Winner : Terrain.org 6th Annual Nonfiction Contest
Selected by Scott Russell Sanders
Once, up on the alluvial banks of the mudflat, we gathered to watch the water rise.
An essay may begin “Once upon” when it takes as its subject: time. Or, in the case of this essay, “Once, up_on” is a way to begin writing about an historical topography, a text that reminisces about past elevations. No longer a naïve commencement for fictions (in Bengali, it goes “Ek deshe chhilo…” meaning “In some country, there was…”), “Once, up_on” jettisons nostalgia for fact: a sinking land is a shrinking land.
Seated on a bus en route to the southern Bangladeshi river port of Khulna, I am offered a newborn. “Please hold?” I am asked. It’s been a while since I’ve held a baby, and it shows. She groans at my lack of confidence, bucking her head against the slack geometry of my cradle arms. The bus climbs the ramp to a ferry slip and parks. The bus driver thrusts the handle, and the door opens. One of the ferrymen doubles as muezzin as he calls the passengers to Asr prayer. The bus driver is beneath me now, kneeling on the cement margin between bus and ferry rail. He is kneeling and then he is prostrate. In time, he is kneeling again. He is synchronized with his passengers, all oriented toward the port-side qiblah. I hoist the restless baby to the window, hoping that if she sees her praying grandfather, she will settle.
Our aerial view of a dozen bowed scalps, many covered by identical knit skullcaps, renders him indistinguishable. The ferry moves at 18 knots, floating across the swift convergence of the Padma and Jamuna Rivers. When I look away from the window, I feel it flowing into my left shoulder. I watch the baby, her fluttery lashes dark as if brushed with mascara.
A Bangladeshi newborn has a life expectancy of 70 years, meaning this one might just barely outlast the drowning land in which she was born. Projection is genre-neutral. Consider the meteorologist’s “80 percent chance of precipitation.” Only time will tell if it’s just hydrohyperbolism.
I arrived in Bangladesh on January 21, 2015 just as the 114th United States Congress voted on a slew of amendments to S.1, the Keystone XL Pipeline Act. After a decade of congressional infighting about the reality of climate change, senators agreed to vote on an amendment that would, once and for all, “express the sense of Congress regarding climate change.” Ninety-eight senators concurred “climate change is real and not a hoax.” Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker was the sole politician who managed to steel his denial.
This amendment means that, as an American, I no longer sound like a hypocrite when I ask questions about climate change: How far up_on? (i.e., Δ meters?), How past was “once”? (i.e., Δ years?).
The grandfather returns with a smile embedded deep in his facial hair. The oranges he peels are made invisible by the backdrop of saffron beard. He drops the zest into the bus aisle among shattered peanut shells. The citric scent is a temporary reprieve from the ubiquitous brine of fish carcass and body odor. He trades me a peeled orange for the return of his granddaughter. Many kilometers later, even after the bus has sped away from the riverbank, my arms continue to perfect the cradle, now only holding an iPod.
Every 15 minutes, the bus passes through a village or bazaar. Undulating crowds follow a man—there’s one in every village—who spits political vitriol through a megaphone. Collectively, they are trying to impose a transportation blockade across Bangladesh by firebombing buses, lorries, and boats, even derailing passenger trains. A man thumps the aluminum beneath my window with an umbrella. Earlier, men who had been shoveling rubble onto the train tracks hurled rocks at us. The driver divides the crowds with a continuous blow from the air horn.
Elsewhere, in Dhaka, the opposition leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Khaleda Zia, is confined to her office. Security forces have formed a cordon at all exits, awaiting Zia’s reversal of the debilitating hartal. After two sleepless nights in a guesthouse on Dhaka University’s campus—a couple floors above the flinging of Molotov cocktails and hand grenades—I am much looking forward to the isolation of the mangrove forest.
