Villagers living for generations on the outskirts of the forest that prides itself on the presence of the Royal Bengal Tiger have a story to tell visitors who are thrilled by the environment that has nourished both beauty and the beast.
They perform a puja in the heart of the forest to ward off the lurking hazards of going about their daily rituals of collecting wood and honey for their livelihood.
On one such occasion, ten of them had entered the forest for the religious ceremony that had lasted around an hour. On their return they discovered there were only nine in the group.
A desperate search turned out to be futile. It was not long before they were reconciled to the tragedy that one of them had been dragged away by the tiger, which had kept a close eye on its target and had not allowed the others to get the slightest hint of its deadly designs.
The tragedy is a recurring reality in the Sunderbans but it hasn’t prevented the villagers from venturing out on their missions to keep home fires burning.
Exposure to the hazards of the big cat swimming stealthily below the water to grab an unwary target from a passing boat or straying quite uncharacteristically into a nearby village is something the people have learnt to live with.
Families have made it a point to install a deity near their huts and pray for protection when the age-old curse of poverty has thrown them into a cycle of inescapable fear and natural courage. Life goes on in the forest with the bare essentials available in the land around them.
The government has launched a nationwide scheme to give gas connections to every family even in remote areas like the Sunderbans. It sounds good and the connections have been installed in many homes to give speakers at public rallies something to boast about.
Villagers, on the other hand, persist with the ancient practice of cooking in mud ovens with wood collected from the forest. That is cheaper than cylinders that need to be replenished at a price that is quite crippling even with subsidies.
For visitors from Kolkata who are thrilled by the rural experience, it is a revelation that the meal of country chicken cooked in primitive methods by the self-taught woman often leaves a more lasting impression than the results achieved from television lessons that are packed with costly ingredients and glossy attractions.
What makes the Sunderbans experience quite memorable is not just the chicken reared at home and the abundant quantities of katla, rui and koi collected from the pond in addition to the day’s supply of fresh prawns but also the vegetables grown by the family. It sustains them round the year and gives visitors with urban palettes something that is not easy to forget.
But there is a whole new dimension to the Sunderbans experience that the visitor may not have anticipated while driving down the highway on the southern outskirts of Kolkata to Basanti past the congested township of Canning from where there is an endless traffic of daily wage-earners to the city. The food that is cooked so well has come from the same hands that have created splendid visuals with needle and thread.
This is also a self-taught skill that is rooted in the compulsion of earning a livelihood. The woman, Geeta, had been born in grinding poverty and married in childhood to a man who was much older — a tragedy that has surfaced all too often in literary classics.
Here was a living example of a woman who had to fight her way through adversity to achieve the miracle that has changed her life. It was a story that began with Geeta, like thousands of her fellow villagers, making their daily trips to the city to perform domestic duties.
She had found her way to the home of a senior painter, Dhiraj Choudhury, whose wife Leena was wheelchair-bound and needed constant attention. She also helped with his canvases and the cooking and became a trusted help till Leena died a few years ago.
It was then that Dhiraj discovered the artistic possibilities of reinforcing the needle and thread creations with images and colours with the brush that he has taken to all parts of India, Europe and America. To begin with, he presented a selection of composite creations at an art camp in Kolkata and then extended his innovative adventure to a similar event in Bangladesh.
The most recent experience was in Patna where the government opened a museum with a retrospective of Dhiraj’s works, some of which had the unique blending of needle and brush. All these events had quite a few takers and this has encouraged the artist to persist with an exercise that has both artistic and social implications.
The government has provided the villagers with modest houses situated on the grounds that include their farms. The sense of security has been strengthened in this small village on the fringes of the forest, echoing with the roar of the Royal Bengal Tiger, with a natural skill that has moved from galleries and art camps to private homes in the city.
What Geeta has achieved is a token of the artistic skill that Dhiraj feels can be groomed with greater possibilities. She has a daughter who cycles her way to the local school.
What is more inspiring, there are many more unschooled women who are putting their helpless lives behind them to contribute to the growing prospect of rural change arising from their natural skills.
The community of weavers in the villages around the Sunderbans has made a presence that could be noticed not only by socially conscious painters like Dhiraj Choudhury but also by crafts councils around the country.
The tourism department and private operators still thrive on the lure of the Royal Bengal Tiger. What is less known are the changing realities of life in the forest.
The sense of despair arising from poverty and uncertainty is gradually turning into a climate of self-assurance and hope rooted in their own lives and the bounties of nature. The tourist today has much more to experience than the royal roar.