The field trip was conducted by Abanti Sinha, Indranil Sukla, Susanta Adhikary and Pratyay Raha and the material collected was shown as a part of Pratyay's BangaloREsidency Expanded at ZKM (Karlsruhe, Germany) supported by Goethe Institute Bangalore
The interviews were done in different parts of the Bally island in the Sundarbans on 5th and 6th January 2023
We are sincerely grateful to the people of Bally island for talking to us wholeheartedly (names of the people are withheld due to privacy reasons). The conversations below were recorded with seven people of Bali Island, Sundarbans
Q: What is the condition of the forest?
A: It is good, it is better now actually
Q: What about the illegal extraction of forest resources?
A: Now it is almost zero. Very few cases here and there. Logging has been stopped, other activities too. There is a committee EDC now, it has been formed by the Government to monitor and regulate illegal activities on the fringes of the forest. So, no one dares to break the rules. Even if someone goes into the forest illegally, news gets circulate through quick phone communications.
Q: Previously what was the scenario?
A: Oh my god, it was insane. Illegal extraction was the only thing that was happening in the forest for so many years. All the wood that was being used to make houses and furniture was illegally extracted from the forest. That had a huge impact of the health of the forest. Now it has been stopped totally.
Q: What was the impact of Aila and Amphan here in Bali Island?
A: Aila and Amphan had devastating impacts on the Sundarbans. All the embankments were destroyed. Villages were flooded and people were homeless. All the temporary houses were destroyed.
Q: When did you start living here and when were you born?
A: I honestly don't know my birth year or date. I remember that I was a small child when we moved here. We came here during the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971. We were war refugees but slowly this became our home. Lot of people migrated during that time. There was no strict border in the Sundarbans area so we could come easily and settle here.
Bali Island, Fishing stories
Q: Did you have any encounter with the Tiger?
A: Many times. Once I remember seeing the tiger clearly. We had gone fishing and we were inside deep forest for 8 days at a stretch (Generally it requires 7/8 days to catch sufficient fish to sustain for a considerable amount of time). Four women in one small boat. It was midnight. We were inside a very narrow creek trying to place the nets for our fishing activities. Suddenly our lights were positioned towards the banks. We saw the Tiger sitting cosily on the banks right below a tree. Fortunately, the tiger was not in a mood to hunt so just after seeing us it slowly came to its feet and walked away into the deep forest.
Q: What is the generally scenario around fishing?
A: It is a terribly difficult job. To be inside deep forest and waters for 7/8 days without proper food and resources takes a toll on our bodies. Still, we have to do it to survive. It is extremely difficult. Our son also used to be in this business, but then it became so difficult that we told him to apply for jobs in other states and move. Now he has left the Sundarbans and is working in Chennai.
Q: So is there no one in the family in fishing business?
A: Our elder son is a doctor, but my husband still goes fishing. He is so attached to the forest that it’s impossible for him to do anything else. He has been attacked by the tiger, but still he goes.
Q: Can you tell us in details about your fishing experiences?
A: The fishing experience is very technical and difficult. During high tide we place the nets tied to the ropes on either banks of the water creek. Then again go back during low tide to check whether there is any catch or not.
Q: These are unsanctioned boats, so you have to go at night right? How do you see?
A: We use torch lights.
Q: Did you have any encounter with the tiger?
A: Yes, that was when we went inside deep forest to collect honey. We were seven people in total. Rest six had moved inside the forest. I was in the boat arranging the collected honey. The tiger came out and attacked me. The huge paws were on my leg, pierced my leg and there was blood all over.
Q: How did you fight it and release yourself from its forceful attack?
A: I didn’t do anything. It was Ma Bonbibi who saved me. I took her name and the tiger went away into the forest. We believe deeply in Ma Bonbibi. In the whole world, she is the only guiding light for us. There is nothing sweeter than Ma’s voice in this whole universe. She saved my life.
Q: Where were your team members?
A: They were inside the forest, they heard my scream and came out running. I became unconscious. They brought me to the village on the boat. There was a quack doctor who treated me. There was no qualified doctor.
Q: Is there any specific time for going to the forest?