On either side of the road to Khulna (the port of embarkation), tubewells and low-lift pumps burst water over green paddies. Agricultural workers bundle jute stems in fields lined with coconut palms. Near Mollahat, the driver stops for fuel. From my window, I see two Bangladeshi boys swimming in a pond. The older boy dunks the other—a brother or friend. The smaller boy disappears through the surface of the water for an uncomfortable interval. I hold my own breath as I wait for him to emerge. The younger boy wails, begins wading toward the bank for escape, but the older boy makes a convincing apology. They stay in the pond, and I watch them skeptically. From the bus window, my vantage is that of a lifeguard stand. After three summers as an ocean lifeguard, the impulse to blow a whistle at the older boy has become automated. I remove my emergency whistle from my camera case, let it dangle from my fingers. Whistle is a universal language of alarm.
Once, I blew my whistle at a young father who was fake-drowning his son. “Were you whistling at me?” he asked defensively. “Yessir,” I said with public servant assertiveness. “We can’t have that. You two may just be going through the motions of drowning, but from here, I’m obliged to treat it like the real thing.” The son nodded at me, grateful I think.
By the time the bus engine starts, the Bangladeshi boys are water wrestling again. The younger boy is dunked repeatedly like a biscuit into tea, becoming soggier with each dip. I open the window, put the whistle to my lips, and cup the cavity. I hesitate long enough to remember the baby asleep next to me.
“You can’t hesitate,” my lieutenant had told me during my one and only whistle-blowing lesson (Day 1 of Rehoboth Beach Patrol). “When it comes to another person’s life, there’s nothing wrong with a false alarm.” The bus leaves the station, and residual air peeps through the whistle. The palms, the pond, the boys all disappear.
Bangladesh, size of Iowa, has a population half that of the United States. During monsoon, the deluge saturates the water table. The landmass shrinks to Louisiana proportions, and farmers flee to the megacity capital, Dhaka.
Over half of Dhaka’s seven million people dwell in the slum complex. The number is expected to triple by the end of the century as climate change continues to accelerate urbanization. Days before, walking through an interminable corridor, a man asked me, “Come from?” I crouched to see inside his aluminum walls—a scant 50 square feet of shadow, crushed brick, and limbs. Flanked by two bashful daughters who clung to his biceps, the man asked again. “Where come from?” It was a gender-inverted replica of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. “America,” I say. “U-S-A?” he verifies. I nod. “Where do you come from?” My reciprocal question is met with reticence. I know he is likely a domestic climate refugee. “We say it is not there anymore,” the man says. “It does not exist anymore. For us, it does not exist.” Ek deshe chhilo…
“It’s too late for us… and so we are the canary,” said i-Kiribati President Tong. It is a powerful metaphor when considering the canary’s sacrificial utility in service to coalmining, the same fossil fuel that has exacerbated sea-level rise in atoll nations like Kiribati or Maldives. The latter’s average elevation is 1.5 meters (about the height of Danny DeVito). At least when the land disintegrates, though, a canary can take flight.
As the United Nations hesitates to redefine refugee, Earth’s lowest-lying people (ni-Vanuatu, Tuvaluan, et al.) watch the water rise: SOMEONE WHO, OWING TO A WELL-FOUNDED FEAR OF BEING [DROWNED] FOR REASONS OF [TOPOGRAPHY], IS OUTSIDE OF THE [DESH] OF HIS NATIONALITY, AND IS UNABLE TO, OR OWING TO SUCH FEAR, IS UNWILLING TO AVAIL HIMSELF OF THE PROTECTION OF THAT [DESH].
Desh as in “country” as in “my [desh] ‘tis of thee” as in “ask not what your [desh] can do for you, but what you can do for your [desh] (and/or another [desh])” as in Bangla-desh, the country where they speak Bangla, the –desh which seems to get bigger and bigger, each passing kilometer, my bus-window-blink odometer, but in fact, the –desh whose centimeters annually vanish with the encroachment of its 18 tides. I arrive in Khulna at sunset.
I board the R. B. Emma just as the time-obsessed muezzin calls from his mosque minaret. Solo fishermen, who had been careering toward the market, let their oars flatten against the sides of their rowboats. They kneel to pray Maghrib as their boats are reversed by the current, drifting away from destination, bobbing in the wake of the southward barges on the Rupsha River.
The Sundarbans tour begins at low tide. It’s blue hour, and the silhouette guide introduces himself as Emu. He gestures to the captain and the cook, and finally to the only other tourist aboard, an eminently reasonable Australian named Bruce.
