It was the time of the festival of Bon Bibi, the protecting goddess of the Sundarbans, and we were winding our way down into the forest aboard the M.V. Chuti. My mother had just passed along her copy of Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide to me to read. Coincidentally, I was also carrying the classic 17th century travelogue of Moghul India, Francois Bernier’s Travels in the Moghul Empire. Little did I realize how connected these two books were, or how closely they would parallel my own experience of the “beautiful forest”.
“…The most striking and peculiar beauty of Bengale is the innumerable islands filling the vast space between the two banks of the Ganges. These islands vary in size, but are all extremely fertile, surrounded with wood; a thousand water-channels run through them, stretching beyond the sight, and resembling long walks arched with trees…”
Little had changed in the three and a half centuries since Bernier coasted through these waters. Except that the Sundarbans had shrunk considerably, due to constant human encroachment.
But inside the forest boundaries I could see the same tangled expanse of mangroves hugging the shore that Bernier must have gazed upon, stretching on for miles. As we made our way South, the scars of Cyclone Sidr were increasingly apparent—treetops snapped and dangling in the brush, trunks bent back by the deadly onslaught of wind and water. But already the forest was glistening with a patina of new leaves, and wildlife was everywhere.
“…With her binoculars fitted to her eyes, she had scanned the water, waiting for a flash of black or gray to break through the dun surface. But so far her vigil had gone unrewarded…”
The main character of The Hungry Tide is a young cetologist (dolphin scientist) named Piya, who travels to the Sundarbans to study the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. Just as Piya scanned the horizons in search of the elusive arc of a surfacing dolphin, I also found myself scanning the riverscape, along with the crew of the Chuti, who were keeping a log of dolphin sightings as part of a wider dolphin conservation project. Soon I learned to distinguish between the quick roll of the Gangetic dolphins and the more prolonged coasting motion of the Irrawaddy dolphins as they came up for air. Echoes of Piya’s dolphin obsession could be seen in the party of researchers who came to our boat for supplies one night. For months they had been scouring the waters of the Bay of Bengal to study the movements and numbers of the dolphins, aboard an ordinary wooden fishing boat equipped with a global positioning system (GPS) and satellite phone.
“…The animal had surfaced so close to the boat that she had only to extend her arm to get a reading on the GPS monitor. She recorded the figures with a sense of triumph: even if the dolphins took flight this very minute, this little scrap of data would have made the encounter credible and worthwhile…”
Dolphins of course were not the only wildlife sightings to find echoes in my onboard readings. No account of the Sundarbans would be complete without a mention of tigers, and both Bernier’s and Ghosh’s writing abounds with observations and folklore about the ferocious predators and their human prey. Bernier:
“…In traversing the Ganges in small rowing boats, the usual mode of conveyance among these islands, it is in many places dangerous to land, and great care must be had that the boat be kept at some distance from the shore, for it constantly happens that some person or another falls a prey to tigers…”
Early one morning we drifted down a narrow channel in a small wooden row boat, a bit too close to the shore for comfort. Kingfishers dive-bombed into the water in front of us, while nature photographers armed with sniper-like tele lenses clicked diligently away. Suddenly the boat slowed as our guide pointed to fresh tiger tracks descending the muddy bank on one side; gasps were heard as we traced the same tracks ascending and disappearing into the dense forest on the other side. If Bernier’s accounts of tiger attacks on small boats were to be believed, tigers had a way of choosing the “stoutest and fattest of the party”. I scanned our boat—luckily, it seemed, I wouldn’t be first choice. But no tiger was forthcoming.
That night, on the deck of the Chuti I scoured the skies in vain for signs of a “lunar rainbow”, which according to Bernier’s eyewitness account, occurs in the east when the moon is in the west. The description of a lunar rainbow in The Hungry Tide was nearly identical to Bernier’s. In fact, many of Bernier’s Sundarbans adventures found their parallel in Ghosh’s novel. Perhaps in acknowledgment of that debt, one of Ghosh’s characters goes book shopping on College Street in Kolkata for… Travels in the Moghul Empire.
And I was indebted to both of them, for making my small trip to the Sundarbans more wondrous and rich than I could have dreamed.