(previously published at chowk.com)
I have "done" the Sunderbans since well before they became famous in the minds of homo urbanis Indiana for man eating tigers. Those days they were known as "Royal Bengal". There were no bleeding hearts then, either. Paying rent was more important. Our parents were more into ensuring
It was still man eating man, as it still is today, the tigers were very much there, but they weren’t really that bad. I don’t have empirical data on this, but I am told that there was more "sweet" water around, in natural reserves within the forests. And there wasn’t much to suggest that tigers swam out long distances to prey on sleeping fisherfolk, choosing to wait till the foolish humans stepped ashore for wild honey or to trap crocodiles, and only after the number of crocodiles in the delta had gone down did the tigers start swimming long distances.
Bit of an evolutionary spiral there, but then that’s how it has always been, to what I can recall.
As an Eastern Railway youngster, going out on small steamboats, South of Canning. Never came across people more gentle than the boat-handlers from the Sunderbans.
As a young seafarer, sailing up and down the Southern extremeties of the Sunderbans through the Hooghly, on large ocean-going ships picking and dropping pilots in the flat and featureless Bay of Bengal at Sandheads. Never came across pirates more vicious than those from the Sunderbans.
As a not so young seafarer, up the rivers of Bangladesh, at the Northern end. Never seen more masses of humanity living right along the ocean, than in the Bangladesh part of the Sunderbans.
And then recently (old? middle-aged?), as a traveller and tourist, criss-crossing the largely uninhabited Indian part of the delta on country ferries and fishing boats converted into double-decker cruise vessels. Never came across reformed poachers and smugglers more in tune with nature and preservation than those from the Sunderbans.
Same place, different times. And now we are told that they may vanish below the surface of the Bay of Bengal in the next few years. Yes, I myself saw huge chunks of islands being scooped out, and dropping into the water. But maybe, to come up at another spot, sandbanks are never firm and in position.
But everytime, what remained constant was the heavy tidal range, exceeding 7 metres twice a day. The muddy brown saline brackish waters, through which you could see nothing, but just knew that wonders and terrors co-existed in harmony just below the surface. The hypnotic beauty of the seemingly uninhabited thick dark forests, but just knew that jungle cats and bears were following your every movement with steady eyes, from just within the glorious dark. The shiny lunar grey of the swamplands at the relentless but lazy ebb sucking everything out with it except the debris left behind till low tide, turning brown with the incoming flood, swirling madly when reaching high water marks amidst submerged trees out of waterworlds.
Here, then, are random notes from my last visit to the Sunderbans. My first trip as a tourist, though I did break away from the planned iternary, on a clear late March night to see the stars. To my fate, that night brought on a totally unexpected March storm, severe enough to cause a few boats to capsize. But it also brought out tales of the inner strength that keeps the Sunderbans going, despite everything, and be aware - they have a lot going against them lately.
To start with, there is the combined threat of global warming, rising water-levels and increased urbanisation. The proliferating chimneys from brick kilns within the paddy and sunflower fields can not be missed as you drive through 24 Parganas, and pretty much every third boat leaving the jetty during the day at Sonakhali and Basanti is loaded down to the marks with bricks. You can sense them see the silhouettes also, as the same boats make their way back during the night loaded with timber chopped from along the shoreline of the inner islands. And yes, "nature resorts" are springing up like sprouts on onions and potatoes left in guest-house almirahs, visible if you choose to look.
Next, rising interest rates in mainland India don’t mean anything to C.K. Prahlad’s mass at the bottom of the base here, anyways. The going rates have always been around 8% to 10% per month for unsecured loans. That’s right, and to start with, you get the first month’s interest rate debitted. But then there is also the code of the Sunderbans. Widows are simply not troubles for unpaid loans, the money-lender absorbs the loss, though the widow now slogs for her food at ebb tide in white saries for the rest of her life. And the co-operative movement started by dour Scotsman Sir Donald Hamilton and family, of McKinnon & McKinzies, continues to flourish side by side. Notwithstanding the fact that the rigid babus of the State Bank of India have taken over the building where this co-operative used to function from.
The solar energy scenario started off with a blast, and was going great guns till two years ago, after which it fell into the usual Government inspired ruts. Of delayed supplies, subsidy scams and simple unavailabilities. As a result you now see LPG cylinders and diesel gensets making their appearance. All this in a part of the world where renewable forestry would be more than sufficient to meet all energy needs. Including for the bio-gasifier plant providing electricity at Gosaba, the first and probably the "main" island.
