Today I would have the privilege of one more boat trip through the Sunderban’s network of waterways, except on this occasion it would be a half day exploration of the lesser channels. In the afternoon we are all being shipped back to Kolkata, me via tour car, the other guests by bus coach and sundry conveyances. It is my guess that none will be walking. All being well I would arrive back to the city, alive, and before night fall.
‘All being well’. It is funny, a bad choice of words I know, how life can spin on a moment. A narrowly missed train can mean being late for a job appointment and the consequent loss of employment, or it can mean surviving a train disaster that claims the lives of those in the carriage you would have occupied, thinking yourself comfortable in a seat and relaxing reading a good road trip book. I narrowly missed the Granville train disaster of January 1977, 83 others did not. Ignorant of their death I alighted at my destination unscathed, and walked calmly to my office. Others lay below a mass of collapsed concrete, entombed by the wreckage of a bridge and twisted carriages. Now, as I walk in expectation of having breakfast before boarding the MV Oceanus, there is a commotion near the camp administration office. Staff and guests are gathering around in excitement. It seems that last night a tiger attacked and killed a goat and a village dog, right outside the camp compound. Maybe its prey was one of the little black goat kids and one of the stray dogs I had passed yesterday. Other than being wary of the health risks of touching them, I had given the animals little attention. Now their blurred images loomed large as I tried to put clear faces to the collection of animals I had seen.
Last night the compound gate was locked closed. At the time I was disappointed, now I am thinking of the god of the Israelites, Lord Ganesha, and the dark goddess of blood, Kali. Cobwebs parted from the recesses of my brain and I found myself being able to recite the opening lines of William Blake’s ‘The Tiger’ without a glitch, word perfect:
“Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
That boring high school poetry lesson, so long ago, suddenly had poignant relevance. There was no place for levity.
Maybe I exaggerate the risk if I had managed to gain access to the mangroves growing by the shoreline, me there with my flashlight minding my own business, content and pre-occupied with spotting shore life; serendipity indeed. Maybe I am a lucky person. Maybe my presence there, even if timed with that of the tiger, would have frightened it away, wary as they can sometimes be. And if so, maybe the dog and the goat kid would still be alive. I started to contemplate the tiger going hungry as a result of my selfish naturalist pursuits, then realised my delinquent mental wanderings were voyaging to the nonsensical. I thought of the Bengal tiger character, Shere Khan, from ‘The Jungle Book’, and from this I jumped to thoughts of Carl Sagan and his advice on the cosmic events that must precede the consummation of an apple pie. And then, for some unfathomable reason, I suddenly found myself recalling an absence of mosquitoes at the camp and the debatable wisdom of discontinuing my malaria tablets. This at least got me, by a convoluted and sequential thought process, to the subjects of wetlands, mangroves and then back to my possible fate last night. Fortunately, the son of my Indian cricket fan acquaintance appeared. He had just taken photos of the tiger’s footprints nearby. Even on the small screen of a digital camera they looked impressive. I asked him to email me copies, I even gave him my address, and though he promised to do so, he never did, at least not so far. His lack of dependability suggests I might have been unwise, too eager, in my choice of a son-in-law.
This morning’s voyage results in a few more records to my bird tally, though it remains paltry by the high standards set by the members of my local ornithological society. They will pester me for records when I return. I can already see their disbelief at my miserable number of observations. I would invent the loss of the list, or claim an overzealous airport security officer impounded it.
Three species of kingfisher today: the Black-capped one, as before, a Brown-winged kingfisher perhaps, though I am uncertain of my identification, and possibly a Collared kingfisher, this a small species and a little like the Australian Forest kingfisher seen infrequently at Hometown. To these I add a miscellaneous assemblage of unidentified herons, egrets, bitterns, dotterels, and what I take to be a species of Whistling duck. These last gathered in large flocks on grassy banks above the mudflats of the narrower channels, but on our boat’s closer approach they repeatedly flew off, only to alight again some distance away. Thus I was never certain of what species they might be, a particular frustration on my part resulting from their timid behaviour.
