Unity is strength. . . when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.
- Mattie Stepanek
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Madan tied the red rag to a branch jutting out of the waters of Saptamukhi. The rest of the tree was submerged. The tides were high, the turbid waters of the river almost atop the entire foliage near the banks. Only the tall trees kept their heads above. The river reflected the harsh, mid-day sun. Beads of perspiration shone on Madan’s half-naked, frail body. The rag began to flutter in a gentle breeze- briny air smelling of baked earth and the forest. Rowing his boat over the waves he moved along the bank, his eyes narrowed, senses alert.
Everything was blurred beyond a few feet. Just an impression of a low and dense greenery, salt tolerant mangrove trees. Straining his eyes didn’t help. His ears could neither pick up any sound from the forest. All he heard was a faint lapping of water against his boat. Madan gripped his oar while trying to scan the passing greenery. He raised his head and sniffed the air. Not even a whiff of a strange odour. Annoyed, he gave up with a groan.
Interconnected rivers, tidal creeks and channels meander through this landscape of isolated landmasses. Surrounded by the quiet and unquiet, erratic waters of the Bay of Bengal these remote and beautiful islands and mudflats seem tempting. But are treacherous, deceptive- the waters alternately drowning and exposing many of these twice a day.
A few isles of the archipelago have disappeared into the depths of the sea forever. New land masses have also evolved from sediments brought down by the rivers Ganga and Brahmaputra.
In this delta stands a great littoral wilderness. A unique greenery. The Sunderbans. A vast and exotic region of dense, timber forests. Mangroves on the coastal fringe and freshwater swamp forests ranging far inland.
Madan sat fatigued, allowing the current to glide his boat into a creek. To soothe his parched throat he drank water in large gulps, pouring some on his wrinkled face and neck.
Few miles away, on an embankment of the river Bidyadhori, a group of men squatted before a sacred jungle shrine that stood under a leafless tree. The harsh rays of the sun filtered through its thatched roof, adding a dull illumination inside the modest structure. Oil lamps flickered and incense sticks burnt before an idol of Bonobibi. Bedecked with garlands and flowers the clay model of a triumphant Bonobibi sat astride Dakhin Rai, the tiger she had defeated in a fierce battle fought over the ownership of the Sunderbans.
Basir, Akbar and Kalu prayed with their mates in obeisance. Hindus and Muslims, seeking Bonobibi’s blessings before lugging their provisions in their small boats. Fresh water, rice, pulses, cooking oil, fuel and some medicines. Almost every inhabited island in the archipelago has a shrine of Bonobibi. It is a belief that the Goddess protects all who venture into the uncertainties of the forest.
Basir and his team would go at least for a couple of weeks. It was the season for gathering honey. He was the oldest among them, a short man in his early forties. He went to the jungles almost every year to collect honey. The others relied on his experience, depended on his skill.
Madan could no longer keep his tired eyes open. The midday sun sapped energy from his pale, malnourished body. The red patches on his scalp itched. He scratched them, disheveling his thin, white hair. It was almost nine months since his last visit to the jungle. Disabled ever since the attack, life was ebbing out of this lonely, poverty stricken old man. Madan fell into a light sleep as his mind went over the day nine months back. The day that changed his life.
He could still see the fish nibbling at the mud. Otherwise still, its pinkish tail swayed in the water. The fish was big enough to provide for their family of three for a couple of days. Madan’s eyes shone. The tide was low. Water had receded to expose sharp, pointed mangrove roots jutting out of the slippery, knee-deep mud. The river Saptamukhi looked like a narrow waterbody with muddy ramparts on both sides. Madan steered his boat without difficulty and slowly approached the fish from its rear. Stopping just a few yards from it he nodded to his son. Mintu got down and waded furtively through the knee deep water. Holding his breath he raised his harpoon.
All of a sudden there was a thunderous roar. Madan saw a flash of gold and black. The next moment Mintu was screaming for help. Out of nowhere a tiger had lunged at Mintu and tried to whisk him away. Madan stared with his mouth agape, shocked and immobilized for a few moments. Mintu tried to grab the tiger’s body but felt helpless under its weight. Seizing Mintu’s neck by its teeth the tiger tried to swipe him with its front paw. Mintu’s eyes swiveled towards his father in terror before they rolled back upwards into his head. Madan came back to himself.
