Kolkata - Sunderbans
Our Postmaster General, Kolkata, was a very competent officer. Being a local product he knew most of the employees and he also knew most of the worth-seeing places. On a Wednesday he came and asked whether I was interested in taking a trip to Sunderbans on the next week-end. I thought the opportunity was God-sent. Who wouldn’t like to see a slice of the great Indian mangrove forests that protect the hinterland, including the megapolis of Kolkata? I promptly gave my ascent to a trip that would involve in a journey to a place called Canning and from there a cruise on a boat for 24 hours including a night halt at a place called Pakhiralay (abode of birds).
Canning is a town in South 24 Parganas district. It is a sub-divisional town the whole of which is situated in the delta and hence has become the gateway to Sunderbans. Named after a Governor General, Lord Canning, the town missed being a competitor to Singapore. That is precisely what Lord Canning wanted to make of the town. Only he did not succeed in his efforts. Instead Canning has become a fishing centre that tries to meet the ravenous demand of fish of Calcuttans and that too only partially.
We had to commence our boat ride from Canning. The boat would ply on the Matla River up to a distance, i.e. up to Pakhiralay where there is a resthouse and we were to spend the night there. It was a biggish boat with several hands. They not only steered the boat, they also looked after our comforts and cooked for us. The cabins were pretty well appointed and were comfortable.
I could imagine boats of similar dimensions, or maybe bigger, powered by the winds must have been used by the British to get to what now is Kolkata. They must have faced serious difficulties in hitting the right channel that would bring them to the mainland. Sunderban is a maze of streams and rivers through dense jungles, one could even get lost. Thickly vegetated and densely forested, even the locals find it tough to move around with the risk of being attacked by that regal predator, the Royal Bengal Tiger. No wonder, when the aliens came up against these massive animals in mangrove forests of Sunderbans, the obviously were in awe of it and named it Royal Bengal Tiger. It is not the English alone who faced the challenges of Sundarbans; there were others too, like the French and the Dutch.
As the boat calmly moved along the Matla River we saw the jungles on the two banks which would occasionally be disturbed by smaller game like the spotted deer. The width of the channel would vary at places where two flanks would come together to provide only a narrow channel. But our best efforts could not locate the presence of the big cat. Probably, all of them were yet to shake off the languor of their afternoon snooze.
We reached Pakhiraloy and came across a well-built rest house. Not many birds visited the site that evening; perhaps not the season for them to crowd around here. Next morning, however, some sort of commotion out in the open woke us up. There was an unmistakable pug mark of the Royal visitor. The expert among the lot said it was recent and probably of the preceding night. It was well and good that nobody was caught napping outside.
The excitement was over in minutes and we prepared ourselves to leave. The return trip was uneventful. We were back in Kolkata by the evening after having ”conquered” Sundarbans,the great Indian mangrove forest, a bigger part of which has fallen into the territory of Bangladesh. But, in the times of Robert Clive It was Indian right through.