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The Thirsty Bird Drinks

He was alive. He was living in Jamespur. Knowing that was enough. It had been years since I’d heard from Girindra, the Bengali boatman who had opened his handmade home, his large loving family, and the world’s largest tiger reserve and mangrove forest to me. Finally, four years after our faithful correspondence of 15 years abruptly stopped, I got word from a friend based in Calcutta that he was alive and well.

Always a generous host, Girindra often offered me a young coconut to drink while we explored Sundarbans’ channels on his handmade boat, Mabisaka. Photo credit Eleanor Briggs.
My new year opened with this wonderful news. But why had he not written me? Had I hurt his feelings? Angered him? Let him down in some way I could not fathom? Even if I never got another letter, I told myself, I would be forever grateful just to know that my strong, brave friend had survived the Sundarbans’ man-eating tigers, its crocodiles, sharks and venomous snakes, its increasingly frequent and dangerous climate-change-driven cyclones. Still, I wrote another letter to him January 5. I counted the days hoping for a response. It usually took two weeks for my letters to reach Girindra in Jamespur, the village where he lived on the Bay of Bengal; Mr. Mondol, the school teacher would translate them the day they arrived, and I could usually expect a letter back after a month. The second week of February, I found in my mailbox at the Hancock post office, an airmail letter from India. My heart leapt! Uncharacteristically, there was no return address. I opened the envelope with shaking hands–to find, to my great surprise, a letter not from Girindra, but from Rathin Banerjee, dated January 31. Rathin had been Assistant Field Director of Sundarbans Tiger Reserve while I was working on SPELL OF THE TIGER, and played a crucial role in the book. Forceful, handsome, and charismatic, with excellent English skills, Rathin been the one to ferry me and my first photographer, Dianne, to the Indian side of the great tiger swamp of Sundarbans for the first time. He had continued to help me with my book throughout my subsequent expeditions to this muddy, watery world, sharing his many tiger stories, translating Bengali texts, and arranging for two wonderful young translators to help me, Debashish “Raja” Nandy and Shankar Prasad Mukherjee. Rathin was a favorite of the National Geographic crew; for his dramatic storytelling and strong screen presence he was rewarded with a cameo role in the documentary. But Rathin had been disappointed with my book. Hearing that had hurt my feelings terribly. The reason, I later learned, was that I had hurt his feelings, when I wrote that his alertness was like that of a mongoose. “You said I look like a mongoose!” he told me accusingly. Any resemblance he shared with this attractive, sharp-witted creature was meant as a compliment, but he misunderstood. Yet, after the filming, Rathin had kindly sent me a card for my 40th birthday. That had been more than 10 years ago; I had not heard from him since. I read his letter eagerly: “My intent to write this letter is because I firmly believe that Sundarbans occupies a place in your heart,” he began. Then he told me of his work since he had retired from the Forest Department in 2009: he’d worked as a consultant for the World Bank in Sundarbans. His project required he travel to the huge mangrove swamp’s remotest villages, where, he wrote me, “you will find that very few things have changed.” He wrote hopefully that it seemed to him that at least some of the men he worked with understood that “Sundarbans and all forms of life attached to it, including humans, are destined to perish unless they show respect for nature and adopt a sustainable way of lifestyle.” He enclosed his snappy new business card, with a sketch of the estuarine crocodile in the upper right corner. I remember how he had told me that he held the egg of these highly endangered reptiles while it was hatching long ago; the baby had bitten him while the eggshell still clung to his newborn body. The teeth, Rathin said, were like tiny needles. I was delighted to hear from Rathin. But what about Girindra? That Rathin didn’t mention him was no surprise. Rathin was high-caste; Girindra was not. Though Rathin sometimes generously translated the stories of Sundarbans’ fisherfolk for me, it was clear he didn’t hold their stories in high regard. “He is getting it all wrong!” he told me as he was translating a fisherman’s traditional story about the forest goddess and the tiger god. “He hasn’t even read the story in a book!”

Rathin Banerjee (center, in cap) charts a course for his Forestry Department boat Monorama in Sundarbans. Girindra is at right. Photo credit Eleanor Briggs.
February melted away with no letter from Girindra. So did March. And then, on the day of a spring snow, came another letter from India. The return address read From: G. Mridha. It was typewritten (when had Girindra or his schoolteacher friend, Mr. Mondol, acquired a typewriter, I wondered?) and dated February 23. “I am very Happy to have your note after so many years that has just been reached. Thank God,” he wrote, “He is Merciful to us both For our reunion. I didn’t have any news from you so long and thought – ‘I am out of your memory.’” But, Girindra wrote, he had not forgotten me: “I, my family, Mr. Mondol and his family are well and we often think and talk about you. I always carry your memory with me. Always remember that your news and note is most precious and inspiring to us…” What had happened that we lost touch? “Two long years is gone to over a Tremendous devastating cyclone (Ayla) hit us on Sundarban which had never face before in my life,” he wrote. “The god saved our life but only we have been deprived from all havings (Houses, Garden, Paddy land) that was washed away. God has left the lives of my family members only. This was general village condition…” I had known of that cyclone, and several others. I had worried terribly that Girindra and his family’s neat mud compound and his handmade boat named after his mother, Mabisaka, could have been destroyed. Even if he had his family had escaped, surely my letters (he had kept all of mine, as I had his) had been washed away, along with my address. But what about all the letters I had sent since then? Had they reached him? And more importantly, what were his living conditions now? Had he rebuilt his home? A new boat? Did his cows survive the cyclone? Was he still fishing for a living? How were his two married daughters–and his grandchildren? This he didn’t say. But the next paragraph was surprising. “Now let us memorize the practical life,” he wrote. “You must send your phone number, fax number and email address in the next note.” My email address? When I was last in Sundarbans, there was no electricity in the village, never mind a telephone—or a computer! Was Girindra on the net? In SPELL OF THE TIGER, I wrote of how Girindra showed me wonders everywhere we went. Troops of pink-faced monkeys materialized from trees; dainty chital deer tiptoed around he spiked upward-growing roots of the mangroves; a 20-foot crocodile heaved her armored bulk from the mud bank and, like a soul leaving a body, slid into watery weightlessness; night-time fogs dissolved the moon. Wonders never cease.
moonbear Sy Montgomery is the author of Spell of the Tiger, among many other books.


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