On a soft May night in West Bengal, when the sweet scent of khalsi flowers clung to the wet, warm darkness, when the moon shone round and white, and boatmen’s lanterns winked at one another like fireflies up and down the river, death came with an open mouth for Malek Molla.
The day’s work was over. Molla and his six companions had collected five kilograms of honey from the fat combs they’d found hanging among the small, curved, downward-pointing leaves of a genwa tree. Collecting honey is one of the most dangerous jobs in Sundarbans, yet from April to June hundreds of men leave their mud and thatch houses and their rice fields and fishing nets to follow the bees into the forest.
In little wooden boats they glide down the numberless channels that permeate the sodden land of Sundarbans. Barefoot they wade through the sucking clay mud. Carefully they step around the breathing roots of the mangroves, which spike up from the earth like bayonets. Sometimes they must pass through stands thick with hental, the palm from whose leaves the crocodiles build their nests. Its stems are armored with two-inch thorns so sharp that by the time you feel one in your foot, it has already penetrated half an inch and broken off in your flesh. One man always stands guard for the group. There are many dangers to watch for. Tigers hunt in these forests. Crocodiles lurk in the shallows. Vipers coil in the shade. Even the bees can kill you. They are aggressive, and their sting causes muscle spasms, swelling, and fever. People who have been badly stung say that the pain can last for a year. The honey itself is said to be an antidote to the bees’ poison. Some who have survived attacks by bee swarms say companions saved their lives by smearing the thin, spicy honey over the stings. Sundarbans honey is considered an elixir of sorts. Shamans say eating some each day will ensure a long life. The leaves of the khalsi, whose fragrant, white blossoms supply the pollen from which the earliest honey is made, are curative, too: a paste made from them will stanch the flow of blood. But no blood had flowed on this day. The group found the first bees’ nest easily, eight feet up in a genwa. One man climbed the spindly trunk. With smoke from a kerosene-soaked torch of green hental fronds, he drove the bees from the hive and cut loose the swollen comb with a machete. Another man below caught the comb in a ten-gallon tin that had once held mustard oil. The others waited, armed with clubs, ready in case a tiger appeared; but none did. So they continued their quest through the forest, revisiting the hives they had spotted the day before. That afternoon they emerged from the forest laughing, safe, laden with their riches, the golden honey. Now, in their low-bodied wooden boat, anchored in the Chamta River, beneath the palm thatch that roofed the cabin, the six tired men relaxed. Their lantern gleamed. The men talked and laughed and smoked the harsh, leaf-wrapped cigarettes called bidi. A pot of curry and India’s ubiquitous dahl—lentil stew—bubbled on the boat’s clay stove. One man offered a song. The notes of the Bengali melody rose and fell, full and then empty, like the tides that rise to engulf the forest every six and a half hours and then fall back, drained. No one felt the boat rock. No one heard a scream. But everyone heard the splash when something very heavy hit the water beside the boat. The men flashed their torches on the water, into the forest, along the shore. And on the far bank of the river the light barely caught the figure of a huge, wet cat slinking into the mangroves, carrying the body of Malek Molla like a fish in its mouth. Molla had been quiet that evening; possibly he had been asleep. The tiger may have killed him without ever waking him up. Without making a sound, without rocking the boat, a predator who may have weighed five hundred pounds and stretched up to nine feet long had launched itself from the water, selected its victim, seized him in its jaws, and killed him instantly. Molla’s body was recovered the following day. The tiger had severed his spinal cord with a single bite to the back of the neck. It had eaten the soft belly first. In Sundarbans everyone watches for the tiger. But the tiger, they say, always sees you first. Every group of fishermen tells a story like this one: “Our eyes were toward the higher ground, toward the forest where the trees were thick. We were expecting if danger would come, it would come from the forest.” Montu Halda is twenty-six, a fisherman from the village Hingulgunge. When he was twenty-one, he saw his brother-in-law taken away by a tiger. There were four in his party that day, he remembers: Halda, his father, his brother, and his brother-in-law. It was late afternoon; the others wanted to return to the village with their catch, but the brotherin- law insisted they stop to collect dry firewood from the forest. They anchored and waded ashore. They kept their backs to the river and to the boat, their eyes on the darkening forest. They knew this was a dangerous time of day. At low tide the pink-faced monkeys known as rhesus macaques and the little spotted deer called chital come to the edge of the water to pick through the flowers and fruits and leaves the mangroves drop into the water, which the tide then brings to land. Tigers know the tides, and they know the habits of the monkeys and deer. And they know the habits of men. If a tiger was near, it would know when people were coming. It would hear the oar strokes and the voices. It would know the meaning of a dropped anchor. And it would wait and try to surprise them. All this Halda and his relatives knew, so they were careful. If there was a tiger, and if it wanted one of them, their only chance would be to see it first. Their eyes never left the forest. The tiger leaped onto the brother-in-law’s back. It knocked him face down in the mud, grabbed him by the back of the neck and, in one fluid motion, bounded into the forest. The tiger had not approached from the forest but from the river, where the men had not bothered to watch.