©Dr. Digbijoy Choudhury
Bonbibi, literally meaning the guardian of the forest, is a guardian spirit, revered by the people of the sundarbans for protection against all jungle animals.
Santosh got up from his bed. Dawn was breaking. He rubbed his eyes and went outside. He liked walking around his village, especially at this early hour, when it was so calm and quiet. He felt at one with nature. Even though life was a difficult one here, in his village Dinaganj, he never felt like leaving. Sundarbans had its charms.
"Santosh, where are you?", he heard his mother's voice. He turned towards his home, a mud-thatched hut. It had been badly damaged in the cyclone, but with help from some kind outsiders, they have been able to repair it a little.
"Waiting for the next storm", he thought looking at the repaired roof.
Their fight is one, fought daily, with the elements, with the jungle.
However, they have some good days too.
It is that time of the year.
April to June, is the time for honey collection in the jungle. Even though it is a dangerous profession, but selling the honey, they can repair their boats and earn some money for a change.
Today it was Santosh's turn.
He felt hopeful but terrified at the same time. Many of his villagers have been taken by the royal bengal tiger, while they were collecting honey in the jungle. But there is no other way out, Santosh knew.
"Every day I will pray to Bonbibi, till you return. Nothing will happen to you", his mother said with conviction. Santosh smiled. He had blind faith in the guardian spirit.
His mother packed some lunch for him, two rotis and some boiled potatoes.
Santosh took the lunch and set out, along with few others.
Today, they were going to collect honey from the core area of the jungle. They would be gone for the next few weeks, collecting honey from island to island.
They seldom get permission for venturing into those parts, due to the threat from the tigers. But they had no option but to venture there, in the hope of earning some livelihood. The thought of the reward of honey brought courage to their hearts.
The main jungle is surrounded by nylon fences, to prevent the tigers from getting out, and going into the nearby islands. The only way in or out into the jungle, is through some narrow channels of water.
They hurried in their boats, looking for the forest rangers or occasional pirates, lying in wait.
The boat went up the narrow channel, deeper into the jungle. Santosh was calm but nervous too. This was his first honey-collection. His father, Bipin, had been taken by the tiger, during a similar honey-collecting endeavour, 5 years back. Santosh didn't have the courage to take the place of his father before. However this year has been hard for them. The pandemic, loss of jobs, and now the cyclone have robbed them of everything.
Santosh had no other option.
Before long, they reached the interior of the jungle. In there parts, the forest is so dense, you can hardly see the sun. They docked their boats, tying them together. Mashals were lit.
Santosh silently said a prayer to Bonbibi and alighted from his boat.
The river bank was wet. Santosh searched and found no tiger footprints, thankfully.
They formed a line, so that every person could be accounted for, and could avert danger if any. However Santosh had heard many stories of people disappearing within seconds, with no prior warning from the man-eaters.
They slowly went deeper into the jungle, keeping their eyes open and searching for bee hives up in the trees and at the same time, the beast on the prowl, on the ground.
"Lets wear our masks",said Santosh.
Honey Collectors wear mask at the back of their head and covers their face with gamchha. Tiger in most cases sneak up and attack from the back - their main target is the jugular vein. The mask at the back of their head confuses the tiger and as a result they think the actual front side as backside - so when it tries to sneak up accordingly, the men are able to spot it.
"Look there it is", Santosh was the first one to spot a beehive, slightly above him in the trees. Santosh covered his face with a cloth and climbed up.
He used the mashal and the smoke to scare away the bees. Using an axe, he broke the hive into pieces and started collecting them in his basket. Some bees bit him, but he didn't mind.
While Santosh and a few others were busy gathering honey, the others on the guard were bursting crackers and blowing buffalo horns to scare away any tigers in the area.
They got down. The job was done. No casualties. However Santosh knew it was too early to celebrate.
"Lets go in further", edged on Santosh. He felt less nervous now.
Playing with danger was second nature to them.
The honey was like gold. It was as if they were on a treasure hunt.
"Bonbibi, save us all", Santosh whispered.