The story I am about to tell you is real. However, I don’t expect people to believe it. But I still wanted to write about it, because I wanted to get it out of my chest. Even now whenever I think about this incident, a cold shiver runs through my spine. I am not much of a writer but I will try to describe the events in the most simple and sequential manner possible. I hope I do justice to what I had witnessed.
This happened when I was 18 years old. I was working in a small factory in Calcutta. We manufactured aluminium plates. I was just a mere helper then. My family didn’t have the money to send me to school. So I had to work for a living. My father was an honest rickshaw driver. However his earnings were very limited. We had to work every day to earn our food.
One day, when I was working in the factory, the manager of the place called me.
“Biswajit, come here.” He said. Murari Babu was short man. He was plump and was bald in the front side of his head. He had a loud voice. I thought it was because he worked in a factory for so long and because of all the noise, he had lost his ability to talk in a low voice.
I came up to him and asked, “What is it?”
“Biswajit, Anjali Didi needs to go home urgently to attend to her mother. But I can’t let her go alone. You accompany her to her house in the Sunderbans. Can you do that?” he asked.
Anjali Didi was an employee in our factory. She used to look after the stationary and the finance section. Her mother was old and she had been unwell for some time. Anjali Didi had three brothers; all of them were younger than me. They tried to look after her, but I guess, they needed her help now.
I was actually quite happy to hear this, as I would get a paid break from work. I nodded happily. Little did I know what awaited me in the Sunderbans. It was agreed that we would leave early the next morning from the Esplanade bus station. The next day I met Anjali Didi at the bus station as agreed and we got the tickets. The journey was a very bumpy one. The bus rattled all the way. The city-scape soon gave away to smaller houses and more trees. There were more farms on both sides accompanied by small houses made up of tiles and mud. Small ponds with each house were a common sight. There were young children playing football in the green patches of fields. The air was different here. It somehow smelt sweeter. We crossed a lot of narrow rivers, which I later learnt were creeks or tidal rivers. The Sunderbans are basically a vast delta on the Bay of Bengal formed by the confluence of the Ganges, Padma, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. There are a lot of other small rivers too. The rivers would become dry during low tides and one can easily cross them bare feet. But during high tide people would require boats to cross them. After about five hours of bus journey we reached the last stop. From this place we had to walk. It was a narrow path with trees on both sides. And I heard so many birds. After that we came across a wide river. We crossed it on a boat. It was a small boat with a motor in the rear. The river waves here were very big and the boat rocked continuously. However once we were in the middle of the river, the waves had calmed down a bit. I realised it was high tide time. After that we reached the other side of the river. The jungle was denser here.
We had officially entered the Sunderbans jungles. In some places the trees were so dense that hardly any direct sunlight reached. It was diffused light. The climate here was cooler than the city. There was a chill in the air. As we walked on the road, we often came up with people who were going the other direction. Anjali Didi said that we had to reach her place before sunset, as these jungles were unsafe during the night. The roads were quite muddy. As we walked through the narrow road, I heard the sound of water to my left side. I thought it was a river. Anjali Didi later corrected me saying it was a small stream. Very soon we came in the visual range of a river. It was very wide and I could hardly see the other shore. But I could understand that it was not a very deep river, since mostly the water recedes during the low tide.
It was not long before we began to see mud huts. These huts were hardly ten feet tall. The main foundation of the huts was made by big bamboo pillars and a cage for the wall was built with small stick bamboo. These small bamboo sticks were thin and flexible and were cut from the big bamboo. These flexible sticks were pulled from one bamboo stick to other in a criss-cross manner until webs of these sticks were made. These sticks were sort of reinforcements between the main bamboo pillars. These bamboo pillars were made of two or three bamboos. Mud was filled in this cage of web of thin flexible sticks and the wall was built.
