The Fisherman

Bangladeshis have a greater awareness of local geography than they used to. Years ago it was not uncommon in Dhaka, when I’d say I was headed for Hatiya, for people to reply, ‘Hatiya – Sandwip’, not fully appreciating the two islands are distinct and quite far from each other, notwithstanding that many Hatiyans have Sandwipian ancestry. Years ago in Dhaka my travel plans met with trepidation: people from the islands faced cyclones, those areas were remote. People from the islands were tough and brave.

In Hatiya’s case it might be more accurate to use ‘open-hearted’ in place of ‘tough’, but it’s not altogether incorrect to speak of bravery. Think for a moment of the island’s fishermen.

Imagine spending up to ten days at sea at a time in small locally-constructed wooden trawlers, hoping the wood is strong enough to withstand the pounding of the waves when things get rough; hoping the fuel and supplies have been judged to last. Imagine being mindful of the meagre economic reward that, with luck, the nets will bring: needed to sustain the family. Think of facing waves as high as mountains, with deep valleys between them, so the fishermen describe: when all to be seen ahead is a vast wall of water. The Bay of Bengal is not always kind.

It’s quite an experience to sit in the tea shops along the Hatiyan coast and listen to the sea tales that bring the place such life. There’s a Hemmingway in each of those fishermen, if truth be told; in their daily duties.

In one such tea shop last Eid I was bickering as it happened with the shopkeeper over the size of the cups. He was using those tiny ceramic ones when any condensed-milk-tea connoisseur knows to prefer the glasses with the convenient larger handles. Indeed, the shop had only five cups and as the customers were many we were obliged to take turns: but that’s another matter.

I was explaining to the shopkeeper that while I liked his shop, I’d have to bring along a really good-sized cup to properly enjoy my tea, referencing the several-litre plastic water container nearby. ‘It should be at least that size,’ I said. All the customers laughed, the shopkeeper included, probably thinking it might take half the tea in Sylhet to make the proposed cup of tea.

There was a fisherman among us, Siddique. He’s an ordinary looking villager with nothing about his appearance to distinguish him. What was far from ordinary, at least outside the Bangladeshi coastal fishing communities, was the experience he relayed.

Siddique had been out at sea on one occasion, he told, when, as happens all too regularly in the waters of the Bay, his vessel was attacked by pirates. The problem was they didn’t just steal the catch but the trawler as well. Siddique found himself along with his crew mates thrown overboard into the sea. He was lucky. While most of the others drowned, Siddique along with two of his friends managed to find a bamboo pole that the pirates had discarded from the trawler. The three of them clung onto it as a buoy, somewhere far from the shore.

Day turned into night and still they hung on, facing down each and every wave that came by. Night turned into day, and again to night… for six days it lasted, the floating and not knowing if anyone would ever come. For six days they’d had nought but their belief in Allah to sustain them; for six days only each other to give encouragement. It was then a boat, perchance, spotted them in the water. They were transported to the safety of the Chittagong port.

In the west there is sometimes a misconception that the poor are out to get every penny they can, which comes about from trying to imagine but not having experienced that level of need. In Bangladesh it is commonly understood that more often it’s the reverse: that it’s the least financially well-endowed that can harbour extraordinary generosity towards their fellow man. The crew of the random rescue trawler, hardly rich themselves, fed Siddique and his friends. They donated the fares for the ship ride home to Hatiya. They set them right to rejoin their families.

Siddique was fortunate. He returned, that time. And then in the course of life, but of course, he set about finding a new trawler to take him back to sea to face again the mountain-waves and valley-troughs, the strenuous labour and possibly pirates. In Australia someone who’d survived such an ordeal would be championed in the newspapers. In Bangladesh newspapers could feature a ‘Siddique’ story every day for a year and not be done with the fishermen of Hatiya. And then there’s Bholans and Sandwipians and Monpurans; all the fishing districts along the entire Bangladeshi coast. In Australia people have been called ‘heroes’ for surviving such things; in Hatiya it’s that usual bravery of necessity the islanders call ‘life’.

Then I come in, in the tea shop, with all the stupid questions only somebody who hasn’t any experience with such matters could conjure. ‘Weren’t you scared?’ I asked: the answer obvious. ‘Were there sharks?’ and ‘What did you do for water?’ I was thinking in particular that drinking salt water can dehydrate and lead to an earlier death. Siddique didn’t know how to respond; they’d been surrounded by water, and I understood from his facial expression that I’d missed a point somewhere. I didn’t know what made the question redundant.

The next day I understood. I was wandering outside the embankment that lines the Hatiyan coast, in the area the locals refer to as ‘the garden’. There I saw rice fields, the most common element to the local scenery and unremarkable; but suddenly I realised, quite incredibly, that those rice plants were growing in the tidal zone. They were being watered by the sea!

Though the southern shore of the island faces the Bay of Bengal, Hatiya sits at the mouth of the Meghna Mega-River, and incredibly, the amount of water discharged during the monsoon period overwhelms the immediate vicinity of the Bay to the point where the level of salt in the solution is diminished enough to grow rice, but only of the rajashail rice variety so I learnt, and only in the monsoon months. It was the answer to the question: for water Siddique had needed only to open his mouth.

What’d been most startling about Siddique’s account was the way he’d delivered it. Like the other fishermen I’ve heard speak of such events, and though it was clear his experience was significant to him, there was far much too much normality about his narration. Then too he thought of others: he told of an occasion when his crew had come across a woman floating in the Bay. She’d been washed out to sea during a cyclone and, Siddique made a point of this, ‘she’d been out there for eight days.’ It was almost as though his six wasn’t enough. Worse things have happened…

Imagine that lady, probably busying herself these days, quietly back at home, making roti, cutting vegetables, feeding straw into her clay oven to cook rice … common activities of many a Hatiyan lady’s life. Sometimes, now and then, she’d probably remember the eight days she floated on the sea; but mostly she’d be attending the daily chores. She’d be leading a straightforward life, thinking of others.

A few days later I returned to the tea shop; I sat with my friends as usual and ordered tea. The shopkeeper went about making it, as usual, and soon put in front of my friends the regular offering. Then he returned with mine. Guess what, he’d found the largest cup available, the plastic lid of his thermos flask, and filled it almost to the brim with piping tea. It took a good half an hour to wade through it; like a bowl it was, hard to lift. Everybody took humour from my wish fulfilled.

Note to self: remember Siddique the fisherman’s survival when clinging onto the bamboo pole that in one of its innumerable forms presents itself to all of us at some time in life. Note to self: it’s best to take Hatiyan tea cups as they come.

Need a little update on Siddique the fisherman?

Here's a bit more village life and something else about tea.

This article is also published in Star Magazine, here: Braving the Waters

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