Pirates and Lonely Fishing Boats: Navigating the Shimmering Expanse of the Brahmaputra

In Bangladesh, the river goes by the name Jamuna and is occasionally interrupted by river islands.  
Pirates and Lonely Fishing Boats: Navigating the Shimmering Expanse of the Brahmaputra 5
The route along the Jamuna, the Brahmaputra’s channel in Bangladesh, was a thriving trade zone during the British Raj. But, apart from the steady stream of local produce or grass being ferried between the islands, little of that commerce remains now. Photo by: Muhammad Mostafigur Rahman/Alamy/IndiaPicture

A short distance beyond the last fish seller and the final ramshackle tea stall, the path curves downwards to where bales of hay and stacks of firewood line the riverfront. Beyond this are the boats, and the river—an expanse of green-brown waters known, here in Sirajganj, Bangladesh, as the Jamuna.

It is the same river, which less than 200 kilometres upstream in India (Assam, to be exact), is called the Brahmaputra. Somehow, crossing a border it does not recognise causes the river to change its name and undergo a sex change. For this plight the river itself must also take a share of the blame: It changed its course in 1787. There is still an old channel of the river in Bangladesh that retains the name Brahmaputra, even though most of that river’s waters now flow into the Jamuna, the new channel of the river that came to be after a flood in 1787.

The Sajib, the boat that was to ferry me downriver along this channel, was there waiting at the river’s edge. It stood apart from the fishing boats with their timeless black wooden hulls and cane and thatch canopies; it had the appearance of a pleasure boat, painted blue and decorated all over with colourful illustrations of flowers, fruits, and a house with a distinctly European look to it. Curtains fluttered from its windows. Inside, one end was taken up by a 20-horsepower diesel engine of Chinese make. The living section—a space of about 15 feet in length—consisted of wooden planks overlaid on the boat’s metal body, capped by a linoleum covering. There was nothing else inside; not even a light.

I boarded. Boatman Mohammad Abu Said, dark, smiling, rowed us into midstream using a bamboo pole, and we began our little voyage towards what remains of a legendary ghat at the confluence of the two greatest rivers that flow through India—the Ganga and the Brahmaputra. We had gone barely a few hundred metres when suddenly he turned the craft back towards land, muttering all the while into his mobile phone. “What happened?” I asked him in Bengali. “Two people is better than one,” he replied.

This was to be the last time that Abu Said would speak to me in Bengali.

Boats taking passengers to and from the islands, locally known as chars, are often perilously overcrowded. Photo by: Shibu Bhattacharjee/Moment Open/Getty Images

Boats taking passengers to and from the islands, locally known as chars, are often perilously overcrowded. Photo by: Shibu Bhattacharjee/Moment Open/Getty Images

After his assistant Shahadat Hossain had joined the crew, and we had resumed our journey, I went up to Abu Said to ask how boatmen on the beautiful, treacherous river piloted purely by instinct and sight. He replied volubly—in Chinese English with a few random words of Bengali thrown in. I was flummoxed; why was a Bangladeshi boatman from Sirajganj talking in Chinese English? “Apni Bangla bolen (Please speak in Bengali),” I suggested. He ignored my request, and carried right on in a language that was his alone. I understood not a word of it. Abu Said sensed my incomprehension, and finally uttered a sentence I got. “Brother!” he exclaimed. “You lookalooka!”

Conversation was pointless. Picking up my camera, I went off to lookalooka.

The scenes around were idyllic, postcard-like. Winter had set in and out in the sun, on the water it was pleasantly warm. The expanse of the river was dotted with little fishing boats and their ragtag crews of twos and threes. The shoreline was clearly visible on one side. On the other, what appeared to be shore near at hand was really a giant river island or char. It was indistinguishable from the shore, except in one detail: The shore near Sirjaganj town had structures for defence against floods.

We passed a nearly 30-foot high embankment lined with concrete blocks jutting into the river on the Sirjaganj side. Immediately on seeing this Abu Said got animated. He left the rudder to Shahadat and came up to me. The story, which he told in his Bangladeshi version of Chinese English, was one of which I managed to piece together a few bits from stray words that I subsequently checked with Shahadat.

