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 and 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 nine 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 and 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 and 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 semi-confluence of several creeks. This, Tarok informed us, as he killed the engine and 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 and attached toilets, kitchen and a huge deck. I later learned it takes six 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 and 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.