the river ghat (jetty). Grocers try to boost their sales since the evening rush lasts for only two or three hours.

Silence slowly descends over Shukhata Bazar as soon as the villagers start for their homes. The light spilling from shops remains the last suggestion of the market's daily bustle, until, finally, the villagers and shoppers go to bed and the differences between the market and villages become untraceable.

The everyday happenings of Shukhata Bazar are quite familiar to almost everyone except Nandaram, someone who once felt a very close connection to the market. Nandaram has for a long time run a country ferry boat in the nearby river. The ferry ghat even carries his family name, as it has been with the family for generations.

In fact, this is the third generation running the business. His own attachment to the occupation stretches back to his childhood, when he was just old enough to be starting school. He can still recall a time when he and his family were the gatekeepers who helped locals across, granting access to either side of the river. During festivities, including wedding season, Eid, Durga Puja, Jatra and Opera, their small country boat would become very busy ferrying passengers. "Son, ply the oars swiftly; I can see many passengers waiting for us on the other side of the river," the voice of his father still echoes to him.

Shukhata Bazar is a marketplace like many others in the vicinity of the Sundarban mangrove. Photo: Anuj Kumar Ray

Nandaram had little to do with his immature hands in his younger years. In his stolen childhood he had few liberties and shared leisurely moments with his siblings only in the evenings. Winter was a happy time for them, when they would collect annual rice payments from daily passengers. His father would say these were holy payments. "We are Patni (ferry boaters) and we consider these earnings a gift from the Gods".

Brought-up with the tides of the river, Nandaram never felt any separation from his forefathers' profession. All he needed to do to keep the business afloat was to pay government fees once a year to the Upazila (sub-district) administration. Though the earnings from his occupation were not substantial, the trust that he earned from people of different levels gave him all the security he needed to keep the business going.

However, those who didn’t like Nandaram called him Narad (famous in Hindu traditions as a traveling storyteller) for his role in exchanging news among his passengers. The crews from the anchored commercial engine boats in and around Shukhata Bazar used to visit the bazar by his boat, and along with them many stories. Nandaram had no complaints regarding his work: "I am happily passing my days with this profession. I don't need much more than what I am earning now," he would say, a reflection on life shared by many in his locality.

He could not imagine the ordeals he would face during the yearly auction of the ferry ghat. So far, he alone participated in the auction. But today he has three other bidders. He knows them well: Samir, Yousuf, and Chandan, three friends who are together known for their close association with influential shrimp cultivators.

Common people avoid them for their alleged involvement with many unscrupulous activities. Nandaram cannot understand what is going to happen. The bid is placed before them and, after a few bids, the opposition walks away victorious, having bid double what Nandaram could pay. Nandaram is speechless, suddenly realizing that his ancestral occupation had been lost.

After arriving in the Shukhata Bazar he finds that everybody is aware of the incident. Gossip of different shapes is popping up in the tea stalls and at afternoon gatherings. "He became very disobedient and didn’t care for us. Now he has to face the consequence". Nadaram understands that the scorching comments are coming from Samir, one of the three friends who outbid him. Soon Shukhata Bazar turns into an unknown place to him.

On the way home his neighbour Jatin asks, "Didn't you sense anything beforehand? We were getting some information on this issue," but Nandaram doesn’t know how to reply. He goes on in a low voice, "I couldn't. But sometimes they used to come to ask about the profit from ferry riding. They even asked me for money sometimes but I didn’t give them any in fear of losing it forever. Except that, nothing serious happened with them that could result in losing my occupation."

His family members also became strangers to him. He couldn't give any satisfactory answers to the queries of his wife and children regarding the looming uncertainty in the coming days. He has no other skills which can be helpful at this difficult time of his life. He has passed many fearful nights in his life but this night seems to be endless. Every part of night seemingly narrates a quiet and not-complicated life that he had until yesterday. He decides, in the end, to seek justice from the influential people of his locality.

In the morning Nandaram met the Chairman of his union. The Chairman politely said: "Listen Nandaram. Your argument is right, but what can I do? They have money and they can control everything in their favour." This was the first time that Nandaram understood that serious changes had taken place around him which he was unaware of.

On the way back to the Bazar, he tried to understand what other changes had taken place. He realized, to his surprise, that the curiosity among the people regarding his incidents had disappeared. The ferry ghat has also been changed overnight. Suresh, one of his former workers was now in charge of carrying passengers in a much bigger boat. "What can I do Nanda Da? I have a family to feed. I have convinced them to let me continue the job," Suresh explained to his former employer. Nandaram asked, "Didn't you have any clue? At least you could have told me." Nandaram started for his house without waiting for an answer.

Now Nandaram is not alone. Shyamal of Napitpara (hairdresser community), Rahamat of Jelepara (fisher community) and Ananta of Rishipara (shoemaking community) have joined him, passing most of the day at the Shukhatar Bazar ferry ghat.

They sell their labor to the businessmen, unloading and uploading their goods to and from the engine boats.

Shekhar Kanti Ray
Shekhar Kanti Ray
Shekhar is a development professional from Bangladesh. He is publishing on development and marginalisation.
Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
You've successfully subscribed to Nextblue.
Your link has expired.
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.
Success! Your billing info has been updated.
Your billing was not updated.