Master-ji in the Sunderbans
Master-ji in the Sunderbans20 mins 24.5K 20 mins 24.5K
“When will you visit our home Master-ji?” Joyee must have asked that question for the hundredth time.
“Don’t worry dear, I shall come," assured Master-ji. "You know how busy I am nowadays!”
All his disciples had left, except Joyee. He wished that she too would leave now as he was getting late for his lunch. He got up from his chair and said,
“Excuse me dear, but it's time to have my bath now."
Joyee understood and left the room with a long face.
'Master-ji would never come to our house,' she thought unhappily.
Joyee was a shy girl of fourteen from a remote village of the Sunderbans. It was her long time dream to bring Master-ji to her modest village home some day. Her father Suresh was a fisherman who mostly spent time in his trawler catching fish in the Bay of Bengal. Joyee had a knack for music right from her childhood. Her father encouraged her talent and got her admitted to Master-ji’s music class.
Joyee had seen Master-ji happily accepting invitations from his other disciples and visiting their homes near and far. She had hoped that he would do the same with her too. Instead he put off her invitations time and again for reasons unknown to her.
Little did Joyee know that Master-ji was extremely scared of wild animals. When he was a child, his parents had taken him to the Zoo Garden. The sight of the big animals, especially the ferocious big cats, had given him the creeps. Their stinking smell made his stomach churn and want to puke. From that day he hated wild animals and avoided the jungle.
The Sunderbans is the fiercest jungle in the world where man and the man-eating Royal Bengal Tiger live side by side. Master-ji loved food, but the idea of being someone else’s food did not appeal to him. Tigers, crocodiles, snakes...oh dear! Master-ji shuddered to think about the man eating predators lurking in that horrifying jungle. Never in his wildest dreams would he think of going there. But his pride and vanity forbade him from confessing the truth. So he continued to brush off Joyee's invitation day after day, hoping that someday she would forget about it. But one day situation forced him to land up in her house in the Sunderbans.
One Sunday Master-ji's disciple Anil came to invite him to attend his younger sister’s wedding at Canning. Master-ji was then conducting a music class where many of his disciples were present, including Joyee. Being a foodie, Master-ji accepted the invitation with pleasure.
The distance between Master-ji's house and Canning was not less than a hundred kilometers. Hence Anil requested Master-ji to spent the wedding night in their house and return on the following morning. Without thinking Master-ji agreed and that made his big blunder. Canning was one of the gateways to the Sunderbans. Joyee, who was listening to this conversation with pricked ears, did not miss this opportunity.
“Guru-ji, our village is just a few hours' of boat journey from Canning. Next morning instead of returning to Kolkata why don't you come and spend a day at our house?"
Master-ji was caught off guard. He had completely forgotten about Joyee’s presence and the close proximity to the Sunderbans from Canning. He was at a loss of words. But his disciples found this proposition to be quite agreeable. Anil was the first one to speak.
"Joyee's is right! Suresh uncle can easily pick you up from our house in the morning. You must avail this chance to see the Sunderbans.”
“Last year we went to the Sunderbans,” said Nirmal. “I loved the natural surroundings and the feel of adventure there! We saw many colourful birds, deer and crocodiles. But we didn’t get a glimpse of the famous Royal Bengal Tiger. Guru-ji, don't miss this chance.”
“My uncle and aunt saw a tiger from their launch," said Indrani. "It was having a bath in the river. The passengers made such a hue and cry that the tiger got irritated and disappeared into the jungle. Guru-ji, with luck you might even see a Royal Bengal Tiger! Don't forget to take a camera with you.”
Such conversation enhanced Joyee's enthusiasm. She felt sure Master-ji wouldn't refuse to come this time.
“Guru-ji, my father to come and talk to you. You just tell him the time to pick you up from Canning.”
Master-ji cleared his throat and thought very hard to find a suitable excuse.
“Joyee my dear, I will surely go to your house on some other day. You see, I'll be tired after attending the wedding. It would be too tedious for an old man like me to make another journey."
The students somehow guessed that Master-ji was scared of the jungle. They openly laughed when a small boy said, “Guru-ji, don't you be afraid. The Royal Bengal Tiger won't eat you up.”
Master-ji felt very humiliated. He raised both his hands to make the class stop their laughter.
