Entering the Indian Sundarbans

With the Sundarbans of Bangladesh behind her, Jennifer Nandi explores the Sundarbans of West Bengal, India. Political boundaries, she finds, are not the only dividing line between the two nations. Beginning her journey at Kolkata, she despairs at the atmosphere of abject neglect and callousness...

It is hard to believe that Calcutta (now Kolkata) was once part of the Sundarbans – that mangrove-jigsaw spanning across two countries; land which had conquered the accidents of geography, the frailty of human beings, and distressingly, left only the cyclonic weather beyond control. 

A three-hour drive from the Oberoi Grand to the jetty at Gadkhali takes us through countryside more peopled than what we witnessed in Bangladesh. A mayhem of cows jostles with pedestrian life while village life spills onto the main road. Crowded around the street frontage of tented tea stalls and shops selling Bengali sweetmeats, are gangs of unemployed youth. The younger boys play cricket on a patch of wasteland and tyre-repair shops do brisk business. 

Spotted Deer watches from the bank
We board the MV Sundari - a vessel much smaller than what our Bangladeshi boat had been. There are other degrees of differences which are immediately apparent. Whereas in Bangladesh we cruised through open water vibrant with human absence; here, the boat requires skilful handling to negotiate the river traffic. And because the channels are much wider; there are broader tidal mudflats and therefore more waders. We spot the Pacific Golden Plover within a short while. We pass islands with pilings to buttress embankments - evidence of the devastation wrought by the cyclone, Ila, two years ago. 

Two hours later we arrive at camp. Our bungalow has its own private living and dining area. The accommodation is spacious and comfortable. Lunch, however is a miserable affair. So I rush to the kitchen to first coax then cajole for more interesting fare. It’s a big step down from Bangladesh! However, over the next few days, I’m permitted access to the kitchen, interference with choice of menu items, and use of the stove to make tea and coffee. And so we manage each dinner as a convivial event - with some measure of good food, squashed and sugared nimboos spiked with vodka, and conversation flowing freely. 

Estuarine Crocodile
That same afternoon we spend a leisurely two hours on the river to register for the park. The point of registration is at the Sajnekhali Tiger Project. Implemented in 1973, Project Tiger was then demarcated to cover over 2585 sq km of the Sundarbans. The core area of 1330 sq km called the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve was chosen as a World Heritage Site. However, landing here at Sajnekhali comes as a rude shock. It is a place where no code of dress or behaviour is honoured. The concomitant noise and litter of local visitors is appalling. The watchtowers are crowded with yelling families. Every bid to communicate is done at high volume. Shops cater to indiscriminate needs of negligent tourists. There is a total lack of awareness. Everybody seems to be carried away by emotions, over-reacting and amplifying every urge. There is no stepping back, no monitoring of thoughts and emotions, no sophisticated control of behaviour, no regulation of appropriate responses. So we wander off into an area ostensibly sealed off by barbed wire. But it’s the only quiet place where we can give our senses a chance. 

A large water monitor lizard
A very large water monitor lizard fills our field of view, its forked tongue flicking in and out, snake-like, exploring its surroundings. The monitor is at rest, soaking up the last of late-afternoon-warmth. Prehistoric creatures, reptiles seem to inspire dread amongst the best of us. Forgetting most of the baggage we usually bring to our perception of such creatures, we notice its deep grey colour and the tiny yellowish-pink spots that decorate it. Its head appears to be too small for its body and its tail is flattened from side to side. The splayed sturdy legs will probably enable it to outrun us. The air is still, punctuated with the whine of a few mosquitoes. With great care and caution we approach the water monitor for photographs and after a few clicks of the camera, we leave it in peace. 

A White-bellied Sea Eagle
To a crescendo of birdsong in the sad and failing dusk, we board our boat. So fatigued are we of having to consciously shut out the profane that we decline the offer to visit yet another watchtower and thus ends our day with a secret tension between love and despair for the Sundarbans in particular and wilderness in general. 

Besra drinking water

Birdwatching is not going to be easy. We know that most water birds and those dependent on water are easily seen on the riverbank. Unlike our experience in the Bangladeshi Sundarbans, no boats are permitted to get close enough to the forest trees fringing the river. However, there are watchtowers at Netidhopani, Sudhanyakhali, Dobanki and Burrirdabri that provide a canopy-walkway. The watchtowers overlook fresh water ponds that attract deer, wild boar, the rhesus macaque and if you are lucky, the odd tiger! But birds also visit these ponds to quench their thirst as we would indeed be fortunate to observe a Besra doing just that! 

Text and photographs by Jennifer Nandi (All rights reserved).