Sundarbans!



I look forward to journeys more than the destinations. Having said that, I am not much of a traveller. I dislike getting up early in the morning to get to some place, unless there is some compelling reason. A trip to Sundarbans was compelling enough for me to lose sleep.

During our India trip this December, The Husband and I had booked ourselves into a 24-hour Sundarban river cruise organized by the West Bengal tourism department. The motivation was not the chance to spot a Royal Bengal, but just the idea of being in the middle of nowhere.

On a cold morning (yes, Kolkata was brutally cold this winter), we reported to the tourism office (I think it was near Priya Cinema, Deshapriya park). In fact, the cold surprised me – the howling wind was the culprit. Inside the office, it was warm and cozy. Seating arrangements had been made to accommodate all the tourists. Steaming chai was being served while we waited for our buses. LCD TVs were playing WB tourism DVDs. All of us with red-rimmed, puffy eyes and scowls stared at the TV as tigers splashed in backwaters and pythons slithered around. There was one thought all around – will we be lucky to spot a tiger? We were shaken out of our stupor as a voice boomed. The officer in charge was making an announcement in English with a heavy Bangla accent. He was urging all of us to use the rest room before the start of the journey, since we won’t have access for the next two/three hours. Some of the elderly tourists who had downed too much of chai made a beeline to the restroom. The rest of us headed towards the bus.

Outside, the wind had dropped, yet the chill was biting. The bus was an A/C coach. Breakfast was served before we started. I was possibly the only vegetarian on the bus. The breakfast packaging was a surprise to me. I had expected airline-type tinfoil packaging with clingfilms. This was a big, generous airtight plastic container with the goodies inside. Cheese sandwich, apple, cake and a mishti (sweet) for the vegetarians. All the above with a boiled egg for the non-vegetarians.

We set off on the long 2.5 drive to Shonakhali – a small village in the South 24 Parganas district, on the banks of the River Hogol. Bengalis, by and large are a vociferous group. They have the innate ability to feel at home in any place and convert any stranger into a family member. As soon as the bus started rolling, there was a discussion amidst the hitherto unknown-to-each-other tourists as to what should be played to pass the 2.5 hours time. Should it be DVD? Or Audio CD? A quick inventory with the cleaner revealed DVDs are out of question – the collection was a bunch of boring Bengali masala movies apparently. So thankfully, everyone settled for the evergreen Kishoreda. In the excitement of the journey, some of the middle-aged gents transformed into Vinod Khanna and crooned loudly ‘Pyaaaaaaaar pyar pyar pyar pyar...’ along with Kishoreda, in a totally different pitch. No Bengali conversation is complete without food updates. The ladies promptly called up family members back home to give a status update – that the bus has started. And of course this was followed by a detailed description of the breakfast. And an analysis of why boiled egg and why not something else. And a conclusion that one cannot eat mangsho (meat) so early in the morning. And that there will be mangsho for sure in the lunch menu.

With a grin plastered on my face, I settled down. What a deliciously lively crowd! As we travelled through the dusty roads of rural West Bengal, the beauty of the place felled me. Vast ponds, possibly prawn farms, dotted the sides of the road. Everywhere I saw a sea of colourful shawls and vermilion-lined foreheads as the women hurried to whatever work they had to attend to. In several places, in the muddiest, dirtiest water I have ever seen; I saw a riot of lotuses of the richest pink hue.

We finally reached Shonakhali close to noon. The sun was now searing, but it felt great after the chill of the morning. A ten minute walk brought us to the jetty. We were asked to wait for a couple of minutes – a boat would take us to the cruise steamer that was anchored a couple of metres away. The itch in my throat had turned into a full-fledged infection and being an Iyengar, I yearned for pepper rasam. Yet, I was too excited to crib as I waited with breathless anticipation for the next leg of my journey.

MV Chitralekha
The boat came. I shuddered. The thought of hopping from the concrete moorings into the wobbling boat parched my throat. The Husband, used to my gymnastics in public, gently told me he’s right behind me – just in case. But he first made sure the suitcase with the camera got into the boat all safe and dry. Then came the turn of an elderly lady. I stood behind her. The boat fellows held out their hands to help her get in. She was probably around 75...age wise. Weight wise she was far beyond 75. I had seen her wobbling gait. The boat guys were instructing her – ‘keep your left foot here, then your right one here’ etc. She just hitched her saree, and as gracefully as a deer, she stepped into the boat much to the surprise of the boat fellows. Next came my turn. The boat fellows withdrew the helping hand. I was after all a young energetic woman...getting into a wobbling boat would not be a problem. I got in. Not before displaying some of Mithunda’s nifty Disco Dancer steps, accompanied by alarmed cries of the boat fellows.

