“A coffee table book, also known as a cocktail table book, is an oversized, usually hard-covered book whose purpose is for display on a table intended for use in an area in which one entertains guests and from which it can serve to inspire conversation or pass the time. Subject matter is predominantly non-fiction and pictorial (a photo-book). Pages consist mainly of photographs and illustrations, accompanied by captions and small blocks of text, as opposed to long prose. Since they are aimed at anyone who might pick up the book for a light read, the analysis inside is often more basic and with less jargon than other books on the subject. Because of this, the term “coffee table book” can be used pejoratively to indicate a superficial approach to the subject”. Wikipedia
If one were to accept the above description of a typical coffee table book, Enayetullah Khan’s “BAY OF BENGAL: OF BOUNTIES UNTOLD” largely fits the contour in format, contents and presentation, yet far exceeds the substantive bounds for it to be described pejoratively. It is truly oversized (and I have numerous coffee table books, collected over the last half a century or so, stacked on the top of my bookshelves for lack of enough space for display on my coffee table anymore). This book is also quite heavy on the hands, on account of the thick glossy paper and very hard, very durable binding that holds the pages together (I shall not go into crass details of its volume and weight). Its striking front cover is filled with the arresting photograph of a menacing, yet innocently so, Blue Shark (scientific name: Prionace Glauca), lazy curiosity in its in its left eye seemingly sizing up the viewer, swimming languidly in the azure blue waters somewhere deep in the Bay of Bengal. If I picture it as one of several coffee table books on an ornate coffee table in the depths of a lavish entertainment area, I can also imagine this image of the shark leaping out at its viewers and starting a conversation – absolutely, without failure. It would compellingly invite its viewers to pick it up. Browsing through its 264 pages, filled with striking photographs and illustrations of myriad marine flora and fauna, to be found in the Bay of Bengal, from the microscopic to the giant-sized, one can be easily drawn into a vortex of curiosity that would make the beholders stray from the more casual spirit of light-hearted bonhomie called for in a party meant to be entertaining. And here, its conformity to the generic description of a coffee table book would end abruptly. The brilliantly splendid photographs are truly a feast for the eyes. Without going into the descriptive narrative and contents, one could be awed simply by the magnificence of the oceanic bounties and treasures that the Bay of Bengal holds. But, when one starts reading its textual contents, this book transforms into something else entirely.
Like any book with a serious substance and a message embedded within it, this book’s narrative substance is similarly organized, breaking the mould of a coffee table book. The foreword by Bangladesh’s 2006 Nobel Peace Laureate, Professor Muhammad Yunus, succinctly introduces the serious depth contained within the glossy photographic feast:
“The Bay has been romanticized since time immemorial … as our very own gateway to the ocean – to the Great Beyond. The author has done a great service for Bangladesh in illustrating the allure of the Bay in all its resplendent majesty. This work also makes a clear case for why ensuring the security of the Bay and its natural resources … should be of utmost priority for Bangladesh…. We as a nation have a duty to safeguard and preserve its immeasurable beauty for future generations to benefit from and admire all that our Bay has to offer.”
Dr. Jonathan Baillie, Executive Vice President and Chief Scientist of the National Geographic Society, in his Foreword to this book and describing his own visit to the Sundarbans as a member of WildTeam, captures the essence of the book in two simple sentences:
“As our boat headed back for the day, I was left with one simple thought: if you could choose one area of the world to experience a rich mosaic of human and natural worlds, it would be this.
“It [this book] is a story of a region at the forefront of global threats to our planet – from population density and overfishing to climate change. It is also story of incomparable biodiversity and economic vitality. And it is a story of hope – of transformation, prosperity and an enduring effort to implement sustainable solutions.”
The author sets the very serious undertone of the apparently dazzlingly light photographic subject, with his own introductory remarks to the book under the eye-catching banner headline: CHANGING GEOPOLITICAL DYNAMICS ARE REVIVING INTEREST IN THE BAY OF BENGAL LITTORAL. In his very opening sentence, he states:
“China’s Belt and Road Initiative as well as Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific are weaving new networks of connectivity in the Bay of Bengal”.
