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The Tale Of An Unsung Hero Of Sundarban

The Tale Of An Unsung Hero Of Sundarban

She bravely attacked a tiger with the hope of saving a fellow fisherman, but fear of the virus robbed her of all peace. Dr. Monideepa Das narrates the story of an extremely brave woman from Sundarban

Bengaluru,  February 2021

The woman got out of the Ola Cab that had been arranged for her pickup. She was clad in a turquoise blue printed synthetic saree, a black mask covering her nose and mouth. As she took gingerly steps towards the house, Deepa saw that the woman wore a pair of closed sports shoes.

Deepa gestured towards the can of disinfectant spray and asked her to spray it liberally on the bags that had her belongings, and also use the hand sanitiser kept on top of the shoe chest at the entrance. The woman rummaged out the negative RT-PCR report of the test performed the previous day from her hand bag and held it out for inspection. Deepa nodded her head in acceptance. She then took off her shoes, leaving them outside the door. Deepa led her to the washroom.  After close to an hour, the woman emerged, having bathed and dressed in a fresh set of clothes, a gown popularly known as maxi and a dupatta.

Sujata had come in as the new live-in caretaker/companion of Deepa’s octogenarian mother, as the previous one had to leave suddenly due to a family emergency. Since the last eight years Deepa had been hiring caretakers/companions from a Bengaluru-based registered service provider that recruits its workers from West Bengal, the advantage being the easy communication between her mother and the Bengali-speaking caretakers.

Sujata had not spoken a word so far, but her eyes hinted that she was smiling beneath the mask when Deepa served her the cup of tea and savouries.

Deepa could not help wondering what could have caused the 45 year old lady to travel all the way from her home in the mangrove islands of the Sundarbans to the distant city of Bangalore, that too, braving the ongoing pandemic.

Fortunately, being normotensive, non-diabetic, with no mobility restrictions and with intact memory, Deepa’s mother did not require any medical attention nor a trained nurse. Some assistance and company was good enough.

Deepa dedicated the next couple of days in acquainting Sujata with the chores expected to be accomplished by her and in trying to build a rapport between her mother and her new caretaker.

Deepa noticed that Sujata would keenly observe her while she carried on the daily culinary activities in the kitchen. It appeared as if cooking appealed to her more than geriatric care.

Unlike most of the previous caretakers, Sujata was not talkative, but when when she spoke, her voice was quite loud and husky.

About a week had gone by before the ice was finally broken. Deepa had ordered meat and seafood through an online portal and upon delivery, Sujata’s eyes literally lit up the moment she saw the four large crabs among the other purchases.

She blurted out excitedly, “Kaakraa….??!!” and then there was no holding back.

Slowly the story unfolded… back home in the Sundarbans, catching crabs was what she used to do for a living.

Listening to Sujata’s narration of her life in the deltaic mangrove islands, Deepa felt as if she was watching a beautifully made documentary in a theatre with surround sound effects.

Life in the Sundarbans

Sujata lived in a thatched hut in one of the small deltaic islands of the Sundarbans along with her husband and son, battling the constant struggle of meeting their basic needs. Her husband was an alcoholic and her son, in his late teens, was a school dropout and practically good for nothing. The ‘burden’ of sustaining the family fell upon her slim shoulders.

With no cultivable land at their disposal, the only option Sujata had was to venture into the dense forests or the rugged river basin to catch fish and crabs; and that of course, was not without the inherent risk of being mauled or killed by tigers. The other alternative was collecting honey.

Like many of the women of the region, at one point of time, Sujata too decided to migrate to the city of Kolkata with the idea of working as a domestic help and the expectation that it would ensure a regular and reliable source of income.

Leaving her home for the first time was by no means an easy decision. All through the journey to Kolkata, Sujata kept wondering whether it was a good decision after all.

For someone who had not ventured beyond the Sundarbans, the first trip was certainly a formidable one. It took four changes of boats to reach the motorable road, and the boatmen did not take the boats across the river after sunset. Mainland is accessible only during high tide. The distance between Kolkata and Sunderbans is about 130 km only, but the journey takes over eleven hours.

Life in Kolkata was a sharp contrast from life back home and called for many adjustments. Sujata served in the capacities of house-help, cook and baby-sitter in different households.

