Airports India - - ANUPAM CHANDA - TEXT & PHO­TOS:

By the time the ini­tial rush of get­ting on a boat headed to­wards the Sun­dar­bans sub­sided, we were tread­ing through the mid­dle of the Matla river, headed into the dense interiors of this self-sus­tain­ing ecosys­tem – a world her­itage site, the largest delta on earth, a bio­sphere re­serve, and the big­gest man­grove tiger habi­tat com­pris­ing 104 is­lands cov­er­ing an area of 3,500 sq kms. Cloudy skies, choppy wa­ters, ex­cited faces, crowded deck, buoy­ant spir­its, bright dresses, fresh river breeze, fried prawns and loads of ex­cite­ment. Two hours of sail­ing and we were in wide open spa­ces. With low tide the en­gine took on a smooth chug as the coast­lines re­ceded fur­ther. Soon we were cross­ing con­flu­ence points where as many as five, seven and some­times eleven huge rivers met. No coast­line, end­less wa­ter world, fre­quent move­ments be­tween bow & stern try­ing to fig­ure co­or­di­nates, tourists

crowd­ing the deck, all added to the al­lure. The only man at ease was the 42 year old boat­man Tarok Mon­dal. He turned out to be quite a sport, en­gaged in mul­ti­task­ing from the be­gin­ning, al­ways all smiles and cap­tain of the ship in com­plete con­trol.

He was quite a guy as he re­vealed to us grad­u­ally, post a late lav­ish crab curry lunch, sail­ing into the dark blue hori­zon to­wards the Bay of Ben­gal. He acted as boat­man for three months, then he was a honey col­lec­tor, wood cut­ter, oc­ca­sional farmer and odd job seeker, so offering prayers to Bon­bibi (for­est God­dess) has be­come a daily rit­ual for Tarok. His house in Hi­mal­ganj is fi­nally un­der con­struc­tion af­ter be­ing washed away in the Aila cy­clone in May 2009. And for him, ven­tur­ing into the forests for wood to build the roof of his semi Pucca house is risk­ing his life ev­ery­day, but he de­pends on his prayers to get by. ‘I have to com­plete con­struc­tion be­fore the next mon­soon ar­rives’ says Mon­dal, as his voice cracks with stress. Fear of a tiger at­tack is vis­i­ble in his eyes. Di­pak Saha, the on­board Sun­dar­ban Tiger Re­serve guide stated that of­fi­cial fig­ures show in 2010 alone, 27 in­ci­dents of Tiger-stray­ing were re­ported from the Sun­dar­bans, com­pared to only 9 in 2008. Though the for­est depart­ment had it’s ex­pla­na­tion, ex­perts be­lieve spread­ing salin­ity in the delta may be the com­mon thread link­ing the fates of both preda­tor & prey in this mys­tic man­grove hide­out.

As we know, Hi­malayan glaciers are re­ced­ing rapidly due to global warm­ing and the rate of re­treat in the last three decades is over three times that of the rate in ear­lier years. Glacier re­treat has im­pli­ca­tions for down­stream river flows which is re­flected through low­er­ing of salin­ity in the Sun­dar­bans. Tiger stray­ing in­di­cates that salin­ity is pen­e­trat­ing deeper into the forests with more and more tigers stray­ing from south to north. Of the 104 is­lands, 48 are left with for­est cover only on their fringes, and a tiger needs cover to am­bush its prey be­fore killing it. Due to less for­est area tigers are find­ing it dif­fi­cult to hunt and are stray­ing into vil­lages for easy prey. Not only an­i­mals, trees like Baine, Gamu, Go­ran, Hethal, Mot­gora, Kali, Go­rankakra, Gor­jon, Ke­owra etc. which were mainly found in the southern re­gion, can be seen in the north now. Ex­perts say a rise in salin­ity will fur­ther de­grade the coastal wa­ter qual­ity and re­duce the over­all pro­duc­tiv­ity of the sys­tem. Birds com­monly known as waders, like East­ern Curlew, Whim­brel and Sand­pipers, can’t be sighted post the Aila cy­clone. Though this is not linked to salin­ity, there’s no doubt the en­tire sys­tem is un­der se­vere threat. The rise in wa­ter tem­per­a­ture, with the on­set of fish & shrimp dis­ease, could spell doom for the en­tire eco-sys­tem, with fishes like Bhetki, Hilsa, Parshe, Ban­gan, Payra, Chada Datne, Lu­cho, Koi, Bhol, etc. van­ish­ing in no time. The only so­lu­tion may be proper pro­tec­tion of the man­grove cover.