Then he outlines in his short essay how:
“the waters of the Bay of Bengal connected the sub-continent to continental and maritime Southeast Asia and China for centuries and played a critical role in the economic globalisation of the region during the 19th and 20th centuries..… To be sure, many fear the competitive dynamic between China on the one hand, and India and Japan on the other, in the development of regional connectivity.”
Khan, however, optimistically asserts, and exhorts:
“Realists would see two linings of silver. One is that competition may well produce better financial terms for the development of littoral infrastructure. In the other, all three Asian giants are looking for opportunities to resolve their differences on the promotion of connectivity, and their Asian neighbours must encourage them to move in that direction”
The book is formatted into eight chapters, that progress thematically and gives the viewer-reader an enthralling tour d’horizon of the priceless ecosystem that is the Bay of Bengal , notably the largest Bay of Planet Earth.
Chapter One, “The Enthralling Bay of Bengal”, gives its geographical location and bounds of this 2 million sq km magnificent water body, describes the rivers of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) Basin that pay tribute to it incessantly with their awesome volume of waters (1,222 million cubic meters) and their humongous collective amounts of sedimentation that they bring down as they course from the Eastern Himalayas through the course of the Gangetic plains of the Indian subcontinent, and then deposit them all into the Bay. It gives us a glimpse of the mysterious submarine valley of the Bay, with its troughs, trenches and ridges – notable among these being the Java (or Sundra) Trench which is still seismically active, and the aseismic Ninety East Ridge. It describes the formation of the iconic Bengal Fan, “born from the uplift and erosion of the Himalayans and Tibetan Plateau in the age of the continental drift that continues to this day”, and completely covers the floor of the Bay. It gives us a bird eye view of the myriad islands, whether continental or tiny in size that dot the Bay’s expanse. It describes in reasonable detail, the Bay’s physiochemical properties, temperature, salinity and water density, the nature of its tides, and the constant seasonal changes of the sea level. It describes in short, the several distinct features of this marine biome’s several patches, namely the South, South of South, Middle Patches and the mysterious Swatch of No Ground, all of which have been rich trove of myriad type of fishery resources supporting human livelihood in the region and promise greater wealth not just from its rich marine life but also from its immeasurable mineral and hydrocarbon resources buried in great depths, if harvested responsibly and in sustainable manner.
Chapter Two is aptly Captioned “The Nonpareil Marvels”, describing as it does “a never-ending show of abounding maritime bewilderments – both in terms of physical attributes and biological entities”. It gives a panoramic picture of the Bay’s unparalleled marvels, sweeping our eyes across the terrain of world’s longest beach, the largest delta, the largest submarine Fan (a submarine fan is an accumulation of land-derived sediment on the deep seafloor), biggest single block of mangrove forestry. The Bay contains still an active volcano and several inactive ones as well(but recent history is no guarantee that an inactive volcano can become active even after a gap of several thousand years!). It is home to the whale shark, the largest shark and fish on the planet, which is also the largest non-mammalian vertebrate in the world. It has the richest stock of Hilsa (Tenualosa ilisha) in the world, as well as the biggest known rookery of sea turtle. And last, but not least, it is home to the Pride of Bengal, the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris)—notably the only known population of the species enclosed within a mangrove habitat.
