Tigers, honey and widows

The liquor was colorless, but pungent and foul-smelling. I
felt like throwing up when it wet my tongue before making its fiery way to the
stomach. But once the initial shock was over, it began to seem fine. Subhash
Naskar told me it was called Bangla
or Desi, which meant it was an
indigenous drink made in the state of Bengal. “It is
cheap and so the poor man’s drink. But many moneyed people drink it too,
perhaps to prove that they are somewhat different. Let it settle a bit inside you
and you will enjoy our Bangla too,
sahib (a white man). But never dare to run into the forest. Don’t forget you
are now in the Sunderbans, the land
of Royal Bengal tigers.” We were at a place called Sajnekhali, the
only place inside the core forest area which offers you the facility of a
hotel. The hotel has a haunted look about it, adding to the mystery of the
forest and its tigers, whose unseen presence can be vaguely felt by everyone
present here at this moment. It seemed not many people had booked hotel
accommodation today, a fact that made Subhash happy. “These people are a real
nuisance. They shout, fight among themselves and just create a hell. They lack
the sensibility to honor the sanctity of a forest. They seem to carry their
city with them wherever they go.”

Dusk was approaching and we were almost through with our
drinks. Subhash was surprisingly sober and seemed to be at peace with himself
and the world.  I met him in Kolkata some
three years ago on my first visit to India.
Subhash works with a social welfare organization based in Kolkata and often
visits these areas. He knows this area quite well because he had spent his
adolescent years with his aunt at a place called Gosaba, the last rural human
habitat before you reach the forest. Above all, he speaks passable English and
there is no problem in communication. “Don’t expect to see a tiger in the
Sunderbans. They are not there to entertain picnickers like us,” Subhash had
warned me even before we left Gosaba for the forest. Although I had never been
a great wildlife enthusiast at any stage of my life, I silently agreed with
him. Because, I thought, this majestic animal must be too proud and
self-conscious to parade itself before the greedy eyes of some fun-hungry
humans. When we were about to leave his aunt’s house, she packed for us some
sweets made of grated coconut and jaggery called narkel naru. “She is a very
strong woman. I wonder how she manages it all alone after losing her husband
under tragic circumstances.” I learnt that Subhas’s uncle, who owned some
cultivable land, died in a boat accident about three years ago.

Apart from the hotel, Sajnekhali boasts of a bird sanctuary,
a crocodile pool, a hatchery for the Olive Ridley turtle, and the Mangrove
Interpretation Centre.  The centre stores
specimens of snakes, fish and other local fauna bottled in formaldehyde. It
also provides a wealth of information about the forest to willing visitors.
Subhash, however, would have none of it. “Who has learnt anything from that
centre? I have lived here for so many years – I know this place better than
them. You are with me, sahib, I’ll
tell you everything about this great forest.” I knew any disagreement on my
part would be of no use, and I also knew I lost a chance of witnessing the
fairly informative sound-and-light show featuring clay models of animals and
animal sounds. “Sahib, you saw
Gosaba, didn’t you? One Daniel Hamilton, a sahib
like you, had built that town a hundred years ago. He wanted the local peasants
to clear the forest and develop agriculture. But he failed. The forest, its
rivers, its creeks have their own ways. You cannot tame them at your will. No
centre can tell you how to do this.”  I
could feel a fatalistic tone in his voice which could be the characteristic of
people who have to coexist with the forest, perhaps further accentuated by the
moderate dose of Bangla now at work
in his system.

We were so immersed in ourselves that we did not know when
darkness had set in. Suddenly the solar energy-driven lamps came into life and
we could see ourselves talking to each other in the small double-bed room we
had booked for our stay here. This sudden burst of illumination came as a jolt,
and we silently decided to open another bottle of Bangla to cope with the changed atmosphere. “But Subhash, you
shouldn’t drink much from this new bottle. You know your limit and try not to
cross it.” Subhash heeded my advice and said, “Don’t worry, sahib. I won’t drink much because I want
to tell you much more about our Sunderbans.”

To reach Sajnekhali from Gosaba, we had taken a private
country boat at the behest of Subhash. His argument was simple: “Look sahib, our Sunderbans is not like the
other five-star forests. You won’t ever find thousands of rich, well-fed
tourists making a mad rush for the forest. There is a different way to absorb
its beauty, this ordinary boatman could help you do so.” I really wished I could. The journey was
uneventful with no sight of any ferocious animal all set to jump upon us. The
only exciting moment came when the boatman warned me not to dip my hand in the
water because a smaller version of shark was sometimes found here. We could not
even see a crocodile during our cruise. Birds were aplenty though and different
types of them; I could not recognize each variety by name, but that did in no
way diminish the pleasure I was getting from their company.

