Winds heavy with moisture from the Bay of Bengal pushed against our faces. It was the last day of our journey and, standing on the banks of Matla river in the Sundarbans, it felt like we were going to leave behind something special.

Two ecologists and travel lovers — we met at the Kolkata airport a few weeks ago. Eager to take in the first impressions of a city much romanticised in our hearts — the city of Tagore, Satyajit Ray, mystic Bauls, colonial relicts — we boarded a comfortable taxi from among the turmeric yellow Ambassadors lined outside.

We headed for a stopover at a friend’s place in Salt lake. Gautam Uncle and Shiuli Aunty received us and we were fortified with an elaborate Bengali platter — samosas, aloo posto (a poppy seed speciality), fried river fish, mochi (a delicately cooked banana flower dish), and the most mouth-watering of them all — the payesh (rice cooked in milk and date palm jaggery). We found ourselves eating at odd hours, not willing to miss anything on offer.

That afternoon we boarded the suburban train for our journey to the Sundarbans. On the platform, we noticed that a great majority of the women were draped in beautiful Dhakai cotton sarees woven in this region, and lamented the spread of synthetic fabric in the rest of the country.

Sellers are many; there’s everything from oranges and guavas, chaat-style snacks, to torches, colouring books, hairclips, and jewellery. One boy stands out with his offering - “drink mango juice, and feel cool and peaceful”… he sure must be selling something magical to achieve that on this train, which is full and very hot. Our train swiftly cuts through paddy fields and plantain crops, with the occasional cool breeze dissecting the heat inside our cabin. Our thoughts drift to the London tube - less lively, and definitely no chance for a spot of shopping.

Joynagar Mazirpur is the station closest to the part of Sundarbans we are going to. At the Vivekananda Ashram’s Biotechnology Institute we meet senior scientist Dr Dutta, who shows us a map of the Sundarbans, the tidal rivers and the island villages.

We walk around the centre, which houses a nursery, a bio-fuel unit, sample organic plots of local crops, and a soil testing lab where young locals are trained for the work. We drive to the ashram’s guest house in Koikhali village on the banks of Matla river. The hostel while not a particularly attractive building is right at the edge of the mangroves - the ‘Shundorbon’, as the locals call it.

The river looks like the sea and we are awed; we had not imagined the sheer vastness of this landscape. From the sky, these strips of land might look like monstrous tentacles sweeping into the sea.

These communities have lived here for centuries, self-sufficient with their paddy farming and fishing, and had little connection with the outside, even with Kolkata city being not far. But in April 2009, cyclone Aila arrived with a dark rain riding on secret eddies of the water and wrought havoc.

Houses were destroyed and paddy fields inundated with saline water. This year, unable to grow paddy, villagers have strayed into the city hunting for odd jobs.

We walk past men digging out earth and carrying bricks to construct tidal bunds, an occupation the government has given them. One woman was out fishing in her pond, waist-deep in water. The coppery village faces wore an innocence tinged with vulnerability and aroused in us joy and sadness at the same time. Flattened and rounded cow-dung was left to dry on the walls of homes. Circular, stilted mud structures stored rice away from rats. The sun has just set over the cracked earth and sounds of the conch blowing from different homes dotted our path back.

Over breakfast we hear with relief that the river is safe this morning for our desired boat trip to an island. Soon we are on the ashram’s boat, riding the treacherous Matla. On the oar is Bishnob Rai, a quiet, young fisherman. Boddhi’da, the lean and lanky fisherman who is among the ashram’s kitchen staff, asks us to observe the flow of the tidal river - inward from the sea. We keep scanning the horizon to see if anything can be spotted in the water, maybe a tiger swimming across - aren’t they believed to be good swimmers? Alas, just fishing buoys.

We follow the edge of Joikhali island and disembark on its pier. On the immediate bank is a Forest Department-run nursery. The muddy village road is bordered by acacias and vermillion hibiscus.

We cross little girls on high bicycles and houses with boats anchored outside. Almost every home has a pond of its own. We are ready for a well-timed break inside a cool mud hut belonging to Bodhi’da’s cousin. His wife brings us a bowl of melted date palm jaggery to be had with scrapes of tender coconut. The indescribably mellow sweetness is enough to melt down the day’s languor.

Our boat is anchored in a creek on slushy clayey soil. We zigzag slowly out through the swamp mud - at one point, Bishnob Rai gets out to pull us along. We stand amazed at his mettle, while mud skippers and bird footprints on the grey marsh form patterns abstract.

The boat ride back is slightly tumultuous. Somewhere over these endless waters, the country’s borders with Bangladesh go unmarked. Newspaper stories from both countries of villagers dying or injured from tiger ‘attacks’ in the island villages return to the conversation. And now, there are the repercussions of Aila to face. In the mind, the Shundorbon is a place that will remain as intriguing as the very first time we’d read about it.

It is ‘bazaar day’ in one of the small towns on the way, so the jeep makes slow progress through the traffic. But it’s exciting - food, people, cattle, deals being made, news being shared...

It is the ladies’ carriage this time on the train; what a pleasant experience here in an otherwise Indian setting where women are often in the background and avoid contact with strangers. A group sat down, stretched a piece of sack between them and began a board game of Ludo. They played for over an hour, laughing and chatting. One eunuch dressed in a bright fuchsia salwar kameez and hair gathered into ponytail swung into our carriage nearer the end of our ride. It was warming to see how women chatted with her, even gave her a compliment. It sure must have made her feel accepted and part of them.

A bagful of Bengali milk sweets from Kolkata for friends in Bangalore and a reed mat from the village market is all we carry back. Weeks have passed since we returned, but our souls are still catching up.

(This article was published on December 6, 2012)
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