ON THE LAKHIYA

CHAPTER XII

It is just before the dawn.

Overhead the stars blink clear on a dead blue sky. The waning moon, low on its back, mirrors its silver light in every dancing wave of the great broad stream that Hows on ceaselessly into the night. The banks on either side rise black, studded with twinkling lights that gleam like eyes of fire. Beyond, on river and land, a faint white mist has fallen like a garment of sleep on a sleeping world.

The busy traffic of the river is stayed. The noisy hum of the teeming mart is stilled. Over all there has fallen the great Silence and the great Peace.

Unchecked, untrammelled, the river slips by, laughing as if with joy to be free. Like some refrain sung by a mother to the child at her breast, its ceaseless ripple breaks in upon the silence of the night, lulling a time-worn world to slumber. Gently lapping the banks on either hand, striving ever to rise higher and enfold them in its close embrace, it seems to murmur softly of the vanity of human life and wishes, as if it laughed, in its own great constancy, at the petty passing cares of men. On these same banks for centuries it has watched men come and go. It has seen great principalities and kingdoms rise and fall, the fleeting glories of a fickle world. On its broad bosom it has borne brave fleets and armies to victory and defeat. Now they rise but as ghostly memories out of the past. Their day has waned, and no man is mindful of their passing. Only the great river, through all the changing years, flows onwards, and as it ripples by it murmurs, half mocking, half consoling, its constant message and refrain. ‘Vanity, vanity, vanity,’ it seems to whisper, and again the oft-repeated ‘AH is vanity.’

Slowly the waning moon sinks out of sight, hidden behind the masts of the shipping that line the further bank. The clear dark waters throw back the light of a myriad stars that shine the brighter for the passing of the moon. A breathless silence enfolds the earth, as if reluctant to yield it to the coming day. Even the murmur of the river dies down to but the faintest whisper. That wonderful brief hush that comes before the dawn enfolds the world.

Only on the huge river steamers that lie at anchor beside the wharf away up-stream is there any sign of life. Lit with electric light, their great hulls stand out clear-cut against the lesser blackness of the night, illumined by the dazzling glare within. Here night is as the day. Innumerable dark forms passing from out the shadow across the radius of the light, like marionettes, move silently, crouched low beneath huge burdens. The clank of chains, the thud of burdens cast aside, the quick, hoarse cries of orders oft repeated, float ever and anon across the rippling waters, heard only like some faint stirring from another world, apart from the peaceful sleeping world of the river and the land.

Then suddenly, unseen, unheralded, there comes a strange, mysterious stirring in the air. It is as if the world were young again, when the stars of the morning sang together, and all the sons of G-od shouted for very joy of heart. All to the naked eye is as it was before, asleep. But to the ear attuned there comes the first faint sound of the awakening dawn. It is as if the Great Spirit breathed the breath of life upon the waiting earth, and bade the night awake. So faint it is, so mysterious, so all-enthralling, that as in a dream one knows and feels that which it is not given to the eye of man to see. To that sixth sense that[1] lies deep down in the unprobed depths of man, it makes its own most wonderful appeal.

The first great mystery of the coming dawn is past. The wonder of the unseen passes into the knowledge of things seen. A soft, cool breeze, grateful after the stillness of the night, sweeps over river and land. Every leaf on every tree leaps gladly to its coming, and sings aloud its song of thankfulness. The tall bamboos sway gracefully in its embrace and kiss the water’s edge. Eoused from their sleep among the branches, a crowd of mincis start the day with loud-voiced chattering and much ruffling of their dew-drenched plumes. Like evil revellers of the night, caught by the dawn, a company of rooks sweeps low over the face of the waters to their home among the poinsettia trees that overtop the buildings on the further bank.

A siren cry from one of the river steamers breaks the silence like a warning voice. Slowly, like a giant shaking aside his chains, it moves, with clatter, and shout, and groaning, free from its moorings against the bank. A dazzling flash from its searchlight throws clear its path before it, bathing the dancing waters of the river, the shipping, and the frowning mass of bank, in its weird, white, ghostly radiance. Defying the night, it makes the darkness light as the day; but, kinder than the day, while making all things clear, it lends to all a strange, mysterious charm. Even the row of boats, hideous by day, with corrugated iron roofs, shine out beautified, bright like silver, in the fantastic, unaccustomed light. Slowly the great steamer, its bulk magnified in the darkness behind the light, moves out into mid-stream, and, girding its strength, passes straight and purposeful out into the coming dawn.

