Friday, 15 November 2013

The Low-Tide Tiger

The lighter soil, the first rise in the land - the hills of Tripura are at hand.

At the start of evening in Shubhapur Union of Chhagalnaiya Upazila in Feni District, distant singing and drums can be heard. It’s coming from perhaps half a kilometre away, certainly no more than that, from an unseeable eastern place somewhere beneath the undulating forested crown of the first Tripuran hills. It sounds like a kirton, that usual Hindu ceremony.

From further south sporadic cheers are arriving, of what might be a match of football or cricket, and someone beyond the edge of the plains surrounded by trees is winning. The cheers mingle with the evening music.

India's black fence can't hold back the sounds.
These are Indian sounds. These are sounds undeterred by a black fence and the concrete watchtowers constructed along the border. But then, sounds make no concession for machine guns and will not concede to any restriction of nationality or paperwork – they follow the breeze.

It’s so close – the intriguing melody of village life could almost draw one in, could catch one if the seductive quality was just a little stronger. But among the instruments there is no flute. We are safe.

Meanwhile from the west it’s a show of light. A storm rolling in is shaping patterns across the sunset’s end. The rice fields are turned a stronger, deeper green as if to prove they belong on the Bangladeshi side.

Marking the start of no man's land.
We stand where the geography turns, at the very eastern edge of the great delta, where the lighter tinge to the soil is the only product of the hills to wander a little further into the Bangladeshi plains. There’s the first slight rise to the terrain at hand, and concrete border markers along the side of the muddy road to show where no man’s land starts. It’s just a few inches – only a step or two it would take to become a no man.

This is how it is: the heart of the country of Shamsher Gazi, the Bhatir Bhag, the low-tide tiger.

Perhaps a man of achievement will always attract controversy. Gazi was born without ceremony in 1712 to a peasant family in Kunguru village. He lost his father Pir Mohammed at an early age and, as it is recounted in Feni, grew up in the service of a local landlord Jagannath Sen. He could not have had, at an early age, any inclination what triumphs life would bestow, nor how completely he would be undone.

Beyond the black fence, in Tripura with its trees and village sounds, Gazi is considered a dangerous, violent rebel who overthrew King Krishna Manikya in 1748 and captured all of Tripura for twelve years, including the capital of Udaipur. The king sent two armies of powerful Kuki warriors to defeat Gazi, but they failed.

In Feni meanwhile, Gazi is a hero, the ‘uncrowned king’ who stood up to the oppressive jomidar and talukder landlords in the first years of the British Raj, to liberate overworked peasant and overtaxed farmer.

It befits, perhaps, that the border has settled beside the site of Gazi’s homestead – after all, Gazi’s reputation is also of two parts. What is undisputed – his was a force to be reckoned with, a rising power from the southern ‘low-tide’ lands not far from Bengal’s Bay.

A storm headed for the last of the delta, Chhagalnaiya Union, Feni.

In Feni, adjectives used to describe Gazi’s administration include determined, wise and philanthropic. Gazi is said to have released poor farmers from taxation, granted land to Hindu and Muslim without the traditional lakheraj tax and constructed many dighees or tanks to provide clean drinking water. He is known to have managed the economy well, reducing the prices of essential commodities. He built schools.

On a hillock are sentry rows of mango trees, in a quiet garden of other trees in a more random arrangement. Nearby is a modest pond. It’s the site of Gazi’s homestead, most of three hundred years ago.

There’s nothing of the buildings he knew, not due to poor construction or because Gazi was not a man of consequence; rather because he was. It is said that Shamsher Gazi was so reviled by his enemies that after he was captured in 1760, total destruction was wrought upon his property, as if that act might expunge him from the history books.

Indeed, to look about the soil is to find great anger – scattered across the garden grounds are brickwork shards to signify Gazi’s undoing and the return of the figurehead Tripuran royalty.

The grove of mango trees mark where Gazi's house was.
The view into Bangladesh from the gate to Gazi's home site.

A little further along the road, over another small hill is the Kayara Dighee, named after Gazi’s mother. “Take this golden pumpkin and see how far you can walk with it,” Gazi said to his mother, so the tale goes. His mother was elderly by then but she was also spritely and she managed to carry the pumpkin around the perimeter of a large field. Gazi thought to surprise his mother and build a dighee in her honour, of the exact size covered by her promenade. As a result of her achievement, the Kayara Dighee became the largest of the tanks Gazi made.

Between the Kayara Dighee and the homestead, Gazi constructed a narrow tunnel, now half-buried in soil, through which the ladies of the house could move to and from their bathing spot in privacy, avoiding the unwelcome spectacle of climbing over the small hill.

The tunnel Gazi built under the hill between his house and the dighee.
From their watchtowers Indian border guards survey the Kayara Dighee – as unreachable for them as the source of the village music is for us, but surely not less tempting.

What's left of the Kayara Dighee, Chhagalnaiya, Feni.
It is said King Manikya sought assistance from the Nawab of Murshidabad, Mir Qasim, to rid himself of Gazi’s menace and regain control of his kingdom. Shamsher Gazi was invited to meet the Nawab, so the tale goes, but it was a false invitation. Gazi was killed and Manikya restored to his throne.

Alternatively, there is another, more romantic account of Gazi’s end. It is said he was particularly fond of slow flute songs and that British soldiers set a trap with a flautist whose dreamy melody wafted across the hills in search of him. The low-tide tiger could not resist its charms. He left his hiding place in search of the music’s source and was caught, before being tied to a cannon and meeting a pathetic end.

So it might be just as well there’s no flute melody coming from the Tripuran kirton at the start of the evening in Shubhapur. Without a flute there can be no capture. We are safe.

Towards the Tripuran hills from Shamsher Gazi's homestead.

This article is also published in Star Magazine, here: The Low-Tide Tiger

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