Against All Odds
It is said that the Ganga descended from the matted locks of Shiva so that the impact of it hitting ground did not destroy the land. The architect of this damning feat – Kapil Muni, in whose name there is a temple. At the estuary, crisscrossed by several tributaries Shivas’ locks come unbound – so to speak. The languid river enters the sea, the sweet of its waters mixing with the salt. Marshland & sea, human & wild, 54 islands big & small, inhabited & uninhabited.
The Sundarbans, was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1987.
It is also the place I had set my heart upon. Plans were made & unmade. Plans that came a cropper due to some inexorable wheel of karma.
I had wanted to ‘island hop’ but seeing local conditions the idea was dropped. Everything it seems is loaded against the traveller. You have to be one crazy, intrepid wanderer to come along.
As I must have been, surely.
I arrived at Bakkhali Island at the south western tip of the archipelago sans hotel reservation – only because – everything in this bastion of communism is routed through Calcutta.
The direct bus from Esplanade departed at 8 am & took 5 hours via Diamond Harbor, Kakdwip & Namkhana . The fare, all of Rs 78/- it halted at random for the convenience of locals with no planned halt for toilet, food or water. I semi dozed most of the way the countryside being largely non descript. It being December when the crops were already harvested & fields bare. There were acres upon acres of tawny, seared ground.
Hotel rooms there were aplenty but none, it seemed for the lone & weary traveller. Nobody told me why in so many words but it was the unwritten, unofficial rule that was followed to the tee. The policemen on the island were of no help either. What did they care for a single woman ? I soon discovered it had something to do with a spate of recent suicides in sundry hotel rooms. “ Would I come all the way to commit suicide? Here? I could do it outside the police station. And well I might if I didn’t get that room fast.
The Govt owned Bakkhali Tourist Lodge relented but not before trying to scuttle me off some place else where the tariff was lower ‘For your own good madam….’ But temperatures both outside & inside were soaring & so we clinched a deal without further ado. Room No: 7 it was. Spacious, neat & clean with running hot water, television & room service. A veritable haven. I didn’t fail to praise it to the skies every time I ran into Mr. KK Kanjiwal, the manager. “ Don’t forget to tell the higher ups in Calcutta “, he’d say. I swore I would. We soon became friends, my stay extending from one night to two, to four. I could have stayed on forever. Two hoots to ‘No Singles’.
After a terrific fish curry – rice lunch & rest it was time to scour the isle. What better way to get oriented than on Sikantos’ motor van, a contraption that ingeniously aligned the desi thela/ van to a motorbike. Sikanto was to be Man Friday for the duration of my stay here. He is young & well informed, knows the islands like the back of his palm & speaks a smattering of both English & Hindi. Today it will be a trip to Frazerganj & Henry Island. With the cool evening breeze blowing in the face it is really quite enjoyable.
The 3 kms stretch to Frazergunj goes past the silver sands of Dolphin beach, lines of Casuarina trees, windmills & paved paths leading to hidden tribal villages. It is a harsh existence indeed but the people seem content & happy. Perhaps because they are as yet simple & unspoilt. The islands have electric power but lanterns are lit in most homes, as electricity is unaffordable. Saw lots of kid lamb & goat reared for a living. The people are mostly farmers, fishermen & honey catchers. There is a junior school miles out of town & a clinic almost 22 kms away. The staple diet is rice, dal, veg & fish. There is no crime to speak of, the 2 policemen at the chowki being a mere presence.
Frazerganj has a deer & crocodile park managed by the department of Forests. A quick halt there & off we go to Benfish harbor to catch a ferry to Jambudwip. The charges are Rs 800 for a 2 hour ride on a motorized barge carrying about 15 persons. We are 10 of us so we each pay Rs 75/ – The waters are a light sea green, choppy & turbulent. With blue skies above it is exhilarating especially when the barge nears a mohana, which is, literally where diverse streams of water & current converge. The barge sails along a coastline of Mangroves. It is forbidden to disembark but one can clearly see what must be at least a zillion red crabs on the silver shore.