“Do you think I am afraid of the Royal Bengal tiger? You are wrong! I am afraid of no one in this world except God! And to prove that I promise to go to Joyee’s house from Canning!"
The students applauded him with loud claps. Joyee was too excited for words.
“Thank you Guru-ji."
Master-ji was trapped. He made a promise to maintain his image and now he would be bound to keep it. Or else he would become a laughing stock to everyone.
It was a lovely October morning. They were crossing the turbulent Matla river in an overcrowded motorboat. Joyee and Suresh had picked up Master-ji from Canning and now they were on their way to their village Jamespur in Gosaba island. Master-ji felt extremely depressed. The turbulent boat journey was sickening to him. The surrounding scenery was enchanting, but he was not in a mood to enjoy it.
“Guru-ji!"Joyee shouted in excitement. “We are now entering the Raimangal river. But our village is beside the Ganral river. It's surrounded by deep jungle. Do you know what happened last month? Ramu Chacha went to the river to search for crabs and was eaten by a tiger!"
Suresh noticed the horrified look on Master-ji's face and tried to lighten the matter.
“Joyee, you are scaring your Guru-ji. It was foolish of Ramu to go alone there. Moreover such incidents don’t occur everyday.”
But Master-ji had heard enough to feel sick to the stomach.
“These are common incidents," said a co-passenger. "Villagers who enter the forest to collect honey are often attacked by the tiger. The same goes for the smaller fishermen. These people stake their lives to feed their families.”
Master-ji felt the sudden impulse to jump into the river and swim back to Canning. But the sight of huge crocodiles resting on both banks of the river made him change his mind. What a ghastly sight! He wondered how people managed to survive in that precarious place of prowling man eaters, hungry crocodiles and poisonous snakes. He was not sure if he would be able to return home in one piece.
Suresh understood Master-ji's plight and tried to change the topic.
“Guru-ji, I kept aside a jar of pure honey especially for you.”
“Oh, that's so kind of you. Thank you so much.”
Conversation about food always brightened Master-ji's mood.
“The best quality honey comes from Vidhwapur,” butted in their co-passenger.
Master-ji was surprised.
“Vidhwa means Widow. Widows' Village. What a peculiar name!"
“It is not the actual name of the village. All the adult men of that village have been devoured by the tiger. Now only the widows live there with their fatherless children. So the village is now called Vidhwapur."
Master-ji did not want to hear further. His stomach churned as he saw the thick, dark jungles of Sunderbans closing in upon him. Soon the boat reached Gosaba. From there a van rickshaw took them to Jamespur village.
The journey was rough and Master-ji had a nagging fear that a tiger was stalking them. Joyee laughed when he expressed his fear.
“Guru-ji, tigers avoid crowded localities during the daytime. They are also afraid of us. You can relax!”
Relax? For Master-ji it was easier said than done. For as far as he knew, there was no rule that would prevent a tiger from attacking humans during the daytime. So throughout the journey he kept a close watch on the road and wished he had brought something to protect himself.
They reached their destination at around eleven. Joyee's family members received Master-ji with warmth and respect.
“Welcome to our humble home Guru-ji,” greeted Joyee’s mother and touched his feet. “We are so happy that you could come. Please make yourself comfortable."
Master-ji was touched by the hospitality of these simple village folks. He was given the best room on the ground floor with an unobstructed view of the river and the jungle beyond. The only thing negative was the neighbour’s cattle shade adjoining the boundary wall beside his room. Apart from that there was nothing to complain.
Upon arrival Master-ji was served with tea and home made snacks. The place now did not appear as dangerous as he had imagined it would. Suresh introduced him to his younger brother Ramesh.
“Pranam Guru-ji," said Ramesh. "Please allow me to show you round our village.”
Master-ji turned pale at the mention of going out of the house. Ramesh noticed his fright and felt amused.
“Don’t worry Guru-ji," said he. "Dakshin Rai doesn’t like broad daylight. You'll be perfectly safe. Let's go.”
Master-ji knew that 'Dakshin Rai' was the other name for the Royal Bengal tiger.
Reluctantly he got up. Ramesh's assurances gave him little comfort.
The first place that Ramesh showed him was the temple of goddess Bonbibi, or Banadurga. She was feared and worshipped by the villagers. They paid their obeyance to the goddess with folded palms.
