Thistles n’ Mistletoes
By Mehreen Ahmed
Before another storm brews, we must enter the Sundarbans. Treading the rough seas will be tough. The crew are unperturbed, which is a relief. However, an apprehension grows within me. A vision of the ship caught up in the hollow winds of nature’s cauldron, tossing like a toy boat in a mildewed storm-drain. It chugs through, wavering clumsily, all but in the head.
Most of Sunderbans is in Khulna, Bangladesh. A small portion of it is situated in India. I am here with a friend and guide on the Bangladesh side. It is surrounded by salt tolerant waterways. The waterways are interconnected in a way that the forest is accessible through every corner. Infested with salt water crocodiles, vicious snakes, and the Royal Bengal Tigers at large, this remarkable world heritage is nature’s boon to mankind.
Our steamer is anchored, off the coast of the Bay of Bengal. A muggy summer’s noon, in the heightened midday sun, I decipher a skyline from the deck; a sentinel of dark mangroves, on the edge of the jagged land by the Bay. I feel a tremor. This magical forest in its own right, not because of the enigmatic wilderness, but something else, something more primeval. That world’s largest mangroves, is also a habitat for both man and beast. By far, this overtly hostile environment is a home to the tribals of a thriving population, a chimera culture in this deep repository.
For human culture to flourish in this backdrop must be quite a feat. Ghosh’s Gun Island, is an impetus. This book which alludes to the legend of Behula from the Hindu mythology, and Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes, is about the human psyche in the stranglehold of the deity. The Manasa Devi has an obscure temple in the Sunderbans, which Bonduki Sadagor, or the gun merchant has dedicated in her honour. The gun merchant travels the world to escape scourge of the underworld. But in the end, he gives up. He is captured and forced to become a devotee.
Long since, I have had a desire to visit the Sunderbans. This opportune moment, I can now venture inland. I want to find out more about such cultures, vulnerabilities and strengths, rendering them to be both fragile and resilient. A skeletal wooden dingy is moored to the steamer on murky waters. We, my friend and I, climb down balancing cautiously on the boat and sit in the middle. We clutch on to the boat’s side panels. Our perceptible edgy look does not distract the boatman. He rows us calmly down the placid canal.
Our steamer is in the offing. We gravitate to the forest. It draws us in, the mangroves become more prominent. When the boat is closer to the land, the boatman jumps out of the dingy, and pulls it by the oar. He throws a noose around a mangroves roots, and holds the bow in his brawny grip. Anxiously, we tiptoe out of the boat. The little boat swerves on the oar’s plash. I step forward onto the wetlands, I sense the breathing roots. The jungle sleeps.
The closely bunched up mangroves, lean towards the waterways. Its entwined dark roots, snake in and out of an opaque belly of drenched sand on the shores. An image is conjured in my mind; that of the enchantress Manasa, in the forest of the night. She, a regal apparition on a dance date with her cobra companions, is reposed down a sinewy branch of close canopies, one of the distinguishing features of this forest. Unlike the African Savannah, the Sunderbans is known for its close canopies of palms, and sundari trees. Even on the brightest of warm mornings, only a small amount of sunlight is filtered through this canopy formation
However, not all trees are sundari. There are other kinds of treasure trees here as well, such as the karam tree. The word sundari in Bengali means pretty. Aptly named for such lofty trunks of long tresses, the silver wet mane, watered down in sliding rain. A walkabout under the canopies, reveals a veritable range of exotic creatures of the blue forest. While the Manasa is worshipped by the Hindus in Bangal. On this podium of odds, I fully appreciate the need to appease such a goddess.
A lull descends in the atmosphere. My apprehensions get the better of me. The dark, menacing clouds have gathered in the distant sky. We cannot go back to the steamer, because the canal is turgid, far too dangerous to cross now. Besides, the streamer has been evacuated. My friend says that the crew have gone to shack in a clearing. Apparently there are quite a few clearings. He suggests, we proceed toward the villages. He knows some fishermen there.
Too eager, we approach a small village. I view a motley of small shacks behind a cobbled fence line. A tribal family in the loggia, the fisherman’s basket juts out of an open space of a high ground; the day’s floundering catch at sea. A woman sits on the floor, scaling and gutting fish on a boti knife on the far end. She and her little girl are fully dressed in a red sari. Her man and the boy in lungi, and white vests.
Greetings follow an invitation for dinner. This imminent storm, unsure of what to do next, we accept with some hesitation, and sit down on a mat. In the slight lantern light, the fish is prepared and cooked on a firewood stove. The smoke rises. A combined flavour of soupy, spiced curry on parboiled steamy rice, disperses through the air of an overcast sky, and lightening crackles.
A storm begins. This short, sweet summer’s storm. The sunlight thins. Over by the Bay’s horizon, a frightening wind picks up. Animals retreat into their dens in the heart of this darkness. The storm ends. The woman places sumptuous dinner on plates before us on the mat, meant to be eaten mouthful by hand. This meal, a gift from providence, enriched by a greater gift of a rare glimpse into the lives of this community. Little to offer, yet so much; feeding us, these perfect strangers. We strike up a conversation. I ask them about jungle-life in general. They are the Munda tribe, whose ancestors have migrated from India some 300 years ago. The clan speaks a language, known as Naguri.
Indeed, Medusa and Manasa are analogous. The greater world of mythology, whether it is Greco-Roman or Indic, has venerated and immortalised them. Perhaps, they are even sisters who’s to know? While one has retired, the other is active. Among the Munda tribe, snake worship is practiced as a religious belief. Particularly, Manasa’s father, Lord Shiva is the much revered deity, ingrained into the Munda culture. Shiva is statued in a mossy, ancient temple. Devotees take white jilledu and bilwa flowers to his altar to pray. Some devotees also serve water to snakes in the backyard of their home. A serpentine thirst to quench, a reptile to be tamed, not to goad, so both can die another day. This sacred bond of trust is a handmaiden to preservation and interdependence, in the hope to ensure less carnage and destruction. In hunt, the jungle’s chant,‘to live and let live,’ not overkill for spoils, precludes the notion that killing is not a game, but kill out of necessity of hunger, is game.
Just as well, Munda fishermen are intrepid honey gatherers. They set out to explore the deep forests beset with crocodiles, tigers and snakes on leaky boats in search of wild beehives. This pure honey, is an economic lifeline, natural antibiotics, and an excellent source of energy. It is sourced out to the city. Their exceptional tracking sense, knowledge of the bush tucker, and sharp instincts guide them much of the way. Not everyone makes it, but those who do, don’t forget to perform the ritualistic Pujas in Shiv temples. Once the honey is home, both in person, as well as in fluid, it is squeezed out of its honeycombs into locally made clay jars. Sleek city-dwellers, business men, use the Munda as trackers for wild honey collection.
It is a bittersweet battle for survival each moment. Humans in constant fear of being wedged out, as are other animals. Fending off alligators, vipers, stray tigers, and humans, all in a day’s work. Besides the human flesh, other animals also meet the tiger’s ravenous hunger, such as the spotted deer. The deer, and the gazelle often fall prey, gone in a flash, when they come in droves for an early morning drink to the ocean’s edge. Their guard is lowered and are snatched either by tigers or hunted down by humans for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Succulent deer meat is a human delicacy, after all.
It is insane to think that humans can be insulated against feline fangs on this Tigerland. But stories that emerge are surely fantastic. This nerve centre for both humans and beasts, the Sunderbans has been a sanctuary throughout ages, where bees self-organise to pack honey into combs; fish summer-sault out of the oceanic hideouts to jump into mudflats; crocodiles bask in the shallow waters; birds frolic under prolific canopies; tigers lounge in high grasslands; and indigenous people build brilliant bamboo fences along their dwellings. Within such forays of a feral culture, humans and beasts both know better, not to cross boundaries; or suffer a draconian reprisal of nefarious bloodbath.
Still, every creature is connected somehow. An elemental, palpable spirit exists, which binds them. It is an aura of mystery. This is where the plot thickens on this perilous plain. Fantasy, teetering on the brink of reality, myths and the enchantments on temples’ knotty old roots, the human psyche is ensnared in complex smokescreen of haze, beyond reasoning. That which splendidly carves out and juxtaposes a resultant robust culture of far-fetched luminaries, replete with dance performances, tribal songs, festivals, fine arts and concerts in the clearings.
Clearings beefed up with heavy buffers of bamboo fences, stuffed with burning torches into bamboo cavities, to discourage beasts. That maybe, but at its core, a bit of the Mowgli legend is played out here as well; if all the world’s a stage, then so be it. In all fairness, this nuanced drama of friendship in the animal kingdom has a much greater impact on the culture. An umbrella riddled with forest thistles, is also where earthlings fall in love, marry and find a full life. Werewolves serenade blood moons, under their chosen mistletoes. An intriguing culture which looks well integrated, pretty much.
The only time the jungle becomes pear shaped is when invaders and poachers attack it. Killing, plundering, and ransacking it, as it were, conspiring to tarnish its pristine environment. The Bengal Tiger is an endangered species, urgently needs to be saved from annihilation. Systematic deforestation, for the installation of a power plant is another one of many ongoing issues at present. This is when, the jungle stops breathing; those are the real threats.
Mehreen Ahmed’s books have been Drunken Druid The Editors’ Choice for June 2018 and “The Best of Novels for 2017 – Family Novels of the Year”, by Novel Writing Festival 2018. She has published with Routledge, Cambridge university press, Literary Yard, Fear and Trembling Magazine, Terror House Magazine, Connotation Press, The Punch Magazine, Furtive Dalliance Literary Review, Cosmic Teapot and Story Institute. Two of her short stories have been translated in German and Greek. Anomalous Duo, translated in German, appears in the anthology of Kleinkrieg und Frieden: Eine Collage Internationale Familiengeschichten.