The river steamers of yesterday, with a blast of their whistles, would cast off hawsers from the Hooghly River docks opposite Kolkata, and drift gently with the current past the grime and smoke of an Asian city into a gloaming of the world’s largest river delta, the Sundarbans. There the waters of the sacred Ganga, the Jamuna and dozens of other Himalayan rivers slide silently into the Bay of Bengal, losing themselves in the Indian Ocean beyond. As though fearing open water, the inland vessels would then bear to port, hugging the coast, searching for the deeper channels that allow access to the mainstream of the Brahmaputra leading north and east to the rice, the tea, the jute, and the petroleum of the upper Assam Valley.
The Sundarbans (‘beautiful forest’) are a riverboat pilot’s headache: the tides, the shifting channels and sandbars, marshland and lagoons, islands absent all discernable feature, mangrove forests without end. And by night, only rarely seen the flicker of candle, firelight or lantern.
In that wilderness where water and land intermingle, where cyclones roar off the bay submerging land and forest, there live among the last tigers in Bengal, after whom the great cats were named. From this fading sanctuary they have established a reputation, both in lore and fact, as man-eaters. As the steamers’ great wheels would thrash the water, driving the vessel forward, it is those stories passengers would recount to regale one another. They were passing through man-eater country. There – in the undergrowth, a stone’s throw from the railing.
That the man-eaters still rule the Sundarbans today came into sharp focus while I was attending a conference in the Netherlands just last year. A young social worker from India was describing her work. She began by introducing the centerpiece of her concern: the tiger-widows of the Sundarbans. These islands and channels are home, she said, to generations of refugees, of fugitives and the very poor. Though the soils are rich, normal pursuits such as farming are precarious. The frequent occurrence of storms, of lashing rain and winds, together with rising sea levels have made life so unpredictable that these outlier places are now left to the marginal, the lower castes, even sea-gypsies. Though much of the mangrove forests and swamps are protected areas, these impoverished delta-dwellers are permitted to fish, to collect honey and wild fruit, so long as they do not harm the wildlife or the forest.
The men who dare to enter the mangrove in pursuit of honey, who ply the narrow channels in search of fish, who sometimes even sleep in their rivercraft are now the prey of the delta’s magnificent tigers. Sometimes their fate is a matter of survivor guess work. The only sign is that solo men never return home, leaving perhaps a derelict boat in some bywater as a haunting clue. There is ample evidence that the tigers are stalking those who enter the wilderness, swimming silently up to the back of their boats, or sometimes lying in wait along trails through the mangrove. Those who witness these events describe a well-honed method to the take down: the tigers lunge for the neck, quickly dispatching their prey and brazenly threatening those who may attempt to intervene. Scores of men annually are dragged away by the cats, leaving behind an entire demographic of ‘tiger-widows’ and families.
What makes the lot of these survivors – the very dregs of the poorest – even more desperate is that a spiritual stigma applies to the surviving widow. It is assumed that she, by practicing some dark arts, was complicit in her husband’s grisly end. So, she becomes a social outcast in a community of the disadvantaged. It is this unenviable fate that has drawn the attention of the young Indian social worker. Her calling, then: to inspire in the hopeless, a belief that a new life is yet possible, a life of independence and dignity.
But beyond the conventions of these stories, beyond the dramas recounted by the riverboat passengers, are there further questions to be asked? How is it that the tigers and other wild creatures who once ranged the jungles of Bengal and beyond have finally been driven to a redoubt of marsh and mangrove where humans fear to live. Is this a sign that the wild will only be pushed so far? That some fierce mechanism is pushing back, all previous warnings having gone unheeded? That faces us with this question: Who is eating whom?