Ever since I was a child, I have heard stories of man-eating tigers from our housekeeper Lakshmi who grew up in the Sunderbans. It has been decades and yet those stories hadn’t changed. Once in a while, I would get an update from her, about how a tiger attacked a village or how village kids went missing in the forests. As I grew older and the travel bug caught up on me, I decided to give my stories a reality check. So I coaxed Lakshmi one day and planned a trip to her homeland. It was after the festival season, a few years ago, and was the perfect time to explore this delta region. We booked a cab from Kolkata to Sunderbans and headed to see the land of the wild.
Reaching the Sunderbans
It was a 3 hour drive through Sonarpur and Canning. In case you are travelling in a large group, get the best tempo traveller on hire in Kolkata. We finally reached the village of Gadkhali. Beyond this point, one has to take a ferry to reach any of the nearby villages. We had to reach Maipit, where my housekeeper’s family lived. Her cousin Babu was a fisherman who owned a boat and was supposed to be my guide for the next two days. As soon as we landed at Gadkhali, he appeared with his small dinghy to give us a ride.
The deltas of the Sunderbans are like the frayed ends of India’s geographical fabric. The small ferryboat weaved through the Matla and Thakurani rivers and their silted river islands. Cutting through the noisy tourist boats and morning ferries, we reached the island village of Maipit. Far from the busy towns of the mainland and tourist lodges, Maipit was the quintessential village of Bengal. After a simple village-style lunch, we went for a walk around the village and around the edges of the river. Barely a mile outside the village, in a narrow forested trail, we found pug marks on the soil. It was fresh, probably from the night before, making it clear that one of the predators have been on the prowl.
Next day, we went out on our boat ride. Babu had already warned me that the ride could get intimidating at certain places.
A ride through the mangroves
Although September is a dry season, the villages here often experience a sudden afternoon storm, along with the daily tidal changes. This makes boating a risky affair at such times. The three of us started sailing at snail speed down the narrow canal where their house sat. The mangrove laden canal was way narrower than the water bodies I had crossed in the morning. The tides here changed so often that I could feel the rise and fall of the water volume while sailing. When the tides were high, the waves lapped at the banks, almost drenching the mangroves.
We meandered through narrow, shallow creeks and reached an area where there were very few houses, and that too, at a distance. At some places, the low-hanging trees made us duck.
The surroundings rushed a feeling of fear and exhilaration in me. I was thrilled and yet, there was the anticipation of the unknown. In a few arms distance, on one side of the river banks, I saw a half-broken boat turned over and torn clothes of probably a man. My boatman stoically stated that a few days ago a fisherman was missing from the nearby village and was found the next morning at the place that I just saw. This made my heart skip a beat. The creek seemed to taper down and the forests on each side felt closer to the boat.
A glimpse of the predator
Babu suddenly stopped the boat and asked me to follow him. This was a wider and clearer path used by villagers to collect firewood or go hunting. We reached a sandy ridge-like area, from where we could see on the other side of the delta. Quietly, he pointed out to a window between two trees, towards a water body. I grabbed my binoculars and focused on his line of view. Far away, I could see the golden yellow silhouette of the big cat. A little more focus made its flaming stripes prominent. It seemed to be resting in the water, perhaps preparing itself before the night attack. I realised that could be the closest I would ever get to a Royal Bengal. But that was good enough.
It was not safe to hang out in the woods for long and it was getting dark. The soft caressing sounds of the waves gave way to the stillness of the sunset. I tried to focus on the sounds that flew from the dark corners of the forests, where the predators were treading surreptitiously, lying in wait. Soon, it was dark and I kept my peeled to watch out for any sudden movement in the trees. I thought I heard a roar and felt the leaves rustle and a pair of green eyes. Or were they just fireflies?