Living In The Tiger's Shadow
Satadru Ojha & Monotosh Chakraborty, TNN 7 December 2009, 03:46am IST
Otho otho Ma Bonbibi, tomar namey baralam pa/ Amar ei lokjoner opor je debe gha, tarey tui dhore dhore kha [Arise, O Mother Bonbibi, I step forward in your name/ Whoever tries to harm my people, hunt him down and eat his flesh]
Gopal Mullick says this prayer every time his boat rocks against the riverbank. But looking out at the vast expanse of oozing mud and hostile forest the deep jungles of the Sunderbans delta his hands tremble. For Bonbibi, the guardian deity of the forest, is distant and inscrutable. Gopal knows that the incantation often doesn't work. And when it doesn't, Bonbibi's vahana strikes. One vicious bite on the neck, the spinal cord snaps and life dissolves in a haze of blood and gore. The Royal Bengal tiger takes its prey.
Mullick, a fisherman from Gosaba in the Sunderbans has seen this bizarre drama played out a number of times. Twice, the tiger took his own people: his father and son-in-law. But for the 76-year-old, such misfortunes are a part and parcel of life. Mullick lives in Gosaba's Bidhaba Palli (widow colony), where almost every second family has similar tragedies to recount.
Around 350 families of widows live in this colony spread across Arampur, Malopara, Haldarpara and Kantakhali a cluster of villages hugging the Bidya river. All of them have lost husbands to the tiger's maw, but poverty and neglect have forced them to send other men a brother, a son to the forests. "I lost my husband 40 years back in a tiger attack. But when my son-in-law Nilkamal Biswas took up fishing, I couldn't say no. What would we eat otherwise?" asked 70-year-old Belmoti Sana, a resident of Malopara.
So every time Nilkamal's team goes fishing, the women wait on the banks, seeing the boats disappear down the river. The vigil can be long, as the men are gone for 10-15 days. "For those days, we follow a strict regimen, eating little and praying. Who would want to anger Bonbibi?" says Belmoti's neighbour Pushpa Mondal.
The colony in Gosaba is the largest, but many such villages are scattered across Sunderbans' inhabited areas like Satjelia, Jharkhali, Patharpratima and Kultali. Reports suggest that over the last century, more than 50,000 people have been killed by tigers in the Sunderbans.
"A tiger attack doesn't just mean the loss of a life. Often, the victim is the only earning member of the family and his death pushes his wife and children towards destitution," says Sushanta Giri of Baikunthapur Tarun Sangha, an NGO that has worked with tiger widows over the past five years in the Patharpratima-Kultali area.
Subhadra Haldar of Arampur has struggled with this reality for years. "My son abandoned me in old age, leaving me to work as a domestic help. No one has helped, not even the government..." the 70-year-old sobs into her pallu. Her husband was dragged away by a tiger in the Chamta forest 30 years back.
Petitions for help often reach the Gosaba panchayat office, a short distance from the widow colony. "A family can receive pension only if it is below the poverty line. Strangely, though these villagers are among the worst-off in Gosaba, none has a BPL card," says Jayanta Das, the upa-pradhan.
The politics of compensation can be vicious. The chain of contact from villager to administration is controlled by touts. "A tiger victim's family can receive state compensation up to Rs 1 lakh if the victim had an entry permit and was killed outside the core area. Families can't always figure out the nitty-gritty of official papers and give in to middlemen," says Mrinal Chatterjee, secretary of Institute of Climbers and Nature Lovers, an NGO that works on wildlife issues in the Sunderbans.
The tiger widow tag also means that these women and their families are treated as outcasts. They're not welcome at village gatherings. It is this attitude that riles youths like Pabitra Mondal. Hailing from a family of Gosaba fishermen, Pabitra's father died in a tiger attack 23 years ago. "My mother was ridiculed and humiliated for years. But once I started earning, I made sure that no one dared to call her a tiger victim's widow," says Pabitra, who teaches village kids.
For some like Sumit Haldar, village life has become unbearable. As soon as he got a teacher's job he sold off his father's boat and fishing net. "I was very young when my grandfather was taken by a tiger. But we didn't even have time to mourn. My father had to go out with his boat and net. Now that I have a job, I'll leave this village and cross over to the mainland with my family," he says.
But for every family that dreams, many are trapped in the rhythms of the tide country. Fish has to be caught, honey and wood collected, a life lived. "Late in the night, when we are anchored in the middle of the river, we can hear them roaring. We put out our lamps and huddle together. It's Borobabu (the big lord), declaring his presence," says Kangsa Bairagi, a fisherman.