A dead, pale grey light creeps out of the east, outlining the masts of the shipping that ride at anchor up-stream. The huge hulls of the sloops close at hand loom out black and phantom-like in the faint half-light, half-darkness of the dawn. Their masts and spars and rigging rise up clearcut against the lightening sky. The brilliant lights in the river steamers that still remain beside the landing-stage go suddenly out. The eyes of fire that here and there gleamed red from either bank have disappeared as if by magic. The world is a study in grey.

A blush rose pink creeps into the grey. The white mist that hangs beyond, where river and sky unite, melts ghost-like into the dawn. The stars blink sleepily in the face of the rising sun and one by one go out.

The world is suddenly awake. From under the shelter of the banks, where they have lain all night, tiny skiffs creep out into the stream, paddled by dark brown forms in the bows. Huddled close in their cotton cloths in the damp morning air, the fishermen make ready their nets against the long day’s work. Narrow goyua boats glide noiselessly down the stream. A dinghy unfurls its nut-brown sail and, catching the morning breeze, skims swiftly out of sight. A brig, heavy and age-worn, looking like some survival out of the past, begins to discharge its cargo of English salt into the iron-roofed warehouse on the wharf. The longdeserted banks swarm once again with the busy hive of men.

The sun arises like a giant refreshed with sleep. The shadows flee noiselessly to join the vanished forces of the night. The silver river dons new robes, reflecting every colour and shade of the coming dawn. Ked and orange and gold, purple and yellow and mauve, they break like waves on a boundless sea. Glory of dawn and wonder of night have met and merged in the day. Steadfastly the river flows on unheeding, yet throwing back every passing change as if accentuating its own constancy and the inconstancy of all besides.

The daily round of life has begun. It is the midst of the jute season, and Naraingunj is one of the busiest centres of its trade. Huge go-downs line the banks on either side, tin-roofed, red-bricked, ugly with all modernity, yet adding their note of life and colour to the scene. Tall chimneys tower behind them and huge cranes swing on the landing stages, symbols of the activity and stir of the busy mart. Solid, stone-built bungalows, screened by a wealth of trees from the water’s edge, or standing out boldly, set in shady garden or well-trimmed lawns of exquisite green, look out over the broad expanse of the river. Close anchored against the banks are boats innumerable of every size and kind, each intent on landing the burden of jute it has carried down from the low-lying fields up stream.

The river is alive with craft. Tiny black fishing boats that scarcely seem to touch the water, prow and stern high in the air, skim over the shining surface. Dinghies, with circular roof of thatch, skilfully propelled by a single oar-rudder, roughly tied near the bow with a piece of rope, pass on more slowly. A steamer, lithe and buoyant moves out into mid-stream, then steadies itself as it settles down to tow three of the huge ironroofed Hats that have lain like sleeping monsters under the lee of the wharf. A whole fleet of jute boats, mat-thatched, start slowly up the stream, rowed by oarsmen quaintly standing on platforms on the roof.

