The tour of the Sunderbans of two days and one night was arranged by Kaushik. I had to report at the Science City for the first leg of the travel by car. Ganesh, the driver, was on time for the pickup. Siddhartha Sen is the owner of Banani Resorts, where I would stay in the Sunderbans. It was a package tour by the Resort which included the tiger sighting trips and mangrove expedition. Sen met me at the commencement of the trip and handed over a breakfast packet and a bottle of water. He also asked me to speak to him in case of any difficulty on the tour. The road journey of about 110 kms to Ghodkhali, via Basanthi and Sonakhali, passes through many villages almost exclusively inhabited by the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh – the border is less than 50 kms away. Ganesh was critical of Jyothi Basu, who encouraged the immigration to develop vote banks. The tanning and leather industry has been relocated from Chinatown to a leather park en route to Basanthi and one can see heaps of leather waste on the way. There are large cultivations of paddy and vegetables. The wholesale auction centres for vegetables and fish are on the route to Basanthi. The greenery and the vegetation are not unlike that in the villages of Kerala. The means of transportation are mainly motorized carts and overcrowded rickshaws.
After a two hour road journey, at Ghodkhali, I was transferred to a motorized boat. Ganesh handed me over to Biren Mondal. There were not many tourists at the launch jetty. The boat on hire by the resort seemed to be the leat impressive of those at the jetty. But it performed adequately. There were chairs on the deck to enjoy the rich mangrove vegetation. The boatman made an unscheduled halt at Gosaba to pick up fuel. Biren pointed out to me the circuit house on the island where Rabindranath Tagore had stayed for a while.
The next two hours was a ride through the largest mangrove eco system in the world and the Sunderbans, with its tiger reserve, is a World Heritage Site. Home to the Royal Bengal Tigers, the Sunderbans is a controlled tourist destination. The ‘not so easy’ access also protects the fragile eco system from being damaged. An evening outing was arranged to the Sajnekhali watch tower. It was an indescribable disappointment. The WB government run facility has one crocodile, a few totoises, three monitor lizards and a few deer. I do not know what we are expected to watch from over the tower. We witnessed a group of ‘Vanars’ (monkeys) fighting (genes proved!) and later crossing from one mangrove to another swimming through the water. A few deer gave us a gracious audience and so did a pair of wild hens. Elvis, my colleague in DP World, and I had done a tour of the mangroves in Beruwala, Sri Lanka. That was definitely a more enjoyable trip, where we could travel deep into the mangroves in a canoe.
At sunset we were back in the Pakhirala village, where the Banani Resort is located. I was taken for a village tour by Biren. It was mentioned that the road to the village got cemented when President R Venkitaraman visited the village. The Rangbelia Mahila Society has a shop in the village which sells excellent batik bedsheets, kurtas, hankies, etc. The Sunderban honey is supposed to be the best in the country. I spent quite some money at the shop before moving away to see the rest of the village. With the sun down the men folk had spread towels on the road to indulge in a few rounds of card games and women could be found leaning across fences to exchange notes of the day with their neighbor.
The Banani Resort is not a luxurious resort, the like of which we have come to expect in Kerala. The Resort is fairly modest, but the room and the bath are quite clean. Since the island and the village are not electrified the dependence on generator is total. The rooms are air conditioned as it is very hot and humid during the afternoon. The food at the resort is yummy; outstanding preparation of Bhetka fish for lunch and country chicken for dinner.