Sunday, March 9, 2008

Forest Fables 1: Primal Fear

“Death has many shapes here”, Satyo had said. “You must reach Pather Para before dark.” I looked up at the sun, blazing down on the brown-grey Matla river. There’s time, I thought. Sitting at the back of the tiny boat, I peered into the turbid waters, looking for a shape… nah, nothing there. The right bank, a clayey slope, rose, mere metres away and disappeared into the forbidding shadows of a mangrove forest – the savage Sunderbans. ‘Sunderbans has risen from the bowels of hell, and yet is more beautiful than heaven’. If no one said it, someone should have.

Ah bubbles! I could touch them if I wanted. I reached out. “Dada! Don’t! Niye jabe… they’ll take you,” screamed Nikhilda, our boatman. Perhaps dulled by the heat, I had forgotten that the waters of the murky Matla often ran red with blood, human blood. Nikhilda would know. He passes Manorama’s hut everyday.

That afternoon, Manorama and her younger brother Sukumar were trawling the shallows with nets, for shrimp. The tide moved in. The waters had risen to their waist. Manoroma knew it was dangerous to wade in these waters now. She asked Sukumar to get out. He turned back and Manorama saw a row of bubbles following Sukumar. She asked him to hurry. Holding his hand, she pulled him on to the bank but the nets were too heavy. She got back in the water to haul up the nets, heavy with catch. The bubbles again… Manoroma screamed. ‘Maa go!’ and she was gone. The river turned red. Sukumar stood still. The waters broke and Manoroma’s head emerged. Her mouth opened, soundless. She was looking at Sukumar, eyes imploring as they submerged again, her arms flailing on the bank, clawing the mud in vain. The hands… the hands, Sukumar lunged, missed the hands but in his fist was a lock of Manorama’s long matted hair. Sukumar pulled, Manorama’s hands found Sukumar’s. The Matla had been denied, this once. The salt-water crocodile, the largest in the world, about 20ft long, weighs nearly 1500 kgs, rarely misses. Manorama was incredibly lucky.

It’s late afternoon. As the boat glided into a channel, the swamp forests rose on both sides. In the dappled light, the shadows seemed to whisper and conspire. At the forest’s edge, a fence, more than 10ft high. What for? “Tigers! To keep them away from the river. They could easily swim to the village (at high tide they often do),” Nikhilda pointed. Not far into the horizon rose the thatched roofs of Jamespur – Satyo’s village. “Usually they don’t need to, though. At night, fishing boats drop anchor midstream. How the tiger jumps onto a boat in high water and carries off a victim without even rocking the vessel is a mystery, but it has happened often, on every boat… this one too.” The sun had softened to a warm pink. “Satyo was working the fence when it happened…” Satyo, 30, about 5’7”, gaunt and stoic. When he and his friends left to work in the forest, his wife, and the wife of every man who enters the forest, had to remove her bangles and sindoor and don the white rags of a widow. The forest exacts its price and one of these women will have to pay. Only those whose husbands return get to wear their bangles again. Many don’t.

Satyo Sardar was digging up the bank with his pick-axe, his back to the forest. Bent double, he caught a glint of yellow behind him. Instinctively, he turned. The smell – pungent and putrid hit him first, and then a striped wall slammed into him. He could feel the muscles, like steel cables against his skin; the teeth digging into his skull, like his pick-axe tearing into the earth; claws ripping through skin and flesh. Like a man possessed he swung his pick-axe, again and again. His friends didn’t move. “The tiger’s roar freezes the spirit. Can’t move even if you want to.” The tiger’s canines sank into the back of his neck. Satyo knew he would die. He summoned all his strength, and swung one last time… then darkness. After an eternity, he felt a touch on his toe. His eyes opened. The tiger had gone. His friends were standing around him. One of them was weeping. “We failed you. Zomey gesilaam… we were frozen. What’ll we tell your wife.” “I’ll live. Take me to a hospital.” After 11 months, countless stitches and seven surgeries, Satyo lived.

A full moon lights up the inky blackness of the water. We’re late. Long ago, on such nights, in such forests, our forefathers would’ve lived in fear, the fear of being eaten. The wilds might’ve been hacked and hunted into submission and extinction elsewhere, but Sunderbans is too proud. Here the tiger and the forest stand, resolute and wild. Far from the chaos of Kolkata, on such boats, on such nights, man is just meat, often, dead meat. “Only two things can save you in Sunderbans. You’ll find one of them in Pather Para”, Satyo had said. The waters had receded. We’ll have to wade through waist-high water to reach the banks of Pather Para. I was hoping to find ‘one of them’... soon.

Who is on the Menu?

Apart from being home to the largest population of Royal Bengal Tigers in the world, Sunderbans also witnesses the maximum number of man-tiger encounters, with about 100 officially reported deaths every year!

Since tigers attack the back of the neck, fibre glass protectors which could be tied around the neck were provided to all whose livelihoods depend on daily visits to the forest by the forest department. But this didn’t continue for long as it did not protect victims from other horrific attacks and injuries. For a while fishermen were asked to wear masks behind their heads to dissuade a tiger from attacking from behind. Later, mannequins shaped like wood cutters, charged with 220 volts of electricity, were placed at different locations. These electrified dummies were meant to shock the tigers and condition them into avoiding human shapes. Both masks and dummies ended up in shreds.

The fencing of forest islands near villages has had some success but tigers still stray into villages like they did on the 17th and 22nd of February 2008. Fishermen and honey collectors are killed far more often than we’ll know because most enter these forests illegally. The only way to end this conflict is to provide alternate means of livelihood to the villagers around Sunderbans so that they are not forced by the pangs of hunger to enter the tiger’s domain. Both villagers and the tigers would end up happier with the bargain.


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