• Where Fear Stalks the Land

    April 25, 2016

    Jahar Kanungo

    all woman boat
    ‘An All-Woman Boat’ / Photographs courtesy Shyam Banerji

    That night, across the river, shadowy figures huddled together. The small flickering flame of a tin kerosene lamp passed from hand to hand. Despite the dim light, some of the figures were, clearly, women. The sky was cloudy. The river was in high tide. The water lapped against the wood; it must be a boat. The boat was waiting. After the Banobibi Puja, it would be blessed with flowers and sindoor. Soon after, it would take men into the distant shadowy mounds or even beyond, into the furthest part of the jungle.

    The widowed mother was reluctant to send her only support, little Dukhe, into the jungle. But the merchant, Dhana, assured her there was nothing to fear. Dukhe would stay in the safety of the boat, cooking for the men, while they ventured out on land. “It’s time the boy earned something,” said Dhana. “Banobibi, I beg you to protect Dukhe,” the mother prayed fervently, as Dhana set sail with his fleet of boats (saptadinga).

    At Banobibi’s than the little tin kerosene lamp continued to flicker. The wives and mothers of those men who had disappeared into the dark river were on their way home, with fear and anxiety in their hearts. They would now wait.

    But a pair of eyes which had seen many such nights could discern the present danger. They could see  the river was rising, much higher than the tide had lifted it many nights ago. And why shouldn’t it? For almost two hundred years men had lived here. They had grabbed half the lands from the forest for their dwelling. Villages had grown, cradled by embankments built higher and higher. The river could not spread itself on the land, for the bunds acted as a barrier, so where would it empty the silt it carried? So the river rose and rose, and along with it rose fear in man’s heart. Fear of the river. How long would these bunds resist its fury?

    Those seven strong men who were in the river’s pitch darkness, carefully making their way through, did fear touch their hearts too? All the forest looks just the same at this hour. The swollen river had almost submerged half the forest. The other half floated. The sky was black. How would they see the stars to find their direction? Did they need stars at all? Perhaps they weren’t afraid, because they had lived too short a time in the forest to know fear. And Dhiren Mandal, their baule, was with them; he was their strength. His beard was grey. His eyes could pierce the darkness; his ears were sharply tuned to the vibration of the tide. He knew the sky. He understood every mood of the wind. He knew them from his long experience of the jungle and its hidden ways, and from his faith in Banobibi, the ruling deity of the Sunderbans.

    The widowed mother could never have dreamt that Dukhe had been taken by Dhana the merchant as a sacrifice to Dakkhinrai. But how could Dhana have dared disobey the god’s wish, told to him in a dream? If he provoked the god’s anger, his flotilla would be destroyed before it even reached the Mahal. But the mother had deep faith in Banobibi. She had told Dukhe, whenever he was in danger he must remember the name of Banobibi, who would surely come to his rescue. Banobibi is always close at hand and can be reached just by chanting her name.

    In a few moments it would be dawn. The tide was low now, and carried the boat slowly along the bank. The forests stood revealed in their menace. Dhiren baule’s eyes were as sharp as ever. His body was tense. He woke the sleeping men: they would land soon. Then in a full throated voice he would cry out the name of Banobibi, “Maa… Maa…”. If he found that the sound had not carried effortlessly across, but echoed back, he would lead the men to somewhere safer. He worried not about himself but about bringing those men back safe. All his life he had been a god-fearing man. He had constructed a than for Banobibi in his own courtyard. But these youths had yet to understand the jungle, the rituals, the customs which the baule had for years seen his father and grandfather observe. Death does not necessarily come in the guise of that striped animal. There are snakes too. But the most terrible fear was that of fear itself. Once in its grip, you were incapacitated. Despite it, the men would come back to the jungle as they did not have any land to till.

    tiger time at low tide
    ‘Tiger Time at Low Tide’

    Whether in summer or winter, or even in the rain, they were here. Sometimes for two to three months at a stretch. They had deep faith in magic and mysteries. Merely by chanting, they believed, the tiger could be kept at bay. They also believed their mantras would help them get more honey, more wax, more wood. But did it always work? Many baules had fallen victim to the tiger. When asked, their honest answer would be, what else will give us faith if we give up our mantras?

    Dhiren was relieved his son was not in the boat. He had left school some years ago and worked manual jobs now, in Kolkata. Dhiren could understand why many didn’t feel it was worthwhile risking dangers and discomfort in the jungle for days, just for the sake of a paltry amount of fish or honey.