A: During the monsoon time. It is the best time to catch large volumes of fish.
Q: What are these idols you are making?
A: In Sundarbans, we worship Ma Bonbibi. Along with her we have Dukhe, Shah Jongoli and Dakshin Ray. So three idols together comprise our great worship which happens in the Bengali calendar month of Magh.
Q: What are these other idols here?
A: This is Lakshminarayan and this one is Gaji Shaheb. We make idols as part of our livelihoods. People come and buy idols from us and then they start preparing for the worship and celebrations.
Q: What is the story of Dakshin Ray and Dukhe?
A: Once a cunning, wicked and greedy man named Dhona took his nephew with him to the forest as they had one man short in the team of sailors. The child’s name was Dukhe. Dukhe’s mother was sceptical in letting her son go, but Dhona lured him into the venture making promises about unlimited wealth. The team kept Dukhe on the boat and went in to the forest to collect honey and other resources. Dakshin Ray was half demon half brahmin, preyed on humans in the avatar of a tiger. His territory was marked but this team entered his territory without making any offering in exchange of the forest’s resources. Due to the breaking of protocol, Dhona encountered the demon Dakshin Ray in the form of a tiger. Dakshin Ray wanted full control of the forest and wanted to dictate terms. He also wanted Dhona to make an offering in exchange of wealth and resources from the forest. Dakshin Ray wanted Dukhe. The greedy and selfish man Dhona left Dhona in the forest as a feast for Dakshin Ray.
Q: How did Ma Bonbibi and Shah Jongoli enter the scene?
A: When Dukhe saw Dakshin Ray approaching him in the form of a tiger, his mother’s words rang in his ears. He used the metre of wonder to call out the name of Ma Bonbibi. This call for saving reached Ma Bonbibi and her brother Shah Jongoli. Both of them reached Dukhe’s place and confronted the tiger. It was a fierce battle and at the end Dakshin Ray had to surrender to the power of Ma Bonbibi and Shah Jongoli. They made him become Ma Bonbibi’s loyal servant, also promise to share the forest’s resources with everyone. Ma Bonbibi became the supreme ruler and saviour of the forest and the people. She made Dakshin Ray promise to stay within his bounds and not transgress to harm others. Since then, she became the ultimate mother to the people of the Sundarbans.
Q: Where were you born and how did you grow up?
A: I was born in Sundarbans. Growing up, school life everything was here itself. When we were in school, our financial struggle was unimaginable. In spite of that, we enjoyed our lives to the fullest. Playing in the swamps of the Sundarbans, catching fish in these waters and travelling the beautiful waterways of this mysterious land was an integral part of our childhood days. After growing up I worked 25 years in a private company in a different state. Now I have returned to my homeland and now earning my living as a toto driver.
Q: What do you feel about Sundarbans? What is the scenario of the forest now?
A: There is a lot of mysterious beauty in the forests of the Sundarbans. This beauty and vastness attracts tourists from far and wide. It also provides a handsome income to the State government as well as tourism companies. On the other hand, though it has reduced drastically, but still there is illegal extraction of resources from the forest. That needs to be stopped totally for the future of the forest and environment.
Q: How do you get information about the illegal activities?
A: We have networks here, news gets circulated when there is illegal placing of fishing nets in the core forest area.
Q: Why is the tiger coming into the human habitat area?
A: It’s difficult to say, there are so many tigers in the forest but I think there is not enough food for the tigers in the forest. They are forced to come out of the forest in search of food.
Q: How many times has this happened in this village?
A: it has happened a lot. At least twice a year it has happened.
Q: What do you do when you hear a tiger is in the village?
A: What shall we do, there is nothing to do! We don’t have resources to catch and sedate a tiger. We generally go inside our homes and lock up our doors. Then we inform the forest ranger. The forest department people come and start the process of capturing the tiger and sending it back to the forest.
Q: What is the process of capturing a tiger?
A: They use a trap with a goat tied to it. The tiger is lured to the trap and once it gets caught the forest department people sedate it with an injection. The tiger becomes unconscious for a while. It is then put on a boat and carried off to the deep forest where it is released into the waters.