We kept walking and soon we left the little village. After about five minutes we came near to the shore of the creek and I saw another small mud hut. I could understand this was Anjali Didi’s house. The hut was surrounded by a bamboo fence on all the four sides. To the right side of the hut there was another hut. I could see two cows being tied there by a young boy. He was hardly a year younger than me. And then he shut the door to the hut and locked it. In the middle of the clean courtyard there was a small shelter for all the hens. I could see clearly that this mud house was built in a natural clearing in the forest. The whole place was surrounded by trees.
As I entered the house I could see it looked a little bigger in the inside. I was surprised to see that there was a loft above. I enquired about it to one of the younger brothers and he said that it was not a loft but a place to sleep. He showed me a ladder which was kept at one side of the house. You climb up the ladder to the upper part. He told me that the brothers normally slept there. And tonight I was supposed to sleep there. I was not too thrilled about it as the place looked cramped above. I also noticed that there were four small windows, one on each side of the wall. The windows were very small and the shutters opened outwards.
We had reached towards late afternoon. Anjali Didi directly went to her mother. She was a frail woman in her 70s. After a little bit of enquiring, I understood that she had got some sort of viral fever and was dehydrated. She was then taken to the doctor’s clinic which was around 5 miles away. Medicines and an injection were given along with saline drip. She had just come home with one of her sons and was now feeling a little better.
While Anjali Didi was enquiring about her mother, I sat quietly in the courtyard. An old man who was sitting near the courtyard saw me and was intrigued by me. He was constantly looking at me. He slowly came up to me and asked, “Are you new here?” Even though his body looked weak and thin, his voice was strong. He was wearing a ragged and a dirty dhoti and had a thin cotton towel locally called a gamcha wrapped around his head.
I nodded. “I have come with Anjali Didi.” I told the old man, as I pointed towards Anjali Didi’s house. He sat down beside me and started talking to me. He started asking me questions about Kolkata city and the life there. I thought maybe he had never gone to the city.
“Do you know why this is called the Sunderbans?” He asked me. He waved his hands in the air, which I guessed meant the whole area around us.
I shook my head indicating that I didn’t know.
“It means beautiful forest.” He said laughing. “There are so many Sundari (mangrove) trees also found in this area. It got the name from there.”
I looked around. I could see a lot of trees. However it was difficult for me to identify them. But the local people knew all sorts of trees and their uses. We chatted for some time. Anjali Didi called from inside of the hut and told me she will cook something for us.
We had a small lunch. The coal oven was outside. We had rice, dal and fish. A sister of Anjali Didi came from the village to help her cook. As the light started to fade, every one quickly started to clean things up. And I was advised to stay indoors. By 7 pm, we were all inside the house. By around 8, Anjali Didi cooked dinner inside the house. She kept two windows open. By around nine, we climbed the upper loft. I understood quickly, that this was only meant for sleeping. I couldn’t even sit upright on it as my head touched the ceiling. I had to crouch in to sleep. I saw there were three windows here also. They were very small. Normally it would be good for three people to sleep. But with me, we were now four. It was a little crowded, but we managed.
Anjali Didi’s oldest brother, Soumak, was almost my age. As we were talking he said, “Whisper from now on.”
“Why?” I asked seriously.
“It’s getting late and this is the time for the tiger to come.” He said.
“Tiger? And why would he come so late at this hour?”
Soumak laughed. “It’s the Sunderbans. You do realise that there are tigers here.”
“Tiger? Really? Do tigers come here? I thought they don’t come near the places where people lived.” I was completely taken aback. I knew Sunderbans had tigers but I had completely forgotten that we were in Sunderbans now and it was tiger territory. I was so happy at getting a holiday and getting out and seeing new places that I had completely missed out on this fact.
Soumak nodded. “There is this one tiger which comes here regularly. This is his path. He comes here at least once in fifteen or so days. We don’t take chances. That’s why we lock up the cows and the hens every night. However there are more than one tiger here. But this one is fairly common here.” He continued, “You see, the tigers here are unique. They swim in the salt waters. Even though normal tigers hate water, the Sunderban tigers don’t. They swim across the small tidal rivers and move from one place to the other. So we can’t always predict when and where they will come.”