Picking up his oar he sprang to his son’s rescue and began hitting the tiger’s head with his full strength. One blow injured the tiger to its eye. It howled and, releasing Mintu, charged at Madan. The tiger bit Madan’s head and dragged him under the water, digging its claws deep into his flesh. Writhing in pain Madan struggled to free himself. Uncomfortable with the bleeding eye and the saline water, the tiger let Madan go.
Mintu was almost dead by then. Holding him by the neck the tiger dragged him over the shiny silt. Jutting mangrove roots pierced Mintu's body at places. In a last attempt to save his son, Madan stood up by an immense effort of will. But the tiger had left deep wounds on his head and shoulder and there wasn’t any strength left in him. He fell and blacked out as the beast disappeared into the jungle with its kill.
Akbar and Kalu smoked while the other honey gatherers talked among themselves in a low voice. Their boats creaked and sailed through the brackish water of a channel. Streaks of sunlight filtered through the foliage and shone down on the lower flora. Lofty treetops along with low and tangled greenery. An unbroken canopy sustaining on the fertile soils of the archipelago.
“Be careful!” Basir said. “Tigers have mauled people in these places.”
Akbar shook his head and whispered. “Even if one of us gets killed by a tiger we can’t afford to stay at home in fear. Can we? If we don’t come to the jungles we’ll starve.”
“Easier said than done.” Kalu retorted.
“We have wives and children to feed, parents to take care of.” Akbar tried to reason with Kalu. “The forest sustains us. With no other jobs, we have to remain honey collectors.” Akbar’s voice trembled. He took a long pull from his bidi, inhaled, exhaled and then threw away the butt into the waters.
Basir scratched his stubble. He could sense that a dread was consuming Akbar’s courage.
“And why not?” Basir searched his pocket for a light. “Honey fetches quite a handsome price! The lure of money is too good to resist.” Fear was contagious and Basir felt he had to boost up the morale of his team.
“The tigers are protected. Nothing protects those who make a living from the woods.” Akbar sounded frustrated.
“I suggest we let the matter drop.” Kalu was irritated.
In Sunderbans, uttering the name of the animal means you are calling it. Think of the devil and there he appears. What was the matter with his people? They knew the risks in the jungles, the dangers that lurked on all sides. Tigers, poisonous snakes and crocodiles! But was it a right time to talk about them?
“There!” Basir spotted a large cluster of wild bee-hives somewhat visible through the dense thicket. They rowed towards the bank and tied their boats to mangrove roots. The men waded through the waters to reach the muddy shore. Only two of them stayed back. One would cook, while the other would watch his back. The Sunderban tigers are very good swimmers. They can sneak from behind and take their prey from boats.
Madan was found on the banks of Saptamukhi, bleeding and unconscious. He was taken to a state run hospital and lay there for the next seven months at the mercy of the hospital staff. He hovered between life and death, often losing track of events. Even Mintu’s death would escape him at times. When he was fit to look into a mirror, he shuddered at what he saw. The tiger had ripped away a part of his lower jaw leaving a gaping void below his nose. Through a pulp of crimson flesh a few nicotine coated teeth showed. While trying to express his resentment he found he was talking with a lisp and wasn’t able to make out every sound he heard.
But Madan knew he had to return to the jungle. Landless and unskilled, his life depended on the wood and honey from the Sunderbans and plenty of fish and crabs abounding in the surrounding waters.
But the first thing he would do was tie a red rag at the place where his only son had been killed by a tiger. It was customary to mark the sites where tigers killed people. The rag would warn other forest-bound men.
There was also a hidden motivation that gnawed at his heart. A strong desire he wished to fulfil.
Something he didn’t tell about to anyone.
Madan had never cared for a government license or any restriction and moved about freely. The delta belonged to the people who inhabited the place. Or so he thought. Why take a permission for something that belonged to them?
