In the small town of Kalna, every pond — or pukur in Bangla — tells a story.
Amlapukur, a pond near my ancestral home, borrows its name from a row of amla trees — Indian gooseberry — that once adorned its banks.
Mallickpukur, behind our house, was named for the caste of its owners, and served as habitat for a waddling of domesticated ducks, who noisily asserted their presence in the evenings.
The pond was once carpeted with Indian lotus, water droplets adorning their leaves like scattered pearls. It used to attract migratory birds.
East of us, massive Poddopukur — “Lotus Pond” — was once carpeted with Indian lotus, water droplets adorning their hydrophobic leaves like scattered pearls. The pond used to attract migratory birds, especially the common teal, who rested here on journeys between West Asia and Australia. It also attracted hunters and trappers. Wealthy hunters shot the teals — baali-haans in Bangla — for sport, and considered their meager flesh a delicacy. The poorer trappers caught them alive, to be sold in urban markets. The killing and trapping took place at such a scale that, by the 1970s, the teals had vanished, and Poddopukur went quiet.
Gumropukur, to the west, evoked a different kind of silence. Gumro is a Bangla word meaning pain and anguish bottled up within. This pond, its surface coated with shiny blue-green algae, received the murdered victims of political violence. Everyone avoided it — except for crickets, frogs, and fireflies who made the eerie habitat their home.
To the north, our house faced a smaller pond. Breaking with tradition, it remained nameless.
Its right bank was overgrown with taro plants, a natural habitat for monocled cobras. As a boy, I watched as elderly widows, uncared for by their relations and driven by hunger, walked barefoot into the thick growth to forage. Its left bank was hemmed in by mango, coconut, and wood apple trees. In summer, as ripe fruits dropped, we could recognize each by its splash — the short, sharp plonk of a mango; the dull thud of a coconut.
As a child, I almost drowned in this pond. I also learned how to fish in its waters. My rod was a bamboo stick, fitted with nylon string and an iron hook. The float was made of white duck feathers. My mother recalls that every time I caught a fish, I rushed to show her my silver catch, wriggling in my palms and coating them with slime. As evening fell, the call to end my adventures was the sound of fish sizzling in mustard oil.
The pond, too, has been a victim of vicissitudes. Filth flows freely in, and no one swims in it anymore. I am witnessing the slow erasure of my past.
At the northern end of our nameless pond, the remains of my grandparents’ house sit now behind a row of coconut trees. Time has scraped away plaster, sand, and lime, revealing red bricks once baked from the free soil of a newly independent India. The tin roof has rusted beyond repair, soaking the interiors with rain — and with sunlight.
The pond, too, has been a victim of vicissitudes.
Real-estate encroachment has claimed a third of it. Filth now flows freely in from the surrounding houses, painted pink, blue, and yellow. No one swims in it anymore. I am witnessing the slow erasure of my past.
I belong to a partitioned family.
In the mid-1940s, my grandfather, the late Krishna Kumar Bhadra, set his heart on returning from Lucknow, in India, to his ancestral home in Chittagong, in rural East Bengal. But partition in 1947 placed Chittagong in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and erased any possibility of homecoming.
Instead, he shifted his expanding family from the banks of the Gomti River in Lucknow to Kalna, on the western bank of the Bhagirathi River in the delta, north of Kolkata. Why did he leave the grandeur of urban Lucknow for the peri-urban backwaters of post-partition Bengal? Clues emerge in his journals. Yellowed by time and perforated by cellulose-loving arthropods, they contain detailed recollections from the early 1900s of the pastoral waterscapes of East Bengal. Each pond was a placemark for memories. One in which he swam with his friends; another where they collected water chestnuts; one in which they fished. In his watery adventures, his closest comrade, Karimuddin, was always by his side.
In an entry referring to events in 1918, he writes:
News had spread that the powerful Dutta family was planning to forcibly acquire the pond adjoining our ancestral home. My friend Karimuddin’s father, Nuruddin Anwar Ali, came out in our support. Nuruddin warned the Duttas that he would turn the water of the pond red with their blood if they laid a finger on it. The Duttas never dared to set their eyes on the pond again.
In a subcontinent still raw with the memory of religious violence, my grandfather’s experience of friendship with Karimuddin and his father, a Muslim family, perhaps gave him hope.
Similar accounts saturate Dakshinarajan Basu’s compilation of testimonies from partitioned families in Chere Asha Gram — The Village I Left Behind (1953-1958) — which meticulously describes rural life in Bangladesh (although exclusively from the perspective of Hindu families).
Testimonies from partitioned families describe ghats, steps leading to a pond, as peacefully shared spaces where Hindus performed rituals alongside Muslims gathered in prayer.