It is a fascinating scene. Every moment the interest changes as the launch leaves its moorings and picks its way along the crowded stream. The glory of the first morning hours is bathing the world in light. In the first clear brilliance of the day returned, the earth and river seem to palpitate anew with life, grow buoyant and sing with joy. The trim little steamer seems literally to dance upon the sparkling river as it rushes through, lashing it into a froth of foam and leaving its long broadening ripples on its surface like a lingering caress. On either hand it is historic ground. Hidden, forgotten in the noise and stir of the busy mart, memories still cling thick round these lower reaches of the Lakhiya, close by where the great rivers meet. But just below, the Meghna, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Dullasery, and the Ishamutti, all unite, and this meeting-place of the giant watercourses is the most historic spot in all Eastern Bengal. The many tides that have ebbed and flowed this way have seen strange scenes. Behind to the left lies the ancient kingdom of Yikrampur, with its memories of the famous Ballal Sen and the ruins of its once great capital of Rampal. Back but a short way to the right stretches the kingdom of Sonargaon, for centuries the centre of all interest in Eastern Bengal, today but a peaceful rural countryside, yet studded with the remains of its once great forts and palaces that, grass-grown and crumbling to decay, survive as fading memories of the past. Feringhi Bazaar, just below on the Ishamutti, recalls to mind the days of Portuguese adventure when these same rivers swarmed with seamen roving, in the true spirit of the age, in search of whatever enterprise might chance to hand. In their wake, learning from them new skill in navigation, came the Mughs, plundering, murdering, and laying waste, impudently defying the Mughal power. Close by, on both banks, stand the forts of Kalagachhia, Sonakunda, Tribeni, and Hajigunj, built by Isha Khan and Mir Jumla to drive back their fleets. From Hajigunj it was that Man Singh, Akbar’s great Eajput general, set out against them. It must have been a brave sight that the Lakhiya saw that day. A great fleet that covered the river for a mile on either hand had gathered here, huge ships manned by forty rowers with towering hulls, a forest of rigging and great sails, cumbersome, unwieldy, no match for the nimble craft of the Mughs when it came to a hand-to-hand encounter. But they won in the end by their very stolidity and strength, these great fleets of a great empire. Sonakanda, only the barest outline of its fort surviving, teems with memories of Isha Khan, last of the famous Afghan chiefs in Sonargaon, and of Sona Bibi, his heroic wife and comrade in the field. It was here that he, a follower of the Prophet, brought her, in the heyday of her youth and far-famed beauty, straight from Chandpur across the river, whence he had taken her by force, a Hindu child widow, the daughter of his deadliest foe. It was here in after years that, widowed again, the widow of Isha Khan, she defended her dead lord’s fortress against his foes, even though they were of her own kith and kin, making the city at last her funeral pyre rather than that it should fall into the enemy’s hands.

Further on up-stream, just as Naraingunj is left behind, stands the Kudam Easul containing the print of the Prophet’s foot, its huge gateway, massive and imposing, half hidden in a wealth of trees. Opposite, close by where the Hajigunj Fort once stood, still survive the mosque and mausoleum that Shaista Khan, the greatest of Viceroys, raised to the memory of his daughter Miriam Bibi, who died on her father’s state barge while it lay at anchor in the river. And so, on past the last of the huge jute go-downs, leaving the masts of the shipping and the stir of the busy port behind, one hurries onwards, away up-stream.

Out beyond, the years have wrought less change. So, save for the jute that everywhere meets the eye, might it have seemed to the Portuguese sailors as they looked out from over the prows of their high-pooped ships, scanning the horizon in search of adventure; or fair as it seemed to Miriam Bibi as she peeped from behind the silken curtains that screened the daughter of the Viceroy from the vulgar gaze. Tranquil and smiling, the most beautiful of all the rivers of Eastern Bengal, the Lakhiya stretches northwards straight and wide and rippling silver in the morning sun. The stream sweeps down a mighty current, straining to burst its bounds like a boy at school. It leaps and engulfs the overhanging branches of the trees that fringe the banks. For miles they stretch, a glorious jungle growth, untouched now as when in the days of their youth they first bent down their heads to listen to the song of the river. Banyan and nim and pepul, palas and mango and tamarind, they crowd rank on rank, thick like a wall of green. Here and there a palm towers up above the rest. A group of plantain trees, with their cool pale-green leaves, stands out, the purple sheaves of their buds a brilliant patch against the green. The delicate sprays of the willowy bamboos sway gently in the breeze, a study in exquisite form and grace. White sails belly and bend in the lap of the breeze. Brown sails throw their deep rich touch of colour on the scene. Blue sails flaunt their heads to heaven, putting the bluest of skies to shame.

