“Ebb and Flow Life of the Bhasha Manush: Flooded and Abandoned in the Atharo Bhati”
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About the Author:
Amrita DasGupta is a third year PhD student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, a Visiting Student Research Collaborator at the Department of History in Princeton University supported by the OSUN Graduate Research Mobility Fund. She is also a visiting researcher at the King's India Institute and a guest teacher at the London School of Economics (LSE).
She completed her MPhil titled ‘Bonbibi’s Sundarbans: Tiger Widows and Water-Prostitutes’ from Jadavpur University. It interrogated the impact of/relation between animal-attack widows and the changing norms of widowhood in relation to sex work in the Sundarbans.
Her PhD examines transnational water borders of the Indian Ocean World and trafficking in humans, especially in the mangroves ecosystems expanding from India to British East Africa.
Amrita's short documentary, “Save the Sundarbans”, was awarded the cinematography award, script and editing award. She has published in journals including the Economic and Political Weekly, Gitanjali and Beyond. As a SOAS Digital Ambassador Amrita regularly writes for the SOAS blog.
"Ebb and Flow Life of the Bhasha Manush: Flooded and Abandoned in the Atharo Bhati"
The article employs ethnographic data, photographs, interviews, and archival materials in the form of news reports to explore how women in Sundarbans India become tiger widows and are also rendered climate exiles. Many of the tiger widows are ultimately trafficked into sex work at the brothels of the Kolkata city thus suffering the double bind of both climate change and gender injustice. It also studies the impact of religion in compelling the female islanders of Sundarbans, India, to migrate to the city in search of better living conditions and in the process they get coerced into sex trade. Consequently, the article answers how these women identify themselves: as sex workers or climate exiles. In the backdrop of the response to the primary inquiry mentioned above, the article empirically evaluates the overlap between categories of identity.
The Sundarbans is the world’s only mangrove tiger land. Straddling India and Bangladesh, it is situated in the delta supplied by the confluence of the Brahmaputra, Ganga, and Meghna Rivers. On 20 May 2020, super cyclone Amphan made its landfall in Bakkhali located at the southeastern coast of the Bay of Bengal with a wind speed of 110 mph. It barrelled through West Bengal all night. Once the cyclone passed through the city of Kolkata including the peripheral Sundarbans, the entire West Bengal was left unrecognizable. In response to the devastating effects of Amphan, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, held a press meeting at Nabanna. At the meeting, she exclaimed in despair and agony, “Rajyer sorbonash hoye galo” translatable into English as “the state has been destroyed” (Personal Reporter, 2020). The injury inflicted by Amphan amounted to a loss of 13 billion US dollars making it the costliest cyclone in the North Indian Ocean (Sud and Rajaraman, 2020). The climatic catastrophe sparked an unresolved debate hinged on the fact that the removal of humans residing in Sundarbans could save the mangrove cover from further depletion caused by illegal human penetration of the forest in search of resources. The common public believed it to be the only way to save Kolkata’s (India) first line of environmental defence from future damage. Nonetheless, the climatic vulnerability of living in Sundarbans is historically evident: It is reflected in Rennells’ map of the 1771, where all the Sundarbans is shown to be “depopulated by the Maghs” (Ghosh, 1960). Though Rennell attributes the reason of depopulation to the repeated exploitations by the Maghs in the Sundarbans, historians and sociologists employing the Ain-I -Akbari, Riyas-Us-Salatin, the Bengal District Gazeteer on the 24 Parganas by L.SS. O'Malley, as evidence, postulated that the ravages caused by the tropical cyclones in the area in 1582, 1584, 1688, 1699, 1737 had been at the heart of the deltaic migratory phenomenon resulting in depopulation of Sundarbans. The climatic catastrophes continue to multiply in the atharo bhatir desh (land of the eighteen ebb and tides, Sundarbans) and bear the potential to render the islanders as climate exiles. Climate Exiles are those who are forced to move from their homes in search of better living opportunities owing to severe environmental conditions.
The Misfortunes of Tiger Widows: The Climate, Conflict, Religion Trinity
The women of Sundarbans suffer the most. The two faceted evils they face are climatic and religious. Both are intrinsically related. The Sundarbans witness an overlap between the animal inhabited forests and the cleared lands for human habitation. The escalation of sea-levels renders the land-water divide soluble. The situation worsens during cyclonic storms concluding in floods. Once the boundaries of the human and non-human settlements are blurred and deleted the humans and non-humans (Royal Bengal tigers, snakes, crocodiles) are forced into a direct conflict. Impelled by hunger due to unavailability of food during floods, the animals, especially the tigers, swim into human habitation in search of easy prey. Climate change increases the water salinity in the region making the tigers irritable and hungry for easy prey. Hunting the spotted deer consumes energy and feasting on porcupines injures the feline. Thus, humans become the easy, wholesome tiger food.