Of the reserve’s mammals I had hoped to at least see Chital deer, basically because they are said to be prolific, or if lucky a pangolin. Alas, my luck seemed restricted to last night, for I saw neither of these two. The supposedly common Chital deer, graced with the scientific name Axis axis, is widely distributed throughout the Indian subcontinent, and has been introduced into Australia where the species adds to our long list of feral animals. As if we needed more. On this day, in their home country, Chital deer chose avoidance over exposure. Pangolins have not been released into Australia, their role in the ecology of Australia’s environments being already filled by numbats and echidnas. For pangolins, though closely related to carnivores, the Carnivora, are highly adapted insectivores, feeding mostly on ants and termites, in pursuit of which them will dig avidly. Worldwide there are eight species of pangolin, these being restricted to Africa and Asia. All are covered in large keratin scales, the effect resembling plate armour, keratin being the protein that forms horns, claws, fingernails, hair and feathers. The Indian species is Manis crassicaudata, and is widely found throughout the subcontinent. Manis crassicaudata is mainly nocturnal, when inactive it lives in burrows, and captive individuals have lived to more than 19 years. The species frequents a range of habitats, including those disturbed by the impacts of humans, namely secondary regrowth forests and grasslands. Unlike many of India’s terrestrial mammals that face extinction, or have already achieved it, this species of pangolin is not endangered, not so far anyway. Regardless, it is victim to illegal animal trafficking and habitat destruction such as deforestation. Though not seeing any mammals, as we return to the camp I content myself with spotting a set of tiger’s footprints leading from the water of a small channel, across the mudflats, and disappearing into the adjacent mangrove forest. The passengers, to ‘a man’, rush to the boat’s side to capture the footprints on camera, the MV Oceanus listing sharply in response to their shifting weight. We are too far removed from our camp to label the tiger last night’s assasin.
Back at the camp I note our timetable affords spare time sufficient for a visit to an adjacent village. There is a market there, and I am assured it is safe to wander alone. The houses and surrounds are spotless, the garden plots meticulous in their tending and the geometrical precision of their rectangular layout. They project a simple formality not predicated by the rigid influence of British landscape architects. The walls of the houses are of finely smoothed clay, the roof coverings being made solely of thatching. Around and about are small haystacks, the diameter of their tops large enough only to support one or two adults. Some men are covering several haystacks with sheets of blue plastic but otherwise this universal material is not in evidence. The main street is paved with bricks, all in a neat in-ward facing pattern such that it looks like parquetry. The inhabitants all smile or wave in recognition. Women wearing bright saris walk past carrying metal pots or small bundles of just purchased goods atop their heads. Each sari garment is unique sharing neither dominating colour nor pattern with another. But the thing that stands out in the village is that the roof of each house is decorated with a small micro-dish receiver. ‘Before the Common Era’ roofing technology, and 21st Century ‘Current Era’ satellite reception. It bordered on the incredulous. No wonder so many of our national telecommunication providers use Indian call centre staff, they’re all home hard at work studying. “That lady is phoning from a subcontinent ‘call centre’ near you” I mumbled in a poor impression of an American ‘southern’ accent. As I did so I walked past a group of wide-eyed children. My amused preoccupation with the roof top receivers had served to camouflage the childrens presence. They giggled at my words and started striding with exaggerated lengthy footsteps behind, one particularly courageous child every now and then tugging on my shirt sleeve. She put her hand out in gesture of a hoped for reward. I gave her a penny and she ran off, followed closely by the others.
I am joined by the Indian lady I had conversed at length with yesterday. She avoids the subject on which we had parted previously and instead speaks of village life here, and explains that when her children are independent she plans to volunteer in an aid centre in support of Indian street women. She says there are several such non-government help organisations in Kolkata. We walk through the market, she explaining the different items of garden produce displayed for sale. I photograph several varieties, for many vegetables are unknown to me. I know coriander and betel nut, but Uccha bangajali, Gagajaliucha and Ucche Boldor mean nothing to me, though they could be mistaken for some sort of ornamental cucumber. All I can gather is that ucche means a bitter tasting kitchen gourd in Bengali. Some kinds of vegetables are also on sale as seeds, the brands Ashoka, Contai, Bakhra and Lashkar displayed on their respective packets. A sign at one stall proclaims “Ashoka Farm Seeds, well-established among dealers and farmers in India, for the last 25 years the company has been engaged in quality vegetable seed breeding, production and marketing”. I toy with the idea of buying several packets but remember the illegality of bringing them into Australia. Maybe one of the Indian produce stores at Liverpool or Harris Park in outer Sydney carries them in stock. Instead I purchase a sachet of deodorant, on offer for 29 rupees, but my new found friend swings a deal from the merchant for Rs25. I have just participated in quibbling, friendly as the transaction was, over the equivalent of less than 10 cents Australian. Back home I call these coins of petty value ‘shrapnel’ and discard them, along with even less useful 5 cent pieces, into a glass bottle in the hope that one day I will have enough of them saved to buy some item of worth, maybe a book or two.
The lady and I return to the tiger camp, and there part company. It was one of those ‘last times’.
The man with the tinkling bell visits each bungalow. We are not being offered final refreshments, rather we are being ushered hurriedly out, he and his companions keen to gather up our luggage. We are no longer guests, instead we are obstructing the latest boatload of tourists. Our time is up. I watch the new arrivals, there is a greater number of the Western subspecies among them. My suitcase passes me by as I wait to board my boat. It sits upon a non-motorised ‘trundle’ cart pushed and steered by two camp attendants. They ignore me as they pass. Several suitcases, of a considerably larger size, sit upon mine. I fret for its well-being.