Next they went to see the Ganral river. On their way Master-ji was introduced to a young villager named Lakkhan who made his livelihood from fishing and collecting honey from the forest. He had a wife and two small children.
“Do you go to the jungle everyday?”asked Master-ji.
“Yes Guru-ji, almost everyday.” he replied.
“Have you ever seen a tiger?”
Lakkhan’s attitude changed immediately.
“Guru-ji, when you cohabitate with someone then they become sort of neighbours you know,” he said drily.
Suddenly he seemed to be in a hurry to go.
“I must go now. Hope you enjoy your stay. Bye Ramesh. See you later.”
Hurriedly he walked away.
“What made him run away like that?” Master-ji wondered.
“Guru-ji, we don’t talk about 'Dakshin Rai' so openly here.” Ramesh explained. “People are superstitious. They believe that if you take the tiger's name, it will appear.”
Master-ji felt goosebumps popping up on his neck. Oh dear, what if the tiger appeared now? He silently scolded himself for his grave mistake and promised never to utter the word 'tiger' again in this frightful place.
Soon they reached the Ganral river. The thick mangrove forest on the other bank looked dark and sinister even in broad daylight. Master-ji shivered when he remembered the incident about Ramu. A tiger had taken him from that spot not long ago. He wondered how the people of Sunderbans could live with this constant danger day and night. It was a never ending struggle for existence between man and the man-eater where only the fittest could survive. He had no wish to be a part of this fight. Oh mother, when could he leave this disgusting place!
"There's Mahmud Ali!” said Ramesh pointing at a tall, dark, sinewy man rowing a boat in the river. "He leads his own gang of dacoits and has at least a dozen murders to his credit. Even the police are scared of him.”
Master-ji stared at the man with some curiosity. He had read about dacoits in the papers but had never seen one.
“How can he roam about so freely, that too in open daylight? Why doesn’t the police arrest him?” Master-ji asked.
“The police?” Ramesh laughed under his breath. “The last time a police officer going after their gang just vanished one night. His body was never found. After this why should anyone risk his life? Moreover these dacoits give fat donations to the local political leaders who protect them in return."
Master-ji was appalled. The tiger was not the only terrorising factor in these areas. He again looked at the fast disappearing dacoit leader rowing his boat at an amazing speed. He felt himself sweating in nervousness and mopped his brow with a handkerchief. Oh dear, he could never get back from this place alive!
"Lack of livelihood often force these people to become dacoits,” said Ramesh. “Those who do not want to risk their lives collecting jungle products choose to join a dacoit gang. Here also they undergo life risk both from the police as well as their rival gangs. A few months ago a gang attacked a launch where a police officer was also present among the passengers. He shot their leader Jamal Molla from point blank range. Some of the dacoits jumped into the river. God knows whether they escaped or became the dinner of the crocodiles. The passengers caught the rest and handed them over to the police.”
'What a deplorable life these people lead!' thought Master-ji and looked at his watch. He was already feeling hungry.
“Guru-ji, please come over here. I have something interesting to show you!"
Joyee's excited voice broke Master-ji's reverie. She was bending over something at the river bank. Master-ji and Ramesh walked over to her.
“See here!" she pointed at the mud excitedly. "These are the pugmarks of a tiger! I can swear that they were not here yesterday.”
The fresh pugmarks were clearly discernable on the muddy bank. The tiger must have come to drink water in the river that morning. Master-ji’s heart gave a big leap. He felt weak enough to collapse any time. Surely the tiger was crouching nearby, waiting to pounce on him any time.
"Hori bol, Hori bol, Hori bol..."
Master-ji prayed with folded palms, trembling voice and chattering teeth.
But the pugmarks had no effect on Joyee and Ramesh. It was daily sight for them. They controlled their laughter with much difficulty.
Not willing to add to Master-ji's trauma any further Ramesh brought him back home. It was also time to have their lunch.
Master-ji had a sumptuous lunch with the family which made him feel much better. After lunch he took a short nap.
When he woke up it was already beginning to get dark. Joyee gave him a cup of tea and closed the windows of his room.
“Guru-ji, the mosquitoes of this place are dangerous. So we close all the doors and windows before evening to keep them out.”