It is a common practice in the land of the ebb and flow to enter the forest on a quotidian basis in search of wood, wax, honey, and fruits, the stocks of which are sold in the market to earn a living. The repeated intrusion of the humans into the forest increases the probability of animal attacks. Though the tiger is the most famous here, other animals that are equally feared are the snakes and the crocodiles. Death by animal attacks is looked down upon amongst the lower Bengal deltaic communities as if it is a curse from the goddess of the forest, Bonbibi. The death rituals for those who have lost their life to the tiger attack is different from those who lose their life to the crocodile attack or the snake bite: dead bodies from tiger attacks are either never recovered from the site or, if recovered, the cadaver is denied a Hindu pyre. In such cases, the body is buried in the Muslim burial grounds. Snake bitten dead bodies are set afloat on a bamboo raft. Nonetheless, the practice is obscure now to the extent that it seems mythological. The patterns of ostracization are also different for widows who lose their husbands to the tiger attack compared to those who lose their husbands to other animal attacks.
Bonbibi and Her Superstitious Devotees
Bonbibi’r Johuranma (The Miracles of Bonbibi) narrates the birth and life of Bonbibi (translatable into English as the Mistress of the Forest) and her brother Shah Jongoli. Abandoned at birth amidst the forest, raised by a deer as her own, Bonbibi was only united with her family and twin brother at an adult age when conscience dawned upon her parents. They were guilty for having forsaken their daughter owing to ‘son preference.’ Soon after the reunion, Bonbibi and Shah Jongoli were instructed by Allah to visit the land of the ebb and flow.
They were sent to Sundarbans to settle the conflict between the shape shifting sage Dokkhin Rai who could take the appearance of the tiger and the deltaic inhabitants who garnered resources from Rai’s forest. He was the commander of the tigers and the lord of the islanders. Dokkhin Rai was known to attack and kill anyone who claimed resources from his forest. To resolve the inequality, Bonbibi alongside her brother raged long wars against Narayani, Dakhin Rai’s mother who ultimately surrendered herself drawing a truce by calling Bonbibi her ‘soi,’ meaning soul sister. However, the greed of Dhona and Mona, two local merchants from a nearby village brought about the ultimate end to the rule of Dakhin Rai in the Bengal delta.
Dhona and Mona had left their nephew Dukhey as a sacrifice for Rai in exchange for the resources they had accumulated from Rai’s forest. On facing such misfortune, Dukhey sought the refuge of Maa Bonbibi. To save Dukhey Bonbibi raged another war with Dakhin Rai and this resulted in the final defeat of Rai. After the battle Bonbibi divided the deltaic lands of Bengal between the humans and the non-humans. She also decreed that she would never save any of those from tiger attacks who sought to accumulate forest resources out of greed. This initiated the superstitions around tiger attacks being ill omens in the Bengal delta. Hindus and Muslims both adhere to this belief and unanimously pray to Mother Bonbibi for mercy.
Islanders believe that the ill omen of death by tiger attack can be avoided by the penitence of and observance of austerity by the wife back home while the husband etched a living in the forest. Though the overseer of all animal species, Maa Bonbibi has a special relation to the tiger unlike the snake or the crocodile. Hence, the burden of the ‘swami-kejo’ slur (husband eater) is shouldered by the tiger widows and not by those women who obtain widowhood because of snake bites or the crocodile attacks.
Trafficking in the Lower Deltaic Bengal: Tiger Widows in City Brothels
During my yearlong field work at the Bali island and Dulki village of the Sundarbans, India, in 2017, the hand in glove relation of climate crisis, tiger attack, ostracization of the tiger widows, deltaic religion and human trafficking became evident. I had interviewed more than fifty tiger widows in both the villages and most of them had referred to the Alia cyclonic storm of 2009 several times to chronologically situate the cataclysmic events of their individual lives from the past. It was as if they had lost their sense of time or had built their sense of time and chronology from the occurrence of that specific climatic catastrophe. Tapati Mandal of Dulki (the name has been changed) who lost her husband Paritosh Mondal to tiger attack on 29 March 2017 near Pirgunj while he collected crabs in the forest for the sustenance of his family of four, centered her entire narrative around how the overlapping of the land forest divide was escalated by the 2009 cyclone. She asserted that such land and water overlap made it easier for the tigers to swim across the Bidyadhari River and come into the villages from the forest. She was convinced that the repeated climatic onslaught in the Bengal delta has made the human-inhabited lands more accessible to the tigers through such overlaps. Another interviewee, Subhashi Das, who is also a tiger widow, said that she had lost her husband to the tiger attack some twenty years ago. However, her neighbors remember that it was just after Aila that Subhashi’s husband never returned from the delta. Such lives, lived in complete disintegration with time, are reminiscent of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s argument that the entire concept of time might be jeopardized by the rupture of the past and future with the present caused by the magnitude of a present crisis (2009). Such loss of sensibilities of the interviewees associated with my research project is usually marked by detailed visual memories of the retrieved dead body and the complete abandonment by the in-laws. While envisioning a future in the Anthropocene “without us” the past and future is rendered inaccessible for my research participants (Chakrabarty, 2017, 198). The historical chronology is thrown into confusion and contradiction, which can only be accessed partially through “screened memory” (Freud, 1899). Screened memory is a distorted memory that lacks historical accuracy.
