A dark night, lost and wandering on a boat amidst the tiger-infested forests, Anirudh Chaoji recounts a Diwali like no other…
This story goes back in time. It was October of 1995; we were all excited about the stellar spectacle of total solar eclipse that was going to be visible from many parts of India. Every known hotel in Gujarat, the sunniest state on its path, was booked well in advance. And we had become the laughing stock as we were headed exactly in the opposite direction to the Sundarbans Delta in West Bengal, by the shores of the ever turbulent, stormy and cloudy, Bay of Bengal. We were warned of low probability of sun visibility and of course of the infamous man-eating tigers. But something in favour of this mangrove country was the fact that the solar eclipse would be visible for the longest span from here. The strong population of tigers was another temptation.
After transferring by road from the then Calcutta, we were on a launch to the island of Gosaba, better known then as the village of widows in Sundarbans – probably the only place in the world with confirmed man-eating habits of the tiger. Apart from the tigers, a number of fishermen and honey collectors have been taken by crocodiles and even sharks. With no other source of livelihood, locals have no option but to venture into the forest or the waters to eke out a subsistence. Interestingly, fish which is the mainstay of the food here was to be shared between man, tiger, shark as well as the salt water crocodile.
There are many reasons attributed to the Sundarbans tiger’s man-eating behaviour – from salinity of water inducing this habit, to tigers being used to consuming humans for generations. The most ‘humane’ insight was provided by an elderly fisherman during my last visit here. He sat down sipping chai and gave me some of the most important lessons of conservation: “We don’t refer to the tiger by its name, as by doing so, we would call him from the jungles. Instead we have other names like Dokhin Rai.
What we conveniently have forgotten today is that Dokhin Rai and us, we share a common home (ecosystem) and sometimes, to survive, he has to prey on us – like we prey on fish. But owing to his fear, these beautiful Sundarbans forests have remained protected, unlike elsewhere in Bengal. If these forests don’t remain, the islands will not remain and when the islands don’t remain, there is no way we will remain.” Such deep insight coming from someone who must have lost a handful of relatives to the tiger was itself a big lesson. He also recounted the story of the local Bonbibi goddess, who protected the locals from Dokhin Rai, whom she has also accepted as her son along with the humans, after he was defeated in a battle.
Our friend, the boat owner and guide, was a young local named Chittaranjan Das. He and his boat crew knew the land well and their smaller boat had the distinct advantage of being able to enter some of the shallow channels, unlike the larger and more comfortable government vessel. We soon reached the West Bengal Tourism’s resort on the Sajnakhali Island, just across the island of Gosaba.
As soon as our group entered the resort, they had their first experience of what the fear of the tiger means in these areas. The resort itself was fenced off from all sides by a 15-feet tall chain link fence, to ensure that the tigers would be unable to venture inside. Simultaneously, from the boat landing on the riverside to the entrance of the resort, people had to walk through a tunnel of chain link, with a strong safety lock securing the gate.
Another interesting aspect of this resort was that, being located in the mangrove forest of a delta region, the water level would rise and fall twice a day, every day. This would periodically submerge and expose the land on which the resort was located as well as the neighbouring forest. Thus the complete resort with all its rooms had to be built on stilts. The land itself was made up of the deposit of fine silt that the mighty Ganges must have carried along during the course of her 2500 kilometre-long journey that started high in the Gangotri Glacier.
The slush and the repeatedly submerging land must have meant that all animals including the tiger would have evolved to survive like amphibians. Impossible it may seem, but the tigers here have been known to swim across six kilometre-wide channels from one island to another. In fact, many attacks on locals have happened when they were manoeuvring their small primitive boats thorough these mangrove channels. The tigers would swim to the boat and jump on board to carry its occupant overboard.
The day we reached, it was raining almost all through. I was a little tense about what the weather gods had in store for us – two days later. We spent most of this time on our launch, exploring the pristine forests for its inhabitants, without any more rains. On the day of the eclipse, I woke up early and ran to the terrace to find a spectacularly blue sky with absolutely no trace of cloud. I for one was never so excited to see a cloudless sky. I am an ardent lover of cloudy skies and rain, which would mean without having the sun throwing all its heat on the land. But today was a different day. I was desperately praying for a sunny day.
