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     Volume 7 Issue 41 | October 17, 2007 |

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Cover Story

Against the Waves

For several years, the enchanting beauty of the Rupsha River has attracted many writers and poets, including the famous modernist poet of Bangla literature, Jibananada Das. This river has been the source of a livelihood for the many villages that line up by the riverside. Every year, the annual Nouka Baich brings these villages together to test their strength against each other with boat races. Over the years, the baich has become something more than just a boat race. It is today a platform for the villagers to interact, local trades-people to participate in a fair and also a chance to open up to the outside world through the media, flaunting their age-old traditions and cultures.

Elita Karim
Photos : Zahedul I Khan

At the sound of the whistle, the race begins.

“The Lord is with us. We have been championing this contest for the last three years. We will win again," exclaims Deepak Biswas, the team leader of his boat Jitendra Shah Biswas, named after his late father who had been a boat racer himself for more than 35 years. Forty-year-old Deepak's boat, numbered 6 in the serial, was the first one to arrive at the contest. Clad in colourful tees and orange bandanas, the team of seventy rowers, posing for the journalists and the television crew, also included a man with a dhol to keep the rhythm flowing amongst the rowers during the race, two men acting as navigators and one man sitting in the bow, dancing and flaunting his long messy hair, mostly for the sake of the audience. The Nouka Baich, which was to begin, soon promised a colourful performance, which would be witnessed by hundreds of villagers living near and far.

The race-boats are very narrow in shape and are as long as 150 to 200 feet or more, carrying more than 70-75 participants from a single team.

Unfortunately though, the Jitendra Shah Biswas team had to lose their title this year. In fact, they were not even close to the winning spot. Soon after the boat positioned itself at the starting point, five more boats joined in. 135 feet long, carrying 70-75 rowers, the audience by the river could not stop admiring the grand sight created by the boats, gearing up to begin the race. Once the whistle blew, the boaters immediately shifted their focus from smiling at the audience and the cameras, to rowing their boats and winning the race. Rowing at full speed with all their strengths, a combination of the rhythmic splashing of water with the singing and dancing on the boats filled the air, not to mention the loud cheers that followed from the audience. Most of the singing on the boats seemed to be a call to God to help them reach their destination as fast and as smoothly as possible.

Since rivers form an integral part of Bangladesh's history, tradition, literature, culture and sports, boat races have been and still define an important element of folk culture. For centuries Nouka Baich, or boat races have been taking place in the subcontinent. Every year, a baich would bring together young and strong farmers, fishermen, carpenters and many more from nearby villages for a thrilling contest that would eventually bring about the year's winning team. These boat races were not only a major source of yearly entertainment for the villagers, but also a way to prove one's superiority in terms of strength and sense of navigation, especially for long-time winning villages. Even though, these yearly boat races have now lost a little bit of their popularity and also the thousands of spectators who would crowd up the riversides to watch the event, boat races are still happening in many parts of the country.

For many years, the nouka baich by the famous river Rupsha would be organised by local organisations. For the last two years, however, Banglalink has been sponsoring this event, making it all the more colourful and attracting a lot of people even outside the participating villages. According to Mohammad Amin, a fisherman who has been living by the Rupsha his whole life, these races have been taking place for as long as he can remember. "This river is a very important source of livelihood for the nearby villages," he says. "Therefore, boat races have always been extremely important events in these parts. A boatman's technique and skill in giving his boat the maximum speed is demonstrated in these races. Each boat is manned by many, starting from 7 to 100, depending on the size of the boat." The boats at these races are very narrow in shape and are as long as 150 to 200 feet or more, with their front and the back parts straight. They are usually made with timber of local shal, shil, karai and chambul trees. Traditionally, boat races are usually held during the Bangla months of Bhadra and Ashwin.

The river was crowded with boats, steamers and trawlers filled
with cheering squads. Men, women and children had hired boats well before the contest and had bagged a place on the river to watch the race.

This year, on the Rupsha, the six racing boats were to complete three rounds of rowing to the Rupsha Bridge with tremendous speed. The best of the three rounds of rowing would be awarded an amount of Tk 10,000. According to one of the rowers, most of the boatmen and contestants were farmers living in the nearby villages of Shukto, Narail, Jessore and Khulna. "We work in the fields during the day," says the boatman. "When there is a contest close by, we practice in the evenings, right before and after sunset, while there is still enough light to see."

According to him, before boarding the boats, they go through a ritual of prayers before putting on their uniforms. This year, the uniforms ranged from white to red to even yellow. While one team donned red and blue, another village represented their team in yellow. There was yet another team, wearing white, complete with numbers printed on their backs like professional players. However, the saffron and black Banglalink bandanas were the only pieces of clothing that the six teams had in common.

