The distant calls of a Kingfisher reach us through the mangrove trees. Around us in the creek the water recedes with the ebb of the tide. Our dinghy rocks about for bit, knocking against the mangrove trees until it comes to rest atop a mound of slush. Just like that we too become part of one of the many islands that are silently being born in the Sunderbans with the receding tide.
The mangrove trees and the rivers that empty into the sea on the border between India and Bangladesh make this place the largest delta and estuarine forest in the world, and the largest tiger reserve in India — it’s famous as a home of the man-eating Bengal tiger.
There is a calming stillness around us.The loudest sound is the gentle fall of a leaf onto a puddle of water that is trapped between mounds of slush. Little black crabs scurry upward from the recently submerged branches of the trees in search of drier terrain. My friend and I lie down our backs pressed against the uneven wooden boards of the dinghy our faces patterned by the shadows of the mangrove leaves and drift off to our own separate worlds.
A sudden striking of a match breaks my reverie. Ananth Bhaiya, our agile boatman stares us at unapologetic from the other end of the tapered dinghy where is sits in a squat with a lit cigarette between his lips. He exhales and curls of white smoke rise upward losing shape the higher they rise. He catches my eyes and he smiles. It is a first.
” Do a lot of people come here?” I ask not really expecting a response. (Although an agile boatman he is not much of a talker. All previous attempts at a conversation with him had failed).
” Not a lot. Most people just come to see the tiger,” he replies nonchalantly.
” Have you seen one?” I enquire, more for the sake of continuing the conversation.
He nods gesturing with his hands to a nearby clearing. Although I don’t believe it, I do my part and widen my eyes and fake fear and respect. That seems to bring down some barriers and soon we are having less forced conversations while my companion snores quietly,oblivious to the sudden transformation of our boatman.
During a comfortable pause Ananth Bhaiya suddenly releases his squat, stands up and gestures me to follow him. I hesitate but he is already knee deep in the slush holding out his hand to me. Not wanting to bring about a premature death to our new friendship, I take his hand and waddle after him.
After ten minutes of ‘slush walking’ we come to a clearing almost identical to the one we just left. I look about for anything exotic, anything that would explain why I am covered up to my waist in slush.
Ananth Bhaiya for his part looks about him in reverence, lowers his voice and explains that he has not brought anyone to this spot. Before I can feel special he goes on to tell me that this is where he saw the tiger; in his words – ‘where the tiger spared his life’!
With that he turns and briskly starts to walk back to the dinghy. I stand arrested in place. My blood curdles and my feet fail me. To think that all this while we were easy prey to a prowling man- eater! A flight of a bird snaps me out of my momentary inertia and I quickly follow Ananth Bhyya.
Back at our dinghy a sudden realisation hits me – we are marooned on the mound of slush till the tides rise to drown our little island.