That’s why I saw Soumak and his brothers rounding up the hens and putting them in that little coop. And he had locked the cows before that.
“You see that’s why the cows don’t make any noise at night.” Soumak said.
I suddenly felt a little tensed. All the tiredness due to the long journey had suddenly vanished. I was looking at him with wide eyes. He smiled at me.
“Don’t worry.” He said, “This is normal here. If you keep quiet and don’t make a sound, he won’t do anything. Just relax. He never enters the houses. In any case you can see that there is a fence around our house. It never enters the fenced area.” With that he blew out the little lamp and we were covered in darkness.
I saw the fence. It looked so weak that I could just kick it down by one blow. How could the tiger not enter through that?
The window was slightly open and moonlight fell upon me through that narrow slit. I remembered that the next day was a full moon night or poornima. I lied down and closed my eyes. I was still thinking about the tiger. I did not realise when I dozed off. I was suddenly woken up by a sound. As I opened my eyes, I saw Soumak was looking keenly out of the window. His younger brother had also woken up. Soumak had not opened the window at all. He was looking through the slit. He turned his head towards me and without making a sound he indicated me to come towards the window. I got up slowly and crawled up to him in that small space. And he then pointed me to keep quiet and to look through that little narrow slit. As I looked out, I could see through my sleepy eyes the outline of the trees in the bright moonlight. I never knew that moonlight could be so bright. I suddenly heard a soft muffled sound. My eyes turned into that direction and I could see a big animal lying on his back and licking his front paw very lazily. I could see very clearly that it was a huge tiger. I felt a tingling up my spine as I saw it. I had seen tigers in the zoo but never out in the open. It was lying down at a distance from the hut. Even at this distance it seemed huge. It was near the edge of the front courtyard. I could feel my heart beating so loudly in my chest.
Soumak slowly closed the window slit. I managed to go back to my position. Soumak whispered to me, “Are you afraid?”
I nodded. I was. And I wasn’t ashamed to admit it. Only a delicate thin wall of dried mud separated us from the tiger. I had never been more terrified. Soumak smiled at me.
“Don’t be afraid. This is quite normal here. We have learnt to live along side with the tiger from long ago. So it’s ok as long as you respect his boundaries. We dare not cross him or the white one. They don’t come inside the courtyard.”
“White one? Who is the white one?” I asked curiously.
“He is also a tiger. Tomorrow is Poornima. He only comes out on the full moon nights.” Soumak whispered.
“Really?” I said as I scratched my head. “Why does he come only on full moon nights? What’s so special about them?”
“They say he is the ghost of Sunderbans. He is completely white. Tomorrow is full moon. If you stay here tomorrow maybe you will be able to see him.” Soumak said.
Soumak went to sleep almost immediately. But I couldn’t sleep. I lied there awake, waiting for morning to come. The realisation that I was far away from civilisation came to me now. I could hear the croaking of the frogs and the noise of the crickets. Occasionally I could hear an owl. Sometimes some of the birds made sounds in the trees. The jungle was alive I thought. Before coming I had imagined that this place would be very quiet. However to my amazement it was filled with sounds of different creatures of the night. I kept wondering about the tiger that was outside. What was it doing? Could it smell us here? Could it attack us? I don’t know when I dozed off. That night I dreamt of weird things. In my dream I saw a white tiger come to me and he started talking to me. He then took me to a place in Sunderbans and then we rode a bus. Suddenly the tiger turned into Anjali Didi and she offered me some tea.
When I woke up in the morning, I could see through the window that Soumak and his brothers had already woken up and they were outside. They were picking up dry sticks and helping Anjali Didi with the household chores. I looked at the place where the tiger had sat yesterday night and I could see that there wasn’t any tiger there anymore. I sighed in relief. Cautiously I came down from the sleeping area. I was greeted by Anjali Didi and Soumak. Anjali Didi asked me whether I wanted to stay back another day. She said she could come back to Kolkata with me if I stayed back another day. I readily agreed as it gave me the opportunity to not to go back to work. Also a strange sense of adventure had gripped me. I asked her about her mother’s health. She said that she is a little better. Her fever had gone down. But she was weak. One more day would cure her completely.
