(I had written this piece a little over a year ago, for an online magazine. However, the editorial team suggested some truly bizarre edits -- some of which were ideological in nature -- which would have disfigured my original article beyond recognition. Since I was not able to bring myself to subscribe to such exacting standards, the article was not published. Here is the article I had submitted, with almost no modifications; I have included and highlighted a silly error I had made.)
No, dear reader, I am not referring to the dreaded deltas you may have thought about. The delta I am talking about belongs neither to Dirac, nor to Kronecker – but to the people who are fighting an interminable battle for survival – day in and day out. I am talking, of course, about the Sundarbans, the largest delta in the world, on the Bay of Bengal. I had the wonderful opportunity of visiting remote villages in the Sundarbans and extensively interacting with their inhabitants, as I accompanied my mother on her trips to the Sundarbans for her many research projects.
My visits to the Sundarbans from my childhood have been an eye-opening experience for me – an experience that, more than any other, underlined the stark differences in privileges enjoyed between the people in that world and those in mine. Given the sad state of affairs the world is in – has always been in – we have become inured to the fact that some people live a harder life than others do. However, when it comes to the Sundarbans, “struggle for survival” is not just a throwaway phrase – it acquires a very tangible meaning. It is not only the socioeconomic situation that makes the lives of the inhabitants miserable; the most ruthless adversary they have to battle is Nature herself. Tigers, crocodiles, deadly serpents are part of their lives on a day-to-day basis. The region is ravaged by storms, cyclones, floods very frequently. Deadly diseases are rampant. In recent times, the region has been hit most severely by climate change, as rising sea levels have made several islands uninhabitable – displacing countless people.
It is a near-impossible task for me to describe the myriad complexities of the Sundarbans – and I have witnessed only a small fraction of it. In this article, I want to discuss an aspect of the Sundarbans that has fascinated me the most – its culture. To me, it is nothing short of incredible that people living such a precarious existence would protect and nurture their cultural heritage so lovingly. Mind you, their cultural activity is not merely a form of escapism – it is firmly rooted in the realities of their existence. It is nothing other than their assertion of survival.
Three goddesses reign supreme in the cultural milieu of the Sundarbans – Banbibi, Manasa and Shitala. According to the people of the Sundarbans, Banbibi saves them from the menace of tigers, Manasa from snakebites and Shitala from deadly diseases. All these deities have performance forms (known as palas) dedicated to them. The forms, growing out of propitiatory rituals, have now metamorphosed into independent performative forms, rigorously nurtured and practised as manifestations of religious faith and devotion.
Of the three goddesses, Banbibi – the Lady of the Forests – is unique to the Sundarbans for obvious reasons. Incredible as it may seem, Banbibi is worshipped by Hindu and Muslim communities alike. The people of the Sundarbans, therefore, illustrate the perfect example of a closely-knit community, which has essentially dissolved any extraneous factors of division -- an example, if emulated widely, would make the world a much happier place. God, to these people, is not an abstract entity ruling them from up above the skies – divine beings are as real as you and me. I was able to understand how important the goddess was to the people in a conversation with a villager who had once managed to escape from a tiger. He was caught by a tiger in the river when he went to the forest for collecting honey. According to him, the tiger released him the moment he shouted the name of the goddess. The villager did not appear to suffer from any delusion – the wound left by the tiger was still visible. “Banbibi keeps saving us this way,” echoed other members of his community. Who were we to say otherwise?
The performance forms dedicated to Shitala were very interesting as well. Shitala is worshipped to keep all deadly diseases, most importantly pox, at bay. One can find temples devoted to Shitala even in Kolkata – including one near my home. The most curious aspect of the Shitala pala was the similarities -- and the dissimilarities – between the tunes that emerge from the small Shitala temples in the city and those heard in the pala.
The worship of Manasa, to me, is the most notable one to me in several respects – primarily because it offers a valuable case study in differences of perception. The legend of Manasa goes something like this: Manasa, the abandoned daughter of Lord Shiva, (this varies from legend to legend: according to some legends, she is the daughter of sage Kashyap) tries hard to be accepted as a goddess. In order to gain acceptance as a goddess, she must first be worshipped by Chand Sadagar, the rich merchant and devotee of Shiva. Strong-willed as he is, Chand Sadagar is steadfast in his refusal to worship the vile and vicious Manasa. He is ultimately coerced into worshipping her after Manasa kills all
Chand Sadagar is celebrated as a symbol of triumph of humanity against the divine by the urban atheists (a category to which I consider myself to belong). In fact, Sombhu Mitra, one of the most illustrious playwrights of Bengal, celebrates the virtues of Chand Sadagar in his most acclaimed play, Chand Baniker Pala. The perception of the people in the Sundarbans, however, is completely different. From their perspective, it is Manasa who is the victim. Manasa, the mother who protects them from serpents, is the one wronged by everyone else, they think. She is the symbol of resistance against oppression by the upper castes – a cruel reality that is as true today as it was five hundred years ago. “What wrong did Manasa do?” they ask.
Watching a performance dedicated to Manasa is simply enthralling. Without expensive visual effects or nameless body doubles at their disposal, they take a live snake in the mouth for the performance (as shown in the image; small trivia: the actor was rehearsing the performance for us in front of car headlights, as there was no electricity) – this is how important the ceremony is to them. As I have said before, the performative forms are not merely a source of entertainment for these people – well it does entertain them, but it is so much more! In a certain sense, this is how they are able to make their lives meaningful. The labourer who incessantly toils in the field through the day gets to enact the role of a rich merchant in the evening and in doing so, pays tribute to the entity that he thinks keeps him safe. How many of us can claim to lead such a meaningful life?
The people in the villages are an epitome of kindness and warmth. The way they received and greeted us was wonderful -- they were like long-lost family members. Meeting them was as much emotionally fulfilling as witnessing their adverse situation was heart-breaking. Their indomitable spirit is something every human being should be inspired by.
I have not been to the Sundarbans in quite a while. I am now closer to the Arabian Sea than to the Bay of Bengal. But as I take the customary evening walk by the shore, a distant boat sometimes evokes even more distant memories. The people would then be heading back home after yet another hazardous day and prepare for their next performance, I guess. I wonder when I would be seeing them next. What if they could come and meet me here? Can’t the rest of the country know and get encouraged by how lovingly they preserve their cultural heritage? The Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal become indistinguishable for a moment, before I remember that I have to get all the Dirac and Kronecker deltas right for the next assignment.