    The boat was about to drop anchor. The baule whispered the mantras. He would be the first to step onto land; the others would follow. A lone man would stay in the boat with a singa (horn), blowing it from time to time so the men in the jungle could locate him.

    Dhana’s boats were filled with honey and wax. Dakkhinrai had been very kind. It was time to return home. But the previous night Dakkhinrai came to Dhana again in a dream and reminded him of his wish. If it went unfulfilled, the consequences would be severe. Dukhe too had a dream: a nightmare. Morning dawned. Dhana told Dukhe to fetch some firewood from the jungle. Dukhe left the boat with an axe in his hand. Dhana moule (or collector of honey) took the opportunity to slip away. Suddenly Dukhe found himself facing a tiger, which was none other than Dakkhinrai in disguise. The helpless Dukhe, trembling with fear, remembered his mother’s words, “Save me maa Banobibi, wherever you are. Save me,” he cried, and then fainted.

    Banobibi heard her disciple’s cry for help. She came running with her brother Shahjungli to Dukhe’s rescue. Shahjungli chased Dakkhinrai with a kharpa (machete) in his hand. Dakkhinrai ran through the jungle with Shahjungli in pursuit. At last, Dakkhinrai had to come to Baro Gaji for shelter. Shahjungli was furious. “What kind of Gaji are you, to shelter this kafir who kills and eats men?” Shahjungli shouted at Gaji. Now Banobibi appeared on the scene. After much argument and persuasion, Dakkhinrai agreed to address Banobibi as ‘mother’, and asked her forgiveness. Banobibi ordered him to make arrangements to send Dukhe home to his mother. And Dakkhinrai did that by making a request to Kalurai, god of the crocodiles, who took Dukhe on his back and returned him home.

    The Banabibir Jahuranama was written by Muhammad Munshi in 1305 (Bengali calendar). This epic, where the hero of the Raimangal is shown defeated by Banobibi, was popular among both Muslims and Hindus. What was the origin of Banobibi? According to some scholars, her roots are historical. She came from a devout Pathan family of Mecca to this area to propagate Islam. Another possibility is that her origin lies in the protective deity of the forest, Baner Devi, who, like Chondi in the Chondimangal, is transformed into and worshipped as Banobibi. If you ask Dhiren whether Banobibi wasn’t of Muslim Pathan origin, he doesn’t deny it, but smiles and says, “She is our mother.” Whatever her antecedents, she has become very dear to those who frequent the jungle for their livelihood. In the Sunderbans, beliefs are still rooted in mother goddess cults. The forest and its resource mahal belong to Maa.

    Dhiren baule and his team loudly chanting Maa… Maa… have just landed. Each man applies a tikka with a daub of earth. Now it is time to offer their final puja. They make little mounds of earth and offer bananas and batasas. Dhiren Mandal is not a hukumer baule, who are all disciples of a pir. They invoke the name of their guru in case of danger, and the hukumdar himself protects them. Dhiren does not have a hukumdar. Although he has a guru, his mantras are mostly addressed to gods and goddesses.

    Dhiren’s voice now became louder and louder. He was chanting the daker mantra, which would protect him and his men from the tiger. Dhiren was careful. He would not forget to chant the garbandha mantra, which would erect a garh, a kind of fort which would burn anyone who stepped into it. He had been a baule for years. His father who was his guru had taught him many mantras. The chalan mantra which will drive any nearby tigers away. If he feels the presence of a tiger but cannot learn its exact location, he chants the jalan mantra. The tiger will get confused and run away. And if the tiger is very near, chanting the khilen mantra will freeze its jaws.

    Dhiren Mandal’s wife, whose day began before sunrise, had just returned home after a quick dip in the pond. She would not pick up a broom or mop, nor oil or comb her hair till her husband had returned. She set off for the river with a little nylon net in her hand. She would drag the net to and fro along the river bank until the sun was overhead. All she wanted was a good catch of prawn seeds, which the middlemen waiting nearby would buy for use by the aquaculture farms proliferating today. Prawn seeds have become scarce. Dhiren Mandal’s wife wondered, if the river continued to yield so little, how would she run the household till her husband returned? In the river also lurked the hidden and lethal dangers of the crocodile and the shark. Dhiren Mandal’s wife sent up a fervent prayer to protect her from their attacks, but prayed even more deeply for the river to be blessed with abundance.


    Jahar Kanungo is a Delhi-based filmmaker who directed the award-winning film Nisshabd (2005).

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