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With Adam Johnson in the Sundarbans

  • Published at 06:36 pm December 8th, 2018
Adam Johnson on a boat

He tells me he finds the overall ambiance of this country fascinating

Bangla strong! 

Adam Johnson comes up with this catchphrase during his five nights stay in Dhaka. 

Adam Johnson, the writer of The Orphan Master’s Son, has won almost all the major literary prizes in the US before turning 50. Entering  Stanford in 1999 as a Stegner Fellow, he has remained there ever since—teaching literature with a focus on creative writing. He has come to attend this year’s Dhaka Lit Fest, held at the grounds of Bangla Academy last month. 

On the afternoon of Saturday, November 10, the last day of the event, Adam sets off for his jungle adventure—to the Sundarbans. I meet him at the Dhaka Airport to accompany him on this trip. We start talking standing in the check-in line, and within five minutes I get a feeling I have known him for a long time. I also get introduced to his 16-year-old son, James. 

Later, Adam would tell me that his youngest child, Justice, 12, would be green with envy hearing about this forest trip. She wanted to come, but she needs her mama wherever she travels. And her mama, Adam’s wife, couldn’t join him this time. The Johnson family has three children, three dogs. They live in San Francisco.  

Family. Teaching. Writing. How do you maintain a balance among these three? I ask him. You have to, he gives his classic smile with the reply. My wife is a writer too, he says. If I don’t write for some time, I get cranky. Same goes for my wife. 

We land in Jashore, get in a van, and start our arduous three-hour bumpy road journey for Mongla. Driving on Bangladeshi roads involves lots of overtaking and lots of honking. Adam texts his wife that we are in a ‘life and death’ situation. 

Around 10:30 pm we are on our boat M.B. Mawali, a small yet splendid houseboat. We change into our regular clothes. Adam and James appear on the top deck wearing white pajamas. Bought from Aarong, Adam says these are very comfortable. He tells they have done a lot of shopping. Even a painted tin case with an archetypal artwork of rickshaw painting—a luscious portrait of a popular film actress from the 1980s. He said he loved the dazzling bright color of her face.  

After a good night’s sleep, when we wake up at dawn, we find ourselves inside the Sundarbans. The forest lies on both sides of the Posur River. With winter knocking at the door, the chilly air from the world’s largest mangrove forest intoxicates us. Ahh, fresh forest air, Adam breathes in loudly. 

In Harbaria, there is a long wooden walkway through the woods. The forest department built it to give the tourists a feel of the deep forest. Minutes after our trekking starts, our guide shows us tiger footmarks on the soft earth. They may be two or three days old, he asserts. 

We see everywhere zillions of fiddler crabs scurrying over the mudflats. If all the Sundarbans crabs vanish one day, our guide says, probably there would be no Sundarbans. Crabs are surely the intrinsic part of the ecosystem here. Their movements and activities help mix the oxygen into the soil. 

Suddenly, Adam cries out: A snake! Our eyes follow his hand pointing to a tree trunk. A king cobra? Our guide tries hard to take a glimpse of its head. But it’s too late. The brownish snake that was sunbathing slithers away into a hollow.   

A little later, we find a troop of macaques blocking our trail ahead. They shy away as we near them. You do nothing to them, they do nothing to you, our armed forest guard says, but if you tease them, they will attack you in groups.

Having finished our forest trekking, we return to the boat to continue our cruise. That day, with evening falling and the sky brilliant with stars, Adam and James keep looking up at the heavens to do stargazing. Unlike the light-polluted city of Dhaka, here on the water, the skies look magical. A consummate place for skywatching, I am wowed to see that the night sky on the horizon feels just a stone’s throw away, so intense and intimate.

At six, the following morning, we leave our engine boat and get onto a dinghy to sail along a sunlit canal to watch nature closely, especially birds. The fog-filled forest is just waking up. The moment is peaceful. The sight is phenomenal—steam rising from the surface of the water. A small world within a big world where there is no other sound but the sound of nature and birds. 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that travel makes people closer. Adam Johnson, a speculative fiction maestro of our time, within 24 hours of our introduction, begins to call me ‘my friend.’ I ask him about his early life. He opens up, telling us about his late teenage years. He says before entering university he worked at a construction site for a couple of years. That blue-collar task had given him lots of both interesting and shocking experiences. 

Once, one worker got mad at the line manager and went after him with a gun. Another time, a file metal pierced the arm of a war veteran. But he was so calm. He walked up to the woman on the site office and said, I need help. Another time, a worker in his fifties got his ear cut off. 

These are all bone-chilling stories, but in Adam’s light-hearted description the characters become alive, whimsical, and exceptional. He says he fancied Tracey, the woman at the site office. She was attractive. He once asked her out. Why don’t you come for dinner at my house? Tracey asked him instead. Adam was over the moon. In one weekend evening, while he was having dinner at her place, there was a knock on the door. When she opened it, Adam saw it was the veteran—the man whose arm was wounded by a file.  

You must write these stories, I tell him. Maybe, someday I will, he smiles. The one with Tracey can be a good story, he concludes.  

Adam tells me he finds the overall ambiance of Bangladesh fascinating; it’s like a beautiful juxtaposition. People here have so much energy. They are resilient and astonishingly indefatigable.  

He unfolds how he came up with the catchphrase “Bangla strong!”. On the streets of Dhaka, he saw men and women working side by side at road repair works, loading and unloading construction materials in baskets on their head, so strongly and vigorously. He was awestruck. Bangla strong! He said to himself. 

Rahad Abir is finishing his debut novel and is currently seeking representation.