Zip­ping along a eerie man­grove lined creek, not wider than a couple of 20 foot home­made skiffs in the pur­ple af­ter dusk, we reached an­other sort of a semi­con­flu­ence of sev­eral creeks. This, Tarok in­formed us, as he killed the en­gine & dropped the heavy iron an­chor, will be our halt for the night. The beau­ti­ful red flower from the Sun­dari trees (the man­grove species Her­i­tiera Fomes), found in the Sun­dar­bans in large num­bers, glowed in the light at dusk. Post sun­set, it was a dra­matic or­ange sky, sur­rounded by thick man­grove kharis, a few more boats in the dis­tance, small fish­ing dinghies re­turn­ing home against the hori­zon, the air sound­less ex­cept for chop­ping waves against the boat, a flick­er­ing kerosene lantern on the deck with glow worms and fire­flies for com­pany, as the late night party started. A mod­est ves­sel, the boat had sep­a­rate sleep­ing cab­ins, din­ing space, tail & at­tached toi­lets, kitchen and a huge deck. I later learned it takes 6 months to build one boat and costs Rs 8-10 lakhs, cost of which breaks even in one tourist sea­son. As we set­tled on the deck for the evening, we met Sheikh Pradip, our chef, for the first time. A lo­cal from Gho­ra­mara is­land, he was quite an ex­pert in prawn curry & mut­ton kassa and nar­rated an­other amaz­ing story over the next few hours. For the peo­ple of the Sun­dar­bans, adap­ta­tion to the harsh life is crit­i­cal for sur­vival. Even if we don’t pro­duce any car­bon diox­ide for the next 100 years, tem­per­a­tures and sea lev­els will con­tinue to rise, in­un­dat­ing the is­lands and forc­ing the is­lan­ders to mi­grate. Our evening ended with one ques­tion – will we con­tinue to dis­own them and look the other way? Or will we de­mand that they get their right­ful due? Be­fore we could get to what’s what... din­ner was served & right af­ter it we re­tired to our cold, sway­ing beds obe­di­ently, and drifted off to the chirp­ing of crick­ets and singing of frogs, feel­ing how far we were from civ­i­liza­tion, float­ing on a wob­bly boat at mid­night in the heart of a tiger-in­fested, dense, dark jun­gle.

Sun­dar­bans is a de­mand­ing home to those who live there. It re­quires much to sur­vive, re­gard­less of gen­der. Liv­ing and work­ing in the Sun­dar­bans is dan­ger­ous. And just as the men, women’s lives are equally chal­leng­ing here. Their live re­volve mostly around prayers to Bono­bibi, hu­mil­ity and grat­i­tude, in­ge­nu­ity, and tol­er­ance, yet they do not have the power of the god­dess in their daily lives. The women of the Sun­dar­bans are prac­ti­cally un­known out­side their direct so­cial re­la­tion­ships. Women here man­age the house­hold but also help the fam­ily sur­vive fi­nan­cially. Some of them cul­ti­vate fam­ily plots while oth­ers fish. Prawn fish­ing is a par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous job. Women and chil­dren move through wa­ters waist or neck deep, drag­ging

