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Sundarbans: The ragged fringe

In the Sundarbans, fear, exhilaration, discovery come and go with the rise and ebb of the tide

Locals travel home on one of the many small wooden boats that navigate the waterways of Sundarbans National Park. Photographs by Alamy
Locals travel home on one of the many small wooden boats that navigate the waterways of Sundarbans National Park. Photographs by Alamy

Finally, the rain. A pitter-patter on the tin roof, but it will do. It’s late September but scorching still. Yet another depression had formed over the sea and the resulting humidity sat like a sweat-drenched second skin; the heat had assailed from the dull grey sky above and seemed to rise from the ground below. Now suddenly, the comfort of petrichor.

Lying sprawled with a book on the floor of Chandan’s home—an unadorned, two-room mud hut covered by a tin roof—I look out of the door. The two children in Maipith village, where I’m staying, are still flying their kites, eyes fixed on the leaking sky. I return to my book, but hey, wait—how are these children flying paper kites in the rain? Perplexed, I go out to check what’s up.

There are no kites in the sky, yet the strings held by the children are taut and their looks intense. I’m reminded of the ball-less, pantomime tennis game in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 cinematic classic Blow-Up, but that seemed to be intellectual consolation for my obvious incredulity. I strain my eyes for an answer. Understanding my bafflement, one of the children pulls back the string.

At the end of it is a dragonfly. The string is tied to the insect’s abdomen —the helplessly fluttering dragonfly strains to fly away, but can’t, thus lending to the string its tension. Two such dragonflies, and two children, make for a game of faux kite flying. I exhale. I ruminate. It’s the Sundarbans again.

My early memory of this deltaic archipelago, its mangrove-laden islands drowning and rising with the come-and-go of the tides, is tied to the fear and exhilaration of knowing the unknown. As a barely impressionable child, hand-held by parents, I remember our launch getting tossed around by the Matla river on an April afternoon. A kalboishakhi, one those ferocious nor’westers that creep up the Bay of Bengal in an annual ritual, had lashed our boat as the Matla, true to its name, did a mad drunken dance.

On the same trip, while passing one of those tapering creeks that circuitously vein through the Sundarbans terrain, our guide had pointed to one of the two boatmen on a narrow dinghy. He had a leg and a portion of an arm missing. “Gone to a tiger," the guide declared stoically. Even in absence, the man-eating Royal Bengal tigers of the Sundarbans are a presence. Over half-a-dozen visits subsequently, I have heard their low baritone growl, seen pugmarks and scat, but never those flaming stripes. “If you see a Sundarbans tiger in the wild," Murshid, a boatman, had once warned us, “there is little chance you’ll be seen again." From within the opaque fortress of mangrove and sundari trees holding up the fragile ecology of islands, I’m sure he saw us and bided his time.

The tigers found here are excellent swimmers.

Like unrequited love, maybe it is this reclusiveness that makes one return to the unforgiving tidal terrain movingly described by British poet and author Ruth Padel as that of “the great animal solitary". As far as general descriptions of the world’s largest mangrove expanse go, there is no bettering author Amitav Ghosh’s flourish in the novel The Hungry Tide: “The islands are the trailing threads of India’s fabric, the ragged fringe of her sari, the achol that follows her, half-wetted by the sea."

Trailing the threads of India’s fabric, weaving through rivers like the Matla and Thakurani, and intent on experiencing the Sundarbans beyond what is afforded by noisy tourist boats and sanitized government tourist bungalows, my friends and I reached the island-village of Maipith one afternoon. We were to stay at the home of Chandan, a local school-going teenager who is the friend of a friend. Chandan’s father plies an autorickshaw on the island. With a family of five, his means are modest but his heart is vast. He offers the only bed in his hut to the three guests from the city. We vehemently refuse, opting instead for the cool comfort of the mud floor. There’s fish and mounds of rice on our plates with every meal. On that remote island, 60-odd kilometre, from the Bangladesh portion of the Sundarbans, we couldn’t have asked for more.

The arrival of the young babus from Kolkata creates a buzz in Chandan’s neighbourhood. Villagers pin us down with their many whys and whens; we have as many questions. Neighbours bring for us coconuts and home-made sweets; we can merely offer gratitude. Every day-long conversation develops on the basis of mutual wonderment. Nearing dusk, the three of us collect at the top of the flight of steps leading to the river jetty and watch the tide come up and slow-swallow plants, small trees, mudflats and low-lying islands. The soft caressing sound of waves lapping at the banks gathers frequency and fervour with the high tide. A handful of passengers wait for the last boat to arrive. Its engine’s raucous bhot-bhot-bhot precedes its arrival, the gathering noise drowning out the soundtrack of the tide. People board and disembark in practised silence. There’s something about the activity at the jetty. Along with fear and exhilaration, an ephemeral element of melancholia is what I’ve come to recognize and appreciate about the Sundarbans.