Year 2020

The Year 2020 brought with it the announcement of the pandemic, creating an uproar. People were asked to stay home, wash hands repeatedly, wear masks, maintain distance, avoid crowded places, so on and so forth. Sujata could not make the head or tail of it. When her fellow workers from the Sundarbans decided to return home, she was only too happy to join them.

The Covid pandemic appeared to be even more notorious than the cyclones that the people living in the Sundarbans are used to. It magnified the hardships of the people of the deltaic islands, forcing them to depend on the forests for their livelihood.

Catching crabs has always been a lucrative business despite the adversities and threats. The export of crabs from Sundarbans to the markets of China, Hongkong and Singapore was badly impacted on account of the pandemic. Nonetheless, crabs continued to fetch a good price in the wholesale market.

As per the law, people are prohibited from entering the forests and creeks because of the danger of attacks by tigers. Fishermen and women need permits to go for fishing and catching crabs. Only licensed boats are allowed in the mangrove delta.

The destruction of their habitat on the Bangladesh component of the delta by Cyclone Sidr forced the big cats to cross over to the Indian part of the mangrove forests, thereby increasing tiger concentration in the Sundarbans biosphere and causing the rise in tiger attacks.

The Encounter with the Big Cat

The rowboat set sail at the crack of dawn. On board, the trio consisted of Monoj, Babla and Sujata, out to catch crabs.

The sky was overcast with occasional light showers which they chose to ignore, manoeuvring the low and jutting branches of the mangrove trees as the boat inched its way ahead through the narrow, crisscrossing creeks. The high tide is the chosen time, when the crabs come out of their burrows.

The row boat set sail at the crack of dawn

The trio carried with them large and small fishing nets. They had jhuri or closed cane baskets to hold the captured crabs. Most importantly, the long, strong rope with many short, thin ropes attached to it at regular intervals. Baits of dry fish were tied to the loose ends of these short ropes.

As the boat rowed on, Sujata uncoiled the main rope. Keeping it onboard, she kept lowering the loose dangling ropes with the baits into the muddy waters. Empty plastic bottles were tied to a few of the loose ropes which would float and indicate the position of the baits.

By the time the last of the baits had been lowered, the boat had drawn close to one of the islands with a dense growth of mangrove trees.

They would have to wait for the low tide to commence so that the water would recede before rowing back, collecting the crabs that had been caught in the meantime while eating the dry fish baits.

Suddenly, in a fatal flash of events, a huge tiger sprang out from behind the trees of the island and pounced on Babla; both man and beast landing with a thud beside the boat on the shallow waters. In no time, right before her eyes the muddy water turned red.

In a frenzied, possessed trance, Sujata picked up the oar and struck the tiger on the back of its head. With all her strength, she brought on the second and then the third blow and kept striking. Even as she attacked, she yelled at Monoj for help. But Monoj stood stupefied at the far end of the boat, unable to react or respond.

Finally, in what can be claimed as one of the extremely rare instances, the tiger let go of its prey and swam back to the shore. Ignoring the threat of being attacked by the angry beast all over again and motivated by strong maternal instinct, Sujata summoned all her strength and lifted the bleeding body of Babla onto the boat. Unfortunately, the tiger had sunk its teeth around the boy’s neck piercing one of the main blood vessels, causing the boy to bleed to death. Screaming at the top of her voice, Sujata urged Monoj to row back as fast as possible. Shaken out of his dazed state, Monoj broke down at the sight of the lifeless body of Babla, half his age and young enough to be his son.

Back in Bengaluru

Deepa could not help suspending the flow of household chores demanded by the morning hours. Her attention was entirely taken up in listening to every word spoken by Sujata. So lucid was her description that Deepa could visualise the flow of events with vivid clarity.

How brave was this woman that stood before her! She She had managed to shoo away a tiger, forcing it to leave its prey behind!

Deepa now assessed her from a whole new perspective. Barely over 5 ft in height, her relatively small frame would perhaps not weigh an ounce beyond 55kg. What made this petite fisherwoman take on the counter-attack on the huge beast!

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Shaken and Stirred cover image

Deepa was awestuck by Sujata’s presence of mind, courage and valour. To risk her own life for a young man who she barely knew was commendable heroism!