After a quick breakfast, we were all on the terrace with cameras mounted on tripods and binoculars around our necks, duly covered with the recommended films. And very soon, spectacularly the sun god was completely devoured by the mythological Rahu and Ketu. It was absolutely the most dramatic celestial phenomenon that I had ever witnessed. The eclipse was beautifully documented by all the participants and “totality” received the stamp of approval of a spotted owlet that started to call out loud in the trees behind us. As in the words of James Bond, the memory of the ring with its diamond will be for ever! The trip objective was achieved, despite being in one of the most rain prone areas of India.
That afternoon, our excited gang boarded the launch for another exploration of the mangrove forest. We watched the beautiful Sundari trees that are the predominant species of this forest and are a home to a very diverse fauna. Very soon, we had already watched seven species of kingfishers. The adjutant stork appeared to be a primitive bird with its bright pouch hanging from the neck. A huge salt water crocodile lay basking in the afternoon sun, a spotted deer female with her fawn disappeared into the forest and a water monitor walked in slow motion as the mud skippers, tiny amphibious tadpole shaped fish, tried escaping from this predator.
The evening sun set the mighty delta on golden fire and we were now headed back to the resort when the early winter sky started to get dark very fast. ‘Amavsya’ meant that there was no moon to illuminate the channels. In the dark night, all that we could see ahead was a dim outline of the forest on both sides and a channel in between. The forest was illuminated by a million fireflies and the sky was studded with a billion stars. The unmistakable Cassiopeia and Pegasus constellations along with the dimly visible Andromeda galaxy were shining prominently.
Along with Anisha, Gupte kaka and Swapnil, I was enjoying the sight of the sky that I could have never imagined seeing from Pune. And suddenly Anisha remarked that the boat crew seemed to have most amazing navigational skills. Here we were not being able to make head nor tail of our surroundings and these locals were probably navigating by the stars… And this is when Chittaranjan babu, who was silently standing behind us broke the secret… “We are lost. We are trying to search for the exit channel.”
This was when the fact that we were in Sundarbans actually hit us for the first time. This ‘secret’ was kept to the front deck and not allowed to be trickled down to the passenger area, where the group was enjoying a chatting session. Knowledge of the stars came handy and we realised that we were travelling due south west… But we had no idea, where! There was no way to determine where Gosaba was from where we were. We came across three cross channels. Decisions were based on intuition.
This was also when another realisation sunk in – whether Sundarbans had the highest tiger density could be a matter of controversy but, without doubt, it had one of the lowest human densities. There was absolutely no sign of any human presence anywhere.
We continued our journey for another 45 minutes, during which Chittaranjan felt the need to reassure us twice that the sides of the boat were high enough to prevent any tiger from leaping in, if it ever attempted… At that moment, this was not a very comforting discussion indeed. There was sufficient diesel on the boat, he informed, but not sufficient drinking water for an overnight stay…
The delay had already raised questions in the minds of those down below in the passenger hold. Little Noordin came up asking “Are we lost?”, “No re we should be reaching soon, please go down and be comfortable.” That answer, I am sure, wasn’t too reassuring to everyone down below. Very soon Dr Dixit came up with the news, “People are reciting Ram Raksha.” … I guess, people had read too much on Sundarbans tigers before coming on this programme.
All five of us were now on the lookout for any light source or human sign. We must have observed each and every fire fly individually to confirm that it was not a light from a distant human settlement. I was, in the meanwhile, also scanning the water’s edges for any shining eyes.
And suddenly, all of us screamed in unison – ROCKET!!! A bewildered Hanif came up on the top deck, “Kabhi pehle dekha nahi tha kya?” Had you never seen one before? We were never before so thrilled by Diwali crackers. The source of the Diwali rocket indicated the direction of Gosaba, to be south of where we were. It took us another forty minutes to reach the resort.
It was on the dining table that night that I took courage to declare to the group that we had been lost among the channels of the Sundarbans and it was the celebrations of Lord Rama’s return that had actually ensured our return to the resort.
Explorer, wildlifer, trekker, scuba diver, skydiver, river rafter, birdwatcher and nomad for life, Anirudh Chaoji works as an ecologist in community-based conservation, Forest Department, Melghat Tiger Reserve.