For every pulse-beat of the plucky little steamer[2] as she gallantly ploughs her way up-stream there is some new glimpse. A high wooden bridge, frail but rustic, set in a background of trees, spans a tiny creek that joins the river, and over it a line of women passes slowly single file, balancing their waterpots upon their heads with typical Eastern grace. Nut-brown urchins play among the goats that browse contentedly on the lush green grass upon the banks. A herd of buffaloes squelches in the mud where the land lies low, a crowd of paddy-birds hovering near, fearless and alert to pick up whatever of insect life the cloven feet of the huge great beasts disturb. Well-thatched roofs and neat mat walls peep out among the trees with an air of opulence and comfort. For it is a fertile land, and jute has proved a source of much wealth to many. Living is dear on the banks of the Lakhiya, compared with Western Bengal, but wages are good and the standard of comfort is high. The talukdar, the petty zemindar, and the merchant sleep snug within trim homesteads or more pretentious houses of brick, that add their touch of opulence to the exuberant luxuriance of the tree-clad banks.

Under a huge banyan sits the Panchayet, administering village justice, inquiring into the rights and wrongs of some dispute that is agitating the little community, or discussing a sin against his caste which one of their number has committed. Two brothers, it may be, are quarrelling over their inheritance. The journey to court is long and the expenses many, and for once the brothers are wise. The President of the Panchayet is a just man and impartial. Who should decide better than he, the venerable old man in their midst, who has known them from their youth up and their father before them, and is fully conversant with the custom and rules of succession among them and theirs? What he decides will be right, and they have agreed to abide by his decision. Or it may be that the dispute is as to a boundary between neighbours, or a question of fishing rights in one of the numerous Jchals that branch off from the main river; or a man may have complained that another has forcibly cut and stolen his jute, and the case has been sent by the Court to the President to inquire on the spot where all the villagers know the facts of the case, and where the truth, concealed by many an art and subterfuge, is most likely to be found. A thousand and one things claim the attention of the Panchayet. Nothing is too small for it to be called upon to decide. Under the trees the village elders form a picturesque group, like patriarchs of old, recalling far-off early English days, when the Witenagemot deliberated on affairs of State in like primitive and informal way. The President rises and salaams with courtly grace as the steamer passes close beside the bank, a venerable Muslim figure with flowing beard and long white robes, the very personification of dignity and repose.

On past Murapara, with its handsome modern house built by a rich zemindar, one races up the stream. Ornamented in red and white, with its trim set trees and shrubs, its broad steps leading to the water’s edge, the house stands out a strange thing of modern days, thrust on the peace and oldworld beauty of the river. Behind, in sharp contrast, crumbling and lichen-grown, still stand the ruins of the palaces and mosques once peopled by the descendants of the haughty Shaista Khan, when the first days of the greatness of his house had passed and the last evil days were still far distant. Opposite, the Eupgunj Thana peeps out among the trees, mat-walled, tin-roofed, an unimposing outpost of the British Kaj. On the open space in front sits row on row of blue-coated, blue-and-white turbaned chowkidars, waiting with pleased anticipation the distribution of their three months’ pay. A picturesque group they make as their khaki-coated, red-turbaned duffadars move in and out among them, forming the first link in the mighty chain of British justice. The foundation-stone of our Indian administration, the chowkidar represents in every village the primitive and ever-present source of the greatness and majesty of the law.

A sudden bend of the river, a glimpse of rich red banks that rise up like the ruins of some old fortress crowned by a wealth of foliage, and again the ever-varying scene is changed. The brilliant sun, a ball of blazing fire, creeps high overhead. Giant betel-nut palms tower up against the sapphire blue of the sky, tall and stately, their tapering stems ending in a crown of spear-like leaves. For a space the banks are higher, and the river races by, baffled and kept in bounds, chafing to expand and embrace the fields that lie behind.