Deepa had heard many tiger tales from the previous caretakers who hailed from the Sundarbans. Sighting tigers was common, but never had any of them come as close to the beast as Sujata.

Ratna had shared her experience of spotting a tiger quenching its thirst on the other bank of the river, when she had gone to fetch water early one morning. Deepa was surprised that man and beast drink from the same river. Ratna had elaborated that tigers often come towards human settlements because they prefer sweet river water rather than the salty sea water that inundates the far end of the forests.

Before going home on her annual vacation, Shikhu had said that with the money she had saved, she would perform the last rites of her father-in-law who had been dragged away into the forest by a tiger 12 years ago, never to be found again. Apparently, one needs to wait for several years before being allowed to perform the last rites when the body remains untraced.

Bokul had very proudly shown pictures of her brother-in-law who had been mauled by a tiger when he had gone fishing into the swamped jungle not too far from his home. Rescued by two fellow fishermen, he fortunately lives on to share his survival story.

Deepa was surprised to learn that most of the deaths caused by tiger attacks go unaccounted. Let alone seek compensation, most victims and their families refrain from reporting the casualties and deaths because the victims do not possess proper permits for catching fish and crabs.

Her heart went out for the people who continue to live in the region defying the continuous threat posed by tigers.

The Grip of Fear

Sujata had settled down and was getting along well with Deepa’s mother. There was pretty little to do and nothing that could not be easily managed. She would listen attentively while Deepa’s mother chanted Sanskrit slokas and mantras, and sang vandana in the mornings and evenings. She even managed to learn the Ganesh and Narayan Vandana.

But bad news followed. The second wave of the pandemic was on the rise, claiming lives. Along with Karnataka, many parts of the nation went into a second lockdown.

As if that wasn’t stressful enough, Sujata was informed by her family that her young nephew, who was working in the Andaman Islands where he succumbed to Covid..

Sujata had raised her nephew as her own son. Her elder sister had passed away when the child was barely ten years old, and she was still single. The tragic news of his sudden death, that too so far away from home, his cremation as per the protocol of those dying from deadly virus, never to be seen by any of them, completely numbed her. It manifested in the form of listlessness, lack of sleep and loss of appetite, taking away the glow of her face and the glint in her eyes.

Deepa tried hard to console Sujata. She even took her to a reputed clinic for consultation. After a battery of investigations, the diagnosis was made: Anxiety. Sujata was put on medication. But the fear of the corona virus was overpowering. Her insomnia grew worse, almost making her a nervous wreck. She would keep mumbling, “Aami bachchbo naa…”, implying she was certain that her death was lurking around the corner.

Due to the ongoing lockdown, it was not possible for her to leave for home. Deepa exempted from all chores and left to do whatever made her comfortable. The roles were reversed. The caretaker was being cared for with fortified foods and vitamin supplements. Deepa arranged for an online follow-up consultation through video call with the hope of allaying her anxiety, but nothing seemed to succeed. Sujata was convinced that she would die. She would not budge from that belief.

Deepa was unnerved that a woman that a woman who had fiercely fought a tiger was now under the constant fear of imaginary, impending death from the virus. The transition in Sujata’s personality from a fearless woman to a fearful one baffled Deepa.

When she saw no hope of Sujata overcoming her phobia, Deepa was left with no alternative but to ask the agency through which she had been hired to make necessary arrangements to send her home.

Deepa’s mind was crowded with a whirlwind of thoughts.  What would life be for Sujata once she reached home? Would she recover from the anxiety disorder once she was reunited with her family? Would she be daring enough to venture again into tiger territory with fellow fishermen to catch crabs?

Deepa said a silent prayer…

May Bonbibi, the omnipotent superpower popularly worshipped by the Hindus and Muslims alike protect the dwellers of the mangrove forests of the delta region of Bay of Bengal, the meeting point of Brahmaputra, Ganga, Hooghly, Padma and Meghna rivers.  May the revered deity ensure safe and stable life for the people living amidst the flora and fauna that the region is so famous for.

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  • Such a beautifully written piece – the crumbling of mental strength in an otherwise, determined and fiercely brave woman …. something which we are witnessing in various degrees in our ownselves and in others around us due to the pandemic and surrendering ourselves to the Supreme Force….

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