Abu Said had worked on ferrying the engineers who had constructed these embankments. They were Chinese engineers; these structures had been built by a Chinese company. He had been in their service for a couple of years. The memory of the experience, and the language of communication—to my regret—had stayed with him.

The Koreans have also been building things on the river in these parts. A short distance out of Sirajganj, we came to a great bridge spanning the river. This is the Jamuna Setu, a 5.63 kilometre bridge which, when completed in 1998, was Bangladesh’s first water bridge. It was built by Hyundai. Fortunately for me, Abu Said had not worked with them.

Our first halt was at a sandbar in the middle of the river downriver from the Jamuna Setu. It stood barely a few feet above the water line, its fine sand gleaming white in the sun. Two little canoes were pulled up at its edge, and five men were busy pulling furrows in the sand. This was free land, newly born of the river on which they had staked a tenuous claim. They were planting peanuts. They gave us a handful of the raw, fresh nuts to eat.

We resumed our journey. The sound of the boat’s engine was loud in the silence that stretched all around us. There was only water, with the sun glinting off it, and the faraway shapes of occasional fishing boats. In the distance we could see edges of land. Sometimes an occasional human silhouette would be visible.

On sandbars along the river (left), some men cultivate peanuts. Erosion by the Jamuna has also left many along this route homeless, forcing them to head to islands (right) nearby for a home. Photos by: Samrat (man), NurPhoto/Contributor/NurPhoto/Getty Images (raft).

On sandbars along the river (left), some men cultivate peanuts. Erosion by the Jamuna has also left many along this route homeless, forcing them to head to islands (right) nearby for a home. Photos by: Samrat (man), NurPhoto/Contributor/NurPhoto/Getty Images (raft).

A few of the boats that we passed were overloaded passenger boats going to or from the chars. These chars have villages on them, with farming and pastoral communities. One which we visited had huts with sloping roofs and walls made of tin sheets. Tube wells had been sunk for water; it was a bit of a walk down to the river. The farmlands around the village were growing paddy and vegetables. Most houses had barns attached, with cows and goats. Feeding the animals is a big part of the work for the villagers. It is also a considerable part of the river traffic. All along the river, there are boats big and small ferrying fresh grass and bales of hay to the river islands. The produce from the islands flows out to the surrounding river ports on the mainland.

This local commerce is all that remains now of what used to be a vast and bustling network of trade and passenger traffic that stretched to distant lands along the routes up the Brahmaputra and Ganga during the British Raj.

“To visit Bengal without travelling on the great rivers that intersect the province would be almost as bad as going to Agra without seeing the Taj Mahal, and one may see something of the rivers and appreciate their importance without making the long journey to Dibrugarh,” says a book titled From the Hooghly to the Himalayas, published by the Eastern Bengal State Railway in 1913.

The place it highlighted as the principal centre of the river trade was a village called Goalundo. “The groups of thatched huts of which the village consists are a poor index to the transhipment trade of this busy mart,” the unnamed writer of the book wrote. “It is situated at the junction of the Padma, or Ganges, and the Brahmaputra, and daily services of steamers connect it with the railway systems at Narayangunj and Chandpur, and with the steamer services to Madaripur, Barisal, Sylhet and Cachar. There are also daily services of steamers up the Padma to Digha ghat in the dry season, and Buxar in the rains, and up the Brahmaputra to Dibrugarh.”

Fresh catch is sold along many of the river islands. Photo by: lead foto/Alamy/IndiaPicture

Fresh catch is sold along many of the river islands. Photo by: lead foto/Alamy/IndiaPicture

Goalundo was the hub that connected travel all the way from the Bay of Bengal up to the plains of Bihar and the far reaches of Assam. This vast area, with close ties from one sub-region to the next going back thousands of years, formed an integrated zone of free movement. People, goods and elements of culture flowed up and down the rivers. Then the Partition happened, and the India-Pakistan wars followed. After the 1965 war, waterway links between East Pakistan and its neighbourhood were snapped. Distances, physical and mental, grew.