The sands at Bakkhali are silver too but its nice long beach with canopied benches is sadly littered. There are stalls selling fresh fish & tender coconut & there are chairs, if you can believe it at Rs 5/ an hour. Some enterprise this!
I have come in search of a Bon Bibi temple. Following the lampposts along the periphery I walk past the last one then take a left turn into a forest of dense Sundari trees. The temple, also called Bishalaksmi is bang on – a simple corrugated structure. It opens from 7 to 12 noon for rituals performed by Thakur Maharaj . The temple has images of Durga, Lakshmi, Sithala Devi, Ganga & Bon Bibi who is the patron of forest dwellers. She is perhaps the closest one could ever get to creating an Islamic deity. But the many worshippers are oblivious to the Muslim connection, if any. The writer Amitav Ghosh has given a sample rendering of what he terms a mantra, in ’The Hungry Tide’.
“ In Allah’s name I begin to pronounce the Word
Of the whole universe. He is the Begetter, the Lord To all His disciples. He is full of mercy
Above the created world, who is there but He”
A narrow creek leads to Henry Island. Less than 5 kms from Bakkhali it is a magical space with an abundance of deer, wild boar, birds & trees. There are nature walks & the beach is the best in the area. Limpid pools reflect the green of the leaves. The island has solar power & tiger prawns bred by the department of Fisheries. The watchtower offers a panoramic view of jungle, beach & water. Beherkhedi & Lothian Island (populated by the royal Bengal tiger)& the ocean in the distance. There are cottages, named after trees of the forest- Mangrove, Sundari, Bani – at Rs 700 a night, with advance booking – only through Calcutta, of course.
“ Teerth Sthan Baar Baar / Gangasagar Ek Baar” chant the pilgrims waiting to board a ferry to Kachuberia at the northern end of Sagardwip The journey thereafter would continue by road, another 35 Kms to Gangasagar at the southern most tip of the island where the Kapil Muni temple stands, at the confluence of river & sea. Most of the pilgrims have visited the river along its path from mountain to sea. At Gangotri, its source, at Haridwar where the mountain river splashes into the plains & again at the Sangam in Allahabad where the Ganga & Yamuna meet the mythical Saraswati. A ‘darshan’ of the river meeting the sea is for most the penultimate.I must be the only person who is not a pilgrim but I also want to see the waters meet & mingle.
It has taken the better part of the day already & here I stand with jostling crowds on a narrow pier at Lot 8 waiting for a ferry that promises never to come. It is expected to every hour but there is this play of tides – jwar bhata / ebb & flow – because of which 2 earlier ferries were cancelled leading to an unprecedented rush. Why, I wonder, is the man at the ticket counter giving out tickets & swelling the crowd? To think that Gangasagar is a mere 72 kms from Bakkhali but short distances make for long journeys, as connectivity is poor. For the greater part of the day one has been juggling road & river transport, ferry & bus, bus & ferry doling out Rs 13 or Rs 8, at times even 50 paisa to cross a ford or a creek . The time taken enormous.
It is noon almost, the heat over bearing. I make a quick calculation. Would it be worth the gamble were I to manage the river crossing now ? It would take me an hour to the other side of the river & another hour to the southern most tip of the island. I had been on the road for 5 hours already. There is also the matter of return. To journey back before the various river crossings close & before the last bus departs from Namkhana. There is always the option of staying back for the night but what if there is a ‘No Singles’ policy in place here also?
Standing in line I make up my mind. It is impossible to turn around & walk back because the chanting crowd behind me is humongous. So I simply squeeze myself between the barricades & ouch …land safely on the other side.
Gangasagar, for me was never meant to be.
My free advice to those who may care to listen. Visit the islands if you must. And only if you are already in the general vicinity. No point scampering across half the globe. My visit was interesting but a tad of a let down. The downside of living by books & dreams I suppose. ‘The Hungry Tide’ being the culprit in this instance.