‘Officialdom’ sneers the scriptwriter, rolling his eyes. His weary tone spoke of a lifetime of head shaking at the labyrinths of bureaucracy and petty power-wielding.
Three hours before, we’d trundled out of the city just as the markets of Kolkata were dusting off the night’s residue, suppliers beginning to haul their hand-pulled rickshaws laden with fresh produce. With the drop in temperature, people move through the early morning with scarves wrapped around their heads, thick jumpers pulled over woolly shirts to cope with the brisk 25 degrees.
Just at the point where one branch of the River Ganges spills out into the Bay of Bengal our little party stands waiting at the tip of the mainland at North Number Eight Port on the edge of the Sunderbans National Park. A port official approaches and explains that we will have to walk the 100 metres or so down the pier to load our bags onto the boat, one bag at a time. This triggers the scriptwriter’s quiet outburst.
Young girls and boys move among the crowd selling brightly-coloured pamphlets telling the history of Sagar Island to waiting passengers for twenty rupees. The booklet’s final chapter is titled ‘A description of accidents and death of the pilgrims’.
Every now and again a coconut seller calls out to assert his presence and his wares. A young man leans against his bicycle and watches as people file into the port. Heavy marine engines thrum in the background. Time passes.
Without announcement, a gate opens and the crowd streams forward onto the pier tiptoeing over the field of mud between the bank and the river. I am carried forward by the unstoppable wave of bodies. One arm pinned to my side, the other pokes above the crowd gripping my camera. The filmmaker in front turns and grins at me, his arm, like mine, periscoped above the shifting mass now moving toward the boat with glacial determination.
On the pier, we spread like gas to fill the space and concertina once more as the barred exit demands another pause. There is no explanation, the port authorities work to a hidden schedule. The deep-seated automatic patience of the crowd is triggered and people settle in for a wait.
Here, bodies knocking against bodies is not the crime it is in the culture I grew up in. Personal space here cannot be invaded as it has been reclassified as public space–my border stops at skin’s edge. What lies between us is the commons, space for all to share and all compete to occupy it. As I look out to the bay ahead, my body gently buffeted by the shuffling throng, I feel transformed into the boat knocked by the waves, moved by a larger motion.
Undoing the crowd’s tessellation, a woman turns with difficulty and sits on the concrete ledge by the handrail. Below, children caked in thick mud run along the river bed bared by the low tide. A man nearby slowly takes his jumper off, his elbows move in a slow jog to work the sweater slowly upwards. Three boys squeeze along the crowd on either side of the rail. Someone begins to hum.
A splash, and a line of heads crane over the handrail to scan the chocolate swirl of the river below. Out of the disturbed waters a small head pops up, beaming and elated by his own showmanship. Suddenly, another boy no older than 12 pulls back and, eyes scanning the crowd to make sure people are watching, arcs out from the concrete platform, arms spread like a bird as he launches into the air.
The display is met with gasps and applause from the waiting crowd, relieved by the diversion. The little acrobats go on flying through the air again and again, faces full of the pleasure and drama of their aerial display.
And strangely enough, waiting on this bridge between the land and the sea, caught in tension between the magnificent and the mundane, I can feel the contours of Advent making themselves known: patience and mystery; expectation, surprise and delight; and the beginning of a journey.
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