Bound the bend in the river the breeze freshens. A huge bepari boat, heavy laden with jute, lies low down in the stream, stolid and slow-moving. The rowers on the platforms on the mat-thatched roof cease toiling and lay aside the oars at the grateful touch of the wind. With noise and clatter and shouts, as if they made ready a man-of-war with the enemy already in sight, they unfurl the enormous sails that flap and stagger, then, catching the swell of the wind, fly taut, and the heavy lumberingboat, suddenly awake, leaps forward on its way. Every craft on the river follows suit, and, with sails spread full in the breeze, pulsates with life renewed. It is the last little note of beauty and grace, as when the painter skilfully plies his brush for the finishing touch ere he casts his palette aside. White sails, brown sails, sails patched and torn yet picturesque still in their last days as in their first, they crowd the river, each one straining at the ropes held taut in the grip of the breeze. The river is a pathway of hurrying life. Heavy boats, juteladen, that have crept along in the lee of the bank, slowly and with much toil, now sail out lightly in midstream to catch the swell of the wind, and speed on, stately and majestic, over the rippling stream. Tiny dinghies and jalkar boats, top-heavy with hastily rigged sails, sway and dance and skim over the laughing water like great white birds on the wing. Full of the joy of life and in a great content the river slips by, murmuring still that the great and wonderful present, the hour of life and duty, is slipping by, and that all besides is vanity. So on past Denga, with its busy market-place in full view from the river, where many of them that buy and sell gather from all the countryside. It is market day, and beneath the rough mat sheds one catches a glimpse of wares exposed, and the noise of loud-voiced bargaining floats out across the river. The native loves to haggle, and parts with his pice only after due deliberation and with much grudging. So the buyers and sellers make long talk though the sun beats high overhead.

It is almost noon. The sun strikes full on the river, making it flash in a blaze of dazzling light. Slowly the breeze dies down as if it grew weary in the all-pervading languor of the heat of the day. The tall cocoanut palms stand stiff and straight, their dignity unruffled by the faintest puff of wind. The sails on the boats flap lazily, and one by one fall limp. The heavier craft put in to the bank to await the return of the breeze or to let the heat of the day pass by before the rowers toil again at the oars. The trees on the banks stand motionless as if cut in stone. Not a leaf stirs, not a blade of paddy in the fields moves. The cattle lie in the shade, only their tails alive as they ceaselessly flick off the crowd of flies that worry them eternally. So for a time again life sleeps. Only the river flows onward, as steadfast and purposeful in the languor and heat of the day as in the silent watches of the night.

This is the broadest stretch of the stream away past Kaligunj, with its rows of jute godowns and boats of many kinds waiting for their burdens, all asleep now in the blazing light. Beyond, the banks lie low, and the river has long since burst its bounds and engulfed the fields on either hand. Save for the trees and the crops, it is hard to see where the river ends and the banks begin. A clump of bamboos stands out in the stream, a group of betel-nut palms rise up straight out of the river, mirroring their long light stems to greater height in the water at their feet. Patches of jute submerged look as if they floated on the flood. The paddy in the hidden fields throws up its fresh young shoots, struggling to raise itself above the water’s level.

Everywhere now there is evidence that jute is the predominating interest of the river and of those that dwell upon its banks. Here, where the land lies low, buried beneath the flood, one sees the full extent of its cultivation. Field after field of it stretches away, towering ten feet high in flourishing patches of rich dark green. The brief spell of rest in the heat of the day is over, and the river is alive with busy workers, standing kneedeep in the water as they cut the long shoots and bind them up in bundles. These, laid side by side, are left to steep in the shallows where the stream runs clear. There for days they lie, till the river has washed them through and through. Men and boys stand waist-deep out in the water, fixing them firm with bamboo sticks, that the stream may not carry them away. Huge straw-plaited hats on their heads, at once a protection from the sun and rain, the workers work with a will, their nut-brown bodies, bare save for a cloth about the waist, gleaming with heat in the sun.

Further on they are beating out the jute that has been sufficiently steeped. Peeling off the long white strips of fibre from the stalks, they wash it in the water, beating it, as a dJwhi washes clothes, then hanging it up on a bamboo rail to dry in the sun. All along the river-banks there are groups at work. The sharp, rhythmical thud of the coils of jute as they hit the water sounds like an accompaniment all the way up the stream.

Out of the west a mass of fleecy cloud has crept up unperceived, scarce dimming the joyousness of the day till it draws near the face of the sun. Soft white feathery clouds race over the sky, chasing one another like children at play. Grey clouds, slower and more sombre, follow in their wake, and a grateful shadow falls on river and land. The glaring heat of the sun is stayed. A sudden gust of tempestuous wind blows straight from east to west across the river. Eaindrops beat down heavily, till they make the face of the water splash in a thousand jets. The river breaks like a sea, and leaps in a thousand waves. The racing clouds roll on, and the sun escapes again like a giant released from the toils. Nothing remains of the April storm save a glorious freshness in the air. Sails leap up again to catch the fickle breeze. The water laughs and leaps on its way as if refreshed, and revels again in the sparkling light of the sun.

