We went to a picnic a couple weeks back. Our colleagues had demanded that it’d be better if we went by a motor-launch for a day-long ride. The direction was set for Murapara Jamdani Palli by the river Shitalakshya via Buriganga. It has been ages since I travelled by the river route, the last being a trip to Barisal on work years back. So I was also very excited about this trip. Our motor-launch started on its journey from what is known as the Pagla Ghat, fashionably known as the Mary Anderson jetty, at about 7.30 in the morning. As we alighted from the car at the point of departure, we were greeted by our younger colleagues and a smell reminiscent of one that you would get while walking in the lanes with open drains in the older part of the Dhaka city. I took it for something that had to do with some rotten carcass lying around and proceeded to board the motor-launch. While walking over the gangway to the launch I realised that the smell was actually coming from the water. It looked jet black and the stench was all pervasive. Thinking that it could be localised, I went to the upper deck of the launch and joined my colleagues and friends. Everyone was in a gleeful mood at the prospect of being river-borne but everyone was visibly uncomfortable because of the stench.
We started on our journey shortly afterwards. Even at the middle of the river and miles beyond, the stench accompanied us. The water looked as it did at the ghat, black and thick with effluent, garbage or human excrement. I tried to bring back my memories of the Buriganga of our childhood. Those were the days when my friends and I were seriously into swimming. We were inspired and coached by none other than the mercurial swimming machine called Brojen Das. Brojen Da, as we used to call him, was preparing to swim across the English Channel. He was already the undisputed Pakistan champion in short and long distance swimming. ‘Doing’ the English Channel was his dream then. Perhaps very few people know that he carried out his gruelling practice in endurance at a large tank known as “Jatin Daser Dighi”, adjacent to the Ganderia railway station. My last visit a few months back in that area revealed that the “Dighi” had disappeared and a slum replaced it.
Brojen Da used to go there in his bicycle, change his clothes and dived into the crystal clear water of the “Dighi”. On Sundays we, the very young swimming enthusiasts, used to join him. He swam from eight in the morning till one in the afternoon non-stop, take a break for an hour during which time he ate his ‘chapati and bhaji’ for lunch, taught us how to swim the six-beat or eight-beat freestyle crawls and dive back in to the water for another four hours of arduous endurance training. I have fabulous memories of my adolescence and early youth with Brojen Da but that should best be kept for another day. We used to swim with him in sorties for an hour each. At the end of the day he used to tell us that he’d like us to swim across the Buriganga once we were ready but cautioned us not to try it without him around. But, living within the proximity of the river, wide and mighty in monsoon; flowing in blithe abandon; we were more than just tempted to swim in the Buriganga soon as we could.
The chance came our way when my cousin came visiting us from Kolkata. He was a champion swimmer and tempted us to give Buriganga a try. We were naturally keen, despite Brojen Da’s caution. On a Sunday morning in the month of July we dived into the clear water of Buriganga near Faridabad. We had thought that despite the strong current we’d be able to land near Jinjira. We were mistaken. The current was so strong that all our training went haywire and we landed up at the far end of Keraniganj.
All this crossed my mind sitting on the deck of the boat; nose covered with a handkerchief when a colleague said, ‘Have we started calling a drain a river these days? I had thought that Shitalakhshya would be much better and told my colleague so. But as soon as we entered Shitalakhshya it was no different. Both these rivers, as we used to know them, were reduced to carrier of garbage and were fast reducing in width. The land-grabbers had already eaten up considerable space of the banks on both sides and the grabbing had still not ended. Impressive multi-storied industrial buildings came up like mushrooms and I suspect that most industrial wastes of those were deposited in the rivers. It was not impossible to see the future of our rivers. I am sure, much to the delight of the owners of these industries, these rivers will become highways soon and trucks would ply on them giving better and faster transportation of goods to all directions. Who cares about things like ecology, environment or as basic a consideration as human health? Much has been said about these issues in the media but who cares? Do we have a law that takes care of these issues? Or do we have to legislate one?
We have to act and act fast if we want to put an end to the onslaught against our nature and allow our posterity to live in liveable world.
Aly Zaker is among the leading personalities in Bangladeshi theatre, a renowned actor on stage and television as well as a noted ad-filmmaker