Chapter Three, captioned “History and Culture, Perseverance and Prosperity”, gives us a sweeping survey of how the Bay has connected peoples, civilizations, and cultures through facilitating maritime travels and trade, gleaning glimpses from accounts dating back to the manuscripts of Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD. We learn how colonization of the Bay area commenced in the 1st century AD; how indeed the etymology of the Bay changed from its earlier name of The Chola, after the Chola Dynasty which was the first maritime power of the region in the 2nd century BC until colonization of the Bay by the Portuguese 800 years later who named it Golfo de Bengala. Khan tantalizes us with brief allusions to the Bay having witnessed rise and fall of several notable dynasties of the Bay region, namely the Chola, Chera, Pallava and Pandya dynasties of South India, the Chalukya and Rashtrakuta dynasties of Central India, the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasties of North India, the Pala and Sena dynasties of Bengal, and the Sri Vijaya dynasty of the Malay Archipelago, and embellishing the narrative with color plates of architectural relics and monuments that whet the appetite to learn more. He maps, in sketchy details the seemingly ceaseless struggle for regional supremacy by different powers trading with or competing with each other, traversing the Indian Ocean across the Bay to the realm of Pacific . His tongue in cheek punch line that I liked best was : “The goal for every party was to catch up with the pace of Chinese commerce.” Déjà vu? Khan also briefly teases us with glimpses of the views of the Bay region, from the Far East with Chinese Song dynasty sea farers venturing into Bay waters; the rise and sweep of the Mongols, the arrival and spread of Islam not just by conquerors but traders and Sufi proselytes; and from the West, by the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, the French and the English. In modern era, commencing in the early 20th century and the advent of Industrial Age, new technologies developed new capacities, vessels and modes of transportation like aircraft capable of flying across oceanic zones, sprouting new modes of connecting and competing. The Bay region was always rich in resources. The concentration of resources also made it the most densely populated. As Khan asserts:
“The Bay of Bengal now feeds countries where one in four of the world’s population live. A staggering half a billion of them depends entirely on the resources and amenities offered by the Bay. This region is a cornerstone of globalization; designed by dynamic migration and by blending of culture, heritage and belief; by the commercial sale of natural goods in a global market.”
In Chapter Four, captioned “Flora – The Guardians and the Chefs”, he aptly describes Bangladesh as “a land breathing though its waterways”. While more than 6,000 plant species exist in Bangladesh alone, “the entire Bay sustains a towering diversity of plant life”. In the mangrove belt alone, he cites 245 genera and 334 plant species having been identified and catalogued in 1903. “The Sundarbans is endowed with 30 of the 53 species of true mangroves in the world”, with an abundance of sundari, gewa, goran and keora trees. The sundari yields a hard wood used for boat building and house construction. The Bay area offers coastal wetlands in abundance. The mix of sandy soil and fine silt rich in minerals and organic matter provide the ingredients of genesis of floral and faunal life, climbing up a complex but intricately interdependent food chain that enables different species to survive and co-exist in a wondrous ecosystem. Khan traces this interdependence in the “24/7 Open Cookhouse” as he calls it, from the microscopic phytoplankton of this region, progressing up into algae and other higher species. Phytoplankton enable all life to flourish in the sea. Khan informs us of the presence of sizeable underwater grass meadows that nourish a variety of marine life, not least among them being them being a sea mammal called the Dugong that lives in the shallow seaboard of the Bay. Apart from comprising the foundation of an ecologically-integrated food chain, perhaps one of the most important functions (but still little appreciated by an ignorant public) is the inescapable fact that the Sundarbans has huge carbon sequestration capabilities as well as being a notable oxygen supplier – the very flora that require vast amounts carbon, whether trapped in the soil or in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, as food also excrete as by-product vast amounts of oxygen that all animal life needs in order to survive.
