In Kolkata, on Banamali Sarkar Street, I am a bewildered and ignorant tourist, just as I have been throughout my life, eavesdropping on people’s lives and conversations, jotting down notes, folding thoughts into whatever pattern I can make of things as I follow the street to the banks of the Hugli River, an arm of the Ganges. Sculptors create skeletal armatures of wood and wire for the upcoming Durga Puja festival, applying mud from the riverbank until the skeletons are enrobed in a charcoal-colored paste, until these figures attain the musculature of the living world, their features pensive and contemplative and, sometimes, radiant with joy. Full-sized elephants with mud-caked hides stand motionless and serene as the sun burns through smog, peach and tangerine. Gods multiply in miniature, painted in brilliant hues, their arms lifted in celebration, their faces smiling at thoughts unknown to me. There are groups of humans frozen in mud, too, standing, kneeling, pointing—all of them staring toward the horizon, as if immersed in memory. All are beautiful. The sculptors caress each face into being, returning them from the muddy banks of the river so that they might see what has become of the world in their absence. I’m reminded of something the musician and martial artist Prajna Dutta said to me. He praised John Cage for his discoveries in the use of atonality, noting how it freed us all from the constraints of a key signature. I sometimes feel like one of those key signatures in an atonal world, and my work as a tourist and as a human being is to undo the structures within me. The A minor. D minor. C.
In West Bengal, I travel several hours by bus down National Highway 12. Birds I cannot name fly through canopies of green. Men and women dodge traffic as kids in their school uniforms laugh. In the fields, women wade into a floating harvest of water chestnuts as men milk cows in the shade. We pass village after village before boarding a small boat named the Shiuli, or Night flowering jasmine. My Hungarian friends Csilla and Balázs, two poets living in Istanbul, smoke cigarettes as if they’d just walked onto the set of a spy film from the 1960s. They joke about the reductive nature of Hollywood, blowing smoke like flags that vanish from their mouths. The hours pass slowly as we make our way into the Sundarbans—the huge delta where the Ganges pours into the Bay of Bengal. Barges of coal and textiles and home goods fly the national flag of Bangladesh. Nondescript boats pass with potted plants above the cabin, ratty canvas tarps stretched over pilothouses for shade. This is smuggler country—I’m told traffickers of humans and drugs ply these waterways. I ask if Rohingya refugees have fled this way, too, and the answer is Of course, of course they do. I see none of this, though. For me, it is a quiet journey through boulevards of water. A cloudless blue sky. Mangroves silent with only the occasional small bird, its cry like an electrical pulse. By nightfall, we set anchor in the deep water of the bay. Another artist on the trip, Prajna, opens a bottle of whiskey, passes it around. He sings love songs with his hands shaping the air as the Hungarians exhale a commentary of smoke. Hours later, when the night shifts from dream to a soft gray wall of fog, I’m the first to wake. I sit at the port bow and listen to the silence. The incoming tide has returned to the open ocean. The shoreline nets hold their catch for the fishermen to gather in. I imagine them lighting fires and cooking breakfast. Drinking chai. Yawning. And I imagine the water rising again. Determined, steady in its progress, inexorable, year by year, decade after decade. Always rising.
On the gunwale of the Shiuli, I picture water overtaking each island and village. The cattle rancher I met, his cows and bulls rising with him in the tide. Pots and pans from his home. Children, in dream, rising. Parents swimming after them. The water lifting them all, one by one. Crocodiles move farther inland as split-tailed birds cry out in electric pulses. This isn’t a dream. A recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change update details the rise in sea level, the millions to be displaced, land to be reclaimed by the greater ocean. The Bay of Bengal will push toward Kolkata. Much of Bangladesh will sink under, and seafaring ships will dock ever closer to the capital, Dhaka. The people living in the Sundarbans—once rooted for generations in a mangrove archipelago—will arrive as climate refugees in urban centers so populous my mind cannot fully comprehend the density and scale of them. The climate maps forecast the story. I’ve come here as a tourist of the ruins. A disaster tourist. Here to document the world that once was before it’s erased by water, submerged forever—just as I do back home, in Florida. I’m trying to comprehend it. The erasure. And I wonder—Where will they all go? When I ask about this possible future and point to the tops of the mangroves and suggest that This may be where the low tide mark will be when your children are grown—time after time I’m told it isn’t so, that it’s been the same here the last thirty years. They shake their heads and pause to look across the water. Back in Kolkata, I think of the outer suburbs that will be underwater. The maps that detail their plight. And I wonder if sculptors will continue to shape humans and animals and gods from the mud of the Ganges. Will children who now live in the Sundarbans one day recognize a face emerging from the wet hands of an artist? Some familiar expression, perhaps, as each sculpture gazes upon the world, radiant and kind. What will the children make of these figures shaped by hand, here for a brief and beautiful moment, then given to the river once more?
These dispatches are from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview.