POSTCARD FROM SUNDERBANS
The hungry tide
Every aspect of life here is dictated by it.
For a few days, in a Walden-like scenario, we became islanders and consumed the local food.
Go with the flow: A simple but hard life. Photo: Parth Sanyal
OUR indigenously built launch meandered through the labyrinth of waterways that lead you to the Sunderbans. Both sides of the river were bordered by hamlets and mangroves. For miles, one could only see emerald and jade green forests set against aqua green coloured waters. The landscape was kind of primeval. The immensity of the universe overwhelms the mind.
In the thick of the forest, the engine was cut off and the launch just drifted. A collective quietitude descended on the group: as each one of us was contemplating our relationship with the cosmos. The man at the helm, Manekda, allowed us to soak in the experience for a few moments and then gently broke the silence with an introductory address, "Welcome," he said, "to the largest mangrove ecosystem in the world, a biosphere reserve, a World Heritage site."
The tides decide
In the rhythms of the river, life and living get encapsulated in this archipelago. The tides rather dictatorially govern the day's tidings. Every day there are two rising and two ebb tides. From the vantage of our campsite, we saw the rising tide, the swell, surge and gush of waters. The pliant land and soil submit meekly to the deluge as they have no defence mechanism. It is as if all living organisms know how to bow their heads and allow a Supreme force to pass over.
The sea and river waters mingle and the tides recede. All suspended action gets activated. Kingfishers (over seven varieties in the mangroves) are back on the trees. Fiddler crabs tuck in their nutrients in mudflats. Boatmen are out on their dinghies, the dolphins enthralled us with a piquant aquatic regatta. Probably the elusive Royal Bengal Tiger too steps out.
The mangrove foliage and their roots have developed resilient anchoring mechanisms into the soil, and stay rooted as prolific colonisers. An old fisherman recounting a folk tale likened the tides to a master of the house, demanding absolute acquiescence and servitude.
The Sunderbans, true to its name, is a place of transcendental beauty. The terrain, however, is harsh on its inhabitants. Minimalist infrastructure, poverty and nature at its whimsical and quicksilver best, is hardly a compatible companion. Yet, the sun-kissed, burnished cheeks of the inhabitants crease spontaneously into a smile, a smile that reaches the corners of their eyes.
What keeps these simple and courageous people at their tasks relentlessly is probably their faith in Goddess Bonbibi, the protector of the forests.
All over the Sunderbans, one got to see dramatic icons of Bonbibi. The act of worship is a serious affair. The rituals have an unparalleled hybrid flavour as there is no single homogenous tribe. People of differing faiths and religion pay their obeisance to Bonbibi. Faith finds a natural expression and extension in a vibrantly alive folk culture, which has preserved its mores and tradition. On a rudimentary platform we got to see rehearsed and extempore shows of Bonbibi, the upholder of justice as the salvation for all earthly suffering.
As a tribute to the Sunderbans' performing artists, most of us dug into our bags and knapsacks and contributed whatever we could for their future theatre productions. The contributions that got tumultuous cheers (not the monetary kind) were Kajol sticks and eyeliners and other make-up kits (Bonbibi has dramatic Kohl-lined eyes) and a shocking red coloured shawl, a colour favoured by the goddess.
For a few days, in a Walden-like scenario, we became islanders and consumed the local food. In each dish (alur bhaja, maacher jhol, shukto) we experienced a nuance of mustard. Heated mustard oil had a docile and sweet taste, turning sharp in dishes that used only raw mustard oil and as a paste nose-tinglingly pungent. The wizened old Master Chef smiled at us, who had acquired a taste for mustard, and said, "does not mustard depict all that life is about?"
The farewell to the Sunderbans did not seem final enough. After all, we had not spotted the Royal Bengal Tiger. We may need several trips, considering Manekda, who has lived there for 40-odd years, has only sighted it twice.
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