BY: KRUPA JOSEPH
For me, it all started with a book. Saba Naqvi’s In Good Faith, to be precise. In the book, the political editor of Outlook takes us to distant corners of India to show that in a country that reeks of communalism, secularism is not a myth. She wrote about communities that have fused beliefs and cultures of different religions, such as the Qawwals, the Manganiyars and Chitrakars. But that’s a story for another day. Somehow for me, it was the chapter on Bonbibi, a Muslim goddess in the Sundarbans that stuck.
The Sundarbans is formed by a cluster of islands linked to the mainland by waterways. To get around, one has to rely on boats. Several villages in these islands are home to women whose husbands have been unlucky enough to be eaten by tigers. ‘Tiger Widows’ they are called.
Once I put down the book, I began to look online for more information about these women and before I knew it, I was looking into NGOs that dealt with the issue. That is how I found myself on a train to Kolkata (from where I took a bus to the Sundarbans) in the month of May this year. It took me 32 hours to get to Kolkata followed by a 6 hour bus ride to a town called Ramganga in the Sundarbans. I had volunteered to work with a not-for-profit agency, Digambarpur Angikar, which works towards uplifting the women and girls of the Sundarbans. Suman Mandal, one of the members of the NGO picked me up from the station and continued to be my constant companion throughout my stay here.
You will find the Sundarbans, a vast expanse of marshy forest land with mangroves and muddy land, stretched across India and Bangladesh. It is one of the most picturesque places that I have set my eyes on. The green mangrove forests are accompanied by stretches of water, and you could just stare at the sight for days. Of the entire stretch that makes up the Indian Sundarbans, 9,630 square kilometres has been declared as a Biosphere Reserve. Only around 54 of the 108 islands that form this region are populated. The rest of the area has been designated as the Tiger Reserve, the home of the Royal Bengal Tigers.
This is one the most trickiest places to live, I was told. Tigers prowl the forests, and crocodiles rule the swamps and rivers of this land. Thousands of people are killed by storms and floods every year. Add to this the factors of upstream pollution, increasing salinity of the freshwater sources and the gradual depletion of the forests (thanks to the villagers who rely on the wood for a livelihood). The increasing tides have caused the sea levels to rise. In fact, two islands on the western end of the region was reported to have vanished earlier in 2006. If this continues, soon enough, one can assume, the whole of the Sundarbans will be devoured by the sea. While this means millions of people will be displaced or wiped out, it also means that tigers will become extinct. The fact that tigers are increasingly becoming endangered is already well-known. Estimates suggest that their population sits somewhere between a meagre 3,300 and 4,300. Around 400 of those tigers inhabit the Sundarbans of India and Bangladesh.
On the third day of my stay we headed to Kapelot, one of the several villages these women call home. At the end of a two-hour long journey, which involved two boat rides and two motor van rides, I found myself standing in front of a mud house. Women from the village were waiting to welcome us. They spoke to us in Bengali, a language I don’t comprehend. Yet, their enthusiasm to share their story with me and to know my story was extremely moving. Thanks to Suman, who acted as our translator, we managed to communicate.
There is no time frame as to when tigers found themselves a home in the Sundarbans. While humans are still struggling to adapt themselves to a mangrove ecosystem, the tigers more than acclimatized. “Tiger is the king of the Sundarvans…Any account of the Sundarvans remains incomplete if it does not include elaborate notes on Tiger,” wrote Tushar Niyogi in his Tiger Cult of the Sundarvans.
While it sounds like a gross exaggeration, it is actually the truth. Thanks to the marshy land and highly saline water, they became amphibious. They can swim up to five miles, tirelessly. They are silent and swift, which means that they could cross the reserve and move to the islands populated by people, with ease. Their diet expanded to include everything from fish to human beings. “Majestic and clever,” are the words the women used to describe the Royal Bengal Tigers. “People tell us how lucky they would be if they could see a tiger. But you see, they come out of nowhere. You don’t see them or hear them. This place, it’s like their playground. They know it inside-out. They attack you from behind and by then, it’s too late,” they explain.