He lost his son for his transgression. But couldn’t accept that there were prohibited zones where fishing was banned. Where humans and animals could conflict in a critical tiger habitat.
Madan’s idle mind strayed whenever he closed his eyes.
But he was awake now. His watery eyes itched. Rowing his boat he stared with intent into the greenery and wondered if the tiger that had killed Mintu was somewhere nearby, camouflaged against phoenix bushes, secretly watching him. It was difficult to know. In these jungles tigers were everywhere and nowhere. He began to feel uncanny, trying hard to fend off the disquiet that settled in his guts.
While the others were busy collecting leaves and twigs to prepare a fire to scatter away the bees, Basir looked for a tree to climb. He searched for a convenient spot to begin cutting the soft and delicate honey comb. Walking a few metres along the golden coloured hive, a horizontal series of hexagonal pattern, he decided upon a tall tree, erect and slender. To save himself from bee stings, he began covering his face with a cotton cloth and wondered what took his team members so long! He was about to enquire when his heart skipped a beat at what he saw. A few meters away a tiger sat perfectly still, somewhat camouflaged among the bushes. Drool trickled its mouth as it bared its razor sharp fangs. Without flinching, it snarled and grunted, its intent look focused upon Basir. The tiger must have stalked Basir from a downwind direction and come close enough to launch an attack. Basir couldn’t turn and run as he would be done for. He waited for his friends to try and rescue him. He yearned for some kind of sound. Tin drums or buffalo horns or at least a howl from his group to scare the tiger away. But there were none. Had everyone deserted him in the face of danger? Basir stood breathless, a tightness gripping his chest.
Keeping low to the ground, barely moving its tail, the tiger now crept forward, ready to spring any moment. Basir was in a state of blind panic, his whole body trembling like a leaf. Seeing no other way to escape his attacking enemy, he began climbing the tall tree. His only chance of survival, he thought. With a huge roar the tiger pounced, missing Basir by a few inches. Its orange and black coat flashed against the green. Using its sharp claws it climbed. But the beast was clumsy, heavy and unable to pull its weight up. The tree heeled over another. Basir clung to the stem and prayed. He inched his way up as the tiger’s repeated attempts to reach him failed. It slipped, leaving deep, longitudinal marks on the trunk. Eventually it descended backwards.
The sky had turned into a pale tint of orange. Twilight deepened as birds, far away, fell silent. A frightening darkness began creeping under the trees. The honey comb was now within Basir’s reach. But its golden syrup was far from his thought. Sensing his presence some of the bees stung him. But the sting was better than the fierce predator waiting to devour him. Then there were mosquitoes and other unknown insects. A defenseless Basir endured them. Entwining the tree with his hands and legs he prayed to Bonobibi. His fatigued body ached. His muscles cramped. But he held on with his will to live.
The moon crept up and the surroundings began to gleam in its light. Basir could make out the huge body of the solitary brute. Its eyes shone. Tigers find it easy to stalk at night. They see better than human beings in the dark and are more surefooted. Basir knew that none of his mates would return for him before morning.
His empty stomach rumbled and he reeked of an acrid smell. He had urinated in his clothes. Terrified that he would loosen his firm grip, he refrained from closing his eyes. A wink of sleep was an impossibility.
Sitting throughout the night, the tiger watched Basir, its jowls drooling. However, in the first light of the morning, it gave up and walked off. Basir could no longer see the animal. His prayers had been answered. The terrible ordeal was over at last. He wept, grateful and relieved but his body still shook and trembled.
While in hospital, drifting between consciousness and unconsciousness, a faint, blurred image registered in Madan’s mind. A young woman, stooped beside his bed, trying to talk in a hushed tone. Shamoli came to visit her father-in-law occasionally, despite the risks involved while travelling. She could coax a boatman for a free ride from Jamespur to the nearest railway station at Canning. But she had to evade the ticket collectors as she couldn’t afford a railway ticket to the city. She was living a life of abject penury in Jamespur. Starving. Rejected by the villagers. Holding Madan’s hands she used to complain that the villagers accused her of being a sinner. They said that Bonobibi was displeased with her and had denied protection to her husband. They called her a witch! Shamoli couldn’t refute the blames. She wept and begged for a living. It seemed that her insatiable hunger didn’t want to quit.