Other than the racing boats moving towards the bridge, the river was crowded with boats, steamers and trawlers filled with cheering squads. Men, women and children had hired boats well before the contest and had bagged a place on the river to watch this spectacular event. However, once the race began, the boats full of cheerleaders could not simply station themselves at one point. They began to move alongside the racers. At one point, there seemed to be hundreds of boats and motorboats of all shapes and sizes trying to compete each other and reach the Rupsha Bridge.

The Rupsha Bridge filled with thousands of spectators watching below and enjoying the event.

Soon after, chaos broke out on the river. One of the competing boats, with the young fishermen and farmers in white jerseys sunk half way to the bridge. This caused an uproar not only amongst the boatmen who fell into the water, but also the spectators on the nearby cheering-squad boats. Many jumped into the water after the boat, looking frantically around to see any sign of it. Locating bubbles nearby, clusters of boats and boatmen rowed and swam towards the area respectively, and began a rescue attempt of the sinking boat. Two boatmen, holding on to a rope, went inside the river trying to find the boat. "Once they find it, they will tie the other end of the rope to the sunken boat," explains a local boatman. "It will then be pulled out and repaired by the riverside." The two boatmen who had gone inside had to come back up. Panting and trying to catch their breath, they explained to their people that the boat was not there. Once again, large air bubbles were located a little far away from the unsuccessful rescue spot. Chasing those bubbles, once again, the rescue boat along with the two boatmen holding on to the rope reached the spot and performed the rescue procedure once again.

A child taking over his father's stall at the fair for a while
The perfect parking spot for cyclists. (For motor-bikers, the rate was Tk 5.)
The Duboris along with the Fire Service people Police boat circling the perimeter of the area.

Near the Rupsha Bridge, the baich was still going on, between the five other racing boats and also the cheering-squad boats that had begun an unofficial competition amongst themselves as well. With strong determination and strength, the racers reached the bridge, coming out with a winner, boat number 2, Jahangirer Nouka from Koyra village. The boats filled with spectators, however, met with yet another bit of catastrophe. The Rupsha Bridge was filled with thousands of spectators who were watching below and enjoying the race. As soon as a boat would pass by the bridge, the merry spectators on the bridge would spit on the people on those boats. In a hurry to escape the 'downpours' on them, the cheering boats immediately turned around to go the other way, away from the bridge. Again there was chaos when one boat hit the other, trying to push away as fast as possible. People standing and sitting on the boats had to hold on to the sides, trying not to fall off.

Fortunately, the organisers had taken care of the security and medical emergencies on the river. Several engine boats with police officers, Rab officials and Coast Guard officials were roaming about the perimeter of the contest area on the Rupsha. On one of the Fire Service emergency boats, Mohammad Humayan Kabir was dressed in a scuba diving outfit, complete with underwater breathing equipment and oxygen tanks. "We are from the Fire Service and every year a few of us are always put on stand-by to watch out for boaters and even the spectators in the river during the races," says Kabir. Popularly known as 'dubori', Kabir along with Abdul Razzak and Saidul Islam were selected by the service this year in case of emergency rescues. Placed on three separate boats, the <>duboris<> were taking turns roaming about the audience and also rowing up and down from the starting point to the Rupsha Bridge and back. While relaxing for a while by the riverside, Kabir confided that even though the work of a dubori is extremely important and that there have been several instances where he and his fellow mates had to risk their own lives for others, his job did not bring him much to raise a family. "I have been a dubori for the last six years," he confides. "Practically, our work is more or less similar to the Coast Guard officials. But we are paid a very poor amount. We have children who go to school, but we get to see them only once a year during holidays since we have to leave our families in our village homes. We cannot afford to live with families in the cities."

Boats filled with cheering spectators moving along with the race-boats

By the time the baich ended, the number of people by the riverside seemed to double, waiting for the results and the cultural programme which was to follow. A colourful presentation of the village life with music and dances by Rob Fakir, the famous baul from Kushtia, thrilled the crowd of hundreds. Many youngsters were simply hanging out by the several stalls of food items and handicrafts put up by local businesspeople to attract customers. Families were seen buying glass bangles, purses, miniature elephants, cats and penguins created with clay. Food stalls were brimming with youngsters asking for a second helping of chotpoti, phuchka, coconut water, puri, borfi and locally made sweetmeats. One stall was also offering rice with special hilsa fish cooked in gravy with fried hilsa eggs.

A local villager playing the role of the race commentator.

Even though most of the people who live on the Rupsha face a lot of hardships throughout the year, the villagers keep this one single day aside for their families to come together and celebrate a common culture, irrespective of their religions. As the famous Indian proverb goes, you can often find in rivers what you cannot find in oceans.

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