Edited version published in the Nature Conservation Foundation Newsletter, Bushchat
“You can’t say the word Tiger, it’s a bad omen”
There is lot more to the Sundarbans than the presence of tigers and if stories of tigers are told, it is unusual not to feel terrified. It is the world’s largest mangrove forest where different rivers, including the Ganges, spill into the sea, where roots of mangroves thrive, crocodiles find a place to bask, otters find fish, crabs find soft mud for their burrows, and birds flock and chirp in harmony.
The village landscape is spectacular. The houses are made of clay with thatched roofs and acres of field in between. Daytime is unbearably humid. There are dirt tracks that run across the embankments to prevent the islands from flooding during the monsoon. None are wide enough even for a three-wheeled auto. The only way around is to take a boat between the islands and walk or cycle. Most people here walk for up to three hours to reach the nearest market, hospital or government office, both ways.
The extreme fertility of land makes farming easy. There are bright green paddy fields everywhere. Date palms bursting with fruit dot the edges of ponds. The vegetable gardens surrounding every hut in the village are filled with cauliflower, kohlrabi eggplant and pumpkins.
I was in the Sundarbans as a youth representative for the Go4Biodiv International Youth Forum, an initiative that is held in parallel to the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Though we visited only four islands, the place, which left a mark in my memory, was Titlighari village, a tiny village in a remote corner of the Sundarbans. Here, along with the other representatives, I met WWF scientist, Dr. Anurag Danda who gave us an energetic lecture about life in the Sundarbans. And towards the end he mentioned, “There is absolutely no way you’ll see a tiger”. We as an audience gave a collective sigh of relief. Dr. Anurag continued, “I have seen only three tigers in the fifteen years that I have spent in this landscape”. But then why do people get so paranoid with the presence of tigers is something I was unable to understand.
On our way back from the lecture, busy taking pictures I forgot my sun-glasses, and the person to return it was an old man—a seventy year old, I would say. His experience was visible in his red eyes and wrinkled face.
“According to the village belief, I don’t even dare utter the name tiger” , the old man told me. He mumbled into my ears and said: “You can’t say that word.” it’s a bad omen. But for some reason, the old man himself brought out the topic, considering how ‘touristy’ I looked in that alien landscape with a cap, sunglasses and a camera.
He told me a story of man-eating tiger, of attack and escape, of life and death. He seemed fine when he began but towards the end of his narration he got bitter. Not with me, but with the fact that the world cares more about the few dozen tigers in the thousands of hectares here than it does about his people. But then as the story ended, he let out his frustrations on me. He snarled “Are you here to take pictures, sell it to the world and make lots of money?” I told him I am here just to see the landscape and the beauty of the place and to talk and listen.
All of a sudden the situation got tense. He raised his voice and started saying things that I could not understand. His reason for frustration was evident, but the little I could do was to show my respect and a false hope of a better future. I flinched, and then bowed my head. I had no reason to refute what he was saying. Without another word, he turned and started walking rapidly. I ran behind him to offer my sincere apologies. But he kept walking until he disappeared into the shadows of a bearded mangrove. It was only after this incident that I understood how strong the tiger dominates life in the Sundarbans, etched in the minds of the young to old.