Gosaba also has a couple of mobile phone towers catering to the GSM lot, but if you are on CDMA, then forget it. Probably better off being cut-off, actually. And connectivity is sporadic at best, though BSNL comes out tops here, as always in non-urban locations. Saw a fair bit of LED lighting coming up, too, but not much wind-power.
Stating this may get me into trouble, but what the heck, these are observations. Non-Bengalis who speak Bengali, Bengalis from abroad, and foreigners who merge, are treated with great joy and love, seems we come with open minds and no baggage. Non-Sunderbans Bengalis who speak English are treated with disdain, almost with contempt, and carry their own baggage. Bengalis who speak Bengali are first put in their place as mainlanders, explained the laws of the islands, and then welcomed. Foreigners who come with deep pockets are induced to charter full boats and stay away from the rest of us, which is just as good, too. And those who back-pack, hopping islands by boat and rickshaw, are truly beloved, as well as literally adopted.
(Note on backpacking:- reach Kolkata any old how. Take local train to Canning or bus to Sonakhali/Basanti (costs between nothing and 12 rupees). Take country boat to Gosaba (costs between 1 and 5 rupees). Walk across Gosaba (free), ride rickshaw (negotiate) or stay first night (costs between 25 and 300 rupees). Eat whatever the locals eat, plenty of good veggie stuff available. ( being a fish-eater helps). Next day, start riding the ferries and other boats to the distant islands, if in doubt, ask for and reach Annpur, where Niranjan Raptan http://www.raptan.com will always guide you further.)
The sun rises very early in these parts. And the not-so-famous roosters of the Sunderbans are on some sort of enhanced diets, they start off with what is usually a co-ordinated move, at a random time between 3am and 4am. They then continue in full chorus till noon, after which they wait for exhausted tourists to fall into siesta stupors, and then they bellow forth again. Personally, I went there to eat fish, but would gladly wring the neck of male poultry if they weren’t so adept at jumping out of reach. And when they stop, the ducks and geese howl at them to start again, it seems they miss the repertoire.
The West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation’s huts at Sajnekhali breed monkeys who are trained to open locked doors and make off with your personal effects as well as all food, and anything else they like. That is if they don’t do so when you are walking around anyways. Best avoided, except for day visits, or unless some Big Babu is setting things up for you. Then you get the monkey proof tours. The same West Bengal Government remote outposts are beautifully maintained, and a testimony to what a few good men and women can and will do, if not interfered with. How do you get to these remote outposts in the core areas? You try, and seldom on your first visits do you succeed.
Forget about trying to spot tigers or crocodiles. They are probably watching you from behind the thick forest darkness or from just next to the murky water surface, as you glide pase, hoping that you will make a mistake. Trying to figure out how the trees survive in a salt water bath twice a day, while their roots are also being treated to a saline diet, is more fun. To get an idea, tip a bucket of Sunderbans water over yourself, and stand in the sun, take a sip too. See what happens, and then appreciate the way the whole eco-system there gets along.
The female to male ratio of visitors to the Sunderbans is highly skewed in favour of the females. Typically, there are 2 or 3 female tourists for every male, and this is a fact not a perception. Endorsed by the rather satisfied looking boatmen, all of whom are tanned, healthy, fit as well as competent enough to be stage and theatre actors when not navigating through uncharted waters. There is something here, which I observed in Greek and Italian men working the sea-shores, too. Chick-magnets.
The whole concept of "mainlanders" is language frighteningly similar to what I heard in Kashmir a few decades ago. "You Indians", is another phrase. What do you say to them, when they explain that the complete prawn harvest is "blocked" off by the traditional seths from Kolkata, who will simply destroy if every gram of prawn harvested in the Sunderbans is not turned over to them? Likewise, government is seen as an entity without sustainable or long-term roots, out to gouge and take as much as they can without ploughing anything back in return.
There is not a single functional hospital or rural health centre in the Sunderbans, but there are no shortages on police-boats out to get their share of whatever is the day’s catch. There is absolutely no public transport, but there are checkposts all over on the islands as well as afloat to see if the "permit" for cameras costing all of 10/- rupees has been issued or not. There is no building code, and "mainlanders" are buying up land to construct hideous buildings on soil which will swallow them in a few years. And as for sewage treatment, I saw no sign but I did see how rich tourists come and throw empty water bottles away over the side and worse.
Despite all this, the Sunderbans are still a "last frontier" kind of visit. Go there before they disappear below the swirling tides.
I could go on and on. But photos are worth thousands of words, and mine are up at http://www.flickr.com/photos/vm2827/ . . . a full set of 251 photos from my last visit. See them if you can’t make it to the Sunderbans in the next 10 years or so. They may not be there after that. The Sunderbans.
Slideshow, faster, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/vm2827/sets/72157600024386712/