Chaotic Kolkata and the Serene Sunderbans, India

October 22-31, 2013

Kolkata's fabulous food, decaying ambiance, centuries-old patina, and friendly vibe make for an interesting stopover.









Through the owner of our Kolkata hotel (the Relax Inn) we manage to get invited to a private Indian Classical concert to be held on the rooftop of his friend's apartment building nearby. It is a rainy night, the first of what we would later learn was a serious 48-hour storm rolling over Kolkata. Umbrellas in hand, car horns blaring in all directions, we make our way slowly through humid night and the minefield that might be euphemistically referred to as "sidewalks".

Thanks to google maps and a smartphone, we locate the building and make our way up up to the top floor where our welcoming hosts and their friends are munching on tasty snacks and getting ready for the music. Here under a partial roof and a makeshift tarp shelter is a stage with lights, a sound system, and comfy seating area. The glowing lights of the surrounding neighborhoods are shining through the rain around us as the players are introduced and begin to weave their magic, slowly drowning out the murmur of street sounds wafting up from below. I'm not sure if it is the location, the rain, or just the fact that these players are damn good, but we immediately fall under their spell. One of the best concerts we've seen in some time!

It is a pleasure to meet the organizer of this event, Avik Saha, who we later learn has devoted his substantial efforts to promoting the arts and bringing community together from across the globe.

Small excerpts from a very special concert.

The next night (after 24 hours of continuous rain) we're off to see a dance event that celebrates the 100th anniversary of Bengali poet and novelist Rabindranath Tagore's Nobel prize for literature. The program features Indian dancers and, oddly, a Swedish choir.

The evening starts off with the usual negotiations over cab fare and after 10 minutes of haggling we end up in another Ambassador taxi driven by an assertive Sikh man with a long beard and a turban who speaks almost no English. At one point, we turn up a long street and notice there is standing water. We careen into it and pretty soon it is obvious that we're in the middle of a serious flood zone! Shops and buildings are flooded and the water is knee-deep. People are wading, riding bikes and pulling rickshaws through the murky waters. After a while, I'm imagining that the engine will soon stall and we'll have to walk kilometers through the muck in the dark night, yikes! The taxi driver keeps muttering "My god, my god!" and I'm surprised that water is not seeping in through the bottom of the doors. To everyone's amazement we emerge, somewhat shaken, on dry land near the theater. The driver is beside himself -- the right front tire is completely flat!



Several years ago we both read Amitav Ghosh's magical, hypnotic book "The Hungry Tide" and became enthralled with the Sunderbans, the world's largest mangrove swamp, described by Ghosh as 'the trailing threads of India's fabric,' 'the ragged fringe of her sari,' 'a terrain where the boundaries between land and water are always mutating, always unpredictable...' Stretching for 220 miles, from the Hoogly River in West Bengal, south of Kolcata, east to the shores of the Meghna River in Bangladesh, within the Ganges and Brahmaputra Delta, 'there are no borders to divide fresh water from salt, river from sea.' These are the Sunderbans -- the 'beautiful lands.'

We sign up for a three day tour at Sunderbans Tiger Camp, in search of the elusive Bengal tiger. About 270 tigers exist in this 10,000 square km area, sightings are rare. We are up early and on the boat, six tourists -- each armed with binoculars and cameras -- two guides and two crew. It's a dreamy ride, slowly puttering up wide channels, turning down narrow channels, a few fishermen paddle past us. We scan the shoreline, watching huge monitor lizards slither down muddy banks into the river, brilliant blue and orange kingfishers hunting from mangrove branch perches, a tiny spotted deer blending into the forest. It's a mellow morning.

Ahhhh, breakfast on the boat: idlis with sambar and coconut chutney. We become fast friends with Krish and Krishna from Hyderabad and, as we sip sweet, milky coffee and tea, we jokingly invite the tigers to join us. "TIGER!!" the boatman suddenly shouts. Everyone drops their cups and rushes to the railings. I see it, but I don't believe it. Is it a mirage? Am I dreaming? An enormous male Bengal tiger -- powerful, confident, oblivious -- is crossing one of the small, muddy channels. We are all laughing and shouting, Krishna is jumping up and down. We watch for a minute (90 seconds?) then he slowly disappears into the dense mangrove forest. The very reserved Bengali guide is hugging me, the crew and tourists all slap high fives. Our sighting was the first for anyone at this resort since July 29, 2013, exactly three months ago.

"Pictures? Pictures? Who got a photograph?" We are all so excited no one thinks to take a photo, so this experience will live only in our minds.

Tiger spotters rejoice and record their sighting in the official ranger log!

Four million people live in temporary and permanent settlements in the Sunderbans, where they fish, grow rice, and collect firewood.

Villagers worship Maa Bonbibi, the tiger goddess, who protects them from man-eating tigers. Amitav Ghosh invokes Bonbibi to emphasize the interdependence of man and nature.