Finally we were off. A five minute boat ride brought us to MV Chitrarekha – our cruise launch. ‘Cruise’ probably conjures up images of a Bacardi party type luxury yatch. This was a richer version of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn on Mississippi. We had booked a ‘coupe’ the only private ‘room’ on the boat. The rest were all berths, like the ones you would find in an A/C train coach. Yeah...the towels could have been fluffier and whiter, sheets could have been crisper – but everything was neat and clean, including the attached toilet; which was a big relief. Almost immediately we started off. Our guide, a lanky young man, requested all of us to head to the upper deck for lunch.

The wind on the river was simply bone-chilling, despite the sun. It brought with it the smell of the water and whiffs of masala – food was being prepared in the lower deck. My throat shut shop and I was sounding like Marlon Brando as Don Corleone. Even swallowing water became painful and I had to skip lunch. The wind made me feverish yet I did not want to miss out on any of the scenery.

Sudhanyakhali
We reached Sudhanyakhali sometime in the afternoon. Our itinerary was limited to stopping by at the watch tower – where if one is extremely, extremely lucky – one can spot the king of Sundarbans. The watch tower is a regular concrete tower beyond which the enclosure of the national park starts. Large man-made ponds dot the landscape – watering holes for the tigers and other wild beasts. We saw a couple of deer. A tiger waltzing into the scene was simply out of question, given the number of noisy people coughing and laughing and chatting away to glory. Some of the wiser gents waited. They figured a tiger should be hiding nearby to pounce on the deer. This theory quietened up the crowd and everyone squinted into the thick foliage. Some of the children finally got restless and much to the guide’s horror, they started ‘roaring’ – it was a competition to see which kid roars the loudest. This was followed by the sounds of ‘thwack, thwack’...open adult palms against kids’ bottoms, followed by angry howls. That ended the watch tower excursion and we headed back to the launch.

As we dozed in the winter breeze and the warm winter sun, one of the tourists with a pair of binoculars squealed ‘Tiger!’ We all leapt up and generally peered in the direction in which he was pointing. Then a collective shout went up ‘TIGER! TIGER!’ Some of the lucky ones on the right side of the deck had seen a tiger resting in the thick mangroves. I just managed to see a flash of orange...it could have been a turkey towel left behind for all I knew. But for the record, I maintain that I saw a tiger...somewhat.

But I can’t tell you the jubilation we felt! Calls were placed to family members immediately (of course the network coverage was strong – it’s India people...we have coverage everywhere)! One excited lady said the tiger was napping after a kill. As the conversation progressed, the size of the tiger had increased. I won’t be surprised if accounts of point-blank encounter with the tiger were circulated.

Next stop was Sajnekhali sanctuary. Sajnekhali is a part of the Sundarban National Park, and houses a turtle farm and a crocodile enclosure. Sajnekhali also has a tourist lodge run by the WB govt I think. Exploring the national park in a jeep, in a smaller group is a better option. In any case, the sheer lush beauty of the place is astounding.


The launch anchored for the night a little away from Sajnekhali. The wind had dropped and it was now pleasant. Cold, yet pleasant. The sky turned a flaming orange, then purple-pink. Venus appeared first, and then I saw the constellations twinkle into sight. The purple-pink was erased in one splash of black. It was so dark that barring the smell of water, there was no way to know we were on water! Other launches had moored nearby, and it was magical to see twinkling deck lights like some UFOs hovering nearby. Although we were in the middle of a really large river, I could not help but think of the lurking maneaters. Tigers are excellent swimmers. Their night vision is superb. Was the beast smacking its lips on the banks of the river, trying to pick his dinner? I popped a crocin and drifted off to sleep as The Husband took out a paperback.

An announcement by the guide startled me awake. He was requesting all of us to go to the upper deck. Dinner would be served at 9:00pm, and since it was only 6:30pm, we could spend the time with some ‘joyous games’. Anthakshari. I slept fitfully in the knowledge that any lurking maneaters would have bolted away with twenty odd off-tune adults playing anthakshari.

The next day, we started off at 5:30 in the morning. It was cloudy and a bit foggy so we missed a spectacular sunrise. But at least we caught an orange disc over the River Bidya....and it was just as beautiful. We were heading towards Netidhopani watch tower. There was excitement – Netidhopani is a core area. Maximum tiger sightings have taken place in this area. Besides, we were reaching there early, at about eight in the morning. Will we get lucky? I felt lucky. My throat no longer hurt. I now sounded like Rani Mukherjee with a sore throat. An improvement from Don Corleone voice.

We moored at the dock and walked into the watch tower enclosure. We saw a blackboard on which the dates when tigers were spotted were listed neatly in chalk. There had been a spotting the previous day. There was palpable excitement. The crowd was silent. The early morning air was still – the sun was still filtering through the fog. We saw a stunning kingfisher near the pond in front of the watch tower. We waited. Green foliage turned blue-grey in the mist. The slushy pathways hemmed by the thick, loamy vegetation had a brutal beauty. I could visualise the great beast – springing out of the thick trees and walk gracefully towards the water. Perhaps it is the aura of the place. Perhaps it is all those stories. Whatever it is, the feeling in Netidhopani is indescribable...the feeling that you are in the territory of a dangerous predator, a noble beast, a cunning one at that. It makes you feel humble and puny.