nets be­hind them to catch their tiny prey. Each year there are cases of women and chil­dren lost to croc­o­diles and tigers but the bat­tle to sur­vive rages on. Sun­dar­bans women tend to marry early, some­times as early as age twelve, but when they lose hus­bands from tiger at­tacks, par­tic­u­larly if their hus­bands were not per­mit­ted to en­ter the for­est to take fish/honey/wood, they are of­ten forced out of their homes with their chil­dren and made to live in widow vil­lages. Here they be­come sole providers for their fam­i­lies and take on the roles tra­di­tion­ally taken by the men – wood cut­ting, honey col­lect­ing, and fish­ing. Health­care, ir­re­spec­tive of so­cio-eco­nomic back­ground, is de­pen­dent more on quacks for treat­ment over ru­ral health­care providers. They are ex­tremely pop­u­lar for their prox­im­ity and cost ef­fec­tive­ness and a weak health­care and trans­port sys­tem force the ma­jor­ity to de­pend on quacks.

This huge delta is a ge­o­mor­pho­log­i­cal and hy­dro­log­i­cal fas­ci­na­tion. Few ar­eas in the world un­dergo the trans­for­ma­tion vis­ited upon this place by the gods who are en­demic to it. Wa­ter plies mud into dif­fer­ent shapes, sculpt­ing it into new is­lands and re­form­ing the old. We vis­ited Jharkhali, a small in­hab­ited is­land with patches of paddy fields and small ponds around mud houses. The ponds’ sur­faces are com­pletely cov­ered by a thin layer of fresh wa­ter hy­acinth. The is­land is sur­rounded by a high mud and brick em­bank­ment to keep it from get­ting flooded dur­ing bad weather, which is quite a com­mon phe­nom­e­non here. Th­ese drowned lands and ev­ery­thing that live in them have ad­justed to tides that rise twice daily to a height of 6-9 feet. Cy­clonic ac­tiv­ity is more in­tense here than any­where else in the world. Tidal waves 250-feethigh rise up the Bay of Ben­gal, fun­nelling their way up the chan­nels to dis­in­te­grate en­tire vil­lages built on mud and houses made of mud – vil­lages that are sur­rounded and pro­tected from ris­ing wa­ters by mere 20-foot em­bank­ments. Both sides of the Sun­dar­bans ex­pe­ri­ence 4-8 cy­clonic de­pres­sions ev­ery year, which makes it unique be­cause of its hu­man and an­i­mal habi­tats.

The ap­prox­i­mately 300 tigers that live here are part of the Sun­dar­bans mystery, it is here in th­ese thick masses of knot­ted tree roots, writhing mud, and hun­gry wa­ter that tigers stalk hu­mans as prey. The Sun­der­bans is fa­mous for its tiger at­tacks and is one of the only ar­eas in the world where ‘man eaters’ ex­ist in their nat­u­ral habi­tat in close prox­im­ity to hu­mans. Al­though the In­dian Gov­ern­ment has es­ti­mated that only about a minis­cule of the Sun­dar­bans tigers are ac­tu­ally the man eat­ing type, at­tacks are reg­u­lar on lo­cals en­ter­ing the re­serve for honey, fire­wood, and other prod­ucts. The rea­son th­ese tigers kill hu­mans is un­clear. One the­ory is that the salin­ity of the en­vi­ron­ment some­how gives tigers a taste for hu­man blood. An­other is that the in­ges­tion of so much salt dam­ages a tigers liver and kid­neys, making it ir­ri­ta­ble. More likely, the tiger has be­come ac­cus­tomed to the taste of hu­man flesh as a re­sult of the cy­clones

and floods which carry dead bod­ies down the wa­ter chan­nels and leave them strewn about to de­com­pose. Sun­dar­bans tigers are like no other. They at­tack in the morn­ings and evenings be­tween the hours when peo­ple en­ter and leave the for­est. They swim, hunt­ing in the wa­ter, hid­ing among man­grove roots as the fish­ing boats pass un­til they spot an op­por­tu­nity to ap­proach from be­hind. De­spite their size and weight, they stealth­ily sneak up on their vic­tims from be­hind, typ­i­cally grab­bing them by the nape of the neck. When killing a deer, they em­bed their ca­nines into four spa­ces in the ver­te­brae, a near lock-and-key fit. This method of killing is al­most im­me­di­ate. Sto­ries run in the re­gion that tigers take their prey with no trace. Men on small fish­ing boats hear a splash only to dis­cover that one of their crew is miss­ing. Per­haps they get glimpses of the wet tiger slink­ing up the mud bank of the shore drag­ging its meal by the neck. Tigers have been known to swim out to larger boats and leap aboard. Those on board may be­gin to call out ‘Ma’ or mother, a word meant to hail the god­dess Bono­bibi but leg­end has it that the echoes of some­one’s scream at fac­ing a tiger is also de­voured by the tiger. No one hears the scream as the tiger takes its prey.

