Once the monsoon has receded, rice harvested and the currents in the river turned, salt water permeates into the river, the khaals and adjoining fields. Suitable fish are grown and harvested in these fields and the river teems with saltwater life.
In the colder months post monsoon many fishermen take to catching bagda chingdi fry from the river. These are sold to distributers and cultivators. Many fisher folk grow these fry to about an inch, in shallow tanks in their homes. They fetch a better price. This variety of prawn grows to a large size and is high in demand. One grown prawn can fetch up to a thousand rupees.
During the current summer months, the focus shifts to the mochi chingdi. As we move along the riverbank we see men, women and children with their torsos gliding in the water. Some emerge out of the river and sit hunched over panfuls of water, in energetic scrutiny. Others strike deals with men wearing pants and shirts.
Bijoy Shikhari swims in shallow waters while his friends segregate his catch on the embankment. He enjoys school and fishing in the river during holidays. He isn’t afraid of the water.
Some days, he sets off to the middle of the river on a boat and dives into the deep for a swim. But the lines across the river, hanging from the shoulders of electrical giants; if they break and fall, a lot of people will die. He is not afraid of it. However, he does not go near them because when he looks up, they are very, very high and he does not like it.
He doesn’t fight with his elder sister Sunita. His eldest sister Sangeeta has been married off a long time now.
The river as a goddess? People believe many different things; he is just cool with it.
After Bijoy helps us collect water from the river, we are introduced to his catch for the day. Mochi chingdi: transparent wisps with dark eyes visible against his white shallow pan. Discerning eyes quickly separate out the desired meen. All along the embankment, batch after batch flows in quick succession, water and other fry spilling on the stone pitching. Though many fisher folk could be seen along stretches of the bank engaging in this activity, they say that the catch has become meagre. The going rate has also fallen to less than a rupee from two. A distributor has been scouting for fry on the bank all afternoon and has had little luck.
A little upstream we find another exchange happening. A woman sits with two earthen pots by her side, some stones in hand. A red cloth spread over a shallow vessel with a man hunched over it. He takes out spoonfuls of water from it, counts the nearly invisible fry and pours it into a large plastic container. He calls out the total number of fry each time he transfers them. The woman moves a stone into one of the pots making it four, when he pauses at four hundred fry. The deal is made for eighty paisa a piece. A few steps away, near the peepal a sale is made for ninety paisa a piece. The distributor may then sell one for as much as ten rupees.
Naem Ali has been buying and distributing mochi chingdi fry for fifteen years. It is one of his many seasonal occupations. He describes how the fry are transported in five litre cans to the city from where the chingdi is sent afar, even to Bangladesh. The number of fish available has fallen by a lot, he says. Why? The flows have reduced. Then he sheepishly adds, “We catch tens of thousands of fish during the summer months. Maybe lakhs. Catch will obviously fall.”
There was a time when this business was not practiced and such a time might come again. While it lasts, he would like to make the most of it. It helps pay for his children’s education and he hopes that once they are settled, the family will not have to struggle anymore.
Where there is bare insulation to nature’s cycles, lives are led to the rhythm of seasons. Even within what may seem like changing conditions, some find stability in the rhythm of their lives. According to Jharni Haldar, the river is as it has been. The brick kilns have not expanded. The good water at the kilns’ hand pumps has not changed. It has been like this since she was little.
The rain sweetens the water in her fields, nearby khaals and the river every monsoon. The land would then be ripe for rice cultivation. They shall sow a variety of vegetables as well. The pukur near the house would be refreshed with stores for the rest of the year. Freshwater fish will be released into these ponds, mostly rooee and katla. The family shall consume most of this fish through the year. The river will bring with it the ilish maach. Many consider it a favourite and it is known for fetching a good price in the market.
She was born here. So was he, so were the children.
Her grandson was born in Kolkata though.
The land on which her home is built used to be full of large pits. When the road was built right by the house, excavated soil was used to level the family land. Now, the house is good. The water still floods their house during high tide in the monsoons though. It happens in June, like it did a few days ago, and is bound to happen again in August. The flooding persists for just four days a year, they say, it is not a big deal. The family camps on the road for then. Some others take shelter in the village school.
Speaking of our journey, we tell her that we are here to listen and learn, that we mean no harm. She reassures us that she is not afraid. She and her family work hard to have food. What is there to fear?
Moving Upstream is our homegrown project, a four-month walk along the Ganga from the sea to the source being undertaken by Siddharth Agarwal. He is accompanied by a team of researchers and and film-makers that is working to create a multifaceted experience revolving around the river. For more from the project visit: www.veditum.org/moving-upstream