It took nearly 9 hours of bus journey for us to reach the Teknaf peninsula. From here we board the ship which will take us to Saint Martin’s Island, through the Naf River into the Bay of Bengal.
Unlike the sociopolitical climate around it, the Naf River is calmer. On its opposite banks Bangladesh and Myanmar face each other. The mangroves line the shore. Mountains stand guard on each side.I hear someone say that all the big mountains are either in Myanmar or India. Seagulls follow us in hope of spare foods.
Two hours later we touch the island jetty.
The water is deep blue and all around the jetty the bazaar hums in activity. But our accommodation is arranged in the Shamudra Kutir resort on the east side of the island. Only carriage in the island is rickshaw vans.
As we get to the interior of the island it seems any other Bangladeshi village, albeit a bit closely set. I see kids dressed in little white punzabis and wearing topis. There are more Madrasas here then schools that for sure. But in a way that’s understandable because these people have to fight with nature all their lives. That in a way takes them close to God I think. I see a government hospital that’s closed down. One of the more political minded of us informs me because it was made during the previous party’s time. And also which doctor would come to this place, he asks. I would, I think.
The resort is just by the beach. It’s a collection of ten cottages around a big yard with a pond where red water lilies float, in the middle. There is no electricity in the island. The resorts use their generators. After finding our cottage I run to the sea. I find some of the girls already in the water.
My friend Misbah and I take a walk along the beach. It’s only moments ago the sun had disappeared under the bay. Water had receded with tides pull and all along the shore the dead corals lay exposed; black and dark and tough like concrete on touch. From the east darkness slowly creeps into the island as golden and orange afterglow of the western horizon starts to fade.
We stumble upon a lonely boat moored on the beach. It’s a small fishing trawler. Air is filled with a piscine odor that the sea wind is unable to carry away. We stand there before it in fading daylight, our eyes tracing its preposterous curve from bow to stern. The fishermen who sail in this boat are in their huts now probably. Trying to wash away salt from their body as the women in the house kindle the evening oil lamp. Misbah was humming to himself for some time now. As we start walking back to the resort he starts to sing softly. An old elegy for those lost in the sea.
By the pond they set up the BBQ oven. The chef belongs to a small ethnic group, native to the hill tracts in the mainland. “Small ethnic group” what a word, makes you uncomfortable, like “minority”. They are getting displaced from their homes by the rapid inflow of settlers. I wonder how he ended up here, in the middle of the bay, nine kilometers from the mainland. We had decided on Koral fish for dinner. He spreads oil on the coal and the flames come to life.
Fishes covered in spice and oil, are laid on the grill. Spice drips from the Koral like sweat into the burning coals and fizzes into steam. He works and talks. About some previous guests who didn’t take his advice and tried to barbeque by themselves, which obviously ended up being a disaster. He fans the coals and speaks about the special sauce. I hear singing. I see Misbah walking with his guitar and decide to join.
Around eleven the generators stop and the island night catches up with us. I walk outside to the beach. A couple of tea stalls are open. Spreading electric light and standing guard against the ancient darks advent from the sea.
The tide has risen. The waves are closer now. I move away from the circle of light into the darkness. So many stars and constellations hang from the dark firmament overhead. I walk along the dark beach. Around midnight the tide rise so much that the beach is almost lost in water. White foam washes along my feet carrying away sand from under my feet as it goes back. The continuous roar of the sea no more far away, stirs unknown fears inside. The island is asleep. A pale moon rises in the west sky as I make my way back.
At early morning Misbah and I go for a walk along the beach. The water had receded far back with the morning ebb. The roar of waves are distant now. Golden rays of sun pass through the canopy of coconut trees as morning breeze plays with their leaves.
After walking for some time we notice the beach is covered by sea shells. Clam and mollusk shells of various size shape and color are strewn around everywhere. Here and there some children are picking them up. A man comes out of a nearby hut and asks us if we want a green coconut. After a bit of heckling we decide on a price and he goes away to bring it. We sit on a nearby aggregation of corals and have a breakfast with green coconut water and tender kernel.
Around most of the turns of the island road you can see a shop or two renting bicycles. I try to rent one. He shows me one brand new cycle, its body is still covered in brown paper. It reminds me of one I had when I was I kid. He inquires if I will get into water with it. I tell him I am planning to ride along the beach and he hastily puts it back inside. Sometimes later I get out of the shop with an older bicycle.
I ride along the beach until the sand and the midday heat tires me out. I stop for rest in a nearby shop and buy a green coconut. A little girl and her younger brother comes up to me. They are carrying clam shells in a dirty plastic bag. Do I want to buy some shells, she asks me and her little brother repeats after her. As I sip the slightly acrid coconut water I rummage through their collection. But I don’t buy any of them. They talk for sometime between themselves and each gives me a shell and say, Gifft (with two f’s).
We stay for two days in the island. After that I return to my mechanical life in Dhaka. But in my heart I carry the island with me, its stories for my dreams and the sound of the sea for the melancholic evenings.