Dawn was an un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ence, with pri­mary colours rag­ing non-stop in the sky, los­ing bat­tle with their fast evolv­ing sec­ondary coun­ter­parts, with the com­plete color wheel on an in­trepid kalei­do­scope dis­play, not to be missed in a place as breath­tak­ing as this. The morn­ing af­ter brought in new thrills as we spot­ted wildlife at mul­ti­ple spots, making our trip a worth­while one. As the day moved on, the boat reached the jetty mark­ing the end of our trip. Tarok handed me twenty busi­ness cards as I left the boat. ‘Please tell your friends to come and see the Sun­dar­bans as long as it’s there.’ His voice was solemn and de­ter­mined. For the first time, I saw the pur­ple cres­cents be­neath his eyes, heard the fatigue in his voice but even so, he was smil­ing. The silent, eerie for­est around me seemed some­what in­signif­i­cant to the Tarok story. I came on this trip to see the Royal Ben­gal tiger in its nat­u­ral habi­tat, I came

for ad­ven­ture, for thrills, for all the wrong rea­sons. I came to es­cape the bore­dom of the rou­tine grind. I sud­denly felt em­bar­rassed by my fool­ish mo­ti­va­tions. The dis­re­spect I showed for learn­ing, the in­grat­i­tude for my rights and free­dom of speech, of pri­vacy, of laugh­ter that many only dream of. Yet I will never re­gret meet­ing the Tarok Mon­dols and Sheikh Pradips. I wish ev­ery man could see th­ese peo­ple work­ing for their homes & liveli­hoods, help­lessly go­ing un­der­wa­ter and get­ting lost for­ever in the mid­dle of nowhere, with min­i­mal or no gen­uine col­lat­eral, spend­ing night af­ter night wad­ing stealth­ily in preda­tor coun­try for an un­cer­tain morn­ing to be faced next day.


Near­est Air­port- Dum­dum. Rail Sta­tion-howrah or Seal­dah (Kolkata). From Kolkata take a car/bus to Can­ning or Gothkhali 43-50 kms away, or take the train from Seal­dah or lo­cal sta­tion to Can­ning, a 45-min jour­ney. From there, the boat agent will pick you up & take you to the jetty10 min­utes away. Stay on the boat overnight or take a boat cruise through the day, with a night halt at Sun­der­ban Tiger Camp Jun­gle Re­sort in Daya­pur or var­i­ous other re­sorts like WBTDC’S Sa­jnekhali Tourist Lodge. The cruise is ideal for a 2 night, 3-day trip.

Tired fish­er­man re­turns home af­ter a

full night’s catch as the sun rises

Boy swim­ming in a pond cov­ered in hy­acinths in Jharkhali vil­lage in Sun­dar­bans

A tiger run­ning in the shal­low wa­ters

Women fish­ing for shrimp & crabs of­ten be­come tar­gets for the tigers

Fish­er­men fish­ing for shrimp

Vil­lage woman cook­ing lunch

An­other of the diesel pow­ered boats cross­ing a con­flu­ence

A Spot­ted Deer look­ing for its mate

Mon­key in the for­est

A com­mon Lizard peek­ing from it’s hide­out

Plain Tiger But­ter­fly

Sun­rise in the Sun­dar­bans

Pink Lo­tus

Sun­dari Flower

Red crab - a lo­cal del­i­cacy

A fish­ing Boat

Women work­ing in the paddy fields right be­side the river

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.