Master-ji wondered what was not dangerous in this ghastly place. The scenic beauty was undoubtedly great, but who cared?
Joyee’s mother sprayed mosquito repellant inside his room and suggested that he go out into the open courtyard and enjoy the sunset.
Master-ji had never seen such a beautiful sunset. The rays of the setting sun painted the sky with hues of red, golden and orange. The tree tops gleamed in this array of colours. Multicoloured birds fluttered in the sky as they returned to their nests.
'What a pity', thought he, 'that a place of such scenic beauty should be infested with man-eaters and dacoits. What a contrast!'
It was already dark when Ramesh returned home.
“Is everyone in?” he asked.
“Yes. But why are you so late?”
“I’m sorry Dada,” he replied. “It won’t happen again.”
“Yes, do be careful in future!” said Suresh in a stern voice.
Ramesh nodded and closed the main gate, carefully barring it from inside.
Master-ji wondered what made Suresh so angry. What was wrong if a young man returned home at barely six in the evening. Then he remembered. Oh lord, this was none other than the Sunderbans!
“Come Guru-ji, let’s get inside,” said Suresh. “The mosquitoes won’t let you sit here in peace.”
The courtyard was already swarming with big mosquitoes. Master-ji followed Suresh into the house.
Shortly afterwards Joyee’s mother called everyone for dinner. Master-ji felt astonished as the time was barely half past six. Suresh said it was customary for the villagers to have early dinners. Master-ji, who never had dinner before ten, felt sure he would be feeling hungry again later. He wished he had brought some biscuits with him.
After dinner everybody hurriedly finished their toilet chores. Master-ji had already noticed that there was no washroom inside the house. The twin washrooms were built in a corner of the open courtyard making them quite dangerous to use after sundown.
Suresh closed the main door after everybody came in.
Upon entering his room Master-ji saw a big bucket of water, a mug, a towel and a soap case kept at the corner of his room.
Noticing the look of surprise in his face Suresh explained their necessity.
"In villages, it is customary to build the bathrooms outside the house. The concept of an attached bathroom is still alien here. The villagers finish off their bathroom chores within evening and close the main door for the night.
But the night is long and someone might feel the urge to go to the toilet again. Going to the bathroom outside is dangerous and hence out of the question. So we make a temporary toilet for the night. We use the grilled balconies of our rooms and wash the muck off with water. The excreta goes directly into the field outside and increase the fertility of the soil. I know the system is not hygienic but what to do? Life is more precious than everything.
So now that you know the secret of the bucket of water I suggest that you too use the balcony if required"
Master-ji gaped at Suresh. The dirtiness of the system did not bother him at all. It was their house that would be getting dirty, not his own. What bothered him was the hidden meaning in his words.
“Do you mean to say that a tiger might jump inside the courtyard?”
"It is quite possible” replied Suresh. “Our boundary wall is barely four feet high."
“I suppose the tiger won't try to break inside the house?” Master-ji’s voice was barely audible.
“They try of course, and sometimes they succeed too. Just a few weeks back, a tiger made a hole into the straw roof of a hut and jumped inside. It attacked an old woman but luckily her son shooed it off with a lighted torch. The woman, though severely wounded, survived."
Suresh felt terribly guilty when he noticed the terrified look on Master-ji's face and tried to put him at ease.
"Don’t be afraid Guru-ji. You are not in a mud-walled hut. This house is strong enough to resist a dozen tigers.”
“Okay, tell me, has a tiger ever entered the courtyard of this house?” Master-ji’s voice trembled.
“Guru-ji, it's better not to discuss such things," said Suresh. "For you, it's just a matter of one night and I guarantee your safety in my house."
Master-ji was sure that he wouldn't be able to sleep that night. Once he contemplated asking Suresh or Ramesh to sleep with him, but then he changed his mind thinking that they would laugh behind his back.
Suresh watched him with genuine concern.
“Would it ease your mind if Ramesh or I sleep with you tonight?”
Master-ji wanted to scream “YES”. Instead he stammered, “No, no! D-don’t bother. I...I can m-manage.”
“As you wish. Anyway, tonight Ramesh will be sleeping in your adjoining room. Don’t hesitate to call him if you feel afraid. Now close the door and go to sleep. One more thing. Do not open the window if you hear any sound. Armed dacoits are more dangerous than tigers. The light draws unnecessary attention. Please switch it off as soon as possible."
