The Story Hall
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The Story Hall

India & Me (Sunderbans)

My plane to Kolkata was an early morning one and I got the hotel in Delhi to book me a taxi. When I was being picked at the airport, the fare was Rs100.00, but when I was being taken to the airport, I was told that the fare was going to be Rs350.00. Is the distance the same, I retaliated sarcastically.

In spite of my having a proper ticket, which I had booked from Edinburgh weeks in advance, the woman at the airport demurred when I presented it to her, talked in whispers to a colleague, and the word standby was mentioned, but in the end I got on the plane all right. My friend the geology professor was waiting for me. I recognised him straight away from the one photograph he had sent me. I only knew him through our common membership of

My friend the geology professor, his wife and our Tour leader

“Bengalbirds”, a group linking people with that common interest. Lately we had been exchanging almost daily mails, and I was impatient to meet him finally. In Edinburgh I had bought a Glenfidditch 10 Year Reserve Single Malt for him, but after I had checked in my luggage, as I went through personal security procedures with my small handbag, I was stopped, because I was carrying liquor with me. You can’t take this with you, I was told. Eh but-? No liquor can be taken on the plane. But-. You should have checked it in, someone said helpfully. But I have already checked in my other bag, I explained. Then go and check in this one as well, or we will have to confiscate it. I thought that this was going to be an impossibility, but I have since found that in India, whenever you are in some sort of fix, someone turns up and solves your problem for you. A Sikh official said there was no impediment to my checking in a second bag, just show them your boarding pass. And after putting my prized possession in my hand luggage, I managed to get the whisky through. On the plane I suddenly realised that the second bag I had just checked in contained all my papers apart from my passport, and during the 2-hour flight I agonised over my lost bag containing my papers, without which I would be stuck in India for ever! But the bag was not lost, and the professor was waiting for me!

I found Kolkata much dustier and noisier than Delhi, but it had a certain appeal which I did not think Delhi had. It is not an obvious tourist destination, and probably as a result, people just stared at you in a friendly manner, and you did not have the feeling that they were after your money. My friend had to teach in the afternoon, but was able to take me the the West Bengal Tourist Board, where my physical presence was needed before I could get official permission to go on the cruise to the Sunderbans. As I was going to have a proper dinner at my friend’s, I thought that I would eat nothing but fruit at midday; I bought some bananas, grapes and oranges, and seeing some carrots, I picked one up and asked how much. The seller looked at it and shook his head, take it, he said. My hostess had cooked a proper banquet for me, and her fish balls ( Bhekti)were simply delicious.

Next day, we were all going to go on a cruise on the Sunderbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world. It is feared that in less than fifty years, it will be submerged, with all its tigers and wonderful and unique flora. I have an idea about setting part of a novel I am writing about Indian immigration to Mauritius and other colonies in or around the Sunderbans, since most Indian migrants left from Calcutta, and this makes a visit there doubly interesting. We boarded a bus outside the Tourist Board and started on the 2-hour ride to Sonakhali, where the mangrove forest begins. The traffic on that sixty mile trip was continuous; there was hardly any open space between villages. There were endless processions of carts and cows, trucks and cars, pedestrians and cyclists, children playing, goats, chicken and donkeys, and the honking never stopped. My professor friend was rather surprised when I wondered aloud if it was really necessary to blow the horn that often.

At Sonakhali, we climbed on board a small floating craft which took us to our ship the Chitrarekha, where we were given our berths which seemed

The valiant Chitrarekha in the Sunderban archipelago

comfortable enough. From the moment we reached Sonakhali, I was intrigued by women, knee-deep in the shallow muddy waters, at regular intervals for miles and miles, dragging some net, and was told that they were catching tiger prawn hatchlings to be taken to some stations around for cultivation. The professor explained that the waters were sometimes visited by small sharks who often attacked these poor women and maimed them for life.

I had expected to see massive green trees with multiple roots emerging from the water, but the landscape was a dull brownish grey and the vegetation was nothing like what I had expected it to be, possibly because it was already summer and there had been no rain. At any given moment we would be sailing between two islands and the landscape on either side would be pretty identical and equally monotonous. But it was a pleasant boat with friendly crew and fellow passengers. Food was excellent, plentiful, and served frequently. We had fresh fish fried on board, chapatis hot from the griddle, and it was nice to sit on deck drinking cold beer.

My Finnish mother-in-law made me understand when I spent my fist summer at her lakeside cottage, over thirty years ago, that a holiday was not for putting one’s feet up and lazing in the sun, but for cutting wood, washing carpets, repainting furniture, digging the garden etc, so when I saw three fetching blonde young women sitting on the deck knitting and doing some sort of weaving, whilst others were lounging on the deck with a bottle of

The Finns on holiday

Kingfisher, I wondered if they might not be Finnish. They were! They proved excellent companions and unexpectedly they were very friendly and everybody promptly fell in love with them. They were students doing a course in Social Science and had come to Kolkata for hands-on experience with slum kids. Many of our fellow trippers were Indian technocrats working in the US who had taken family and children for a visit to their homeland.

Indian professor from the US showing family his India

When I had disappeared for a short siesta in the afternoon, some people saw a gharyal, the estuarine crocodile, but I missed it. I had hoped to catch a glimpse of a Bengal Tiger in the wild, but Asif, the guide later told us that it was five months ago that he had last seen a tiger. The Sunderbans tiger has the reputation of being the most ferocious of all felines. They have a taste for human flesh, and their cruelty knows no bounds, some say, although apologists have explained that this was due to the high saline content of the water they drank, which made them bad-tempered. In Orissa, they say, the same genus of tiger exists, and they are real pussycats! The story goes that tigers never to attack people from the front. Honey pickers- the Sunderbans is reputed for its honey- wear facial masks behind their heads in an attempt to fool the beast, but apparently this strategy had only worked for a short while, before the man-eater had cottoned on. The only four legged creatures we saw were apes- if they can be called that- and spotted deer. If a deer is spotted, can a tiger be far behind? The answer is no!

Malaria is not thought to be a problem in Kolkata, except for the Sunderbans, and the prophylactic malarone is only guaranteed to prophylactise if you make sure you are not bitten! After my first (and only) bite, I promptly asked my friends to give me some repellent which, as an exercise in futile stable-door locking; I applied it all over my body, and was not bitten again. I did not (and have so far have not had) any malarial symptoms.

Back in Kolkata, my geologist friend took me to the Hoogli to show me what could have been where my ancestors climbed aboard the small craft going towards the big ship anchored in the Bay before setting sail for Mauritius two centuries ago. Although this was entirely conjectural, I felt in my bones the certainty that my great great great grandfathers and grandmothers had done the very same trip, and was strangely moved. On landing, on an impulse I gave a beggar a five hundred rupee note, as a sort of payment to some god for having saved my ancestors from a life of poverty. But I could have been influenced by the Karen Blixen story in which a Dutch tycoon somewhere in the far east convinced his attractive Eurasian mistress to pick an anonymous sailor and give him a good time, which the latter would remember fondly all his life. Later I fantasised about the beggar and his villainous accomplices waylaying me in a dark alley, to rob and kill me, thinking that I must have had money to burn to give him so much!

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San Cassimally

San Cassimally

Prizewinning playwright. Mathematician. Teacher. Professional Siesta addict.

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