This is the largest mangrove forest in the world.

Maipith island bundles all three emotions. Inhabited by a largely refugee mass from Bangladesh erstwhile East Pakistan, surrounded on its sides by dense tiger-patrolled forests and hemmed in by rivers and muddy creeks, Maipith is also thickly populated by tales of struggle and survival. Living off fishing, agriculture and forest produce, almost every village home has a tiger tale to recount—the honey collector who never returned, despite the camouflaging face mask covering the back of his head; the fisherman who heroically stuck the oar inside the jaws of the rushing blur of stripes; the village drunkard who fought back an intruding tiger with a broken country liquor bottle. There’s fear.

There’s exhilaration too. One day, we hire a fishing boat with the intention of spending a day on the river and creeks. We pack in essentials for a picnic—rice, lentils, potatoes and fish. Along with Chandan and the two boatmen, three sprightly village children also pile on to the country boat. These small boats can venture where tourists launches can’t and, soon, we find ourselves meandering into a narrow, shallow creek. The mangrove and low-hanging tree branches press down on us, making us duck. The banks, with sharp breathing roots sticking out of the mud, are a mere leap away for the big animal. The boatmen watch out for tigers on the land, Chandan checks for crocodiles and alligators in the water, while we remain alert to falling snakes from the overhanging tree branches. It’s humid with the moisture of the forest.

It hosts a variety of animals, including the spotted deer. Photographs by Alamy

The boat stops at a small landing bank. The boatmen trudge into the forest to collect firewood. I’m on the boat, trying to take a photograph. The children on the bank laugh; they sense I’m scared. Before I know, one of them coils something to a tree branch and throws it towards the boat. In a flash, I jump out for dear life. The snake coiled to the branch falls a few feet away from the boat. The children can’t stop laughing.

There you see, dada, one of them later points out. Pugmarks in the mud. Moving into the forest. Fresh, one whispers. How do you know they are fresh? “Because the cavity caused by the tiger paw hasn’t been filled in by water yet." Irrefutable forest wisdom. Here, one of the children cuts the mud around a pugmark like a piece of cake and hands it over to me. “Take it back to Kolkata," he says. The cake crumbles on my palm; I carry back the memory.

On yet another late afternoon at Maipith, Chandan guides us to the edge of the village. Yet another narrow creek separates the island from the forest opposite. We head back as soon as dusk lends a spectral eeriness to the forest. Chandan is a student and wants to be a “forest officer" when he grows up. For now, he occasionally has to venture into the forest to assist honey collectors or collect forest produce. “Dada, do you know how we see each other in the dark of the forest?" he asks.

Our trail is lined on either side by shrubbery lit by thousands of glowing fireflies akin to the lights on an airport runway. Chandan quickly catches a few fireflies and plucks out their wings, rendering them immobile but not lifeless. He glues them along the contours of his sweaty face. “This is how."

Suddenly, in the pitch darkness of the Sundarbans, the outline of Chandan’s face lights up.

Know the Sundarbans

■ The Indian side of the Sundarbans stretches over 9,630 sq. km—reserve forests and Project Tiger occupy 4,263 and 2,585 sq. km, respectively.

■ It is the largest coastal mangrove forest in the world, 102 islands make up the archipelago, 54 of which are inhabited by humans.

■ The Sundarbans is designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site, a Ramsar Site, a biosphere reserve, national park and wildlife sanctuary. As part of Project Tiger, the
Sundarbans is considered the last safe haven of the majestic Royal Bengal tiger.

■ The major fauna are tiger, wild boar, estuarine crocodile, water monitor lizard, fishing cat, deer, rhesus monkey, Olive Ridley turtle, smooth-coated otter, and king cobra.

■ Many rivers criss-cross the delta. The main ones are Thakuran, Matla, Raimongol, Bidyadhari, Ichamoti, Jhila and Saptamukhi.

■ The principal entry points to the forest are Jharkhali, Godkhali, Namkhana, Canning and Sonakhali.

■ The West Bengal government’s tourism department organizes tours. There are multiple private operators too. The adventurous can also organize their own trip. Most of the bigger launches have modest facilities for stay and food.

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