There are several theories as to why the tigers of the Sundarbans have developed a taste for human flesh. While none of them are conclusive, the most popular one points to the salinity of the water. In 1973, the Indian government introduced Project Tiger as a way to prevent the creatures from disappearing off the face of the earth. One of the key features of the project was to ensure minimal man-animal conflict. While there are instances of the animals venturing into the village to devour livestock, not one had killed a man. However, keeping the locals out of the forest is near impossible, mostly because their livelihood depends on it. “How do fisherfolk, honey collectors and woodcutters work without going into the forest?” they ask me.
Traditionally, the fishermen, woodcutters and honey collectors only enter the forest after praying to Bonbibi. “We all pray to her so that our husbands return to us safely. She protects us from the forces in the forest,” the women tell me. Suman explains to me that people of both Hindu and Muslim faiths, believe in her. You will find several statues of her within the forest. The sari-clad Goddess is often depicted riding on a Tiger. You will hear chants of “Maa Bonbibi Durga Durga” along with “Maa Bonbibi Allah Allah”.
Sufia Mendez Uddin, the Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Connecticut College, travelled to the Sundarbans in order to understand and record the traditions and rituals associated with this deity. As per her findings, Muslims see Bonbibi as a Sufi saint, a woman endowed with powers by God, and her protection is sought through red flags and flower garlands. Hindus, on the other hand, look up to her as a Goddess. They leave her offerings and prayers. While the rituals might vary, Uddin concludes that the differences end there.
When the men set out for the forest, the families cry. The fisherfolk have to worry about the crocodiles in the water. Just like tigers, they are known to attack men. Since the trip can take from three weeks up to a month, until the group returns safely the family assumes them to be dead. The wives live like widows. They forgo their coloured sarees, and stop wearing vermillion on their forehead (one of the main symbols of a married woman). Once the men return, life resumes for the women. Very often, killings go unreported, because they fear being fined, or even worse, punished. “The government doesn’t care about us. When big companies come and clear forest lands, no one says anything. But, when we do it, to sustain ourselves, we are treated like criminals. When something goes wrong, we have no one on our side.”
People in this area are struggling for sustenance. To ask them to find alternative sources of income is out of the question, especially considering that the terrain and their education don’t allow for much. Fishing, crab-catching, honey-collecting and wood-chopping, among others, are the only possible ways that allow their survival. Ironic as it is, it is their quest for survival that often takes them to the claws of death.
Since child marriage is common in the area, most girls are not educated. When they lose their husbands, the responsibility of the household falls on the women. In India, there is a strong social stigma attached to being a widow, especially in the rural areas. However, when you add to the mix an unnatural death, you get ostracized. “They think we are evil. People blame us for the deaths of our husbands.” Swami khego, which translates to “husband eater” is the name they are awarded. “It used to be worse before. Now, people seem to understand. They don’t isolate us. It is still very difficult, but we are all learning.”
Several organizations, such as the Tiger Widows Association, Christian Aid and Digambarpur Angikar, have worked towards empowering these women. They have helped form self-help groups, provided them vocational training and continue to provide them with emotional support. The group of women I had met was one of the self-help groups set up by Angikar. The women spoke to me about how Angikar provided them chicks and seeds to grow their own vegetable garden. In two years they have learned to grow their own fruits and vegetables in the small space around their houses, using organic methods of farming. They even brought in one of their docile chickens to show me. The house we were in belonged to the oldest woman in the group and she proudly showed me her garden, which was sprouting with green vegetables. When I was leaving, they asked me to come again before I left.
We got onto a motor van and set out to the next village to meet another group. The work that Angikar had done with them was similar. The difference was that the women of this group had slightly larger lands, which meant that they can cultivate grains. The organization provided them with a small amount of seeds to start them off. Every year, members take seeds depending on the kind of land they own. The only payment that is demanded is that the women return the seeds with a minimum of one kilo surplus. It might not seem like much, but the idea behind it is praiseworthy. At the moment, they are producing enough to sustain their family. With this method, they will add on to the existing supply, and they hope to end up with enough to start selling and therefore, make a living. It may seem like a far-fetched idea, but when you hear about how far they have come along and see how they have turned a dreary situation into a hopeful future, you start believing that anything is possible.
**All quotes have been translated from Bengali