This last weekend I took a break from my Hensel's lemma and statistical physics of molecular dissociation and cobordism of framed manifolds to travel to some of the far flung places of West Bengal. Places which can be as distant from my familiar world as anything can be. For one thing these are places in unthinkable poverty. One is going to be horrified looking at the life-styles of the localities there. Its way deep into the perforated lower edge of Bengal. The travel to these places is pretty primitive in its ways - travel in a local train, then a boat, then a motorized "bullock" cart and then luckily a car. None of the steps are as comfortable as one would want it to be. While at that place I tried traveling to another nearby island but the plan had to be canceled since the Bay of Bengal turned out to be a bit too rough for the small boat that I had hired. There was always this constant fear of the boat capsizing. I guess one wouldn't be so scared if drowning was a painless death.
Do we fear the fact that we will die or the possibility of the pain during the process of death?
But the first destination where I landed held such a mesmerizing spectacle before me that, I almost instantaneously forgot the agony of the journey till there. It is the world's most beautiful sea-beach. I have been to some of India's major beaches and I know what a mess they are and have seen photographs of many more beaches on the internet. I can't see how any beach in this world can be better than this one. Its just empty! I was the only one on the beach when I reached there. As far as I could see, I could spot neither any other human being or any other human creation. It was nature left alone on its own. It was just beautiful.
Being alone on a vast sea-beach with sand plains all around as far as one could see, one is tempted to feel like Robinson Crusoe :D
Nature looks most beautiful when left alone with me :)
Far away one could see the edge of the mangrove forest and the erosion edges of it. At that end at various spots one could see the dying pneumatophores sticking out through the sand as if gasping for the last breath. Inspite of a lot of locals warning me against it, I did travel to these edges. Here one is mostly scared of various wild animals. Though the only thing I had the fortune of seeing were footprints of possibly some wild boars.
The water was clean as one can imagine it to be. And it brought along to the beach various curious organisms which one gets to read of only in the books. I did see a few starfishes, sea-pens and sea-anemones. It was just bizarrely wonderful to be gazing at this apparently infinite sea in front with vast sand plains behind and no other trace of human civilization anywhere else!
A queer sense of excitement to imagine how the world might have been when humans hadn't yet arrived to destroy it.
I walked and walked along the sea as far as I could go. It was like almost trying to gulp down this immense beauty. Nature when on its own without being bifurcated by human's "narrow domestic walls", feels just a bit too large to take in at once. I sat down to gaze at the serene barrenness. I screamed with joy and shed all inhibitions knowing that no other human is ever going to hear this sound.
But this is in sharp contrast to the horrifying images of human poverty that one has to pass by while in the train. Even the train that one needs to use to reach this place can be nightmarish to someone not used to traveling in such muck and filth almost like cattle packed for slaughter. Its a 3 hour long train journey and what one gets for this long is barely a 1 feet wide edge of a wooden bench to sit on. And not alone! While sitting in this precariously uncomfortable situation, one would be gasping for breath as one gets crushed in by the hordes of people pressing into the train from all sides. To add to the troubles there is the regular flow of the vendors carrying huge baskets of enormous amount of cheap stuff or unhygienic food or even pirated foods. "Pirated" in the sense that one would be selling locally made drinks in re-sealed bottles of the standard soft drinks and even standard biscuits at dirt cheap prices. On asking, these vendors would invariably remain mum about how they managed to do this. Looking at the packets one realizes that they do have manufacturing and expiry dates and batch numbers printed on them. Nothing to rule out that most of these are just stolen stuff. But the exceptionally poor customers who travel on these trains in the dark corners of India have little time for legality and will be content buying just about anything that lets them survive this horrific train journey. (..even among the uptown urban Indians or its best of research institutes, legality is anyway not a familiar concept!..) Given my sophisticated urbanized instincts, I was at my wits end at such nightmarish traveling conditions. I can only wonder how they do it those who do this regularly. At some point of her life, my mother, a doctor, used to do similar travels regularly, albeit a little shorter. There more than the need to hold on to her job to raise her children, I guess she was more motivated by the fact that the village where she was posted was so far away from the mainstream that her one day's absence might mean death for someone.
But at the end of this terrifying train journey, lay the most beautiful sea-beach in the world. A seemingly endless and totally empty and completely clean sea-beach. Conflict couldn't have been stronger!
