Not just a boatman

by Nachiket Kelkar


Pramod was one of these people, affecting and affected by the river, and by dolphin conservation…


I first met the unbelievable character that went by the name of Pramod Mandal in December 2006 in Bhagalpur, Bihar. A dark, tall, lanky man wearing a greasy dark brown shirt, a lungi of an unknown hue of grime, with a muffler of the same color stood before me, early in the morning.

He was bending forward as a gesture of respect, and muttered ‘ Pranaam , sir!’ (Greetings, sir!) in a hoarse, ineffective voice. I said ‘ Namaste ’ back to him, and smiled. Pramod didn’t smile back, for he perhaps felt very shy. He got back to work, arranging things on his boat, a ritual broken only by the swear words he occasionally uttered to his lazy helper on the boat, his younger brother Manoj wa .(Similar to ‘ji’, ‘wa’ is a suffix commonplace in personal address in rural Bihar.)

I was in Bhagalpur to participate in a river dolphin survey happening in the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary, hosted by Dr. Sunil Choudhary. Today was going to be my first-ever sighting and orientation to the river and the Ganges river dolphin, the animal I was planning to study for my M.Sc. in wildlife biology. Pramod wa was the skipper of the survey vessel, his large, noisy and unwieldy country boat with a knobbed diesel-powered inboard motor.

The Vikramshila Sanctuary, a 60-km stretch of the Ganga River was a place full of river dolphins and full of people too. There were people just everywhere — fishing, crossing the river in motorized ferries, bathing along the banks, farming and washing cattle. Pramod wa was one of these people, affecting and affected by the river, and by river dolphin conservation, in many ways. He lived on the southern alluvial bank of the Ganga, in Mirzapur diyara, near a meandering section of the river, which often had a lot of dolphin mothers and calves. He was the eldest of three brothers and his only work was his boat (which he revered as his mother) – that served as a crossing ferry every day, or as the river dolphin survey boat. His youngest brother and helper Manoj wa was a funnily uncouth yet docile teenager hooked to his mobile phone. The middle brother, Pappu, was an outlaw who roamed the floodplain scrublands with his gang of bandits.

When I did my river dolphin studies, I depended on Pramod entirely and we have been working with him regularly ever since. He has been our all-weather boat charioteer for long. He has cooked rice, fish and potato curry for us. The river stretch that was patrolled by Pappu’s gang was always safe for us to work. On one instance he saved my life, by talking politely to 20 rifle-wielding bandits, asking them to spare me, as I was just a harmless researcher! It is now almost eight years since Pramod has been working with us. In this process he has not remained just a boatman. Quite very naturally, again, he has become integrated in the river dolphin conservation program. ‘Pramod’s boat’ has become a harbinger of news about dolphins and other animals. Pramod has learnt a lot from the river. He has watched her change, has lost his land in floods, and has even been moved inwardly with respect, pride and emotion towards her wild nature. The Forest Department formally appointed Pramod as an informer in 2009-10, on the suggestion of Dr. Sunil. Pramod, apart from moving upriver and downriver, now keeps an eye out for and regularly reports dead dolphin sightings, presence of otters or muggers or gharials, bird and turtle hunting, and fishers using illegal nets. He approaches wrongdoers and calmly says in his hoarse, deep characteristic voice: ‘what you are doing is an illegal activity. My job is to only let you know that it is one’, and then walks away quietly, cellphone in hand, calling the Department to provide the information.

I could not visit Vikramshila for almost two-and-a-half years until October 2011. But when I reached and later met Pramod, I was amazed by the transformation in this man. No more was he bent forward or quivering. His ‘ Pranaam , sir!’ had attained self-respect and confidence, and he spoke standing erect, looking into my eyes. Mr. Pramod Mandal, bona fide resident of the floodplains, had transformed into a self-reliant individual. I had read the phrase ‘involving stakeholders’, but understood what it meant now, on meeting Pramod.

I smiled at him and this time he smiled back.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 5 September 2012.

Photo credit: Pramod Mandal