Chapter Five “The Flourishing Lives” is the longest chapter, devoted to cataloguing the myriad fauna that abound in this wondrous Bay. By way of introduction, appropriately, the frontispiece to this chapter features a striking full-page photograph of a brilliantly multi-hued Necklace Starfish Fromia monilis that appropriately prepares us for the feast of brilliant photographs of countless marine denizens of these waters. At the outset we are informed that Bangladesh has one of the longest coastlines, stretching 714 km with the marine area of the country including also the vast brackish coastal zone. With an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles, the total the maritime bounds of the country exceed her actual land mass, with its myriad boundless aquatic organisms of great commercial and economic importance. We are also informed that many of the marine life that inhabit the Bay still evade scientific identification and cataloguing. This almost 100-page chapter overwhelms our eyes with the countless photographic plates, drawings and scientific data on a vast array of the known aquatic denizens of the Bay, from the tiniest, almost microscopic zooplankton, and nekton, neuston, pleuston and benthos varieties (at the bottom of the Marine food chain) to the surprising gentle, very slow moving but largest nonmammalian vertebrate of these waters, the Whale Shark Rhinchodon typas. In between these two, Khan almost overwhelms our curious eyes with photographs, sketches and descriptions of myriad creatures, ranging from sponges, anemones and jelly fishes; numerous worms that inhabit the bottom of the sea; mollusks; the Cephalopods comprising cuttle fishes, squids and octopuses (which, Khan informs us, are one of the planet’s most intelligent creatures); the bewildering array of joint-footed invertebrate Crustaceans (of whom there are some 52,000 described species) ranging from the planktonic crustaceans to prawns, shrimps (some bearing exotic names like mantis shrimp and pistol shrimp), crabs, crayfishes, king crabs, krills and barnacles; the echinoderms that are the Stars of the sea; the many species of elastic fishes (sharks, rays, skates and saw fish), members of the Elasmobranchii family that are “made up of cartilaginous structures and possessing five to seven pairs of gill slits opening individually to the exterior, rigid dorsal fins, and small placoid scales on the skins” as we are informed. One is introduced to such exotically names creatures like tiger shark, zebra shark, bull shark and whale shark (among numerous other shark species); several species of guitarfish; a bewildering array of ray fishes; damselfishes, angelfishes, scorpionfishes and clown fish; reef associated fish that include colorful characters like Clownfish, Indian Vagabond Butterflyfish and common Parrotfish; to several species each of tuna, snappers, groupers, pomfrets, croakers; mullets, sailfishes and marlins, to name a few. Several pages and plates are devoted to the variety of amphibians (“first vertebrates to walk on the terrestrial earth”) and reptiles of the mangrove belt, among them coastal reptiles, sea turtles and sea serpents (among them the yellow-lipped sea Krait, and the notorious King Cobra and the saltwater crocodile; terrapins and water monitors. A vast array of seafaring birds, common and not so commonly known, many exotically plumed, some strangely billed, swarm around the eye some in magnificent flight, comprising a symphony of imagined sounds and calls. The chapter befittingly ends with the description, listing and magnificent photographs of the Sea-Ruling Mammals, adapted morphologically to the marine environment: among them the Bryde’s whale, and the prima ballerinas of the blue waters, the spinner dolphins and Irrawaddy dolphins.
Chapter Six follows the preceding chapter naturally and describes everything on what goes on to “Making a Living” from these myriad resources that nature provides us. The chapter begins with a lyrical introduction:
“The Bay of Bengal is motherly and compassionate – in every way possible – feeding, protecting, and parenting civilizations within and beyond her reach since beginning of recorded history. With consumable biological resources, the Bay gifts her lithe beauty, prodigious coastline, minerals and biofuels to a global market.”
This chapter describes briefly the activities of the fisheries sector, comprising the various kinds of marine capture fisheries, both the traditionally wild to increasingly farmed kind that range from marlins, snappers, cutlassfishes, the ubiquitous shad ilisha, and even the comparatively small-scale sharks fin industry; shellfish culture that is the backbone of Bangladesh’s second largest foreign exchange earner through exports of wild caught and farmed shrimps, prawns, lobsters and crabs; the burgeoning salt industry, “one of the oldest chemical industries” we are told; the array of mineral deposits that offer potentials for commercial exploitation, with one of these, Monazite as replacement fuel in place of uranium for use as fuel in our nuclear plant. The chapter briefly informs us of the thriving dockyards and our shipbreaking industry (the largest in the world, that enabled us to leap into the steel making industry). We are informed about the revival of our once famed ancient shipbuilding industry, with over 200 shipbuilding companies now in operation. We learn about the bustling prospects of trade through our seaports – the Bay of Bengal has since times immemorial providing trading entrepots through its coastal ports that ring the Bay, among them notably beig Colombo in Sri Lanka, Chennai, Vishakhapatnam, Kakinada (Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh), Puducherry (Pondicherry), Kolkata and Haldia (West Bengal), Mongla and Chattagram (Bangladesh). The chapter ends with a few words about the just awakening, yet much neglected, prospects of maritime tourism within the Bay of Bengal region.
The last two chapters, and are the shortest chapters, but serve to bring us down with a jarring thud to the lurking dangers that threaten this breathtakingly beautiful ecosystem that we have been introduced to in the preceding chapters spanning 212 pages.
