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Sundarbans Stories - Conversations (Field trip 2)

The field trip was conducted by Rahul Nag 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 Dayapur, Sadhupur and Satjelia in the Sundarbans on 16th and 17th January 2023

We are sincerely grateful to the people of Dayapur, Sadhupur and Satjelia for talking to us wholeheartedly (names of the people are withheld due to privacy reasons). The conversations below were recorded with ten people.

Shop conversations (Godkhali)

Q: What happened? Why are you so agitated?

A: These people don’t pay on time. Everything they’ll take on credit.

Q: For how much money?

A: The amount is not much, each time it is about 50-100 INR. But after a while it accumulates to a lot. It is just a bad habit. These people have lot of money. There is a section of people in the Sundarbans who have a lot of money. Especially people who are in the crab business. It is huge money.

Q: Where do they mainly catch crabs?

A: There are areas in the deep forest (core area) which are good for catching good volumes of crab and fish.

Q: What is the distribution like? How many people venture out for catching crab?

A: The money is divided equally, but sometimes there are tiger attacks. Then the situation is tricky. These people are not afraid to venture into the dark deep forests in spite of the lurking dangers of a tiger attack.

Q: what do you think of the risks of these jobs? Crab catching, fishing, honey collecting? Don’t you think too many have died during these activities?

A: Yes, people have died. But lot of people have made a lot of money too. Every job has its own risk. This job has a slightly greater risk. But people who have courageously ventured into these activities and could evade the fatal encounters with a tiger have made for themselves a fortune. Also, there are dacoits in the forest. Some people collect resources and some other people steal the materials from them. It is matter of survival.

Q: How do they understand the ways of the forest?

A: People who have been going into the deep forest for years know it in and out. They have expanded senses to understand the presence of a particular animal. No research or academic scholarship can beat this kind life experiences that these people have. It is an intuition and sixth sense to understand position and situations in the core forest. When few of these people are together and confident, even the tiger might get afraid. They have unlimited stamina. They have resources and weapons. Also they have masks on the back of their heads to confuse the tiger. The tiger mainly attacks from behind and grabs the neck of the human.

Q: What do you feel about the transportation process in the Sundarbans?

A: It depends on the time of the day. High tide and low tide determines the speed of the boat. So, you can never predict exact time of travel inside the Sundarbans.

Q: When did you start the shop?

A: about 30 years back, govt acquired all this land which previously was part of the forest. Then the govt gave away this land to small businesses like us. Even today any day government can take away the land. If someone breaks protocol and builds too many stories, it’ll be taken down by the government as there cannot by too much weight on the forest land. Even for huge resorts, they have cut down trees, it is not allowed at all. Now it is totally prohibited.

In the boat

Q: Where were you born and brought up?

A: I have been born and brought up in Sundarbans. My birth place is Gosaba, Sundarbans. There have been lot of people who migrated from Bangladesh and settled here but I was born here itself.

Q: What do you think of the forest?

A: Look, the forest is a continuous forest through the southern parts of West Bengal and Bangladesh. 60% is in Bangladesh, 40% is in India. The tiger moves freely through the forests. Naturally it doesn’t follow any border, that is the interesting part. So how will you get a tiger population census in the Sundarbans?

Q: Did you have any encounter with the tiger?

A: Look, when you are travelling day and night for 365 days in the forest, you will see definitely see the tiger. Tourists come for a few days and expect to see it. It is not that easy. You have surrender to the forest then only the forest will reveal its precious elements to you. I have seen the tiger 4/5 times every year. Also I felt hurt and upset whenever I saw the tiger.

Q: why is that?

A: A tiger was relaxing on the banks of the river. The tourists were so uncivilised and ill-behaved, that the tiger could not stay there for long. These people was shouting and screaming on the top of their voices. First of all, you are entering wildlife habitat for your own entertainment, then you are not respecting the space and behaving like crazy, it is not done.

Q: In all these years, what did you make of the tiger’s behaviour?

A: It is a very intelligent animal. It attacks in a way that one can never escape. The only way humans can escape is if there is mistake on the tiger’s part. The tiger also never looks back if it misses its target. Life is strange here. I have seen so many people die, so many women have become widows as their husbands got killed by the tiger. Only the shirt was found, no body was recovered. The shirt was found hanging on the tree branch. The tiger has taken the body to his own den. Many of these women have moved to other states to work as labour, some have stayed back here and some have died of hunger and malnutrition. I can show you house after house which have been struck by this kind of accident. This is life in Sundarbans.

Q: What do you think about the future of the Sundarbans?

A: Sundarbans is endangered. The existence of Sundarbans is in question now. It will all be underwater in twenty years. That is my prediction. It is facing tremendous challenges from all directions. The rising levels of sea water, consecutive super cyclones every year has destroyed everything. It will vanish. Sundarbans will vanish.

Q: How much of that devastation is because of human activities?