In childhood recollections of Savar in the Dhaka district, for example, one narrator speaks of sitting with his friends in the shade of a mango tree and listening to Ramjan, a village elder, as he revealed secret stories of the village. Niremishpukur, “Vegetarian Pond,” once belonged to a dowager queen, who was restricted to a meatless diet as prescribed for Hindu widows of the time. Her son, the King, had ordered the pond to be emptied of fish. In other narratives, ghats — staggered steps leading to a pond — are described as peacefully shared spaces where Hindus perform everyday rituals alongside Muslims gathered in prayer, arranging themselves in neat rows across each step, their synchronized movements mirrored in the water.
In Bengali partition narratives, attachment to place is crystalized in the emotive phrase bhite-maati, “homestead and land.” It is encoded in the Bengali word for refugee — udbastu — “one without a homestead.” Water doesn’t find a place in these expressions. Yet reading the reminiscences collected by Basu, and my grandfather’s memoirs, I sense an intense longing, not just for pastoral waterscapes but for a pre-partition Bengal where water did the work of erasing difference.
In the Bengal delta, land exists where water allows it.
Melting glaciers and monsoon rains flow together in the rivers Ganga, Brahmaputra, and Meghna, carrying more than a billion tons of Himalayan silt and mixing it with a trillion cubic meters of water every year to create the world’s largest delta. 1 Emerging from this interplay of river and silt with deep time, mud long ago became an adhesive that joins water, land, and people.
Pukurs surfaced at such intersections, as numerous as iridescent eyespots on a peacock’s feathers.
The 19th century Bengali philosopher Shibnath Shastri theorized that pukurs proliferated alongside human habitations because the mud dug for construction of a house would leave a pit that soon filled with water, creating a pond for each home — a source of water and food.
Pukurs simultaneously expanded settled agriculture in the delta, shaping the region into a laboratory for rice cultivation. Debal Deb, a conservator of Indigenous rice varieties, records the presence of 15,000 different varieties across West Bengal and Bangladesh, an abundance that lasted until the 1940s.
Pukurs expanded settled agriculture in the delta, and entered the Bengali imagination as bridges to an intimate encounter with the nonhuman world.
Pukurs also entered the Bengali imagination as bridges to an intimate encounter with the nonhuman world. Rabindranath Tagore — the first non-White recipient of the Nobel Prize — movingly writes of such an experience in his poem Pukur Dhaarey (By the Bank of a Pond, 1932), which describes a place teeming with life — six flowering plants, two aquatic vegetables, eight fruit-bearing trees, two species of birds. In poet Jasimuddin’s Puran Pukur (Ancient Pond, 1933), pukurs symbolize the entanglement of social and ecological life in rural Bengal.
পুরান পুকুর, তব তীরে বসি ভাবিয়া উদাস হই,
খেজুরের গোড়ে বাঁধা ছোট ঘাট, করে জল থই থই;
রাত না পোহাতে গাঁয়ের বধুরা কলসীর কলরবে,
ঘুম হতে তোমা জাগাইয়া দিত প্রভাতের উৎসবে।
সারাদিন ধরি ঘড়ায় ঘড়ায় তব অমৃতরাশি,
বধুদের কাঁখে ঢলিয়া ঢলিয়া ঘরে ঘরে যেত হাসি।
Indolently, I sit by your bank, ancient pond,
Girded with date palms stumps, brimming with water;
Women arrive at dawn, pitchers clattering,
Rousing you into a celebration of sunshine.
All day, they collect your abundant nectar.
Sloshing in those vessels, laughter reaches every home. 2
In the Bengali middle-class imagination, owning a pukur used to be a sign of wealth and aspiration, condensed in the popular saying gari, bari, kukur, pukur (“car, house, dog, pond”).
With time, however, the pukur lost its place.
This was, in some ways, the result of nearly 150 years of vilification by colonial science, which viewed ponds, like the bodies of the colonized, as disease-producing entities. In 1856, Irish surgeon James Johnson argued that Bengal’s tropical climate was suffused with “marsh exhalations” harmful to the health of Europeans. Colonial administrators were quick to catch on. In 1872, C. Fabre-Tonnerre, Health Officer for Calcutta Municipality, wrote:
In these bustees are found green and slimy stagnant ponds, full of putrid vegetable and animal matter in a state of decomposition and whose bubbling surfaces exhale, under a tropical sun, noxious gases, poisoning the atmosphere and spreading around disease and death. These ponds supply the natives with water for domestic purposes and are very often the receptacles of filth. 3
In reality, colonial infrastructure was often the culprit. “Improvements” such as railways and river embankments fragmented natural drainage, converting interconnected waterbodies into stagnant pools, and furthering the spread of malaria.
Colonial infrastructures fragmented natural drainage, converting interconnected waterbodies into stagnant pools, and furthering the spread of malaria.
