Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sunderban diaries II: Witch doctor

Dark waist-high waters and unseen dangers lay between the anchored boat and the mud banks of Pather Para. I looked at the opposite bank where loomed the treacherous Sunderbans - here many might enter, but few return. I turned to the mud bank in front, and with a sense of resignation, rolled up my trouser legs high, said a silent prayer and jumped into the warm waters of the Matla river, home to some of the most poisonous water snakes in the world, but they were the least of my worries. My legs disappeared into the blue black waters, followed by my torso till I felt the soft sticky river bed suck me in. Little boys often disappear in the river while bathing, only to resurface days later – a head, some limbs, and some skin and bone. The flesh apparently hacked away – hangor! Sharks! Strictly statistically speaking though, sharks aren’t half as likely to take a bite out of you as is the salt water crocodile. And since, crocs had claimed a victim here just days ago, statistically speaking, I could be tickling them with my toes this very moment but was unlikely to get bitten until about next week. Now ‘statistics’ plays an important role in my life. It was while a classmate of mine was teaching me statistics (Psst.. Business Statistics) that she realised I was so pathologically inept at most things, including statistics, that it would be cruel and dangerous to leave me to my own devices and decided to marry me and save the world, for which I’m eternally grateful to her and the subject. But at that moment, as I squelched my way to the bank, I couldn’t care less for statistics even if I tried.

Squelch! Squelch! Squelch! Finally Pather Para. “Only two things can save you in the Sunderbans. Maaer mantro aar guniner jantro (yantra).You’ll find one of them in Pather Para”, Satyo, a tiger attack survivor had said. This’d better be worth it. I saw a man hooking crabs on the bank. I asked for directions. On learning about my destination, he reverentially volunteered to guide me there. It was the third hut, as small as the others, if a little neater. Some hens cackled, alarmed at our approach and a duck waddled past in a hurry. “Jagatbandhu! O Jagatbandhu! Ke ayese daykho!”

Jagatbandhu must’ve been awake, for almost immediately, a large hand parted the coarse cloth at the entrance, followed by the rest of him. Not a large man; about 5’9”, calm eyes, slim, but sinewy with unusually broad shoulders. Perhaps they’re broad for a reason, for no one from this village enters the forest without Jagatbandhu’s protection – the protection of a gunin. A gunin is perhaps the most powerful human figure here – for it is believed he can tie a tiger in knots by the power of his charms.

Forest officials scoff at gunins. One senior officer at Sajnekhali said that usually, it is the gunin who gets eaten first. Jagatbandhu smiled when I voiced their doubts. “I can only tell you what I know. Come with me.” Some huts away, on a string cot lay a man. Jagatbandhu called softly. The man rose, yawned, stretched and started “Jagat was no gunin those days. Jagat, I and 11 others had gone crab hunting in the forest. I was hooking a crab when a large male tiger attacked. I fell face down in the mud, the tiger on my back, clawing, biting, eating… Suddenly the tiger stopped. I saw a foot – Jagat’s. I couldn’t feel the tiger on my back but I could hear it roar. I turned… Jagat was standing over me, holding the tiger by its armpits as it towered over him. It was roaring and swiping but nothing touched Jagat. Weighed down by the tiger, Jagat had sunk to his knees in the ooze but he held on, eyes closed, chanting. Thick flecks of saliva from the tiger’s jaws ran down Jagat’s face and neck but he held on. I watched in horror and awe until the frustrated tiger turned and disappeared into a thicket. Jagat collapsed, yet it was he who carried me back. We don’t know how he did it. No one knew he was a gunin. But today he protects us all. The man turned, and I saw the back of his head, a hairless lump, while terrible scars ran the length of his back.

“My uncle was a gunin. He taught me a bit but I never thought it to be more than a game. That day, it all came back to me… don’t know if I could do it again,” said Jagatbandhu almost bashfully. “Maybe won’t need to. I’m learning how to tie a tiger with blades of grass from a new teacher. I can sense when the tiger’s coming.” He paused. “You’ve been looking for the tiger. I know the tiger’s looking for you.” Was Jagatbandhu trying to intimidate me? “Dada! Dada!!” It was Nikhilda, our portly boatman. Huffing, puffing, he rolled into view. “Tadatadi aysho...baagh ayese…hurry, the tiger’s here”. While being dragged away, I turned toward Jagatbandhu. He was smiling “Shamle babu, take care…”

An Enigmatic Eden

Almost every house in the villages surrounding the Sunderbans has lost at least a relative and a limb to the forest and the river. When I asked Jagatbandhu if he would be happier if the tigers and crocodiles were to be trapped and translocated, he bit his tongue and shook his head. “The forests stand because the tigers roam in it. And we exist because the forest protects us. Without the tiger, the forest wouldn’t exist and neither would we.” And Jagatbandhu is not alone. Most people I met in these villages realised, on an everyday basis that not only do they draw sustenance from the river and forest, but without the great mangrove forests acting as a buffer, stormy winds and tidal waters from the Bay of Bengal could wipe out crops, homes and lives on any given day. And they also know that if not for the tiger, timber smugglers would have stripped the swamps bare. The people of the Sunderbans fear the tiger, but they also revere it. Away from the forests, in the comfort of our cubicles, such truths seem mere clich├ęs, but people who live close to nature, live closer to the truth, a truth, which no matter how distant, is bound to influence our sheltered lives too.

Together, the tiger and the Sundari trees (and more than 20 other types) that share their name with this largest of mangrove forests, have ensured the survival of man, beast (perhaps the single highest population of wild tigers in the world) and forest. Long may this trinity prosper!

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