Slowly it draws to evening. A kingfisher flashes out across the stream, a glorious lithe vision of black and white, swoops suddenly and, with flutter of wing, splashes the smooth mirrorlike surface of the river, and is away again poised lightly on the air. A single sail, chasing the setting sun, glides on till it loses itself in the golden west. Slowly the cattle come down to the water’s edge to drink in the shadows under the trees. A tiny urchin leads them, with the air of a man and a staff just twice his length, demanding and obtaining unquestioning obedience. A herd of buffaloes wades far out into the shallows to revel full length in the cool of the stream. Only their great long plaintive heads rise up above the water’s level. The urchin, leaving the cattle, wades out and belabours their leader with his staff and, clambering fearlessly astride as the huge beast gets ponderously to its feet in the mud, he leads them slowly home.

Across the water, soft and low, there comes the call to prayer from the mosque beyond the trees. The cry of the muezzin rings out suddenly, like a challenge on the evening air, “There is but one God.” Throughout the East, the wonderful, mystic East, throbbing with the hopes and fears of its countless people, from a thousand mosques and villages the same call to prayer goes forth. At eventide, as the sun dies down and night begins to fall, the oft-repeated name of God floats out to reassure the Faithful. Long, weird, rising and falling in thrilling cadences, the cry vibrates upon the evening air and lingeringly dies away. On the bank close by a little company of villagers, hurrying home from the hat, laden with their purchases, hastily place their burdens on the ground and, looking towards Mecca, kneel reverently in prayer. Absorbed and forgetful for the moment of all else, with many genuflections, bending their foreheads to the ground, they repeat the magnificent confession and supplications of their faith. The oarsmen on the passing boats cease from their labours and, laying by their oars, kneel on the mat platform above the roof, their faces turned towards the west. A hush seems to have fallen over all the river. The earth lies still as if content to listen. Everywhere the voice of prayer and praise fills the world. All things cry aloud that there is but the one God of a great Faith, and that the work of His hands is good.

The sun sinks low. Focussed until now in one great ball of fire, it breaks suddenly, spread left and right in a blaze of colour over the west. Sapphire and topaz and pearl, opal and amethyst and onyx, it blends them all in a glorious blaze of light. Faithfully the river mirrors them back. One moment[3] a shimmer of gold, the next a leaping column of fire, it pales at last to orange and mauve and grey. The river itself grows almost still. PJucid and calm it seems to rest from its strenuous race. Subduing its murmur as the world prepares for slumber, it grows limpid and clear like a lake revealing itself deep down. The hot impetuous rush of its youth in the dawn has gone. Its mocking note is hushed, lost in the great peace that its scarce-moving stream bears softly on its bosom. Even as it moves, the river seems to sleep. The cares of the day have fallen away down stream. They grow far off, unreal, like things of a dream. The petty strivings and the paltry ambitions of men fade out of sight in the length and breadth and depth of this twilight world. It is needless longer for the river to murmur that all is vanity, for the vanity of the world is already far behind. Its message is all of quietness and peace. Men and nations and empires come and pass, but on the broad bosom of the river there is for all time forgetfulness and rest.

The palm trees cast long shadows out into the stream. Tiny fishing-boats shoot out like long black lines against the paling river, the naked black figures propelling them clear cut like an etching. Dark, silent, with a fascinating air of mystery, they glide by into the night. Across the river there comes the first short, sharp cry of a jackal. A dog in the village close by barks at the coming night. Fires, one by one, gleam out on either bank. The sky is rilled with a thousand stars that watch the world asleep. Slowly a great peace falls over all, and river and land grow still. And so at last there comes a little folding of the hands to slumber, a little pillowing of weary heads to sweet forgetfulness, ere the long Indian day of toil begins anew.

[1] Photography: 1 Landing Jute At Naraingunj And 2 Naraingunj

[2] In the last edition, here was two photographies entitled 1 a fishing-boat on the lakhiya, and 2 homeward bound at evening

[3] Photography: On The Lakhiya

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