A friend of my mother asked her if there was anything special in Sunderbans and if it was worth the visit. My mother simply replied “Oh nothing, there’s just water”. Her friend went to Kerela instead. People come to Sunderbans from all over the world to see the largest delta of the world and try their luck to catch a glimpse of the man-eating tigers. But my mother’s response wasn’t too wrong. I guess after visiting that place more than 5 times, the place lost its charm for us. But it was only after I realized that we wouldn’t be visiting this place again anytime soon that I realized how much more there was to see here.
I went to Sunderbans for the first time when I was only 14. I had no idea where we were going. But I assumed that we would be going to some old rest house hidden away in a little forest. I was rather disappointed when I could not find a rest house once we reached the place. To make it worse, my father pointed towards a boat and asked us to board it. It was a hot and humid day and we were definitely not in a mood to go on a boat ride in the dirty looking river. I could see my mom flaring up so it was up to me and my sister to douse the situation.
Thankfully, it didn’t come to that at all. The guard led us to a nice looking house boat called a ‘launch’. The deck had seats on three sides with enough space for us to walk around, have tea and watch exotic birds flying by or sitting on a tree. There was a navigator in a small phone booth sized room. There were stairs on the side which led to a tiny dining room cum living room. It had a TV that didn’t work and a couple of books on GIS and forest statistics. On one side of the dining room, there was a door that led to the bedroom with two beds that also served as storage boxes and it had its own bathroom with modern amenities. The other side led to the kitchen. I never saw it properly since every time I tried to walk in, it had always been too hot and full of steam for some reason.
After my sister and I excitedly explored the launch, we were given coconut water. I felt like a princess who gets everything without having to work for it. After laughing about our ‘boating’ experience, we were served lunch. It’s been more than a decade now so I don’t exactly remember what had been served for lunch. But I’m quite sure that there was fish, chicken, rice, dal, some vegetable, mango chutney followed by misti doi and rossogulla. And I’m quite positive that I must’ve overeaten.
After a short afternoon siesta, we woke up to steaming hot cups of tea, always served with biscuits or some snacks. Food always played an important part in all our visits to the rest houses. Since these rest houses were as old as the British period, tea was never served without snacks. There was always more food than we could eat. The British are long gone but the tradition has passed on.
I could use a lot of adjectives to glorify the beauty of Sunderbans but I don’t think it would be necessary. The marshy island covered with huge mangroves trees with exotic birds sitting on them was a treat to the eyes. I unsuccessfully tried to look for crocodiles casually swimming in the muddy water. I could have sworn that I saw something moving. My dad told me that this place had more creatures than could be identified. But I was just interested in seeing a dangerous looking man-eating tiger. Of course, I had no idea what I would do when I faced one. The idea itself seemed quite fascinating though. But thanks to my search for a tiger, I got to see a lot of natural goodness that Sunderbans had to offer. Living in the city made me forget what sunset looked like but I was lucky enough to witness it here.
After sunset, it got a little eerie since there were no streetlights or sounds of people or TV to fill the silence. I see a lot of horror movies and this moment seemed like I was in on of those scary scenes. It took a little time but I got used it. In fact, since my days in Darjeeling, I had forgotten to appreciate the sound of silence. The sound of water hitting the shores, the little bugs trying to communicate in the dark, reflections of shiny stars on the water, men trying to anchor the launch, all that seemed unnatural a moment ago seemed delightful now. We ended the day with a scrumptious dinner.
I had ambitious plans of waking up early to watch the sunrise. But my laziness got the better of me and I slept until I was woken up by my mom to have breakfast and tea. Our breakfast was nicely laid out in the deck. I felt like I had gone back to the Victorian era where one command would get you everything you wanted. I wished I would be able to see one wild animal before I went home just so I could brag about it. To my surprise, I saw a big fish like creature jump up from the water. My father, studying the waves created in water asked us to look ahead in a particular direction. When we did, we saw a swift Gangetic dolphin take a big leap. We kept following it with our eyes until it disappeared. So now I had at least one story to tell.
After breakfast, when I went for a shower, I realized that the bathroom window was stuck and I couldn’t close it. I was a little uncomfortable at first. But I realized that since there was no civilization in the vicinity, I had nothing to worry about. To be honest, it seemed like a spa right in the womb of nature, something that you see on pintrest only.
Once I was out of the shower, our guard informed us that the speed boat was ready to take us to the narrow inlands of the delta where the launch wouldn’t go. In the subsequent visits, I got to try my hand at the speed boat. But the first time, I was just sitting comfortably behind the driver’s seat with my life vest on. The shallow end of the island wasn’t more or less beautiful as the rest of it. But somehow, it seemed like we were in a danger territory since it was so close to the land. It seemed like at any point, a tiger could jump into the speed boat. And this made it very thrilling and adventurous. But our driver assured us that there was considerable distance and we had nothing to worry about. I was relieved to hear this. The sound of the speed boat was loud enough to wake a sleeping giant and so we gave up the hope of spotting a tiger since they have super sensory ears. But to my delight we saw a small crocodile sunbathing near the shore. It seemed quite comfortable for a minute or two. But it probably spotted us since it made a dash to the water and disappeared.
We then headed back to our launch to wind up our visit. I tried hard and strained my eyes to see a glimpse of the tiger till I got back at the launch. We started to pack up till lunch was laid out in the dining room. There wasn’t much to pack but it took us a long time since we were not ready to leave yet. But I had school the next day so there wasn’t any other option. The cook made a special preparation of crabs among other things. They made such delicious dishes every time we went to Sunderbans without any formal training. I wondered what they might have been capable of if they trained under Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay.
Over the years, we went to Sunderbans several times. It would be the same routine almost every time with slight changes. Sometimes, instead of the speed boat, we would stay in one of the Rest houses built on the island and see deers in the wild. Also, we never spotted a tiger there – man-eater or otherwise. The chef special dishes eaten leisurely in the deck of the launch waiting for some dolphin to jump out of the water became quite a routine. Naturally, it lost it’s charm a bit. So my mother discouraging her friend wanting to visit Sunderbans wasn’t that big a deal. However, after my dad’s retirement, visits to Sunderbans have become a luxury that we can’t afford. Even if we went there, we won’t be able to enjoy our visit like we used to and that makes me crave for days when I could enjoy the starlit sky and the evening chai. So if a friend ever asked me if this place was worth the hype – I would certainly bet my life on it.