Master-ji closed the door and slowly sat down on the bed. He looked at his watch. It was barely eight o clock. He drank some water to moisten his dry throat. Then he carefully inspected the strength of the doors and windows. Thankfully they had given him a ground floor room. The floor above protected his roof. After a thorough inspection he found no apparent reason to feel alarmed. He switched off the light and lay down on his bed.
Soon the house became absolutely quiet and still. The time was barely half past eight. Yet it felt as if it was past midnight. The weather was cool and pleasant. Master-ji covered himself up with a thin blanket and closed his eyes.
The clock ticked away but sleep refused to come. The howling of a pack of wolves broke the silence of the night. A night bird screeched somewhere nearby. The combined sound of different insects and wild animals made a curoius cacophony. Master-ji remembered having read somewhere that the jungle had a music of its own. One must have the ears to listen to it. He was in no mood to appreciate such poetry. Instead he breathlessly waited for a particular growling sound to complete that cacophony. But it never came.
It was almost midnight now. Master-ji had a strong urge to smoke a cigarette. But he dared not open the window to let the smoke out. The warning about the armed dacoits was still fresh in his mind. Moreover, if he saw a tiger lurking in front of his window he would surely die of heart attack. He longed to drink more water but the thought of using the balcony toilet made him cringe.
Master-ji lay down again and closed his eyes. Somebody had once told him that counting backwards helped one to feel sleepy. He decided to give it a try.
The Following Morning
Master-ji’s slumber was broken by a gentle knock on the door. He looked at his watch. It was almost six. He hurriedly got up and opened the door. Joyee entered with a steaming hot cup of tea in her hand.
“Good morning Guru-ji! Hope you had a good sleep last night.”
“Not bad,” replied Master-ji and headed for the washroom in the courtyard.
The morning was serene and beautiful. Master-ji sat in front of the open window and sipped his tea. Somehow he felt a bit disappointed. He had expected so much adventure before coming here, but in reality nothing had happened. The only exciting thing he saw were the pug marks beside the river. The Royal Bengal tiger had ignored him in every possible way. But instead of feeling relieved he felt cheated. In fact he felt grossly insulted. What did the tiger think of himself!
Back home his disciples were eagerly waiting to listen to his scary adventures. Master-ji loved to tell stories where he always portrayed himself as the chief protagonist. But this time he had nothing to tell them. He could even visualize their disappointed faces. This wouldn't do. Something had to be done.
Master-ji was so much engrossed in his own thoughts that he didn’ t notice Suresh entering the room.
“Good morning Guru-ji. I hope no tiger or dacoit bothered you at night?”
Suresh laughed heartily.
Master-ji slowly turned to face him. The grave expression on his face stopped Suresh’s laughter.
"Is anything wrong?” he asked seriously.
“Yes,” he said slowly. “Last night I heard the growl of a tiger.”
“My god! When and from which direction? Come to think of it, we heard nothing!”
Master-ji relished the impact his words had created on Suresh. But this was nothing at all.
He thought for a while and then replied,
“I think it came from the side of the river.”
“Joyee! Ask everyone to come to Master-ji's room. He heard the tiger growl last night! This can be serious!”
Master-ji felt very happy and smiled inwardly.
Within a few minutes the family gathered in his room, eager to know exactly what happened. By that time Master-ji had sketched out a full proof story that was not too daring to be disbelieved, yet adventurous enough to awe his listeners.
“It was almost midnight. I was trying to sleep for a long time but sleep wouldn't come. A night owl fluttered its wings just outside my window. A pack of wolves howled in the distance. I had this eerie feeling that something unusual was going to happen. I rose from the bed and drank some water. Then I lit a cigarette and opened the window to let the smoke out. The star studded sky looked so beautiful. You know, the jungle has a music of its own. One must possess the ears to listen to it. I decided to spend this wonderful night listening to the heavenly music of nature. All of a sudden……” Master-ji’s voice went on and on.
At that very moment, a tiger crouched behind a thick bush near the river and hungrily ate the goat it had robbed from the neighbour’s cattle shed on the previous night. At that time Master-ji was longing to have a smoke but could not muster the courage to open the window. Had he opened it, he might not have been in a mental state to invent a story now.