One couldn't be sitting blind to the images that pass by as the train passes through the outskirts of these abjectly poor regions of Bengal. What unfolds outside the window is a chilling story of systematic government failure and of people leaving in subhuman conditions. The houses one passes by are pretty typical. Its basically a cubicle of dimensions 4ft x 6ft x 6ft and this too will have two floors and will be accommodating anywhere between 5 to 10 people. These cubicles are made mostly of bamboo pasted together with mud and the roof is basically a thatched roof overlaid with a sheet of plastic on which is put up a matrix of old rubber tyres. The living conditions inside these houses is abysmal. The stench is unbearable. No lights. Nothing is clean. There is so little space to breathe that there is surely no space to think. The only question for its inmates is that of survival and the only slogan is to be able to do just about anything to make both ends meet. They are barely protected from any of the slightest of natural disturbances. It won't take much of a strong wind or a drizzle to bring everything tumbling down. The state of the people living in the 2nd floors of these cubicles gets only worse. They could only be lying on some old tattered horribly unclean mattresses on broken beds and rain and wind would be blowing in water and dust into the completely unprotected rooms. They can hardly do anything to protect themselves from anyone. But the bizarre miracle of this conniving world is that when it couldn't provide them with even a sense of respectable life, this mockery of a civilization does bring to these tattered homes cell-phones and televisions. It would be a common meal time scene to see all the inmates sit semi-circularly around a single plate of food and facing the television. The food would hardly be anything more than may be a mound of rice and salt and lemon and chillies and may be a cup of dal (lintels) for everyone.
Looking at these lives, one is soon left searching for even life.
The absolute wonder of seeing the mangrove forests at the edges of Bengal did help forget the pathos that had inevitably shrouded the mind. One is only strongly inclined to put into action in one's daily life the philosophy of the terrific book, "The Life you Can Change" by Peter Singer. At the mangrove forests, nature is playing its own beautiful games of survival albeit with a touch of beauty and comforting grandeur which hasn't ever been the forte of the humankind. One would be fascinated to see stretches of mangroves lean deep into the water and the roots to be rising upwards out of the water. At about the age of 14, I had first read about these pneumatophores and it took so many years to be actually seeing this fascinating natural phenomenon. They are a cradle for a very unique mixture of creatures ranging from cranes to deers to wild cats ("Baghrolls") and various forms of wild boars and other animals. I was still only at the fringes near the sea-beach and the deep interiors which I could see far away are known to be the home to some of the largest tigers.
Since I was putting up in house near to the beach/mangrove itself, nights were no less exciting with all kinds of odd sounds. Sleep would be hard to find with the naive mind's untrained imagination adding connotations to the unfamiliar sounds of the forest!
At a certain erosion edge of the mangrove forest, I did spot the natural phenomenon of a lagoon formation. It was hard to spot from anywhere nearby given how beautifully it had curved inside remaining hidden from the forest cover but I could see it from the top of a tower. These eroding edges are vivid signals of approaching natural disasters. Its clearly because of the rising sea-levels in south eastern Asia which is disturbing the critical salinity levels of the water. One is surely going to feel a chill run down the spine as one gazes at these fields of dying mangroves whose only remnant are the breathing roots sticking out of the mud at various places in clumps of various sizes.
Around these one could keep spotting other small water body formations and if like me one can go down inside the mud in hope of spotting something interesting then one would surely not be disappointed. Initially my efforts were paid back with just a sight of a few snails lazying around in the shallow muddy waters but soon I could spot, a "Mud Skipper". Its a very unique animal whose lungs are disproportionately large compared to its lizard like size and structure. And not just big, the lungs are pretty transparent and they bulge out clearly evertime it breathes outside water. It can also live under water. Mud Skipper's are evolutionarily very important since they are the "missing link" between the life that evolved first in water and when it started to come on land.
These still couldn't take away the show from that of a sunrise on this vast, empty, open and sparkling clean beach. It was a sight to see. Just at dawn the sea-anemones would be curled up and as the sun rose they too seemed to pull up their tentacles. I didn't care whether it is harmful but I did touch the slimy sticky tentacles. Just for the experience! One couldn't but help feel connected to a pantheistic emotion as the sun shimmered across the white and golden sand smeared flat and seemingly endlessly around. I walked towards where the red crabs lived and most ran inside their holes as soon as they heard human footsteps albeit from very far away. But still I did manage to get some photographs of their crowd and some of them individually. When they are collectively out, they would make stretches of the sand looks red from away! And pretty much ubiquitously one could see the much smaller and colorless hermit crabs scurry between the legs. Here there would also be dogs who seemed to manage to sniff from outside whether a certain hole in the sand had a crab and could dig it out and maim it. But it didn't seem to have any intentions of eating them. As the sun kept rolling higher up behind me, I crossed these regions to walk to the eroding edges of the mangrove which I described earlier. Here the land would get tricky and marshy and it turned out to be beneficial to pull down some of the long branches of these trees and use that to test the land stability before setting foot any further.
It was too hard to leave this most miraculous sea-beach and return to the shackles of this unfair world of the only war-mongering form of life.
Is evolution necessarily eventually suicidal?
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