One night, she heard a gentle tap on the door of their shanty.
“Who’s there?” She asked in a hushed tone.
Open the door, Shamoli,” a man whispered. “Don’t be afraid,” the voice was assuring and comforting, though Shamoli couldn’t recognise it.
“I won’t open the door in the middle of the night.”
“I have brought you some food. You must be hungry!”
The word food had a magical effect on Shamoli. Her empty stomach had been barking since evening. Without further consideration she unlatched the door and immediately let out a gasp. Silhouetted against the moonlight stood a tall, muscular man in a loincloth, reeking of country liquor. He put his firm hand on Shamoli’s mouth and dragged her inside, overcoming her meagre resistance without effort. The man forced her on the floor and Shamoli could feel his warm breath against her face. Too weak to protest, she gave in. As the man thrust himself inside her, Shamoli closed her eyes and only thought of her dead husband, Mintu. A full moon stared at them through the gaps in the roof of her shanty. A witness to an assault, a horrible violation that would go unnoticed.
Shamoli had finally sinned, or so she thought. Biting her lips she tried hard to resist her welling tears.
Before leaving, the man threw some money and whispered in her ear.
“Name is Raghu.”
The name rang a bell. Fueled by powerful people, the pirates of the Sunderbans looted with impunity. They abducted fishermen and honey-collectors with their boats demanding a heavy ransom. And the leader of a gang, Raghu, was the most dreaded of them all.
Bit by bit Shamoli whispered her tribulations to Madan. In between her sobs she regretted, “I have failed you and Mintu! Every nice thing around me is gone. People think it’s all my fault. But I am not to blame alone. Believe me. I always feel so hungry!”
Tormented by a sense of guilt she pleaded, “Help me please… tell me papa where could I seek forgiveness? Where do I find some peace of mind?” But every word she spoke, fell in deaf ears. An unconscious Madan couldn’t hear anything and never replied.
It wasn’t long before Shamoli left Jamespur, her home since her marriage. She knew she couldn’t return to her parents. They were too poor to support her anymore. But she had to run away. Before the bulge of her belly began to show.
Basir was yet to regain his composure. At the crack of dawn he heard the sound of tin drums and buffalo horns. He felt relieved. His team members had finally come back for him.
“By the grace of Bonobibi you are alive Basir, and unharmed.” Their voices quivered in emotion as they embraced him. They offered him food and water and then a cigarette to relax. As if to make up for their inadvertence they said, “We had left our tin drums in our boats. We were so excited on seeing the cluster of bee-hives that we hurried towards it! We thought we had struck gold!”
“If you would even beat your sticks against the trees, the noise could have scared off the beast,” an angry Basir retorted.
“We didn’t dare chase such a big animal. We were afraid… traumatised.” They sat with long faces, ashamed at their lack of courage.
Basir’s body was giving off an unpleasant smell. He felt dirty, his clothes soaked in sweat and urine, and he longed for a bath.
“Maybe what you did was right.” he sighed and nodded. “The tiger was enraged as I had slipped off its reach. It would wreak a vengeance on anyone it got hold of.”
The men set some dry leaves on fire and prepared a smoke before cutting the beehive above. When done, they would enter the deeper woods in search of more hives. Everyone dreamt of walking away with a good amount of money if he survived the trip. Each in his own way had a mental preparation of not returning home after their harvest. There’s a saying that in the Sunderbans, the tiger is watching you. You don’t see it. But you are aware of its gaze and only lock eyes with it when it charges at you.
On being released from the hospital, Madan returned to Jamespur and found his shanty deserted. A dog was sniffing at the dry utensils. The mud oven lay bare, unused. Madan chased the dog away and looked around. There wasn’t any sign of Shamoli. Her clothes, the small trunk in which she used to keep her personal belongings, her comb and the cracked mirror that hung from the wall- everything was gone.
