Sunday, March 27, 2011

India part 25b: The Sundarbans

Sundarbans painting

We decided to dip into our wedding gift money and pay for an organised trip to the Sundarbans  - pronounced "underpants" - since it's rather complicated to get to without help from someone who knows what the hell they're doing. Also, if you want a meal in that neck of the woods, you have to go and ask a villager in Bengali.

I vaguely remembered hearing about the Sundarbans from reading Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide (my edition had a rather similar cover to the boat's painting above, a coincidence, I'm sure), which had baffled me in parts; I think I must have drifted off during the bit when he explained what a mangrove was. The Sundarbans are a set of ever-changing islands set amid a load of tidal mud deltas. It has lots of mangroves, which, it turns out, are sort of muddy orchards. The thing everyone asks you when you get back from a boat ride through the Sundarbans is "Did you see a tiger?" to which you reply "No" and pretend not to be disappointed, perhaps listing other wildlife you did see.

Deer in undergrowth

After a few hours in the car out of Calcutta, we boarded a ferry, which was actually more reminiscent of a wooden longboat with a motor, then, in one of the coolest bits of our whole India trip, had a half-hour ride across the peaceful and remote island of Gosaba on the back of a bicycle-powered cart.

Ride on a cart in Gosaba

We arrived at our hotel, which truly had the hardest beds we'd ever experienced - "like sleeping on a table," was Sarah's verdict. In an Indian trope we'd encountered before, the immaculate garden was a thousand times more impressive than the inside, decorated as it was with luscious white, pink and purple Cosmos.

Purple flower

At this stage, my diary says this:

A goat just farted.

In the afternoon, we went for a walk through the village with the other person on the tour, an adventurous older lady from Devon, who I assumed would be called Margaret or Alison, but wasn't, and here will be referred to as P - and our guide, who was nicknamed Mowgli after a run-in a few years ago with a French girl who had dubious levels of political correctness. He seemed quite a serious young man, although he was perhaps disgruntled at P's earlier unsubtle suggestions that his father was a slave-owning pimp (I'm actually serious, though she didn't use those exact words).

After our stroll through the village, which was disrupted by two mad dogs, one of whom got its teeth round my calf, thankfully not tearing the skin or my trousers, we got on a small wooden boat...

Your boat awaits

...and an iron-armed gondolier rowed us up the silent river.

The boatman

The waterways here are about three billion percent cleaner than the Ganges at Varanasi, and as we gazed at the birds, the grey swampy riverbanks like sludgy concrete and the passing fishermen, all you could hear was the creak of the boat and the water sloshing gently. Then Mowgli's mobile rang. Though he has the trappings of a city boy - haircut, goatee, souped-up soundsystem in car - when we asked, he professed a love of the countryside. "The more technologies and options, the more puzzle," he said of urban life. Too true, though this prompted P to tell him about the British phenomenon of happy-slapping, calling it "very common"; Mowgli's eyes widened. She then threw an anecdote about a man (black, of course) who stabbed someone after they objected to him throwing chips at them and rounded off with a quick dig at benefit cheats. Littlejohn alert! Ironically, she referred to the happy-slappers as "feral children" - a phrase Mowgli should certainly have recognised given his moniker!

Sunset over the Sundarbans

Later that night, we ate at one of the villagers' houses and saw a concert by local Baul musicians. It would've been interesting to find out what they were singing about - "life and culture", according to Mowgli, so it could've been Bengali translations of Coldplay singles for all I know. Between songs, the vocalist, whose voice was hypnotic, and strangely feminine, had the look of a man being stalked by a tiger. During songs, he looked like an Indian Hugh Dennis with bad teeth.

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