Pranab Kumar Bhunia, a daily-wage labourer, does not have a hard copy of his 6-year-old son Shibayan’s photograph. He has two on his tiny handset though, but you can barely see the little boy’s face in them.
On the intervening night of 20 and 21 May, as cyclone Amphan continued to devastate Bengal, especially the Sunderbans, Shibayan was hit on the head with a flying tin sheet at around 3 am.
He was on his way back from the toilet, barely 30 metres from the entrance to his house. Unable to be taken to a doctor, Shibayan died in his sister’s arms.
The sister, fourteen-year-old Prabhati, who had accompanied him to the toilet, has suffered 21 stitches on her head from the same tin sheet. Her left hand is also heavily bandaged.
“I didn’t notice the tin sheet coming. It is my fault he is gone,” cries Prabhati, as she narrates the searing incident to The Quint.
The Bhunias are residents of the G-Plot island on the edge of the Sunderbans delta in West Bengal. My colleague, Sanjoy Deb and I, had landed there after a six-and-and-a-half hour journey from Kolkata, that involved three-and-and-a-half hours on a boat, amidst high tide.
Since cyclone Amphan hit, I’d been, for the lack of a better term, an ‘enthu-cutlet’ about heading to the Sunderbans to report on the extent of the destruction caused.
For years, the Sunderbans delta is where multiple cyclones in the Bay of Bengal have been the first to hit, be it cyclone Aila in 2009 or the last one before Amphan, cyclone Bulbul in 2019.
Many parts of the delta still remain cut-off from any sort of connectivity. Since we couldn’t get in touch with journalists who were on the ground, I decided to try a different route to get some information and also gain some access to the remote parts of the island.
I got in touch with an NGO that has been working in the Sunderbans for years now. They said that they’d arrange for us to visit the most affected areas in the delta over a three-day trip. Our stay and everything else during the time would be arranged by them, they said.
It was them, and a few other Sunderbans experts that I spoke to, who suggested that the Raidighi and Sagar belts of the Sunderbans were the most affected. G-plot was in the Raidighi belt, and the NGO workers said they’d take us there because the destruction was “devastating”.
Thereafter, we set off from Kolkata at 7am on 25 May and reached Raidighi at around 11.30am. Around noon, we left our car at the Raidighi jetty and boarded our launch for our journey to G-Plot. Initially, both Sanjoy Da and I were loving the wind on the open deck of the boat, the mangroves around and the general freedom that comes from being away from the city.
However, an hour into our journey, high tide hit. Soon, it was no longer safe to be on the upper deck of the boat. The boatman advised us to come to the lower and back part of the boat because we’d feel nauseated otherwise.
To be honest, the strong winds and rocking of the boat made me kind of sleepy. Sanjoy Da, on the other hand, was very concerned about whether we’d get home safe as we continued to vlog our journey to what we thought was a place that had seen massive destruction.
As we reached G-Plot at about 3.30pm, Sanjoy Da and I immediately had an uncanny feeling about the place. It did not “look” like a place that had seen much destruction, or where people were suffering.
This feeling was exacerbated by the fact that just a day before, we’d gone to the Minakhan assembly constituency in Bengal where the sufferings of the villagers were palpable in every household.
As we made our way out of the jetty, we saw a bunch of young boys drinking cold drinks and playing cricket. This is not something you’d see at Minakhan, I thought to myself, as a sinking feeling started forming at the pit of my stomach.
Anyway, we got on the bikes of the NGO workers that had come with us on the launch to go into the island and the village.
This is when we realized that unlike what we’d thought, the NGO workers who took us there, were also going to the island for the first time since the cyclone.
Soon, as we asked where the embankments had broken, we were taken from one area to another, but what we saw wasn’t remotely close to the destruction we had seen in our travel to other parts of Bengal after the cyclone.
Soon after, we also learnt that the NGO workers were intimated of the “destruction” in the island by the gram panchayat.
“It was worse during Bulbul. I’m sorry we brought you here. Even we are not satisfied”, said one of the NGO workers, finally.
By then Sanjoy Da and I had already developed long faces as we’d realized that a six-and-a-half-hour journey and of course, investment of resources and money, had yielded no significant story.
The realization had hit us when we went to a house, which we were told had been damaged, but has now been repaired. While speaking about his crop loss, the man who the house belonged to, started laughing. The loss didn’t seem like a big deal to him.
Both of us later discussed that at that point, when the man started laughing, we both remembered the tear-stained face of Kalapana Bhunia, who we’d met at a North 24 Parganas village just two days ago. Kalpana had lost her husband to Amphan and her three-year-old son is yet to realise that his father is no more.
After speaking to quite a few of the villagers, we realized that the brick dam that was built by the villagers after Bulbul, though marginally damaged, had saved the island from the large scale loss that other areas in the Sunderbans, with mud embankments, had seen.
By then, it was nearing sunset and was close to 6pm. By the time we made our way back to the jetty, it was 6.30pm. We only managed to set off from G-plot around 7pm, in pitch dark.
While Sanjoy Da and I wallowed over coming back without a story, we also marvelled at how our majhi could navigate the seas in the dark.
We reached land at 10pm, this time landing at a jetty about 20kms away from Raidighi. We were told by the NGO that we would be staying in a library that they had, which had two rooms.
We travelled by road, on bikes again, in the dark village road for about 30 more minutes to reach this “guest house”. Once there, we found our driver sitting alone in what looked like an abandoned house. There was no electricity or water and we didn’t know how to charge our equipment which we’d need for the next day.
Already crestfallen (a gross understatement) by the lack of a story, and also acutely aware of the mounting expenses if we continued our trip without further research, Sanjoy Da and I decided to head back to Kolkata at around 11pm.
The whole day we’d been without water, food and had navigated strenuous terrains. The disappointment of two reporters coming back from an assignment without a story was palpable all through our car ride to Kolkata, where we finally reached at 3am.
The good thing about the digital media, though, is that all of this made for fantastic blog content. And while what can only be described as a disastrous workday came to a draw, a quick discussion with my editors the next morning meant that Shibayan’s story can now be put out.
Times like these also make you second-guess your conscience. Who am I to decide if a three-hour-journey was worth or not worth Pranab Bhunia’s grief? The line between personal and professional seemed blurred.
As I willed myself to sleep that night over the stinging sense of disappointment, the last thought was that of Prabhati, in a white frock, crying as she recounted how she played with her brother.
They’d, in fact, clicked a passport photo of him just a few days ago, for his admission to school. Amphan, along with Shibayan’s life, had washed away the photograph too.
(If you want to donate towards relief of families affected due to Amphan, click here.)