The juxtaposition of the stylish, anglicised buildings of the British Raj versus the extreme poverty of the rambling slums, huddled along the sides of roads and rivers, nestled beneath elevated roads in Kolkata, was the most disquieting experience I had in India. Without the comfort of the ever present, slow paced tuk tuks, the roads racing with taxis, motorbikes and private cars, no oxen in sight, were as unwelcoming and the majority of people we met there. Kolkata’s comparative modernisation did, however make navigating the streets rather easier than any other Indian city, so it didn’t take us long to find ‘The Three Brothers’ despite it being situated down a side alley. Shedding our shoes at the entrance, we heaved our bags out of the dripping Bengali humidity and into the dark cool of the shop to be greeted by Mogali. He took us through the formalities and payment of our two day tiger spotting adventure into the Sunderbans. Tigers are an absolutely magical creature for me; I’ve admired them ever since I was little and was scratched by a cat named Tiger that left a scar on my face. It’s been my dream to see one in the wild, not imprisoned and pacing in a zoo; the warning that villagers and wild honey collectors are regularly eaten didn’t put me off in the slightest!
In single file, we were lead out of the back of the shop, through a yard, interrupting families going about their chores and dogs fighting, and onto a back-lane to the waiting minivan. We piled in and were handed a snack of vegetable sandwiches and crisps for the three and a half hour journey down to the mangrove forest. Godkhali was the last point we could reach by car; from here we crossed by rickety ferry to the island of Gosaba where we transferred to some very rustic tuk tuks. At this point I was bursting for the loo and couldn’t hold it any longer. I was lead down a walkway of roughly carved wooden slats, past a shack of men playing cards to a platform about two stories high over the river with a few rags slung around it for privacy and a hole cut through the middle slat. It was my first full on Slum Dog Millionaire moment, but luckily the river rushing below meant the smell can’t have been as bad as the Mumbai slums in the film. I embraced it, imagining it would be luxury compared to what we’d have at the eco village. We bumbled down roads raised to avoid the dug out stagnant pools of water allotted to the families crowded into the ramshackle houses dotted behind them. To my western eyes they looked so poor and deserved of such pity, but the more time I spent in India I realised many of these families are self sufficient and happy, thriving on their plots with children naïve to the numbing influence of gadgets like play stations. Clearly this isn’t the same for those living in the city slums.
A final boat journey took us across the river to the eco village where we would be staying for the night. I’d been expecting mud huts with hole in the ground toilets, and although the row of huts were wooden and thatched, they were practically luxurious! Running water for a shower, a flushing toilet, shuttered windows and a huge mosquito netted bed! The huts enclosed one side of a square of lush grass and wild plants, with a dug out pool of questionably muddy water where we could swim on another side and an open eating area opposite where we gathered for lunch. Dishes of steaming rice, fresh chapatti and all manner of enticing curries were passed around, with, of course, an accompanying splat of Dahl. It was my first experience of traditional fish curry and once I’d picked through the bones, the taste was fantastic.
We passed the heat of the afternoon meandering along the canals of the Sunderban delta, between the raised hummocks of dense mangrove forest, spotting birds. Huge numbers of them skim the surface of the river, root around in the sandy mud banks for insects or soar high over the treetops scouting for prey, but I was keeping an eye out for the flash of azure flash of a kingfisher. The humidity of West Bengal at that time of year stifles the sky with a barren haze, preventing the rays of any dyeing sun impregnating it with colour, so I hadn’t expected much from sunset on the boat. I stretched along the bench as the birds quietened and the dusky light faded. The main sound was the river’s waves splashing against the shallow hull as the blaze of the sinking sun forced the twists of the mangrove branches into silhouette; it may not have been awe inspiringly beautiful but the peace was stunning.
Night is inky out in the jungle so far from any settlement; I waded through the darkness to jetty the path, tripping hundreds of times on my way despite my torch! Somehow we all made it back into the boats without anyone going overboard and headed out into the unknown of the river’s night time secrets. All of a sudden the pricks of our torch light snagged upon the branches of mangroves, much closer now as the water had risen, submerging the trees to at least halfway, leaving no trace of the islands that had hemmed the boat in earlier in the day. Our guide who had been fantastic all day really came into his own here; relating spooky stories to us and telling of how he longs to discover ghosts trawling through the trees more so even than the tigers we were all here for. At his command we all turned off our torches and were immediately confronted by the moonless shadows. Risking the wrath of the alleged alligators and ghosts we dipped our hands into the river water and as we swirled them around iridescent sparks of green cart wheeled from our hands. It was a magical first experience of luminescent plankton, none of us wanted to leave when it was time to head back and enter the real dream world in preparation for an early start the next day. It is said that the salt in the river water makes the tigers of the Sundarbans particularly aggressive; they regularly plunder villages, so we slept with the doors locked tight that night!
Heaps of delicious fried luchi with aloo was our authentic breakfast served on the boat as we headed out early next morning in search of the Royal Bengal Tiger. The boat chugged through the labyrinthine channels of the forest as we scoured the potted banks that had re-emerged as the tide receded. On about three occasions our binoculared guide hushed us as he spotted prints but no tiger padded out of the shadows. Twice we stopped at watch towers which afforded us stunning views stretching miles over the expanse of the forest. Layers of fencing and chicken wire enclosed us as we clambered up to the viewing platform, we didn’t emerge from it until the second floor from which we could see three lanes that had been carved out of the foliage towards a huge reservoir. The lanes were to allow a better view if the tiger came to drink, but still no tiger. A wild bore stumbled into view and made its way to the watering hole, its nonchalant gait indicating that no jaws that bite or claws that catch were in the vicinity. Half a kilometre of enclosed platform allowed one to wander up and down the viewing area; I scoured the landscape and was rewarded with a set of clear prints marking a tiger’s vigil along the wire fencing in his search for food. Despite my height and hence distance from the prints they still looked huge, and even if I couldn’t see the living, breathing thing, at least I had seen this. I was far from disappointed when we boarded the minibus back to Kolkata, the food, views and midnight plankton had made the trip spectacular as it was. Besides, there was still Ranthambore to come.
For the spectacularly personal and exquisitely crafted tours offered by the Three Brothers visit: