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The Tiger Widows Of The Sundarbans

Posted: June 22, 2020

At least, I am fortunate to have an education which they lack. These girls get married at a very early age with little or no education. Trafficking of women is also rampant here.

The second winner of our June 2020 Muse of the Month contest is Swagata Tarafdar.

Have you heard the name of Sundarbans? If you are able to recollect the Geography lessons that you learnt in school, you’ll probably recognise the name. It’s the island cluster at the confluence of Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers in the Bay of Bengal in south Asia. It’s home to the world’s largest mangrove forest and lair of the royal Bengal tiger.

For years, the Sundarbans delta is where multiple cyclones in the Bay of Bengal have been first to hit, be it cyclone Aila in 2009, cyclone Bulbul in 2019 or the most recent cyclone Amphan in 2020.

Since cyclone Amphan hit, I’d been enthusiastic about heading to the Sundarbans to report on the extent of the destruction caused. Isolated from the main land, this delta and it’s inhabitants have always intrigued me.

By the way, I am Amrita Mitra, a journalist working with the newspaper “The Daily Chronicle” based in Kolkata. I am known for my intrepidity in my office and after the devastating cyclone hit West Bengal, I was the first to come forward for reporting on the worst-hit islands of Sundarbans.

I got in touch with a few Sundarbans experts and NGOs working there, who suggested that the Gosaba belt was worst hit. Finally, I decided to visit Kumirmari village of Gosaba belt. It was decided that Aveek, a photographer working with our newspaper, would accompany me. One NGO working there, named “Aalor Dishari” (literally meaning “the harbinger of light”) said that they’d arrange our visit to Kumirmari.

*

We took a steamer from Godkhali Ferry Ghat to reach Gosaba. When we got down from the steamer at Gosaba, we spotted a wrecked launch boat, half of it submerged. It seemed like the launch boat was preparing us for the devastation ahead. From Gosaba, we shifted to a boat to take us to Kumirmari. The river Bidyadhari looked unusually calm and serene, albeit a bit swollen. The mangrove forests lining both sides of the river enthralled me.

The boat came to a halt on a mudbank. I somehow managed to flounder across the mudbank. Two workers of “Aalor Dishari” were waiting for us in bike. They introduced themselves to us as Sanjay and Alok.

I rode pillion in Sanjay’s bike to visit Kumirmari. Uprooted trees, huts without roofs, bended electric poles, household items strewn here and there – the signs of destruction were conspicuous everywhere.

“Madam, lets go to the local school. A community kitchen has been set up there,” informed Sanjay.

*

Outside the school building, some local residents had gathered with aluminium bowls and plates for taking khichuri (a broth made out of rice and lentils). What intrigued me most, however, was the fact that the majority of these people belonged to one gender – woman. Weary, poverty-stricken women in tattered white sarees, some carrying toddlers in their arms. The signs of starvation were writ large on their faces. I looked quite out of place there in my Levi’s jeans and fabindia kurti.

“Sanjay, tell me one thing. Where are the menfolk of this village? There are so few men here,” I asked Sanjay.

“The men had died, madam. Majority of inhabitants of this village are bagh-bidhobas (tiger widows). Their husbands were killed by tigers while they were fishing, catching crabs or collecting honey for their livelihoods.”

This revelation startled me. “So how do these women manage to eke out their livings?”

“Come, let me introduce to Souravi Mondal, the local school teacher. She is working relentlessly for the last eleven years for the rehabilitation of these tiger widows. It’s she who made contact with our NGO, narrated the plight of these women and requested us to work here for the welfare of these women.”

*

SOURAVI

Eleven long years. Yet eleven seems just another number as the devastation caused by cyclone Amphan brought back horrid memories of Cyclone Aila.

I was reluctant to marry Rampada right from the day the local ghatak (match-maker) visited our home in the hope of fixing my marriage to him. He hailed from the neighbouring village of Rangabelia. He was the only son and heir of a wealthy landowner. I had just completed my graduation in English Literature from a college in Kolkata and was looking for a teaching job. But my parents didn’t find any reason to reject Rampada and soon the marriage was fixed.

On the wedding night, when we were exchanging garlands, the stink of cheap country liquor assailed my noses. At that very moment, I realised that my life was doomed.

Rampada whiled away most of his time in playing cards with his friends or eve-teasing village women. He was a habitual alcoholic and had serious rage issues. He yelled at me, grabbed my hair and slapped me quite often. I wanted to walk out of the marriage. But my mother advised against it. She said that perhaps a child would be able to alter the equation of our marriage.

I was seven months pregnant. But that didn’t stop Rampada from beating me black and blue. I finally made up my mind to walk out of my abusive marriage.

While cyclone Aila struck at high tide, I gave birth to a baby girl at the Gosaba Block hospital. Born prematurely, it weighed only 1500 grams. Doctors were apprehensive whether it would survive. But deep in my heart, I knew that it would. I named her Aparajita — the one who cannot be defeated. Lying at the maternity ward of the hospital, I listened to the sound of Bidyadhari splitting open the embankments through all night.

*

“Didimoni, some people from the press have come to meet you.”, Gita’s yell broke my reverie.

*

AMRITA

The woman seemed to be in her mid-thirties. She was wearing a cheap cotton saree.

“Namaskar”, she joined her palms in greeting us as a zen smile spread across her face.

*

Twilight was descending slowly on earth. In the fading daylight, Souravi was showing us the sprawling vocational centre of the Kumirmari Gram Vikas Kendra. The tin roof of the centre had been blown away by cyclone Amphan.

“Here volunteers from NGOs train women to be independent through vocations like embroidery, tailoring, fish farming, poultry farming etc. But Amphan has brought the women back to square one. It breached the embankments of Bidyadhari, inundating our village with saline water. Ponds of fish farming are filled with saline water, killing all the fish. Hundreds of full-grown chickens and chicks were washed away.”, she said ruefully.

“Life is really tough here. Living in the city, we can’t imagine the kind of hardship people face here.”, I said.

Sanjay chimed in. “But didimoni went from door to door and made the people to come forward to fight against all odds. It’s because of her that people have started to think about bettering their lives on their own without waiting hopelessly for the sorkaari relief materials to reach here. I guess this bidhoba para (widow’s hamlet) will become a model of community kitchen in future.”

“Yes, that’s because I never believed in giving in to destiny. We’ll fight against all odds and make our own future.” Souravi’s eyes were glistening. “Aila taught me to become self-reliant while Amphan taught me that in order to survive, it’s necessary to incorporate the people around you in the struggle against nature’s fury.”

Then after a brief pause, she said slowly, “You know Amrita, I grew up in a sheltered environment. My father was the headmaster of the local secondary school. So I never understood the daily struggles of these women, in spite of living among them. Then by a strange twist of fate, I became a single mother myself. And I suddenly started to realise how hard their lives are. At least, I am fortunate to have an education which they lack. These girls get married at a very early age with little or no education. Trafficking of women is also rampant here. I decided to stand beside them and support them in whatever ways I can. I made contacts with various NGOs and was finally able to build this vocational centre for them.”

I suddenly started to see Souravi in a new light. She seemed to be not just a school teacher, but a harbinger of change in a remote village of the Sundarbans.

“I think that when you fall down, you start looking at the world differently. Because the world looks different from the ground.”, she whispered.

Author’s Note: This story is a work of fiction based on the true lives of tiger widows of Sundarbans. The Sundarbans islands are home to 4.5 million people and 86 (photographed) tigers. The islands are believed to shelter hundreds of widows, locally called “Bagh Bidhoba”. In most of the cases, government compensation does not cover the fatalities that occurred in the restricted core of the tiger reserve.

*

Editor’s note: Oprah Winfrey has seen all possible reasons to be underprivileged in her life. A black girl born to a single mother in rural Mississippi and raised in poverty in the inner city Milwaukee. Faced sexual abuse in childhood and early teens. Was pregnant at 14, her son born premature and dying in infancy. But she did not let all this drag her down once she decided to pick herself up and work to raise herself above all this.

She began as a co-anchor at the local radio at 19, and thereafter has risen to be known globally for her trademark style of talking and interviewing – an emotive, personal connect with those she speaks with, an unstoppable force to be reckoned with. Oprah, has today become a household name.

The cue is this quote by her: “So go ahead. Fall down. The world looks different from the ground.”

Swagata Tarafdar wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations! 

Image source: shutterstock

An engineer by education, I am a civil servant by profession. A doting mother. An

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