There were also commercial pressures. In Living with Epidemics in Colonial Bengal (2018), historian Arabinda Samanta shows how, on completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, rising demand for jute as a packing material for goods shipped by sea led to large-scale cultivation in India. Jute plants had to be tied in bundles and soaked for weeks — typically in ponds — to loosen the fiber from the stem. The decomposing biomass did indeed turn the water putrid, converting ponds into fertile grounds for “marsh exhalations.”
Colonial cities also produced uneven zones of congestion and pollution. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that in 1884, German bacteriologist Robert Koch discovered the cholera bacillus in a pukur in the low-income neighborhood of Beliaghata in the capital of British India, Calcutta (now Kolkata). This conflict between progress and tradition is movingly narrated in the 1914 novel Pandit Moshai (The Teacher) by renowned Bengali writer Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay.
An audit revealed that 3842 pukurs had been filled in since the 1990s. One affluent South Kolkata neighborhood recorded 823 pukurs in 1888. By 1961, 33 remained.
Cholera has broken out, and people try to wash the clothes of the diseased in the village pond. The protagonist, Brindaban, a wealthy and educated man from a lower caste, tries to protect the waters from contamination. But his efforts are ridiculed by village Brahmins, who argue that the pond has been dug according to rituals laid down in the Hindu sacred texts, and cannot be tainted by human action: “Just because you can read two pages in English doesn’t mean you stop believing in our holy books.” 4 Brindaban is cursed and ostracized. In the end, after losing his son to the epidemic, he donates his entire family fortune to dig a tubewell for the village.
Increasingly, ponds came to be seen as relics of a regressive and unscientific past. Tubewells were enshrined as symbols of modernity, a solution to rising mortality rates from waterborne diseases in the Bengal delta. With colonial science guaranteeing the purity of groundwater from a tubewell, public health departments scrambled to wean people away from ponds.
In urban areas, pukurs were also being erased by the growing greed for land.
Historian Debjani Bhattacharya illustrates this for Kolkata in Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta (2018). The steady expansion of urban land markets undermined the centrality of waterbodies in people’s lives. Bhattacharya refers to the 1934 novel Agamikaal (Tomorrow) by Bengali author Premendra Mitra, which describes urban development in Calcutta through the loss of ponds, tanks, and other water sources.
Environmentalist Mohit Ray also tallies such disappearances in his book Five Thousand Mirrors: The Waterbodies of Kolkata (2014). His audit revealed that 3842 pukurs had been filled in since the 1990s. In the affluent South Kolkata neighborhood of Bhowanipur, 823 pukurs were recorded in 1888. By 1961, only 33 remained.
Urbanization had become a shorthand for displacing water to reclaim land. And, as obituaries for pukurs were being written, something else was changing beneath the alluvial aquifers.
Governments and international aid agencies patented an endless array of water-purifying technologies, only to leave behind a landscape littered with dysfunctional water filters.
Arsenic, an odorless and tasteless heavy metal, familiar as a poison in antiquity and known in the present as a carcinogen, had existed, latent, in aquifers of the Bengal delta since the Holocene period. Then, in the 1980s, a massive outbreak of severe skin disorders and other illnesses occurred. A Kolkata-based scientist, Dipankar Chakrabarti, established that drinking water from tubewells was contaminated with high levels of arsenic. The World Health Organization later cited the outbreak as “mass poisoning on an unprecedented scale,” with almost 120 million people exposed in Bangladesh and India. 5
Populations in the Bengal delta — which is perforated by millions of tubewells — were deeply shaken by the arsenic crisis. For almost two decades, governments and international aid agencies designed, patented, and piloted an endless array of water-purifying technologies, only to leave behind a landscape littered with dysfunctional water filters. Scientists and policy pundits are now divided on the best course of action going forward. A majority favors centralized infrastructure projects that would reduce dependence on groundwater by returning to rivers as surface sources. A smaller group argues for a more decentralized system, accessing shallow aquifers through dug wells — and ponds.
Science is coming full circle.
As the climate crisis deepens, experts recognize that, globally, ponds store as much carbon as the world’s oceans, and sequester atmospheric carbon at a rate 20 to 50 times faster than trees. For millennia, ponds in the Bengal delta have been scrubbing carbon from the atmosphere and sinking it in the soil. As they continue to disappear, so do hopes of holding back a worsening climate crisis.
Ponds are not just about carbon, however. As those whose memories are gathered in The Village I Left Behind attested in the post-partition era, ponds are also about people.
The late wetland ecologist Dhrubajyoti Ghosh has drawn attention to the pre-industrial custom of sleeping under trees beside ponds and lakes to survive the summer heat, affectionately referring to pukurs as “goriber AC” — air-conditioners for the poor. As the climate crisis sears South Asia with record-setting heat waves, the disappearance of ponds leaves the poor at the mercy of fatal heat stroke.
Globally, ponds store as much carbon as the world’s oceans, and sequester atmospheric carbon at a rate 20 to 50 times faster than trees.