“What would you like for dinner, sir?” Subhash appointed
this middle-aged man for cooking our dinner immediately after we reached
Sajnekhali. “Chicken curry and rice. Don’t put too much green chilies. Mind
you, sahib will have dinner with me,” Subhash said in Bengali without waiting
for my approval. He knew I was now well accustomed to rice and curry. The man
left promising that dinner would be ready within a couple of hours.

We were though in no hurry for dinner. Whenever we looked
outside our room we could see only darkness, so thick that you could almost cut
it with a knife. And each forest perhaps has its own sound. We were hearing it
without knowing its origin and beginning to accept it. I opened the new Bangla bottle and poured drinks for both
of us. Even before I could say anything, Subhash emptied his glass in a gulp
and put it upside down on the floor. “The end, sahib. I won’t have any more.” His theatrical announcement amused
me and I asked him, “So you will really tell me your stories about Sunderbans?” “Certainly I will. If we could reach here a little earlier, I could have taken
you to the Bon Bibi
Temple. Do you know who she is? She
is the resident deity of the forest. People worship her at her temples in the
belief that she would save them from tigers. Hindus and Muslims may be fighting
elsewhere, but they all worship Bon Bibi in the Sunderbans.”

“Does their prayer really save them?” I asked. Subhash paused
for a while and replied, “Not really, sahib.
Would you believe that there exists a village called ‘Bidhaba Palli,’ meaning
the ‘Village of Widows’. All their menfolk had entered the forest to collect honey or firewood, but
never returned. And that’s not all. Anticipating the worst, women in some
villages dress as widows when their husbands set sail for fishing inside the

“Can’t the people do anything about it? Don’t they try to
kill the tigers?” I asked. “Not unless pushed to the brink. It is a national
park” you can’t kill wild animals here. People here say that tiger and man had
lived here as friends for hundreds of years. But things began to change when
tiger was given more importance than man by the government. They say once
tigers had a taste of  that importance,
they started attacking humans.

The situation became worse when thousands of poor people
were brutally evicted from Morichjhanpi because it was located within the
forest area. This blatant partiality for tiger gradually made the animal feel “self-important” and they began to regard poorer people as part of their diet.

I had been told that the Sunderbans means “the beautiful
forest.” I wondered where its beauty lay. I had a feeling that Subhash was
correct in his observation: it was not like a pretty, well dressed woman
inviting you for company. The beauty of the Sunderbans was in its raw
nakedness, frightening yet irresistible. Living so close to it, even Subhash
knows so little of the Sunderbans. So many stories are hidden in its numerous
islands, rivers and creeks. it is just impossible to fathom it.

Subhash meanwhile broke his promise and poured another drink
for himself. “Don’t worry, I’ll be alright.” Worry I did, because another one
would mean cancellation of the dinner and cleaning of the floor. “Please take
care, Subhash,” I said and removed the bottle away from him. Trying to keep him
engaged in conversation, I asked: “What about seeing a tiger, Subhash? Shall we
go back without seeing one? Do you really believe we won’t be able to see any?” “I think so, sahib. Anyway, we can
have a try from Sudhanyakhali tomorrow. It’s not far from here. But we will
have to leave early in the morning.” I was not sure if I was really interested
in seeing a tiger. I thought I would rather be happy with a cruise through the
water channels enveloped by the mangrove forests, where the islands are
submerged by the tide twice every day, where tigers can be felt through their
invisible omnipresence.

There was a knock on the door. Dinner had arrived.

The Sunderbans 

The home of the Royal Bengal Tiger, the Sunderbans is the
world’s largest delta formed by three mighty rivers, the Ganges,
Brahmaputra and Meghna. It is also the largest mangrove
forest  in the world. This fascinating
swampy delta, spread across India and Bangladesh, extends over areas consisting
of mangrove forests, swamps and forest islands, all interwoven in a network of
small rivers and streams. 

Getting there 

The nearest airport is Dum Dum (166 km) at Kolkata, the
nearest town is Gosaba (50 km) and the nearest railhead is Canning (48 km).
Buses are available from Kolkata to Raidighi (76 km), Najat (92 km), Sonakhali
(100 km) and Namkhana (105 km), from where motor launch services are available.
The Sunderbans can be accessed only by riverine waterways. 

The ideal time to visit the Sunderbans is between September
and May. 

Where to stay 

Besides the launches, you can stay at a 60-bed forest lodge
at Sajnekhali. Contact Field Director, Sunderbans Tiger Reserve, PO Canning,
District 24 Parganas (South), West Bengal (Telefax: 03218-55280; mobile:
911855280; email: suntiger@cal2.vsnl.net.in). The lodge provides only one meal
apart from breakfast. For dinner, it is better to make arrangements with the
private launches you hire to take you around.

Subhasis Chatterjee

A web-journalist and a content analyst with an experience legacy of more than 21 years in this field.

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