WHEN THE BRITISH partitioned India along religious lines in 1947, the mostly Muslim country of Pakistan was born—two disconnected wings on either side of the mostly Hindu India. In November 1970, just two weeks before Pakistan’s first attempt at a free and fair election, the tropical storm that would become the deadliest cyclone in human history churned northeast through the Bay of Bengal. The locus of political power lay in Islamabad, to the west; East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) was home to 60 percent of the population and was in the direct path of the storm. When the Great Bhola Cyclone made landfall, it didn’t only crash against a coastline, killing half a million people, it also destroyed a fragile political system. This is the story of the cyclone: its fallout and how those events brought together two Cold War superpowers who threatened to destroy the world.
I. Landfall: Manpura Island, East Pakistan – November 12, 1970
Mohammad Abdul Hai’s uncle gripped the tiller of the pontoon boat with one hand and the rope controlling the sail with the other. Hai couldn’t see his face but knew that his uncle was smiling, as he always did when the family headed out into the Bay of Bengal to catch dinner. About 10 feet away, two other uncles matched their course and speed in a nearly identical boat. Between the two craft, 18-year-old Hai and his cousin each held one end of a simple mesh that looked something like a volleyball net.
Usually, they managed a few carp or eels on their excursions. But as they trolled through the shallow latte-colored waters, both netmen felt a sharp pull. It was so strong that it almost crashed the two boats together.
The beast splashed its tail above the surface and writhed around desperately as it sought a hole in the unexpected trap. It was a helicopter catfish, also known as the piranha of the Ganges. Hai couldn’t believe their luck. Unlike the 5-inch predator variety in the Amazon, helicopters could grow to be more than 6 feet long and had a nasty tendency to bite off the hands of fishermen when cornered—or caught in a net. Together, Hai and his uncles wrapped the net around the chomping helicopter and heaved it onto the pontoon boat’s floor. Hai knelt on it until it slowly drowned in the damp 75-degree air.
They’d snagged the 40-pound behemoth in the brackish water right off the coast of Manpura—just one of hundreds of islands clinging to the southern third of East Pakistan. The very last spit of land before the open water of the Bay of Bengal, Manpura is a pencil-shaped splotch of snake-filled mangrove swamps that maxes out at 4 miles wide and 5 feet above sea level. Hai was born and raised here, as were all 25 of his family members and about 50,000 other people who called it home.
Manpura was about as disconnected from global intrigue and high society as one could get. Ferries were the only way in or out. Newspapers would arrive weeks late, if at all. Shortwave radios were the sole source of immediate information, but batteries were always in short supply. This meant that islanders had to rely on the news and rumors that passengers on commuter ferries brought with them from other islands and, when they were lucky, the capital, Dacca. Residents spread this gossip through the rest of the island with enthusiasm. And yet the pancake-flat parcel of land was still a geographic hot spot. It formed a choke point for East Pakistan’s main sea conduit to Dacca, meaning that anyone who wanted to get something in or out of the capital by water would need to pass by. It was a perfect place for pirates to steal spices in 1570—or for an 18-year-old aching for more out of life to daydream about as he watched the world go by in 1970.
With their now lifeless catch secured and stowed, Hai and his uncles turned homeward. The wind picked up, and rows of dark hammerhead clouds rolled over their heads. It was early afternoon, but the sky had turned the same shade of greenish-black as the sea that stretched to the horizon.
Manpura was ground zero for several of the worst cyclones in history, and almost every year the residents endured either a direct hit or at least the threat of one. This could sometimes be a boon. Hai never forgot the day that thousands of multicolored barrels of heating oil washed ashore after a cyclone just missed them but sank a container ship 30 miles out. The detritus littered the beaches for weeks and sparked a cottage industry of oil resellers.
With sinister-looking green-orange colors on the horizon, Hai and his uncles, lucky again, made it home before the clouds spat out anything more than a drizzle. They dumped their massive catch on the kitchen floor. Contagious smiles spread all around the house at the sight of the helicopter catfish; breaking the Ramadan fast tonight was going to be a real celebration. Hai flipped on the shortwave to catch the Pakistan Radio news hour. There had been a few warnings over the last couple of days about a coming storm, but they didn’t seem any different from the five or six other times this year that the serious-sounding warnings interrupted bulletins about events in far-flung parts of the world.
Still, it was better to be safe than sorry. With his father away to collect his paycheck at the district headquarters on Bhola, Hai followed the same procedures that his dad always did when the wind picked up. First, he welcomed his extended family members who lived in palm-frond huts into his parents’ new brick house. Then, he told his mom to prepare a good meal for everyone while he secured the home. He gathered his grandmother, cousins, and 7-year-old brother; he rustled the chickens and goats into the tin pen attached to the side of the house.