In Chapter 7, “The Bay in Pink”, we get a glimpse of the darkly looming environmental hazards from global warming and climate change (adversely impacting the delicate balance and equilibrium that had held this ecosystem together since ancient times); of the alarming recession of critical habitats essential for species survival; the alarming and nefarious spread biohazards through increasing water pollution, the hazardous fallout for this delicately balanced ecosphere from expanding industrial activities(not least being the shipbreaking industry), and depleting fish stocks from a combination of environment deterioration and overly robust anthropogenic activities that harm the ecosystem, despite the Bay hosting 13 sites declared as Ramsar sites (wetland sites designated to be of international importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, known as the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental environmental treaty established in 1971 by UNESCO, which came into force in 1975).
Chapter Eight makes us peer “Through the Looking Glass”. It plucks us out of the romantic and romanticized, splendorous almost magical ecosphere of the Bay in which we had become immersed, to the new growing reality that starkly faces us. Khan’s introduction to this chapter perhaps best encapsulates the essence of the message inherent in it:
“The Bay region is at the forefront of processes that are shaping Asia’s future. The Bay of Bengal is now, as it was in the eighteenth century, an arena for strategic competition between rising powers. Today those powers are Asian rather than European: regional thalassocracies both eye the Bay of Bengal as a crucial frontier in their competition over energy resources, shipping lanes, and cultural influence. The Bay of Bengal’s littoral stands at the front line of Asia’s experience of climate change: its densely populated coastal zone is home to nearly half a billion people. In this new context, the Bay of Bengal serves as a source of strategic place of interest and inevitable determinant for the glory of nations.”
In response, a number of conservation alliances and initiatives, international, regional and national are listed (among them Khan’s own WildTeam) to preserve this wondrous ecosystem. While the alluring prospects of a still largely untapped Blue Economy are mentioned in closing, one is left with an acute awareness of the need for harvesting it in an eminently sustainable manner so that in our greed we don’t unwittingly kill the goose that lays the golden egg.
Khan concludes this tome with an epilogue that blares out a dire warning: “Plastic Pollution and Noise Pollution are Threats to Marine Biodiversity”. He warns that while we awaken to the allure of Blue Economy, we must be evermore mindful of the dangers that are posed by our capacity for overexploitation. He warns us, somewhat sketchily, but sufficiently alarmingly of the dangers lurking in the waters from the growing menace of marine plastic that are mostly non-biodegradable, and that ironically are largely generated on land by human activities and then callously discarded to heedlessly flow through the water borne conduits, natural and man-made into the oceans. He also alerts us of the severely deleterious effects of anthropogenic generated cacophony of sounds that are emitted ranging from the sounds of ships engine’s traversing the waters or submarines coursing underwater, to naval sonar emissions for testing various technologies, new weapons systems or for tracking purposes, to the noise made by the hydrocarbon exploration-exploitation platforms that now increasingly dot the oceans, seas and Bays everywhere that use reflection seismology (use of loud pulses of sound to locate and map hydrocarbon pockets or simply spill their extractions, whether deliberately or accidentally. The expansion of these and many other related topics would form the contents of another volume. As Russel A Mittermeier, Chief Conservation Officer of Global Wildlife Conservation and Chair, IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group (and former President, Conservation International) eulogized in his foreword congratulating the author for this monumental new publication:
“The great wild expanses of the Bay of Bengal encapsulate the very best that this world of ours has to offer, and this book has made it abundantly clear why it is imperative for humans, the world over, to do their part in saving it.”
In presenting this magnificent mezze of the wonders of the Bay of Bengal, Khan has indeed whetted our appetites to learn and savor more of what the Bay has to offer. He has opened our eyes to a vast, wondrously marvelous ecosystem that nurtures us denizens of the Bay, but also alerted us for the need to nurture and preserve it. As an unlearned Bay votary, I would invite all to pick up a copy and browse through this book.
Ambassador (Retd.) Tariq A. Karim is the Director of the Centre for Bay of Bengal Studies at Independent University, Bangladesh. He was a Distinguished International Executive in Residence at the University of Maryland. He is now also Honorary Advisor Emeritus, Cosmos Foundation.