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Of Cats, gods and tides...


PRASHANTO BANERJI | Issue Dated: November 24, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Naxal nation | Nanda Devi | Sunderbans |

Anybody remembers Bizarro from Htrae, the square peg in the round planetary hole in that ‘space’ called DC comics, where everything that happens is opposite of how it might happen on earth (Htrae is Earth spelt backwards)? I do… I was just a little older than a toddler when that bizarre Superman issue showed up on news-stands… But why am I dragging out that dusty memory from that worm eaten cupboard of my childhood? That is because a cousin of mine who happened to snag a job in the Thames and a husband and a baby followed, is returning home and she wanted to see a wild bizarre part of what was once her ‘native’ country.


I spread out the creased map on the bed and then my wife and I, we hurriedly went up north past a rather tempting but daunting Ladakh and the forbidding heights of Nanda Devi , and then scampered south, by-passing the far too comforting confines of houseboats in Kumarakom, hopped around the red-striped ‘ultra’ wilderness in the heart of the Naxal nation around the  Deccan and then gingerly circumvented the warm winds out west before scooting east looking for a holiday destination that could measure up to my cousin’s wishlist...  


 It was then that I remembered that from under the armpits of the city Charnock built, snake mighty rivers in search of the sea. And as cities and towns fall away, along their banks crawls a strange beast, a mighty forest that recognizes neither time nor space. It stretches beyond the realms of land and sea, beyond borders that divide countries and faith, spilling over into countries and oceans. Here, in the endless tidal swamp-forests, man - undefended by concrete walls, cellular technology and metalled roads – is reduced to being a mere mortal again. Governed by primal laws where great beasts rule, on land and water, where man still lives in want and fear. In this truly bizarre landscape shaped by the tides, land appears and disappears like a mirage, and water is the one true constant… It is an enchanted land where fish walk the earth while trees grow roots that refuse to dig deep into the earth and stick their arms out, through the earth and towards the sky. These are the forests of the sundari trees, and the Sunderbans, be you my cousin or someone else’s, are truly as beautiful and enigmatic and ‘out there’ as any land you could find in the pages of a comic book or a fairy tale.


But like all lands that promise adventure, the Sunderbans too are as treacherous as they are beautiful. While in the rest of the country, tigers slink away whenever man approaches, here the great cats stalk man as they would a deer or wild boar, to hunt and eat.


So great is the fear of the tiger that those travelling through the Sunderbans at night in their houseboats prefer to drop anchor in the middle of a waterway than risk being close to land. But the tigers won’t be denied by a mere expanse of water. These relentless beasts have been known to swim up to a boat, steal up to the deck or a window and then carry their victim through the waters to an undisturbed spot on the shore, where they can eat in peace.


Just in case as you read this, you think you would have jumped into the tidal waters to escape the tiger, I would strongly urge you to exercise extreme caution for those waters are home to the largest living crocodilian in the world – the salt water crocodile. And the salt water croc relishes the taste of man just as much as the tiger.


Then of course there are the bull sharks and the cobras and pythons and vipers. Every home in the region would have lost a relative or a friend to these hunters in the shadows and the shallows, for here in the Sunderbans alone, man has failed to manipulate the forces of the great wilderness and remained a mere subject to the laws of nature.


And yet, I say that this winter, in the gathering smog in your city, as you wonder where to head out in search of adventure, I say you can’t better trying on  a trip to these mangrove forests for size.


 The meandering waterways, the languid pace of life and your boat, the calls of birds and monkeys on the passing branches overhead and the glistening mud banks with fresh pug marks leading from the water’s edge to the forest threshold, all make for an unforgettable experience in their own right. But what I remember most fondly from my trips to the region is the magnificent camaraderie that is the very essence of life for the people who live in this inhospitable wilderness.


Away from the artifice and excesses of our city-bred lives, here in the lap of nature at her best and worst, the tide-people have begun to rediscover the meaning of faith and friendship. Unfettered by the web of meaningless meaning that our complicated lives spin for us in the ‘real world’, here in the surreal world of the Sunderbans, life is about staying alive and in the moment. God isn’t some deity whose tales have popped out of an ancient tome. Nor is God the one learned philosophers have tried to introduce most of mankind to through their own isms and prisms. Nay, not either. Instead God here is that sublime force that rules the lives of all who live here. These forces are represented by two deities, Bono Bibi, the goddess of the forest and Dakshin Rai, the divine spirit of the tiger… And though you might find two men in a small boat out fishing for crabs and their names maybe Koreem and Kanhai, but these men are neither Hindu nor Muslim. Their forefathers may have been before they reached this mystical land but once here, faith gets pared down to just the essentials.. And so these men, Koreem and Kanhai and their brothers you meet, will also be found united in prayer before every expedition into the forest as they stare down death at every step as they look for crabs, firewood or honey (so fraught with danger are these expeditions into the Sunderbans for the locals that their wives live like widows until their husbands return) . And when life has been reclaimed after each  such expeditions, these men and their families unite again to offer gratefulness and gratitude to ‘God’, their forest and their tiger, and celebrate their today the best they can, for who knows what kind of a tomorrow the winds might bring.


So visit the Sunderbans, dear cousin, or whoever else you be, for here you will stand on the little delta of your experiences, and witness the river of our primordial past empty itself into the oceanic basin of our present… now why should you want to miss out on a dip like that?

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017