When two Bengalis known to each other meet, they typically ask "Ki khobor?" (literally "What news?") or "Kemon acho?" ("How are you?"). Typically the answer is "Ei cholche" ("Going on"), or "Bhalo" ("Good"). We can be in a lot of difficulties, but it is almost always the same answers. I didn't think much about these standard formalities till yesterday. Yesterday made me realize that asking simple questions can be difficult too. Especially if the answer is "I don't have anything left".
I visited a relief camp organised post cyclone Aila, in an area called Kachukhali in the Sunderbans. The one and half hour boat ride to the area was through the beautiful Bidyadhari river, whose banks were laced with lush green local trees. The only trace of disaster at first glance are the places where we could see the bank repair work was going on. We could also see a few dead animals floating on the river. People would hear the motor of the boat and come out to the banks, expecting some aid.

But it is not possible to gauge the damage that the cyclone and the flood thereafter can cause by sitting in a boat and looking at the broken river banks. Once we reached Kachukhali we saw what devastation a cyclone can cause. Devastation is when your mud house is not there anymore, your livestock are dead, the crop fields are filled with saline water making it unusable for at least the next three years, and the fish ponds full of dead fish who died in contact with saline water. They don't practically have anything left!
Among this destruction, local NGOs, government through Panchayets, and other organisations continuously try to provide relief material. During the day, I met and saw few young people work in the relief camp - Shyamali, Sushama and Kalyan among others. Sushama's house has turned into a pile of mud. During the day, she works tirelessly helping others get relief material, all with a smile and dry sense of humor. In the night she now sleeps in a neighbor's courtyard braving the menace of mosquito. Shyamali whose story is similar to Sushama, was also with a smile all day, but for one moment, when we saw tears in her eyes while telling the clothes she was wearing are the only clothes she now has. Kalyan still has his house in place, but he hardly has the time to go there. While we were coming back after visiting an adjoining area, he was informed that his mother fell somewhere and has a gash in her head. We had to literally force him to go and look after his mother, and not worry about us reaching Gatkhali.
The irony in the lives of these relief workers is that they themselves cannot take any relief material, even if they need them, for fear of people accusing them of misusing their power. Yet, amidst this, these workers are more worried that in the immediate future, diarrhea and malaria are going to strike, and how to deal with that. Their boss, Kamalesh mama, worries about the immediate need of mosquito nets, tarpaulin sheets (to serve as damp proof beds) and hurricane lamps (crude lamp which runs on kerosene). He also has to see how to get medicine, specially for malaria and diarrhea. He patiently answers all grievances of people gathered near his house about relief material and it's distribution. Then he looks at the pond outside his house, and predicts philosophically, "Next year, this time, no relief will come, and we will all die of hunger". But he doesn't let this hopelessness linger, after all he leads a team bringing hope to people. When it was time for us to leave, he looked at me and said, "This is your first time here, and you have come at such a time, we couldn't even cook some fish for you".
Perhaps the only thing left in these people is this spirit. This old lady was fishing in a paddy field, still filled with saline water from the flood. She told us how she lost all her goats and hen, and only six of her ducks remain alive. She also told us how her second son and grandson were almost swept away about 200 meters to the river by the flood, but was saved when they grabbed a tree, and came back "home" after the water receded a bit. A home where almost nothing usable is left. The fish she was catching was small salt water fish and shrimp, since all the sweet water fish have died in the flood. Her stock of rice and lentils (dal) were washed away in the flood. She got a sack of rice and some dal through Panchayet, and that is what her family is surviving on. Despite that, during our conversation, she asked us thrice to have lunch at her house. She said "Let me go home and put rice in a pot, and cook these", pointing towards the fresh catch of shrimp. We declined and went our way. In the evening, we met the lady again. This time she was coming back from the river bank, where a relief boat just distributed small packets of rice and potato. She was carrying a packet of rice, and a packet of potato, each about 500 gms, but didn't forget to ask us if we have had lunch. Sometimes, it is difficult to answer these simple questions.


Rhapsody said...


I'm too shaken to even comment on this post. Right now, I can just thank you for sharing the experience with us.
[Count my blessings at the moment.]

Rhapsody said...


~ ॐ ~ said...

Thank you subbu for writing this !!!

Butterfly said...

It is so sad that even the relief materials are not always reaching these people properly...

Woodsmoke said...

I can only imagine how hard and difficult this trip must have been for you. Given your level of compassion for others, I am sure you are already planning on returning there with more help.
Is there a way we, all your friends and blog readers, can contribute? If so, could you put up a list of all that you think they need and how we can make sure to send it to you.

I am said...

I had a similar experience in 2001 in upper Assam, after a devastating flood. Though I went to look for hog deer, I did not have the courage to ask about it when I met people who had nothing. They were leaving inside the forest along the banks of Kobuchapori, a river island.

The humbleness and simplicity I witnessed during my stay completely changed my approach towards life and everything, I had or I did not have.

It's a blessing for we city dwellers who have everything but still complain to be able to see this aspect of life from such close quarter's.

Anuradha said...

Must have been tough on you just to see this and like you mentioned there isn't an answer.. I remember visiting Majuli last year and I heard about the plight of the villagers every monsoon and how the embankment is receding every year and entire villages and houses being submerged for months.

B. O'Hemian said...

I had to share this... I was too shaken to keep the experience with myself.

I need to do something about this, and I need your inputs. Will chat and discuss.

Relief materials are being distributed by boats, hence the people on the river banks are still getting it. But those living inside are not getting materials properly.

Thanks for your offer. I do plan to go back, but not immediately. However, I will send materials this weekend. I will put up a list of items and cost for volunteers shortly.

It is painful for us, the comparatively well off, to see this aspect of life at close quarters. When I see their expectations, I am humbled. And to think of the expectations we have!

Can't we do anything ... even if it is at a small level?

~ ॐ ~ said...

Will look forward to it... let me know what do you have in mind!

AKS said...

if reading about it can shake/move us like this, I can understand what you have gone through. Please do post about anything that we can do.

My first thought was to send some mosquito nets there but how many and HOW?

B. O'Hemian said...

Thanks. The best way to do this has to be you send me the money and I buy them and send them. The people I went with are sending material every week, and I will send through them.

Let me write a new post on "How to help" tomorrow.

Kanchan said...

Awaiting your post on 'How to help'. Do you intend to go to Kachukhali again? I would like to help and can do so by donating some money. Can transfer the funds to you so I know that it will go to the needy for sure. Let me know....

B. O'Hemian said...

Thanks. I will probably go this weekend. Sending you the details on how to help through email.

Arobindo said...

Shubu, I actually did not realise that it was this bad, I just did not have this information.... Thank you for sharing this will call tomorrow sometime

B. O'Hemian said...

Thanks for your support.