The Sundarbans: Life on the Water
By Dr. Swati Dasgupta
The desperation they were going through was written on their faces as they spoke of the rice plants that grew after the Aila, but bore no grains. The hay so essential to thatch the roofs of the huts was a natural byproduct of the rice cultivation.
After the Aila, rice and even hay had to be bought and ferried by boats to the island. As we walked around the village I realized that in Bali everyone knows each other and with gentle curiosity the people interacted with us, the strangers. There is absolutely no xenophobia; on the contrary, for a small friendly gesture, the return is surprisingly generous.
At seven the next morning we were on the Sundari with Sambhuda. Sridam Gayen was steering the boat, Nanda, our guide was on the look-out for wildlife and Ananta was serving delectable meals as usual. There was a copy of Salim Ali [a bird book], a couple of binoculars, and a map of the delta to enlighten us as we went down the Bidyadhari River.
Heaven on Earth
I cannot express my feelings as we went down the creeks that constitute the delta. The land tugged at my heart with its wild beauty. The endless waters, the winding creeks, the washed greenness of the islands with mangrove which clung to the earth as if for existence seemed like heaven on earth to my jaded eyes. Man shares the land with a host of birds and animals.
Sambhuda and his boys on the boat pleasantly surprised us with their knowledge about the birds. Thus, we saw a majestic white-bellied sea eagle, flocks of screeching parakeets, whimbrels, curlews and sandpipers sitting on the banks.
The long–legged lesser adjutant stork strolled gawkily on the mud-banks looking for a fishmeal. Sunbirds and swifts looked like large fluttering butterflies to my amateur birdwatchers’ eyes.
A couple of the amazing hoopoe entranced us at Dobanki Island by their exotic beauty, while we looked for the mighty cat. Some deer came to drink in the watering hole in blissful oblivion of their precarious existence.
I handed over my camera to Sridam as he was obviously more observant and alert than me. He lamented the lack of better zoom facilities in the camera as he tried to capture the best moments for me.
Gautam gently ragged Sridam as he drove by the creeks in eternal search of the tiger. Our hosts were eager to share the great experience of seeing the tiger in its element with us. That did not happen, but not for any lack of endeavor on their part.
We were taken to the watch towers repeatedly, and it was hard to convince them that we had come to see the wondrous delta, not just its famous feline inhabitant.
Sambhuda and the boys took turns in braving the relentless March sun shining over the watch tower at Dobanki Island. They read the presence of the tiger in every small sign, leave alone the pugmarks in the mud of the river bank, which looked quite fresh. Each time we went back to the tower, the forest staff said in loud voices that a tiger had been seen almost immediately after we had left.
The Royal Bengal Tiger of the Sundarbans is a powerful swimmer, easily crossing the wide and deep rivers. We were told be on the lookout for a large head of a swimming cat bobbing up and down in the waters, but missed that unique sight, too.
The core forest area is forbidden territory to all but the forest department. At times misfortune strikes a fishing boat that has strayed into illegal waters. The stealthy tiger often climbs on such a boat and drags off a sleeping victim.
Law provides compensation to the relatives of a tiger’s victim, but when the mishap occurs in illegal territory, the other people in the boat prefer to hush up the incident to avoid retribution.
After Aila, men who had never gone fishing or collecting honey, are being forced to do so by abject poverty. The lure of a better catch, a good yield of honey leads the desperately poor men to possible dangerous encounters with the tiger in the forest, crocodiles and sharks in the waters.
The next day we went to Netidhopani Island. The lore goes that Neti was a washerwoman, a dhopani in Bengali, who led the hapless Behula, widowed on her wedding night, to the gods for bringing her husband Lakhinder back to life.
I was charmed by the story and felt drawn to the island, which has an old ruined temple. My wish to walk around the island and visit the ruins was not fulfilled as only a miniscule portion of Neti is caged in for the visitors. The boys from the boat said that there was a tarred road under the green observation clearing at Netidhopani which must have been quite a beaten track a few centuries ago.
The green bee-eaters in Netidhopani fascinated us as they flitted about in the mud-bank. We saw a couple of Brahminy Kites. Giant monitor lizards teemed in a pond and repulsed me with their ugliness. My love of nature does not include reptiles.
I saw a flock of eel-like fish with shiny bodies, moving in perfect unison as I went back to the boat. I even saw an evil-looking water snake. The animals like humans, have their share of beastly creatures. While you admire one, you feel disgusted by the other.
Lunch on the boat was surprisingly good. There was fish as fresh as can be, with vegetables, rice, salad and fruit. Ananta served us with the cordiality I came to associate with the people of the delta
The idyllic scenes, the sailing boats, the vivid blues of the skies and waters, the greens of various hues of the mangroves and waters again were addictive. I felt like coming back again and again. The tiger is endangered; humans of the delta face danger in daily life. Much remains to be done for both.
The conservation of the diminishing tiger needs sincere effort by dedicated naturalists. Raising the quality of living of the people does not seem to be such a formidable task if there is a genuine interest to do so. Electricity is the obvious foremost necessity for development. Concrete embankments or guard walls are necessary for shielding the inhabited islands from constant erosion.
These islands have suffered deforestation of the protective mangrove. Mangrove plantations and embankments will ensure the survival of the delta from tidal waters.
Construction of dams will also provide employment for a large number of people. Hospitals, schools, colleges, cottage industries are long overdue. There would be better times ahead if only people in responsible posts started acting seriously.
The lore of Banbibi with Dukhe, Shah Janguli, Dakshin Roy and Gazi Saheb was ubiquitous in the umpteen temples worshipping the goddess. One has to be with the people to empathize with their belief. Banbibi defends the common man in the form of Dukhe from Dakshin Roy, the tiger god.
Irrespective of religion, the people of the delta worship Banbibi before entering the forest. The story was enacted for us by an accomplished troupe of actors from the village. The stage was our dining hall. We sipped tea and ate aubergine fritters as we watched the play.
Our time in Sundarbans was truly enriched by the presence of Sambhuda and the people of Bali Island we came to know. An intelligent, caring person like Sambhuda is a boon to the tourist. We spent long hours on the boat with never a moment of boredom. We never felt the urge to rest in the cabin downstairs.
At the end of the day we had dinner with Sambhuda in pleasurable companionship and he never tired of answering my endless queries. There are places and people in my memory that will always have a special significance.
In a short life maybe it is not possible to do much. I hope before the sun sets on my life, I can go back to see these special people and places once again.
Ganesh took us back to Salt Lake City in his old Qualis. The next day we were off to Siliguri where we live and work.
On our way back, almost everything looked colorless. We were sorely missing the gorgeous greens of the mangrove forest, the clean unpolluted atmosphere and the unending waters.
The tiger must have seen us from the jungle, but we could not meet this time. I do hope that the mighty animals get a chance to live and increase their fold to such numbers as will ensure their existence on this earth. Maybe then, the glimpse of the tiger in its habitat will not be such a rarity.
Swati Dasgupta writes "I am a government doctor working in a large district hospital in Siliguri, near Darjeeling in the state of West Bengal, India. Travel, writing and an insatiable interest in people sustains me through life."