Our cruise itinerary had come to an end, and we headed back to Shonakhali without spotting the king. We just sat out on the deck as the sun finally melted the fog away, and the breeze no longer had the bite. At regular intervals the guide would announce the name of the river – to me it just looked like one large water body. As one tributary merged with another, it was fascinating to see the subtle change of colour on the water – from a blue to a dirty green, and then all grey and silver in the shimmering sunlight. Waterways branched and snaked away to oblivion amidst the brooding forests.

Water world!

I was hypnotized by the scene around me – the water and the sky merged into one entity, and I felt I was in a glass bubble. Perhaps it is the poet in me. Perhaps it is the medication. Whatever it was...I understood why some people are attached to the sea. I understood why some of them want to go away sailing all by themselves, shunning all human contact. I understood that being in that environment – with just the water below you and the sky above you...in an uncanny way is yet another form of meditation. And perhaps, in the most non-spiritual way, sailing is the nearest one can get to feel the Creator.


 

Comments

  1. A vivid description of Sunderban, now have to visit this place soon.. can't resist it anymore.

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  2. Hey Rachit! I would suggest a package which involves a small group and a jeep safari/trek. chances of sighting a tiger are higher!

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  4. Sumana I had big smile all the while reading this post. You took us along the trip. You would have enjoyed it more had you been in better health. When I went to Kolkata my heart felt happy just smelling the sea and that bright sunshine typical of the coast after all I belong to the coast the west though.

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  5. @Anjali...Happy New Year!

    I hope I get another opportunity to go on a longer trip:)

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  6. Happy New Year to you too! Thanks for sharing the pictures. I simply loved the warm colors of the views from the watch towers. It also brought back memories of a 6hr cruise that me and my father did back in 2003 from Allepey to Kumarakom in Kerala. We had hired a launch for just 2 of us and the silence initially soothing was pretty unsettling 2-3 hrs into it later we got used to it. If you care to check out http://swachchanda.blogspot.com/search/label/Kumarkom

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  7. Thanks for this free armchair cruise to the Sundarbans.
    I have heard so much about this place.
    I wonder if I ever will get a chance to make a real trip.
    I have traveled all over India but I have not had any opportunity to visit rural Bengal and the North Eastern states.
    My only exposure to Bengal is the City of Kolkata and the Steel City of Durgapur.
    Reading your post makes me want to try out this place too.
    Regards
    GV

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  8. The most awesome and vivid account of Sundarbans! So meticulous and miraculous..I feel like I just had a Sundarban trip in last half an hour! When I saw the pics, it felt like a deja vu!

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    1. Welcome to Kaapizone Aafreen :) Thank you for your kind words...I'm glad you enjoyed this post so much!

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  9. Wow, exciting! A nice roundup of the place. Thanks :)

    Dropping by from Indiblogeshwaris

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  10. travelling through the countryside is always fun. And Sundarbans has been on my wish list for a long time. Travelling with a bunch of people you have never meet ends up being an interesting experience doesn't it !

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    1. yes absolutely! I want to go back there...but on the road.

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  11. Beautiful description. Would love to pay a visit to Sundarbans!
    @shaivisharma

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    1. Oops! I had missed this comment. Sorry for the late response...but thank you Shaivi. Hope you were able to visit the place :)

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  12. Hey :) Its a fantastic description. Now I am even more excited about going on this trip. I just have a few questions if you dont mind. Did you get any form of confirmation -email/sms from the west bengal tourism department confirming your booking? Pls do let me know. Thanks a tonne

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    1. Hi Meghana...thanks for stopping by. I'm not sure about email or SMS...this was booked by personally going to the office I think. I tried to look up some of the WB Tourism websites...but they are down. I'm assuming they must send you some sort of a confirmation...a reference number at least. Enjoy your trip!

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    2. Thanks for the reply. Yeah their websites are best opened with Iexplorer...with all other browsers the websites act funny :D (I am extremely challenged with the technology jargons...excuse me). And, nope I have not received any form of confirmation- not even a confirmation number. I will have to wait for two days...And go to the office directly at 7:30 in the morning and check I guess.

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    3. Try calling them...or better...you can drop in if possible. I am sure someone will tell you - they are quite meticulous in maintaining records of those who book etc.

      Tourism Centre (Kolkata)
      (For reservation & detailed information)
      3/2, B.B.D. Bag (East), Kolkata - 700 001
      Phone : (033)22436440 ,22488271
      Fax: (033)22485168
      E-mail :tourismcentre.kol@westbengaltourism.gov.in

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  13. I think I will drop by tomorrow and find out :) Thanks for all the info. I will definitely come back and give you a small nice review about my experience. Nothing like sharing the experience with someone who has been there and done that :)

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  14. Enjoyed your account of the Sunderbans trip :) Don Corleone and Rani Mukherjee with sore throat! Gaawd!! :)

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