After having breakfast, Soumak took me to the creek. It was only ten minutes’ walk from his house. As I walked through the forest, Soumak stopped near one tree.
“See here? This is where the tiger you saw yesterday scrubbed his back along the tree bark.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
He pointed out on the ground. I could see that there were leaves fallen from the tree at one place. The rest of the area didn’t have much leaves on the ground. And then he pointed out on the bark of the tree. It looked as if someone had scratched that part of the tree. “You see the tiger is like a cat. He has scratched his back on this tree and then walked from here to there, where he scratched the tree bark again.” Soumak pointed out to another tree. I could see the tiger footprint clearly in the wet ground around the tree.
I looked at it. It was clear that they were claw marks on the tree also.
“This is their normal behaviour. Sometimes they mark territory with this and most of the times with their urine.” Soumak said.
I was all excited. I looked around for some time and hoped that the tiger isn’t nearby.
“Don’t worry. This one doesn’t come this way during day. Moreover today is Poornima. He won’t dare come.” Soumak said.
“Why? Is it because he is afraid of the white tiger?” I asked.
Soumak nodded. He didn’t say more. As we reached the creek I saw men walking along the banks of the shore with a net in their hands. They were walking from one point to another point. And then they returned back to their starting point.
“They are fishing.” Soumak told me. “They are fishing for a very small fish. They are absolutely tasty to eat.” He told me the name of the fish but I forgot it. I later learnt that there main livelihood is in agriculture. Although they do a lot of other things as well. I saw many men going off for collecting honey. I later learnt that around 20,000 kg of honey is collected every year from forests of Sunderbans.
One man then got out of the water with a net filled with mud. He then went to a place where I saw there was small hole made in the ground. He then emptied the net into the hole. I could now see there were many small fishes in the muddy water. He then took a white thin stone and then slowly took the fishes and isolated them into another hole. This was a very novel and interesting way of fishing that I had seen. I stayed there for some time. After that I felt very sleepy. So I thought I should return to the house. I looked around for Soumak, but couldn’t find him. He was obviously fishing with these people somewhere here. I decided not to wait for him and started to walk back to the house.
What I witnessed next still makes my heart race and my hair stand. It was the most bone-chilling experience I have ever had. It was as if time stood still. I heard a roar from my right. I immediately understood it was a tiger. It was somewhere in the vicinity. I heard men shouting and water splashing. I was so scared that I couldn’t move. Suddenly I smelt something foul. It is very difficult to explain this smell. I saw a black and yellow striped, approximately 12 feet long tiger just casually jog past me and in his mouth it was carrying a man clutched by his throat. The rest of the body was just limping. I could see that the body didn’t even touch the ground. There was blood coming out of the throat and the man was still alive. In his panic and horror he was calling out to God and to let him go. His wails were intermittent as blood was choking his voice. I was horrified. I froze like a statue. My legs felt heavy and I felt that it could not support my body anymore. I tried to lift my hand to take support of a nearby tree. My head had start feeling dizzy. I had no control over my body anymore. My heart was pounding in my chest. I thought it would explode any moment. I could not decide whether I should run or just stand in my place. Suddenly the tiger stopped and put the man down. It shook his head violently. I could see that his jaws and mouth were covered in blood. The man was in intense pain and was struggling in pain. The tiger looked towards me. For a moment, I thought that time had stood still. In the moments of intense fear, all my body functions seemed to have deserted me. I wanted to run, but I couldn't lift my leg. It was as if I was glued to the ground. And I felt that some heavy load was thrust on my body. The tiger gave a low growl. It slowly took a step towards me. Just then the poor man wailed. I could see he was trying to crawl away from the tiger. As soon as the tiger heard the wail, it again took the man by his neck. The poor man struggled with whatever strength he had. It was the most violent scene I had ever seen in my life. The poor soul suddenly turned limp. And the tiger casually jogged away carrying its kill, as I watch on helplessly.