The last time I tried to make this trip in May of 2013, it was postponed due to the arrival of Cyclone Mahasen. “CNN says 200,000 people are in the process of evacuating Southern Bangladesh,” my mother relayed. “Why go to a place everyone else is trying to leave?” When flights over the Bay of Bengal were cancelled, I was forced to remain in Myanmar’s Inle Lake.
In “Imaginary Homelands,” Salman Rushdie writes:
It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity. The writer who is out-of-country and even out-of-language may experience this loss in an intensified form…
The loss of a homeland as vast as past creates a universal diaspora; who, since before Mayan haab, has ever lived outside of time? I imagine a quartz mechanism compelling a massive second hand to sweep over a canvas world map, each second expatriating us over and over again. Rushdie’s case for “once up_on” privileges the visitor because of her “physical discontinuity…” which enables her “to speak properly and concretely on a subject of universal significance and appeal.” After years of unsurety, the needling anxiety of my outsider-in relation to the subject matter of Bangladesh—nearly forfeiting my pen to TSA along with my box cutters, ice picks, and meat cleavers—Rushdie so casually extends license to the visitor. It’s a visa that always and never expires.
I am constantly reminding myself that I am not just visiting a place, but also a moment.
The captain points across the starboard deck to a random whirlpool beneath our ship. I think he is simply trying to point out the cross-current waters, but he’s emphatic that I keep watching. Eventually, a dolphin emerges from the eddy. Air gusts from the nostril on top of its head. “Susu,” the captain says, an onomatopoeia.
Dusk now, the boat still streaking toward the forest, the captain turns on the generator. I am beneath the deck in a cozy cabin, sipping tea as the generator’s propane fumes diffuse through the air. Emu visits with a map of the Sundarbans, more detailed than the ones I’d ever clicked through on Google. He touches his fingertips to our many awaiting destinations, scooting it along the Rupsha River, which becomes the Passur. “We’ll drop the anchor around here tonight,” he says, his finger jittering over Monghla, the last fishing village before the reserve. Beneath Monghla, he pokes at distributaries, channels leading to forest stations. He taps a sea beach, a watchtower, islands and coast guard stations, and most southerly, coastal grasslands overlooking the Bay of Bengal. I pump hot water over a used tea sachet while Emu nestles in his mattress. I study the map, which, without Emu’s guiding finger, becomes cryptic again. I am perplexed by the plasticity of its myriad channels. The tides swell even within the paper’s gloss. The captain turns off the generator without warning, and I sleep alongside the baffling map.
I wake several times to the boat’s mild bob. We’re above the silt bed anchor and below dark zenith. Through a sliver of window I’ve kept open, I see the articulation of familiar constellations. And yet, the previous nights’ insomnia lingers. During their 1971 liberation war, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called Bangladesh a “basket case,” and since then, this one-off remark has been used repeatedly as a litmus test for the state of governance in the country. I recall the man who wielded an umbrella beneath my bus window, his gritted teeth and heavy thump. It’s the stuff of political satire—the obsolescence of the umbrella, now reassigned as a weapon for a fraught political climate only. I imagine the battered umbrella in the corner of his bedroom now, his wife’s wide eyes as he snores.
The captain’s wristwatch tracks the tides. We anchor at Monghla before midnight, where the captain sets his alarm. The channels that are sealed at low tide reopen when it’s high.
I spent three summers informally studying the Atlantic Ocean from the lifeguard stand, contemplating climate change. Twice a day, the changing tide triggered the delusion that this could be it—the spontaneous (not incremental) incursion of sea-level rise. Beyond my limited horizon, I sensed the apocalyptic calving of freshwater glaciers, the melt-and-gush of ice caps, a continent in a state of retreat due to greenhouse radiation.
The Gangotri Glacier, one of three primary sources for the headwaters of the Ganges River, rises up to 7,000 meters. From peak (see Δ as mountain) to bay (see Δ as delta), there is a finite difference (see ∆ as ‘change in’) of 7,000 meters. The snowmelt trickles from the Himalayas to the Sundarbans (equivalent of Winnipeg to Juarez).
