With predictions that Cyclone Amphan was hurtling towards the Sundarbans on the morning of the May 20, I called Saira Laskar who lives in Ananda Abad on the island of Basanti. I asked whether she and her family would be moving to the brick school about 20 minutes’ walk from their home.

“It will be difficult to carry both Falguni and her father, so we will stay home, she said. “We repaired the hut, it should hold.” Falguni is Saira Laskar’s physically challenged daughter. Her husband Mahboob Laskar is ill and has difficulty walking.

In 2009, Cyclone Aila had completely flattened the small mud hut in which Saira Laskar now lives with her husband and three children – a fourth lives with relatives. Because their ration cards were destroyed in the devastation of Aila, they were not given any government help until 2015. They had since rebuilt their home and hoped it would withstand the fury of Amphan.

Collecting firewood

I had met Saira 20 years ago when some kindly friends took me to visit Amal Pandit, a retired teacher of Maheshpur High School who had opened a sort of refuge for children who were living in difficult situations – some had lost a parent, others had a sole parent working as a migrant labourer far from home entrusting his child to him “until the situation gets better”.

Pandit had introduced me to Saira’s daughter Falguni, then a lively little three year old who could not walk. A few months later, when I visited their home, I found Falguni’s seven-year-old brother alone at home minding his two little sisters. Their mother had left for the forest to collect firewood. She risked being killed by a tiger or a crocodile but had set off into the forest as there was no firewood left. They did not own any land so had no spare paddy straw and were too poor to buy any.

Until last year, Saira’s husband Mahboob used to work as a tailor near Metiabruz, on the outskirts of Kolkata, but business had declined. He fell ill and returned home. He soon needed to be hospitalised so the family borrowed money and travelled to Kolkata.

Villagers rebuild an embankment after it got washed away by a tidal wave caused by cyclone Aila in Sundarbans delta, southeast of Kolkata in 2009. Credit: Parth Sanyal/Reuters

This was in mid-June last year, a time when the doctors went on strike because of an assault on one of them. Saira and Mahboob decided to wait outside the hospital gates for the doctors to resume work. They ended up sleeping rough for nearly a week.

Later, Saira recounted how Mahboob had survived only because of the kindness of strangers, some as destitute as them, who had brought them food, medicine and news.

Mahboob had returned home after a month in hospital but had been unable to work since. Saira has taken up selling jhalmuri outside the gates of their village school. Their bright 17-year-old daughter Sohini had abandoned her studies to look after her physically challenged sister and her younger brother.

A broken embankment

Their older brother, who used to work in a garment factory on the outskirts of Kolkata before the lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, is now unemployed and stays with relatives. Though the family owns no land, they have a small pond from where they draw drinking water and from time to time, fish.

When I finally got through again four days after the cyclone to ask how they were, they wished me Eid Mubarak.

“So, how are things?” I asked gingerly.

“All the houses on our side of the road have been destroyed,” Saira said. “The embankment broke midway through the storm. With river water swirling around us, we tied each other with a sari and huddled together waded towards the school while I carried Falguni. The wind was howling; trees had fallen and we kept stumbling. I thought our last hour had come.”

In the morning, they had returned to their hut, now broken, with the mud floor wet and clammy. Falguni and Saira were running a high fever from sleeping on the cold earth.

“The pond fish have all died and there is no drinking water for miles around,” Saira said. “Even if I wanted to boil water I can’t as all the firewood is wet.” Saira started to cry. She added, “I feel sorry for Roma, remember? Our neighbour. Just a week ago she took a lease to cultivate paddy, she is indebted and now has nothing left.”

There would be neither paddy nor pond fish this year, nor any in the predictable future.

Scenes of devastation in the Sundarbans in the wake of Cyclone Amphan. Credit: Ayon Ghosh

Over the last 20 years I noted how they had spent every rupee on staying alive, tending to each other and to the weakest members of their family and community. Over the crackling telephone lines, now as they gave me news not just of themselves but also of their neighbours, I was reminded of how in the Sundarbans islands, you fight with your neighbours as their goat or chicken will routinely have escaped and eaten up a new sapling you had planted with much hope, but how you also flock back together human to human and extend labour, food, time when there is a fire, a drowning or a cyclone.

Flung from one catastrophe to another, staying human while surviving, is a rhythm that pushes the islanders to the brink, at times, of absurd levels of cruelty but also towards incredible compassion when fellow-islanders need to be reminded that they are one’s own.

Now on the day of Eid, weak from having fasted for a month, after surviving a cyclone while wading in crocodile-infested waters, thirsty and hungry, they had found it in their heart to tell me about their neighbours. They, like me, also knew that someone would be on her way to extend a helping hand.

Over the following days, those affected went around collecting grain and bringing the foodstuff they had gathered to Amal Pandit’s orphanage where they came together to cook and distribute food and water to the most vulnerable. Nobody knew when or whether the government or an NGO help would come. No, in these times of climate emergencies, where remaining alive is an art form, it was the neighbour who was the first to provide succour and to extend the protective warmth only another human can offer.

Evidence of civilisation

Listening to many accounts such as this one I was reminded of a story doing the internet rounds about Margaret Mead being asked what the earliest evidence of civilisation might be. What really made us human? Mead replied that it was a thigh bone with a healed fracture that had been excavated from a 15,000 year old site. For an early human to have survived a broken femur, being taken care of – sheltered, protected, fed – through the months that were required for the bone to heal, was primordial and evidence of “civilisation”, of humanity.

The Sundarbans islanders are the first to face the ever rising dangers of climate emergency without having contributed in any way to global warming. Yet the news reporting cyclone Amphan revolved mainly around Kolkata, as if those from the Bengali hinterland were unworthy of solidarity and sorrow.

It is in a crisis like this that in a country segregated along lines of caste, religion, language and region, the ropes of solidarity seem to be woven between those who have the greatest reasons to despair and give up on being human. They seem to be the only ones who would have passed Mead’s test of what really keeps us human today.

Annu Jalais, an environmental anthropologist who works on Bangladesh and West Bengal, is the author of Forest of Tigers and The Bengal Diaspora. She is an assistant professor in the South Asian Studies programme at the National University of Singapore.