When the salty waters rise, everything but the uppermost tree branch goes under. When they recede, even the lowest, gnarled root gets to soak in the sun. At Sundarbans, the tide turns many times each day.
India is home to the lesser half of the mangroves; around 6,000 square kilometres of which is in Bangladesh (every forester will follow up this statement with the fact that we have more tigers). Here, hundreds of floating islands cleave the salty backwaters into canals and rivulets, across a 4,000-square-kilometre expanse. Innumerable villages carry on their daily lives on these islands: cooking, worshipping, playing swamp football, all on the periphery of the expanse, cordoned off from the core reserve forest that stretches down South to meet the Bay of Bengal. No civilians or tourists are allowed in the core area, so villagers draw their livelihood from the peripheral and buffer zones, depending mainly on four activities: fishing, crab catching, wood gathering and honey collection.
When the tide swells, the fishermen row in deep into the territory in hope of better catch. When it recedes, and the islands break above the surface of the water, the catchers, gatherers and collectors get to work. Some can be seen wading in shallow waters along the shores, dragging their nets behind them, eyes peeled for little crabs scuttling about in the marshland. Others plunge into the mass of trees, trudging slowly, eyes peeled in search of a honeycomb.
It’s risky business — venturing out of the paved, busy settlements that are raised enough to be safe from water levels and bustling enough to be safe from predators. But it has to be done. Out in the wild, the ground is never really dry. Even during low tide, you could sink knee-deep into sludge with each step. Keeping it brisk is out of the question, though crocodiles reside in the water and tigers on the land. Sundarbans’ tigers are among the few tiger species that can swim long distances, crossing easily from one island to the other in search of prey. Or so our guide tells us.
The fifth source of employment here is with the Forest Department, either as patrolmen or as guides on the tourist ferries that function here the way 4x4s would in a regular forest reserve. Examples of this are hard to miss, as our ferry putt-putts steadily along a not-so-narrow canal, with croc-infested waters below us and weeping skies above. At every other turn — particularly where the buffer zone gives way to the core — official boats block the centre of the water-lanes, every human and non-human movement on their radar. “They stay in these boats for weeks on end,” our guide tells us, “In teams of four. Only one of them gets to visit home at a time. They only have each other’s company to while away time.”
He should know: he is friends or neighbours with a number of people on either side of the equation. Often, the forest guards and patrolmen assigned to keep enterprising villagers away from the dangerous parts of Sundarbans, have close ties with those same villagers. This helps ease tension, simplifying the safety precaution which is a necessity. The boats snaking their way across the canals are innumerable: Humble row-boats shuffle between islands, dropping people off at schools and workplaces. Noisy ferries bring in much-needed resources from the mainland, from stacks of gas cylinders to massive mounds of jackfruit. And then there are the fishing boats. We cross a typical one on our way to the ‘touristy’ area; it houses a family of three.
There is a moment of alarm as our bulky ferry nears their slim strip of a fishing boat, but the expert boatmen avert a collision and park neatly side by side. A middle-aged man sits at the rear of the boat, an elderly one is perched up front, and a woman squats right at the entrance to the covered, room-like space, which has everything from sheets and towels to pots and pans. She lifts the lid of a pan precariously, to check on the rice boiling with potatoes within.
“We have been on the water for a couple of days now,” she says, “A few more, and we should be able to catch enough fish to sell.” She watches as her elderly relative removes the floorboard from beneath him and pulls out reams of fishing net, measuring and arranging them. Her voice is wry and bored as she points to the land a few feet behind her, “We’d better move soon. We saw ‘boro mama’ (older uncle) there yesterday.”
It took us a moment to realise that she was talking about a tiger.