Hiking notes on flora+fauna of Sundarbans: …six smooth-coated otters jouncing on the riverbank, single-file, muzzling through water. Kingfisher flits above… Spotted deer stand ass-to-ass-to-ass-to-ass, hooves stuck in the alluvium of new accretion. They bolt and break… The forest ranger balances a rifle on his shoulder… Rhesus macaques climb through mangrove apple trees. Branches flex into parabolas, crack, and fall… Fifteen-foot crocodile (2x Shaq) stirs from his bask and dives from the bank to pass our bow. I see the milky membrane over his right eye. I want Bruce to proclaim “Crikey!” in his Aussie accent, but he doesn’t… Dry tiger scat near orange-striped phoenix palm… Brahminy kite swoops… Dry pug marks (adult tiger)… Red-whiskered bulbul… Black drongo… Massive orange beak of the brown-winged kingfisher… Egret’s zipline landing onto treetop… Chef cracks crab claws with a knife, playful torture… White sand shimmers with mica. Trees grow on beach, form dense canopy. Forest ends abruptly on a private beach on the Bay of Bengal, its sand dimpled by sand-bubbler crabs. Industrious, they purloin thousands of tiny sand pellets. They steal the beach from beneath our feet…
The clay road to the village is lined with date palms, tapped, their brown sap flowing into jars. Bruce, a schoolteacher with a small cattle farm in New South Wales, is curious about the beel. “What do they grow?” he asks Emu. Emu asks the nearest farmer, a middle-aged Hindu man, who explains, “Nothing right now. Next season, rice only.” Since the tides have risen, there is salt in the water table. To exacerbate this, India diverts the Ganges’ freshwater flow just 15 kilometers before it reaches Bangladesh, fluming it into the feeder canals of the Farakka Barrage. “How do farmers survive on a fallow field?” Bruce asks. Without asking the farmer, Emu already knows. “Microloans.”
We pass a boy who leans over a corkscrewing medusa of black eels. Mulched hay sticks to their black leather skin. He chops one into pink cross-sections, dropping its segments like licorice onto a bed of dark ribbons.
The farmer invites us onto his property. His daughter slides a plastic chair behind me. A caged mynah named Moynah cuckoos then laughs. It even cries like a baby. The farmer’s daughter climbs a ladder into a tree and drops kul and guava into a basket. She sets the basket at my feet and sits at a century-old treadle. I nibble slowly at the small fruit.
I ask the farmer’s mother, Geeta, “How long have you lived here?” She nods at Emu’s translation before replying, “Over 200 years.” I instinctively look at Geeta’s bony hands, tangled with blue veins, as if this is where her age must be concentrated. She is no supercentenarian. Rather, Geeta assumed the “you” of my question was collective, historical.
“I was born here when it was East Pakistan,” Geeta says. “Before the liberation.” Her dada-shoshur (grandfather-in-law), born sometime before the 19th century, was a jute farmer for the British East India Company. And his grandfather, she implies, was born in this very village when the Mughal Empire sprawled over the territory. “We will always live here,” she says confidently.
Ritwik Ghatak’s film, A River Called Titas (1973), is dedicated to “the myriad of toilers of ever-lasting Bengal,” and yet here, where Bengalis must let their fields go fallow, the toil seems to discontinue.
I gaze over the beel, listening to the girl’s ankles pliant on the treadle, the wheel’s slow whir. I listen to nothing being spun. The village has endured empire, colony, partition, and a volatile transition into democracy. The farmer cues Moynah to laugh and cry and laugh again, consecutively. The emotional gamut is entertainment.
“Have they ever considered leaving? Going to Khulna? Or Dhaka?” I ask with an air of inevitability. The farmer waits for a translation, but Emu politely refuses, shaking his head at me.
Geeta leads us to the shrine of Bonbibi. Passing through a gate, we huddle beneath a beehive. Strings of tinsel cascade from thatch roof. Potted plants simulate a jungle backdrop behind the figurine. “Bonbibi willing,” Geeta says.
