Call of the Haor

A haor is a large depression in the land which submerges underwater during monsoon and dries in winter. The Haor Basin, which falls in Sylhet division, comprises about 4500 square kilometers. Geologists suspect the depression was created at the same time as the rise of the Madhupur Tract, and it has sunk 1.5 meters as recently as the last two centuries. Numerous haors (and smaller beels) dot this Basin, where the water depth during monsoon can reach thirty feet.

That is the science. But the real charm of haors is how they make you feel and what they do to your soul. Two of our greatest poets, Hasan Raja and Abdul Karim, hailed from Sunamganj, the land of haors. Their songs resonate with the range of feelings – from infinite longing to haunting loneliness to existential acceptance – that haors evoke in us.With advent of winter, I itch to return to the haors. The roads are rough as they are underwater half the year. Most haors are remote, because the ones close to town have been built up. To get to Tanguar Haor is a long day's boat ride from Sunamganj. Hail, Hakaluki and Khoroti Haors are accessed by dirt roads that jar your bones.

But as villages recede, the scenery rewards you. Small groups of fishermen, nets dangling from bamboo poles slung over the shoulder, walk home with their nightly catch. A shepherd boy struggles to keep his herd of water buffaloes from dipping into the roadside beel. A burkha-clad grandmother marches home with her grandson carrying sundry items from the nearest village market.In the austere landscape, trees stand like lonely sentinels. Most are hijol, koros or borun – underwater survivors. Occasionally you see kodom and planted hardwoods, even a boroi, on raised plots, but never jackfruit which cannot stand water. You can smell the water everywhere. The breeze is cool and light on your skin. Land, water and sky meet somewhere over the horizon.

At the edge of a large water body, perhaps Baikka Beel in Hail Haor, or Haor Khal in Hakaluki Haor, you find a boatman to take you close to the birds, many of which have come from afar to spend winter here. Dozens of duck varieties in the open water look for fish, roots, insects or grains to eat. Jacanas, moorhens or wamphens play among the lotus, water hyacinth or water lilies. Suddenly they stop and go on alert. You find the reason high overhead, where a bird of prey – perhaps a kestrel or a harrier – is circling, looking for a kill.Come monsoon the haors sport a new look. They become inland seas through which boats pass, but fishermen and farmers are now gone.

People living in the haors have a tough life. In monsoon, with their land submerged, they must find work elsewhere. During winter they fish, raise poultry or grow crops. In Tanguar, where there are no paved roads, I saw a wedding in a small hut. Bride, groom and guests arrived riding motorcycles over fields and meadows. After the wedding, the bride and groom mounted a motorcycle and rode off, a suitcase carrying the belongings she needed for her new life.Haors are our wild, wild West. And a whole lot more.