It is heartwarming to look back and reminisce about an audacious yet loving childhood friend, yes, one of my most intimate ones. Can you guess who?
Perhaps not, but I urge you to be patient, dear reader. I will unfold for you the sentimental journey into my childhood days spent in the sylvan, pastoral environment of Bengal, now Bangladesh.
The lush greenery of paddy and jute fields was all around. We had to trek almost 2 to 3 miles to reach our school from home. Our ancestral house was located just on the banks of the river Padma which was as wide as a sea, violent and virulent during monsoons, flooding the entire region under 15 to 20 feet of water. Boats were the only feasible means of transport during those months. But during the winter months, the same river would look like a slim and soft-spoken loving lady, gently singing a lullaby as it were! Many, many hours of our childhood and adolescent years were spent with this moody lover-river who was our constant companion and friend.
Every morning, I used to take a walk eastward along the banks of Padma to enjoy the sunrise with my neighborhood friends. The multihued beauty of the eastern sky was a sheer joy and absolutely enchanting. We spent even the sunset hours on the river side, watching the bewitching sky painted pink and orange. As if this wasn’t enough, around noon time, we headed to the river again. It is difficult for city-dwellers to imagine, but even as very young boys, we learned how to swim in this massive river, taking our swimming lessons from this “tutor” river and the practical wisdom of some of the older friends and siblings.
Several of us, a bevy of friends, took our daily baths in the river. We often swam up to a small, sandy alluvial island in the middle of the river, locally called the “char.” Once on the char, I remember playing many fun games that we made up, and when tired, took short naps in the warm sun before swimming back. Such were the idyllic days of my childhood, connected intimately with the river Padma!
But can you believe that this river who we loved as a dear friend and whose lap we played in – affectionate and kind-hearted as a mother, was traditionally also called “Kirtinasha” (destroyer)? Padma changed her course every year or two, and thus she was a habitual breaker of the river-banks, her immense waters devouring habitats, homes, temples and towers situated on its shores as she moved. There was nothing else to do except surrender to her whims, there was no escape from her capricious journey. Even the large home of our joint-family is now resting in peace in the watery womb of this fiercely aggressive lady!
A few enduring and endearing memories of Padma still shine bright in my mind. The entire east-west riverine stretch near our house was on the steamer route. Fairly large, double-decker steamers, carrying passengers, mail, even goods used to ply from Goalando to Chandpur, and to Madaripur and back everyday. Other important towns on these routes were Narayangaj and Munsiganj.
These steamers had interesting bird names such as Kiwi, Ostrich, and Emu – flights of fancy indeed! Some other steamers had poetic names such as Moment and Masud. Mail steamers had fewer halts and were faster than the passenger ones.
The food served on the passenger steamers was delectable – the chicken or fresh Hilsa/Ilish fish curry with rice that was served on board (of course on payment), was very famous and popular. In recent times, it has inspired an entire genre of gourmet cuisine of steamer dishes – the Goalondo steamer chicken curry has assumed a folkloric cult status!
Adjacent to our house was Tarpasha, a junction station where all varieties of vessels would stop. We used to spend a good part of our spare time of the day in the Tarpasha steamer station, a veritable leisure-cum-pleasure haunt. There were a number of makeshift shops selling tea, cookies or biscuits, omelettes, rasgullas and sundry sweets, all tempting our taste buds. We flocked there whenever we heard the whistle of arriving steamers. It was as if the steamer was calling us, and although we had no real purpose, we showed up there along with the crowds who arrived to greet their relatives getting off the steamers, or to say goodbye to the departing ones. And we too dispersed when the crowds thinned. Altogether a thrilling experience for our young, adolescent minds – these whistling vessels that arrived sailing on the water, docking and departing again.
Another common mode of transport in that area was boats – small ones for local travel and big ones nicknamed “Goina,” for longer distances and interdistrict journeys. Such journeys were often from one bank of the river to the other, across the river through the night. Many times, starting from Bikrampur in the Dhaka District, I would travel overnight with my family to Madaripur in the Faridpur District on the other bank of Padma, although not always the safest, with risks of pirate attacks!
I remember the sweet and soft romance of Padma. With the gradual deepening of darkness after sunset, and the magic of the starry skies, we could hear the boatmen at the oars on the river, singing their hearts out. They sang the lilting Bhatiali boat songs of rural Bengal, singing of separated lovers, fervently yearning for reunion. I grew up listening to the sounds of these beautiful and uniquely traditional Bengali folk songs wafting in from the river every night.
My romance with Padma ended when I migrated to Kolkata for higher education, and my jilted lover took her revenge! The temperamental lady changed her course once again, and devoured our ancestral home. And thus my entry visa to visit Bikrampur was suspended forever.
My tribute to Padma is this nostalgic song I wrote much later, and it was recorded by the well-known singer Anup Ghosal: Bari Amar Padma-r Paar
I traveled far and wide in my later life – all over India, and to many countries of the world, both east and west, but never have I seen a river like Padma anywhere. Furious and serene, whimsical and faithful, nurturing and destroying. Such an audacious beauty!