There will be a last Bangladeshi. She who stands up_on the peak of Mowdok Mual will earn the esteem of last citizen. Imagine census as roll call: “I remain,” a declaration of last presence. Then what? Ankle deep in saline water, subaqua desh will dissolve her into flotsam émigré.
In the early 1900s, my great-grandfather, Gustaf, repaired countless hopper cars for the shaft-entry colliery in my hometown. I worry that our coalmining legacy has impelled the unrecoverable theft of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh ends at Kotka Khal, the wide-open cliff on the Bay of Bengal. A few miles away, a small char (island) rises from the water, punctuating the contiguous borders. We climb out of our boat, walking the pier backwards as we watch the stunning terminus at sunset. I peer into the viscera of the confiscated nowkas beneath us, boats forfeited to the coast guard. They had disintegrated into long ribcages in the beach grass, their limp rudders left untouched for many seasons. We are greeted by an older man, a muezzin, whose saffron beard flows over his blue sweatshirt. He has just finished eating and alternates between chatting with Emu and plucking his gums with a long fingernail. He seems adrenalized by our company as he leads us past a mosque and grass huts to a pond then a well then a vista. He bounces before us, performing calisthenics and stretching. There will be a volleyball game after Maghrib, he tells us: forest officials versus coast guards officers.
The muezzin points to the knurled earth uprooted by wild boars. He points into a well, at a ghat and hoof prints. He plucks boroi from a tree and points at our mouths. Bruce and I nibble the sour fruit. The muezzin points at cards strewn at a campsite, cryptically at the eight of spades. He picks his teeth, and with a chunk of food still on the nail, he points at the tail feathers of a drongo. To point is to reveal. It becomes an ecstatic gesture, a skewering of the mundane. I start to think he’s making fun of us, providing fodder for the esoteric perception of the ecotourist. The next time he points (at a porcupine quill), my vision doesn’t follow the implicit leash.
I walk away from the muezzin, Emu, and Bruce and enter the camp where migrant grass cutters have left behind broken cassettes. Ribbons of magnetic tape are unspooled onto dead embers, the mute ghazals of Pankaj Udhas. Each step into the camp is premeditated as I use the playing cards as steppingstones to avoid hidden chain vipers. This game of call bridge has been abandoned, the migrants now working elsewhere. Only a few feet above sea level, their coastal labor in these slouching huts will be unbidden in the coming years when the grassy port to the maze goes underwater. It will all become an undulant pasture in a shallow bay, and eels (not snakes) will wend through these reeds.
We stand with the young officers of the Bangladesh Coast Guard before leaving. A clean-shaven man holds a volleyball as the others look into the Bay. I ask if they’ve heard anything on the radio about the hartal, if the roads are safe again, if Khaleda Zia has emerged from her office. But a voice booms from the mosque. Maghrib. The clean-shaven man sets the volleyball on the ground, and they leave us behind. A wild boar sniffs at an oil drum as we cross the pier.
Emu points southwest across the Bay of Bengal. “This is the end of Bangladesh,” Emu says with unintentional gravitas. “Out there,” he says, “is Swatch of No Ground.”
Here is where the world’s largest delta yields the world’s largest deep-sea fan. The Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers deposit Himalayan sediment into the basin, creating turbidity currents that form expansive canyons, the deepest of which is Swatch of No Ground (SONG).
Swarming with turtles, porpoises, dolphins, sharks, and eight species of whale, it seems an apt future capital city for all the imperiled island states, which will (soon enough) be veritable swatches of no ground too.
If we believe Rushdie’s claim that the past psychically diasporizes all people, then it should be no surprise that climate will physically do the same. Climatology is, after all, an interval study of our atmospheric past.
Until we invite them to live among us, it seems we’ll just watch them dredge rocks for artificial islands. Watch them affix cinder blocks to scant terra using gull shit mortar. Watch as the post-Edenic landfills are molded into neo-Thilafushis. Watch engineers unload monuments of rubbish from freighters—the polystyrene avalanche of packing peanuts interspersed with java K-cups and soiled Huggies, snapped coat hangers and used plastic cutlery. Please watch this ever-lasting toil for as long as it lasts.
Header photo — a mother and her child await the next string of imitative calls from the family’s common hill mynah — by Lawrence Lenhart.