“How much further?” I asked Abu Said in Bengali. He replied in his favourite language. I repeated the question to Shahadat. We would make it to Daulatdia ghat, which is the existing equivalent of Goalundo and about 10 kilometres from the old ghat, by night, he replied.

I was hungry. It was well past lunch time, and the little food I had packed for my journey was over. A picnic on the river would have been great but what would hit the spot would be a cooked meal…especially one that featured the legendary Goalundo steamer chicken curry. This famed dish used to be served on the steamboats as they sailed upriver. Unfortunately, there were now no steamers plying these routes, and no steamer curry.

“Can we stop somewhere for lunch?” I asked Abu Said, looking towards what appeared to be a big river island with evidence of human habitation that we were racing past. This time he said something I understood bits of. “There many many peoples!” he said. And then: “Dakat”. Dacoits. Abu Said turned around and began to show me the back of his head, close to his neck. There was a scar from an old wound. It stretched from end to end of his scalp.

When he was working with the Chinese, they had once been held up by pirates somewhere in these waters after dark. Abu Said had been lucky to survive; he had been hacked with a large knife. Two or three inches lower and he would have lost his head.

I looked at the idyllic scene of tree-lined shore and boats drawn up on white sand with new eyes. I was glad when we left the island, with its alleged population of pirates, safely behind.

Our lunch stop eventually was at a ghat called Aricha. The food, fresh tilapia fish from the river, and dal, and rice, was wholesome and tasty, though it did not meet the standards that the legends of Goalundo steamer curry had led me to expect.

It was sunset when we finally set sail from Aricha. The river was tinged with gold, like the golden sky. A little downriver, the waters opened up and the banks receded. Wavelets rippled the water’s surface. In the distance, I saw ships that looked like ocean liners.

This is where the Ganga and Brahmaputra, in their avatar as the Jamuna, meet. After their long and tumultuous journeys from the Himalayas, gathering numerous tributaries, they ultimately join here to flow on as the Padma.

The ghat at the confluence that used to be Goalundo is no longer there. “Goalundo has the wandering habits of the prodigal son and constantly evinces a strong desire to escape from doing its duty in that state of life to which it has pleased an imperious trade to call it,” the writer noted in From the Hooghly to the Himalayas. “It is the unstable water which has misled it, as it has misled many an Eastern town into these ways”.

The Bangabandhu bridge connects the Jamuna’s east and west banks. Photo by: Towfiqu Photography/Moment/Getty Images

The Bangabandhu bridge connects the Jamuna’s east and west banks. Photo by: Towfiqu Photography/Moment/Getty Images

There is still a bustling ghat near Goalundo. Daulatdia, like Goalundo of yore, is a place where rivers and people meet. Ferries cross back and forth between the banks. There are the usual stalls selling food and tea, and a surprising number selling cheap clothes. Long lines of trucks stay lined up entire nights waiting their turn to cross the river.

Barely a sign remains of the ghat that thrived in British times. The flows—of rivers, of people, and of time—have swept the physical past away. There is only the continuity in “imperious trade” at the spot. Most other businesses have shrunk since the glory days of the ghat, but the oldest profession in the world has done well. Daulatdia is now the biggest red light area in Bangladesh.

Abu Said and Shahadat had a mumbled conversation shortly after we pulled into Daulatdia, and then went ashore for what they said would be an hour. I was left alone on the boat in the dark and busy waters. Suddenly there was a rattling from the river side—as opposed to land side—of the boat. It was two men, their heads and faces obscured in shawls. They shone a torch in my direction; I could barely see them. “What have you brought?” one of them demanded.

“Er… brought? We have come… passengers,” I said.

“Where from?”

“Sirajganj.”

They flashed the torch around the dark interiors of the boat that looks like a pleasure boat.

“Where are the others?” they asked.

“Gone ashore,” I replied.

“For picnic?”

It took me a moment to understand what they meant.

“Yes,” I said.

It was the right answer. They demanded 100 rupees, supposedly tax, and rowed off into the darkness.

  • Samrat spent many years editing newspapers in Bengaluru, Delhi, Chandigarh and Mumbai, before chucking it up to return home to Shillong, where he now writes and wanders around.

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