Cyclones are another climate calamity recurring in the Bay of Bengal. In urbanized areas, where ponds, lakes, and natural drainage channels have been paved over, excess rainfall has no place to go. Thus, in May 2020, when Cyclone Amphan made landfall, nine inches of rain fell within 24 hours in Kolkata. A large part of the city was submerged, and many areas remained waterlogged for more than a week. While social media buzzed with photos of fallen heritage trees and the city’s iconic yellow cabs floating in floodwaters, the worst affected areas remained invisible. These were the boroughs with the largest informal settlements, home to Kolkata’s poor.
Pockmarked with innumerable pukurs, a hydrological cross-section of Kolkata once looked like a sponge, its interconnected pores soaking up and storing excess rainfall. In a flooded city, the absence of such reservoirs is registered with force, reminding us that the survival of pukurs is inextricably linked to our own.
“Pukur bodh hocche” (“ponds are being slaughtered”) a former municipal councillor whispered to me on a crowded road in Kalna. He is in his 80s, and chooses his words carefully. The word “bodh” in Bangla means both ritual sacrifice and slaughter. Urbanization in India has produced plenty of both.
Bureaucratic disinterest in ponds mirrored that of the aspiring middle class, who had turned their backs on ponds the moment pipes and taps entered their homes.
I was trying, on this visit, to find out how many local ponds had disappeared. My queries encountered apathy. It is not that the records were not there. They were probably gathering dust in rusty filing cabinets. But the bureaucratic disinterest in ponds mirrored that of Kalna’s aspiring middle class, who had literally turned their backs on ponds the moment pipes and taps entered their homes. That supply of drinking water had arrived in the 1990s, a decade before wastewater networks, and ponds became a convenient site for waste disposal. New houses in Kalna were built facing away from the increasingly fetid backyard ponds, and the translucent muddy gray of the pukurs was transformed by algal blooms and colonies of bacteria. Now many are covered with a reddish green film that slowly chokes the life out of the water by depleting its oxygen. In many areas, this has heralded the transformation of pukurs into dobas.
Dobas are orphaned pukurs. Deemed a public health hazard, with no one to care for them, they are often destined for erasure.
While the middle classes — mostly upper-caste Hindus — were quick to turn away from ponds, the poor — belonging to oppressed Hindu caste groups — have had little choice. With networked water supply and proper housing inaccessible, they remain dependent on pukurs for everyday needs. People and ponds are both living on the margins. But it is this strange entwinement that, in recent decades, has safeguarded the latter from powerful elites. Whenever a developer tries to erase a pond, the town’s poorest residents offer the stiffest resistance.
Without networked water and proper housing, the poor depend on pukurs for daily needs.
Sadly, the nonhumans have had no one to speak for them. The machranga, or common kingfisher, perched patiently on a low-hanging branch, preening its iridescent blue feathers; the dahook, or white-breasted waterhen, moving with utmost stealth through a thicket of water hyacinth; the pankouri, or Indian cormorant, sunning itself on a tree stump — the waterbirds of my childhood are losing their habitats and disappearing.
Owners who manage pukurs as fishponds are now guided by the calculus of profit and loss, and waterbirds fall on the wrong side of this ledger. To protect their fish from predatory birds, owners sometimes cover a pond with a lattice of fine threads fortified with starch and ground glass. We will never know how much suffering has been endured before birds learned to distinguish their feeding grounds from their graveyards.
A few years ago, the nameless pond opposite my ancestral home was teetering on the edge of extinction. A melancholic aura clung to it, its defoliated banks host to a colorful display of discarded soft-drink bottles. Yet, even in this mutilated form, it offered hope.
Then, one midnight, trucks rolled in, loaded with sand, soil, and bricks. Someone had picked out an old file from a rusty cabinet and changed its status from pukur to doba.
Resistance arose from an unexpected quarter. Every time water was pumped out of the pond, it magically reappeared the next morning.
As construction progressed, however, resistance arose from an unexpected quarter. Every time water was pumped out of the pond, it magically reappeared the next morning. It seemed as if the pukur itself was resisting annihilation. A few old-timers guessed that it was being replenished by neighboring waterbodies through subterranean capillaries. Others found recourse in the metaphysical. The resurrection was bhuture, “ghostly,” a vitalist force commandeered by spirits.
Unable to lay the foundation for a planned two-story house, the builders gave up after a few months, leaving behind debris on the pond bed. As the water reclaimed lost ground, memory of the incursion lingered in the form of a lonely pillar, its steel rods jutting from the surface. Kingfishers returned to perch there, peering sharp-eyed into the grey-green water. On quiet afternoons, standing by the pond, one can hear again the delicate sound of their headfirst plunge, and watch them resettle, silvery morsels in their beaks.
Its obituary yet to be written, the pukur remains, awaiting the next siege.