A: Humans have little contribution I feel, it is all natural calamities that is bringing devastation to this land. Look here, there used to be houses here, now all of that is under water and the breadth of this waterway has increased. If it increases at this rate, the whole island will be under water in the next ten years. Already the southernmost islands are going under water and people are having to move from those places to northern islands. If you are continuous thrashing a person, will he survive? It is the same with Sundarbans, it is always subject to Natural thrashing and devastation.

Q: What is the political scenario?

A: It is total shit. These people have accelerated the devastation. They do not do anything to protect the environment. On the other hand they continuously encourage political turmoil and conflict. They scare people into voting for them. They are always into rigging and casting false votes. That’s how they get all the votes. They are killing people for votes. Who will think about the environment?

Near the cock fight arena

Q: Is there a history of this sport?

A: it has a long history. It has evolved over the ages. It was mainly played by the Adivasis. Now along with the Adivasis, other people and our communities have joined in.

Q: What do you mean by your communities?

A: I mean the higher caste people. This was initially not a game for the higher caste people. It was only meant to be played by the scheduled tribes, but now everyone plays.

Q: Are the cocks grown and prepared at home?

A: Some are grown at home, some are bought ready from the market. The ready ones bought from the market are very expensive. They cost around 7-8 thousand. Some might go up to 10-15 thousand too.

Q: How is it decided which two cocks will fight?

A: We check the built of the cocks, the size and the strength of the cocks. Otherwise if the strength is unequal, the game will be one sided, money will be lost and people will not be entertained.

Q: Where were you born and how do you survive?

A: I was born in the Sundarbans. I used to go into deep forest (crab and fish) for years, but now I have stopped. Now my livelihood depends on farming. The forest in very bad shape, tiger attacks have increased exponentially. Last one year, in one area there has been 150 deaths from tiger attacks, news doesn’t come out.

About the forest

Q: Why do you think this is happening?

A: I think there is scarcity of food for the tigers in the forest. The species have evolved into a very ferocious animal which is hunting humans directly. They are pouncing on the humans, holding on to the back of the neck and killing instantly. This is how we are surviving in the Sundarbans. The farming scene is also not good, river water has become saline. It is not suitable for farming.

Q: When you were going into forest, what were your experiences? Do you remember?

A: yes, I remember distinctly. That time tiger attacks were not this regular, now tigers have increased. Also, there is an evolution of this new species. The behaviour of the tigers seem different. Now the fear of attacks is huge. Still for their livelihood, people are venturing out into the unknown. Some are returning, some are vanishing forever. Government has installed nets on the fringes to prevent the tigers from straying into the human habitats but sometimes that is failing too.

Q: How is life in Sundarbans?

A: We are Adivasis, that is scheduled tribe. I live in a small cottage made of clay and hay. I don’t even have a permanent home. We are deprived of all kinds of facilities. Our ancestors had good land but all the land has been taken away, now we have nothing. In spite of all the dangers, its mandatory for us to venture into the unknown, mysterious and dangerous forests. Please help us by connecting us to the world, our voices need to be heard. We are deprived terribly. Whatever you tell us to do, we’ll do.

Q: What do you feel about life in Sundarbans?

A: It’s a tricky and multi-layered answer to this question. Life in Sundarbans is unimaginably difficult. Not only for me, for everyone living here. Sometimes there is a cyclone, sometimes there is flood, there is fear of tiger in the forest, there is fear of crocodile in the waters and in the land the farming is poisoned by saline water. This is Sundarbans. There is no drinking water, no deep tube well. Whenever we have tried to install a deep tube well, the water extracted is saline and not suitable for drinking. There is reservoir far away from here which releases drinking water once in a day. That is all that we get here.

Q: What about the tiger?

A: Tiger attacks have increased exponentially. Every week we are getting 3/4 death reports caused by tiger attacks. Some boats are sanctioned, some boats don’t have permission. The sanctioned boat owner’s family still gets a compensation if anyone dies during the expeditions. The unsanctioned boats enter the forest illegally so if someone dies, they can’t even ask for help from the government. After one death, someone else from the family goes for fishing or catching crabs. Slowly all the family members are losing lives to the tiger attacks.

Q: How is the human-human relationship in the village?

A: People are very simple and welcoming. I have never seen that in a city. I have been to the city and saw people have a lot of money but they are actually very poor as there is no community life. People are sceptical to even let one extra person stay in their house. Here, even if there are hundred extra people who have no place to stay, we’ll arrange and accommodate everyone in homes and people will be genuinely hospitable.

About the Cyclone:

Q: The cyclone times must have been devastating?

A: I didn't have any idea about what is happening. I was in Mumbai and working as a chef in this hotel. I got a call from my locality in Sundarbans. They told me to come immediately as everything was destroyed. This was in 2009 during Aila super cyclone. I packed my bags and travelled to Sundarbans. Was kind of worried as I had not heard from my family.

Q: What happened when you reached?

A: When I reached my village here in Dayapur, I just stood numb and couldn't believe my eyes. I didn't even have the energy to cry, just realised that tears are rolling down my cheeks. I just prayed that my family should be safe.

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