The important event which established the climate, conflict, and religious trinity in my project, was when I asked a group of tiger widows and a tiger widower to pose for me standing on a boat. The tiger widows had protested, one of them told me that they cannot access the boat of occupation used for fishing, only the tiger widower can as he was a man. The reason they gave me was entirely rooted in the religious dictates of the delta. She told me:
"We are tiger widows. Not any other widows. We are ill omens. We have lost our right to access the boat of occupation. Our sons feed us, if we have any. If not, we live by begging. We will stand on the ground and let him stand on the boat."
This meant that if any of these women were skilled in fishing they were now inevitably kept away from the occupation. Denied access to the boat, they were thus denied their right to livelihood. As a result, these women were made more vulnerable to false promises of housemaid jobs in the city and to being coerced into the nexus of human trafficking. The yearly rise of the women trafficked from the Sundarbans into Sonagchi (Asia’s largest red light area) and Harkatta Goli in Kolkata, West Bengal after any cyclonic storm or due to lack of employment for the women in the lower deltaic Bengal is a testimony to the direct correlation between climate crisis and gender injustice.
Evidence to support this argument can be found in news reports such as that by the Huffpost titled “Between the Dead Seas and Living Hell” quoted here:
Around 7000 people work in the district, and 600-700 workers join in the industry (Red Light District) annually. According to Dr. Samarjit Jana, an epidemiologist who works with Durbaar Mahila Samanaya Committee, a collective that fights for the rights of the sex workers, during the year Aila hit (2009), there was a 20-25% increase in the number of sex workers moving to the Red-Light District…Many of these women interviewees referred to themselves as “bhasha manush.” (flooded people).
The impact of climate change on vulnerability to human trafficking in the Indian Sundarbans is multiplied by the increasingly degraded environments, meaning there is a crunch in natural resources like water, fuel, fodder, forest produce which makes women of the Sundarbans susceptible to being trafficked. This is not just due to the regular harsh ecology of the Sundarbans, but rather is due to the climate change-related floods, cyclones, and sea-level rise which destroy lives and livelihoods, and increasingly intensify insecurities. These insecurities help create a sexual economy in the deltaic Bengal (Molinari, 2017).
The window of intrigue is provided by how these trafficked women identify themselves. The connection of these women with water and their association to the dynamics of land erosion is underlined in the quote above. The phrase “bhasha manush” (meaning a flooded human) not only is utilized by these women to define themselves as flooded human beings in relation to the escalation of the water levels in Sundarbans due to climate crisis, but also is used by them in the conventional sense of the Bengali term “bhasai dilo” (flooded me), which essentially means abandonment. This is an emotion which is commonly experienced by the inhabitants of the brothel. They are abandoned by their nation, family, and even the almighty. The aforementioned news article condenses into a few lines the fear of and ignorance about climate change. Unconsciously, the interviewees comprehend the impact of the climate crisis on their individual lives. However, they are unable to recognise themselves as ecological refugees. The theoretical coinage “environmental refugee” and its ideation in 1976 continues to function within academic locales (Brown et al., 1976). The theoretical visibility of the phenomenon could not even assure a hasty change in policies. Only recently, in January 2020, has the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that “refugees fleeing the effects of the climate crisis cannot be forced to return home by their adoptive countries” (Rob, 2020). The new policy has its own limitations and fails to accommodate those who are forced to migrate within national boundaries due to climate crisis related loss in livelihood. The limited access to and impact of theoretical ideas permeates the historical truism of Amitav Ghosh’s description in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable of, “An ecological refugee long before the term [policy] was invented [implemented]” (2016, 9). This line underlines the incomprehension of the affected communities about climate crisis induced migration. Ghosh writes the line in relation to his family’s personal experiences. They were environmentally coerced to migrate in the 1850s from the banks of River Padma in (now) Bangladesh to the banks of River Ganga in Bihar, India as “the …river [Padma] suddenly changed course, drowning the village” (2016, 9). His family too were rendered ecological refugees much before they knew about the existence of any such term.
There is tremendous apathy towards acknowledging climate change as a cause that leads to trafficking-in-humans. The region under study here, Sundarbans, India and Bangladesh is the living example of how human trafficking is fuelled by climate change. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report of 2016 on trafficking for sex work states that in South Asia, human trafficking is one of the fastest growing transnational crimes, so much so that India and Bangladesh are the prominent sites of origin, transit, and destination for trafficked women, men, and children. In the whole of South Asia, India and Bangladesh alone account for the highest number of women who are being trafficked within and from the region, with most of them coming from the deltaic Bengal (Uddin, 2017). Only very recently have scholars [involved in studying human trafficking (Blanchet 2006, Vindhya and Dev 2010)] and policymakers taken notice of it and begun to initiate conversations about it. However, we still await concrete solutions to the problem by means of policy upgrading and improved implementation.
I thank the Tufts South Asian Regional Committee for the 2021 interdisciplinary panel on gender, labor and trafficking in South Asia moderated by Tathagata Dutta for the invitation to present my work and for their kind feedback and comments.
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