Madan no longer had a family. No one to be concerned of, none to take care of him anymore. Abandoned and absolved of all responsibilities!
But he had an unfinished job. To find out the beast that killed his son. He must have blinded the tiger. It would be the most terrifying animal to meet with. Even if its wound had healed.
Madan found his boat amidst shrubs and other undergrowth. His heart began to beat faster and his eyes glowed as he cut down the shrubs with a chopper. Sweat dripped off his whole body. He looked like a mad man but felt fatigued within minutes. His face flushed and a whipped up anger started draining out of him. He gritted his teeth seeing how weak he had become.
Shamoli had confided her condition to a distant aunt of hers, who helped her find work with a French-funded project. Standing in a barren area Shamoli could see women planting mangrove saplings. The women also guarded the plants from being damaged. Large portion of the Sunderbans, once deep and inaccessible, had been cleared for human settlements and crop lands. The project was committed to creating and regenerating mangrove forests across a huge, barren area.
Though hesitant to employ a pregnant woman, the team leader Maya finally gave in when she heard Shamoli’s story.
“My husband was killed by a tiger the day I found out that I am carrying his child,” Shamoli told Maya. Raghu remained unuttered, shielded behind the lie.
Shamoli liked her job. She had enough to eat and a roof above her head. Most important, she felt safe, protected. Maya was careful not to assign any heavy work to her.
“Why do we get paid for planting mangroves?” A curious Shamoli had asked Maya one day while walking among the floral diversions of their project. The path was somewhat lit by a warm and glowing sunlight. The rest of it was shaded. Maya walked up to a tree and caressed it.
“Mangroves are natural guards protecting us from high intensity storms that come from the Bay of Bengal. A gas called carbon dioxide can heat up the earth. If the earth is hot, the water around us rises and more and more islands are inundated. Mangroves and other trees absorb carbon dioxide. Control the climate.”
Shamoli tried to absorb every word Maya said. She loved the way Maya showed her affection for the greenery around her.
“But the level of river waters of this region do fluctuate. The angry rivers take away our land. Homes are gone. People are swallowed. We are always forced to arrange our living, shifting from one place to another. What can one do?” Shamoli knew from experience and Maya was happy that she expressed her views.
“New settlements have developed by merciless felling of trees. When Bonobibi defeated Dakhin Rai, the tiger god,” Maya gazed with a dreamy look, “she had declared a truce on one condition. A peaceful co-existence. One half of the Sunderbans would belong to the tigers and other wild animals while the other half would be left for human settlement. But man has violated the treaty again and again by encroaching upon the habitat of tigers.”
Was it because of this sacrilege that Mintu was killed? Shamoli would never know.
“If we want to survive we must conserve this unique ecosystem. We must plant trees.” Maya looked at Shamoli, expecting her to say something. But Shamoli was in a different world, lost in her own thoughts.
Basir and his team had collected enough honey to fetch a good income for all. As their boats, meandering the tranquil waters of a creek, joined the tides of Saptamukhi, the men began to sing in praise of the forest. Through their songs they thanked Bonobibi for helping them return safe and sound.
Suddenly Basir spotted a man on a boat drifting with the current, too close to the dense mangroves lining the bank. What was the careless fool doing? Didn’t he know that dangers lay in wait among those dense thickets? A tiger could be sitting just a few feet away, hidden among the bushes! Couldn’t he see the red rag fluttering above? A sign that someone was lost to a tiger at that site!
Basir and others began to shout! But the river seemed too wide for their voices to reach the man. The tide was high, the current strong. The day was also very still. Without a breath of wind.
And Madan’s hearing was impaired. His soulless eyes scanned for a flash of yellow, his enemy. Ferocious, aggressive and probably blind in one eye. The feline that became a target for his retribution.
He shared his thoughts with no one. So there wasn’t anybody to talk some sense into him or tell him that the search was insane. Even if he succeeded, there could be dangerous consequences of killing a tiger. Neither did Madan think for once that the tiger might have migrated to a different part of the jungle.
A determined and deranged Madan returned to the same spot everyday. All he wanted was to settle a score. Avenge his son or get killed.