The sodden swamp will only take you halfway there, to those depths you long to reach.
Through its estuarial tangle, its water dance, its twisted winds, its shifting tides, its salt-bleached slush and its earthy-smelling seaweed to its lulling gray depths, you must make the rest of your way, alone and unaided.
This to find your wondrous world, one you will call ‘your’ home. An unchanging place in a changing world.
This is a truth that mangrove mud crabs like Aru, living in the Sundarbans of West Bengal, know instinctively and well. And must know to survive in a place where the rivers and the sea are primed with primeval energy to seep into the porous earth and swallow it.
Hoping that her shell exterior mottled with two shades of gray, one that matches the glassy, ash colour of the marsh, will hide her from the sharp-eyed eagle soaring above on a misty December morning, Aru uses her walking legs, stealthily at first and then with surety, to move across the semi-solid sludge of sand, silt and clay banks and their narrow, shallow creeks.
She knows she must find her underground haven before she begins to molt as her exposed flesh will be a succulent temptation to her predators. With her pincers raised, eye stalks waving in the light breeze, swimming legs firmly tucked beneath but flexing the second joint of each of her ten legs, which act as hinges and bend sideways, Aru walks fast on the tips of her legs.
She goes past tall, sturdy, green-grey mangrove roots, some upright, others tilted. She can hear them breathing, straining noisily, to anchor the loose gravel, to fasten the sandbar slime and to stop the bank from being pockmarked with tide pools and drowning completely in waters of both the rivers and the sea.
As she advances, she makes a rough guess that to her flying predator her gait must look like a sideways scuttle, a sidling. In the same breath, Aru also assumes, that, perhaps, to the eagle eye, her Sundarbans must look like a forest with a series of restless yet determined blue rivers cutting through the land to reach the Bay of Bengal.
But Aru knows better. She knows that her mangrove is so much more. That it is a sponge of the living unconscious. That a billion tons of ancient sediment and memories from the freshwaters of the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna don’t simply reach but mingle inextricably with the truths of the saline, prehistoric, seawater from the Bay of Bengal.
And that over and above all this, at the heart of her sultry Sundarbans, is a terrain of in-betweens. And that all living things here fluctuate in-between a swampy land and the sea. Fresh water and saline sea sprays. Clear blues of the Bay of Bengal and murky waters of criss-crossing river systems. Hot, rainy summers and dry, sluggish winters. Peaceful and wild cyclonic days. And, strangely, yet truly, in-between swimming tigers and walking fish.
She knows that they also swing between stasis and change. The familiar and unknown. Giving and taking away. And in-between the privileged oppressor and righteous oppressed.
It is hard for Aru to tell where one vexing middle will begin or end. Or which will take over and when. Or whether they will war or work together. But what she does know is this. That these in-betweens of her dry-damp microcosm have lain powerfully encamped within her from birth as her search for a place in it.
As the wet shores glisten in the sun like a silver forest and yet another depression forms over the sea causing humidity to leach into her, past her shell, even in December, and as the dull heat assails her, Aru chooses to concentrate on the subtle sounds of life around her, on the enchantments rather than the menace or her region’s agitating ambiguities.
She tunes into the soft lapping of waves, the murmurs of the mangrove, the faint cadences of low-hanging gewa and sundari branches, the muted calls of pitta birds, the far-off exhalations of the shushuk, the bottle-nosed freshwater dolphin, and the muffled sounds of sea snails, mudskippers and amphibious fish that hop out of the water and scribble patterns on the banks.
This till she spots a water monitor lizard swagger along the bank, flicking its long, forked tongue and a crocodile step out to soak up some sun bringing harm to her path. She can also distantly hear the sounds of human crab catchers, their voices echoing past the noises made by their squishy, squelchy feet pushed deep into the gray mire of the banks.
Alert and poised for escape, Aru’s eyes track a moving object, a woman. Her sari, its anchol and the ends of her long hair drip with a liquid curtain of marsh sediment. Instinctively, Aru knows that the woman, like her, is battling the in-betweens of her world. That is she, too, is a fugitive, fighting to survive.
Prioritising her own escape, Aru is determined to not be exposed on the open bank, to push the frontiers of her young life as much as she can and to find her pit in the underworld, her home. As a crab, she knows that active resistance is not the only or best way of warring the chilly amorality of the natural world. That there are other equally valid ways of fighting.
Quickly and noiselessly, Aru burrows in the sandbar, clawing her way in, deep, deeper, until she is out-of-sight to her captors. With her ten legs, she grips the soil within and then quickly engineers its physical and chemical makeup within her hollow to suit her needs as those of the tiny insects who companionably move in alongside with lightning speed.
Now, inside, with safety in her trough and hope in her dust bowl, the picture of the woman comes to Aru’s mind.
Aru has been told by other crabs that women in the human world have to, like them, adapt to the high salinity and caprice of the mangrove biome, find their food and battle with large predators, sometimes visible, other times not, things like history, culture, religion, political faiths, class, family and relationships, things she does not know too much off, to find their place.
She hopes that this woman, like her, finds her own safe mangrove sandbar, her own world complete with golpatta, nipa palms whose fronds are used to thatch roofs, and her footing in it. That she fights her fight intelligently, without belligerence or aggression but with a quiet understanding of strategy and determined astuteness.
Who knows maybe…in-between the baritone growl, pugmarks and scat of the tiger, its rushing blur of stripes and the gentle scents the khalshi, garan and baen trees, where bees make a light honey, a darker one, and a runny one…the woman will, before long, raise a seashell to her escape, to her new discoveries and to what can be still discovered.