I often say I have never seen a more cruel April than that of 1991 when the cyclone hit the coast of Bangladesh devastating so much. Those who saw the cyclone of 1970 may well disagree and some may even say that during the war in 1971 there were many such instances. I agree but 1971 deaths had a cause-effect-objective relationship, even a purpose. I didn’t see 1970 cyclone first hand but I am sure those who did will remember it that way.
1970 also had a political dimension. The neglect shown by the Pakistanis towards East Pakistan including the cyclone victims became a major factor in the electoral event that triggered the final phase to Bangladesh.
However, there is nothing grand that can be tagged to the 1991 cyclone except its banality and capacity to destroy. It just killed, maimed and destroyed lives of many with little chances of recovery. Seeing dead bodies on the sea shore as far as eyes can see is a sight no one will forget or even understand. And the question that haunts me still. Why?
We reached Chittagong as part of regular work in late March and parked there for long. It was very mundane as I was staying at Hotel Agrabad and life for me was there about going to work and returning to the room. Watched a massive lot of TV and read books but not much else. I knew no one in the city or got in touch. Finally, I was asked to move to Cox’s Bazar to continue the work and I happily did.
I reached the town late but a young friend –Duke- greeted me. It was our first meeting but he was very friendly. He was a great movie buff. My protégé and colleague Qurattul Tahmina was the contact and I was glad to have company. After I booked into the hotel he took me around in his jeep to the beach. I saw a wondrous sight.
The beach was peppered with many many oil lamps and lit up the area with thousand points of light. Duke was giving me his movie scenario, a pan shot covering the entire beach sparkling with speckled lamps. We walked forward and saw many little children near the lights.
Duke pointed to the sea hugging the shores. In knee deep water, men and some women stood quietly in the sea holding nets of a kind. They seemed like farmers tilling sea soil.
These were shrimp egg collectors. The nets would catch them and these people would bring it to their children who then sifted through the sand and weeds and put the eggs into a pot. Hard, wretchedly back breaking work. Work for the poor who have not many options.
A little girl with the most beautiful possible smile looked up at us. She must have been about six years old. Her body was bare, and she sat and worked and just watched us. A flimsy rag was the only protection of the lamp as the wind blew in from the sea.
I never carry cameras so I asked Duke to take a picture of the girl. He asked her, she agreed and just sat there and watched us as he clicked away. I will not forget that smile. He gave me the contact prints. The girl looked as lovely as the night sea lit by stars.
I was directly attached to the Immunization programme so even as the sea got rougher the day before the cyclone hit I had to move back. I was also desperately missing my family whom I hadn’t seen in over a month. I took a plane to Dhaka, saw my wife and 4-year-old, and spent an hour at home and then went off to Bogra by car. The night the cyclone hit I was far away and only saw few drops of rain in Bogra.
By the morning the office had asked me to proceed to Chittagong immediately. So within hours I was back on the road. The ferry was a mess with traffic but we managed to return and then again a briefing in Dhaka and off to Chittagong and Cox’ Bazar.
My memories of Chittagong were of the dead trees, huge and so utterly human looking, as if a procession of venerable old men had died and were lying in state. We passed through the carnage and pushed on after a night’s halt.
I will not describe what I saw at Cox’s Bazar but that I was more puzzled, more overwhelmed by shock than any other emotion. I can understand 1971 but how does one explain so many meaningless deaths, understand what happened. Nature offers no explanation because nature is the first cause and the first effect and nature knows it’s not about why. To grasp nature is beyond us I guess, we can only understand that it is grandly indifferent to our ponderings.
I never forgot the girl and looked for her. The shrimp farmers were all gone and no one knew where. There I met a man, a man with a strange profession. His work was to announce by megaphone all disaster news and also collect malaria blood samples. He would go around on foot making the calls. I told him that I was looking for a girl and offered some compensation. He refused it but promised to look for her. Everyday he religiously described the girl and asked if people had seen or knew her.
About 6 months later he sent me a note. “Dear Sir, no such girl was found. They are probably gone. Forget them. Find peace. Om mani padma hom.”
Still looking for that girl after all these years.