Friday, 11 April 2014

A Monsoon Living

The Patwari family fish trap assembly plant, in their household yard in Fulshore village, Narail.

Every year it’s awaited: that great transformation. The rattle of wind signals the first challenge as the dust of Boishakh month is kicked about. The bravest of the rain clouds will arrive as squalls to awaken sudden waves in the rivers, as if to man the first sentry posts and to let it be known a battle is pending.

Both men and women participate. Tal palm string is ready, at the right.
Yet into Jyoishtho month the summer holds strong, encircling every infantry march of cloud and routing each cavalry charge of rain. In those days of almost unbearable heat and sweat summer parades, head aloft, at its most proud and fierce. Defeat is unthinkable. No other power could ever rule the sky!

Feelings of invincibility, however, are most often weakness, so history says. It’s not less true for the summer. With Asharh month contemplating its entrance the thunder claps grow louder still, heralding the readiness of greater forces as the legions of restless grey clouds roll in. Summer’s defeat is fast and furious in the end, falling in buckets, through downpours lasting many days. At the time of the carnival of percussion, when the great drummer hammers his rhythm with abandon on every tin roof, summer is undone. The land is drenched, soaked and soothed. Long live the monsoon!

For us lesser creatures the world is rejuvenated. We notice as the rice paddies become minor seas and long dry canals start to sing with the chorus of frogs. Everywhere brown is left for the vitality of green. Dust turns into mud. We reach for our umbrellas again. And absolutely for fish, as for ducks and turtles, a once parched world has become a wonderland.

Making bamboo sticks, from which the fish traps will be constructed. 
It must be exciting for those fish: silvery puti and hungry-tasty shing, eel-like baim and cunning koi – for the minor crustaceans, the varieties of chingri too. There is the whole of that new watery world to explore.

In Fulshore village of Narail Sadar Thana, many generations have relied on that great transformation. Fifteen to twenty families in the village carry on with an ancient tradition of making fish traps perfect and ready for the monsoon’s reign. “Nobody can say who made this system,” says 40-year-old Shomir Patwari. “It was a long time ago.”

There are eight members of the extended family to sit about the yard of a day, men and women, each taking up a task of their choosing in the fish trap assembly line. It’s peaceful and industrious. There are bird sounds. There’s some Hindi song wafting across from a function down the road. All that’s required is perhaps a mat to sit on and a patch of shade. With fingers and knives the fish traps are made.

While their fish trap making tradition runs year-round of course, it’s a livelihood that’s a gift of the monsoon, ultimately, when fish traps are at their most useful, practically. And it’s a gift too of the several trees that populate that place and sustain the Patwaris’ tradition. The process starts with collecting tolla bamboo, as it’s locally called, explains Shomir’s younger brother Pollath Patwari, 30. The bamboo is cut into the thin strips that will make the trap.

Pollath Patwari creating tal twine that will hold the fish traps together.
Branches of the tal palm are also collected and soaked in the pond for a week before being dried for an hour in the sun. The tal branches are shredded into taler aash, the twine used to bind the trap together. With numerous knots the sticks are tied in line, then into the final box shape with its wavy pattern design that nobody could know the origins of. In one corner of the top is an emptying hole: through which the fisherman will remove his catch. The family can make two to three finished traps in a day, says Shomir.

A finished fish trap in the Patwari family yard. There is nobody to remember how the design was developed.

But in the past two to three years, he explains with a look of concern, circumstances have not favoured the family tradition. Where once bamboo was plentiful and cheap it has become rarer and more expensive. A rising bamboo purchase price has put a squeeze on fish trap profits.

Sometimes the Patwaris now sell their labour to supplement the family income but it’s not what they like to do. Making fish traps “is our regular work,” says Shomir, “That’s why we like it. If we go outside we don’t feel comfortable. It’s much nicer to do this work, to sell some traps and make some money this way.”

A Patwari fish trap is held together by tal twine and a myriad of knots.

Meanwhile behind the household yard is an impressive stand of bamboo which looks untouched. There must have been thought put into that: an as yet untapped insurance against even more difficult times.

People take the opportunity to enjoy that great transformation. They dance in the rain, jumping puddles or stay longer in bed reading books. In the season when the Patwari family fish trap manufacturing plant has relocated from yard to veranda, people brave the weather on a Thursday or Sunday to reach the market day of the Roopganj Bazar. Among innumerable other items there are fish traps to buy.

As a hobby for parent and child, perhaps for necessity or for recreation, all that’s required is to cut one or two bamboo sticks to make a little attractive hole through which the fish will swim inside. Then it’s all about placing the trap in the water somewhere. It’s all about waiting.

A Patwari fish trap with the small hole at the top for emptying the catch.
The monsoon world is a gift for those fish. For the puti, shing, baim and koi, for the varieties of chingri too, it must seem exciting with so many new places to explore and places to hide. The trouble is that the monsoon has gifted that living to the Patwaris too, and the new watery world of abundance comes complete, for little fish, with Patwari dangers.

By Shrabon month the monsoon is at its most proud and fierce. Defeat is unthinkable. No other power could ever rule the sky! But feelings of invincibility are most often weakness, so history says. And as the days pass, the storm clouds start to, surely enough, grow weary. Gradually the sky will become clear once more, tentatively at first, then gradually in stronger, longer doses. Long live autumn!

Creating tal twine in the Patwari's household yard.
Shomir Patwari.

This article is published in Star Magazine, here: A Monsoon Living

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