“Do you really need to go”? Fatima imploringly looked at Zarul, her husband of two weeks. “If I don’t go, what will you eat, silly’? Zarul replied, laughing, as he slung his cloth bag on his left shoulder and went out the door. It was dawn and his companions were waiting.
Turning the corner of the narrow lane that winded between shacks of mud and bamboo, Zarul got a glimpse of Fatima, standing by the door of their hut, anxious and sad.
He could not help it. If he failed this trip, he would miss out on paying the last installment of his loan to the ‘Mahajan’ and who didn’t know what would happen then. He could not take any more of the public humiliation. And, now he had Fatima’s honour to defend as well. With the last thought, Zarul hastened to meet up with his group.
It was a group of honey gatherers. The bravest and the most daring of the entire coastal village, who ventured deep into the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans, in small wooden skiffs, navigating perilous tidal waters of the countless rivers and inlets of the Bay of Bengal, in search of honey. Geared with only wooden torches and cotton cloth, they robbed the hives of the giant wild honeybees, notorious for their ferocity, and gathered the sweet liquid gold. It was hard work. And, it was risky. For, there lurks in the shadows of the Sundarbans, death in a bright orange suit. It is the home of the Royal Bengal Tiger.
Zarul greeted the eldest in his group, “Assalam walekum Chacha. Khairiyat’? “I have been better, child; I am getting too old for this”. ‘Chacha’ replied. “Let’s get a move on, it’s already late”
Young men like Zarul form the muscles of every honey gathering group. But, there is almost always, a more experienced veteran honey gatherer with each group who knows the forests and the waters better. They know which nesting sites bees prefer more and how to gain access to them. So, even though ‘Chacha’ would be no help in physically gathering the honey, the small skiff had to have room for him, after loading four men and their honey gathering gear.
They rowed along an inlet of the bay into the forest. Branches of Keora and Goran came down to meet the waters, heavy with thick leathery leaves. They rowed cautiously navigating the roots of the trees jutting out from the waters like fences. Above them, the air was thick and heavy and buzzing with flies and mosquitoes.
“Doya koro Dakshinray, dio na dekha aaj
Agunjala chokh jeno na jole bonomajh”
“O mighty King of the Forest, do not appear in front of us today; let not your fiery eyes lighten up the forest this day”.
Chacha started singing in a cracked raspy voice. One of the young men in the boat took out a tin can and started beating it in rhythm. This is how the honey gatherers keep tigers away.
“My cousin Kader’s boy was taken the day before yesterday. I just had word.” One of the gatherers reflectively stated looking out into the forest. “He was not even 13”. The drum beater started beating a bit harder.
Honey gathering has long been a traditional industry in the village communities lying on the shores of the many water channels in the mangrove estuaries in the Sundarbans. It has sustained the people with seasonal occupation which provides rich rewards, albeit at a great risk.
“I saw a bee”! Exclaimed one of the gatherers rowing the skiff. “It flew out from the trees on my left”. The boat was stopped and they climbed out of it and tiptoed across the mattress of breathing roots jutting out of the soil. Several mudskippers jumped hastily into the water to avoid getting crushed.
Zarul spotted the hive first. It was a gigantic affair. About a meter wide, the hive hung from a branch of a Sundari tree. Bees kept darting in and out of the hive cells and periodically the surface of the hive seemed to ripple like a wave.
They lighted their torches and carefully covered their faces with cotton towels. Wet straw at the head of the torches created heavy fumes that soon reached the branch and swept over the hive. Quite a number of bees flew out and started to fly away. A few flew at them. They ignored those and kept smoking the hive with vigour. A large portion of the hive was soon emptied and the bees flew away into the trees, some dropping in the ground in agony and some trying to sting whatever came across them.
Zarul touched the bee-less clear portion of the hive and taking a small knife from his cloth satchel, cut a small portion from the corner of the hive. Dark golden honey oozed out. The bees remaining on the hive flew out in alarm as more smoke engulfed them from Zarul’s torch.
In about a quarter of an hour they had cleared the hive of most of the honeybees and had started cutting chunks of the comb into metal buckets they had been carrying on their forearms. Most of them were getting stung on their bare arms and on their foreheads, but they did not care. As their buckets filled up with honey laden combs, the gatherers started humming a tune in praise of Bonbibi, the goddess of the forest.
“Bonbibi tor doya koto,
Khaite dili Ma er moto”
(Thank you O benevolent goddess, for feeding us as a mother does)
Chacha, shushed them up all of a sudden. “Hush you idiots, don’t you hear”? They stopped their humming and looked at the old man. “What is it Chacha? Hear what? I can’t hear a thing!”. “Exactly. There is nothing but silence”. And they all stopped to listen.
Not a sound could be heard. No birds, no monkeys, not even the leaves rustled. The beater had stopped beating his tin drum long back, and had gotten busy in collecting honey. The only sound to be heard was the buzzing of the fleeing bees and the splashing of the water against the banks of the river.
A look of alarm flashed across the face of the gatherers. They hurried to get their gears and started for the skiff. In the forests of Sundarbans, only the king commands an absolute silence.
They were on board the skiff and were about to push off when Chacha spotted that Zarul was missing.
“Zarul!” He half whispered, half yelled, in his hoarse shaking voice, imploringly looking at the beater to start beating the tin drum. The beater was ransacking his end of the skiff in an attempt at finding his drum. He looked at Chacha with panic in his eyes. The tin drum could be seen at a distance, on the bank, sticking out from amidst the jutting pneumatophores.
“ZARUL”! Their united whisper was drowned in a low thundering roar. From their left, from among the low hanging branches of the mangroves, a yellow and black striped shadow stealthily moved out to stand in their view.
Even with their death staring them at their faces, the honey gatherers couldn’t help admiring the majesty of the beast. Solemn and somber, the tigress stood staring at the men, her canines bared and ears pushed back in anticipation of an ambush. She was making up her mind which man to attack first.
The honey gatherers sat still looking at the beast, transfixed. They did not at first register the flying torch that flew in like a missile and landed not two feet from where the tigress was standing. Only when that the animal growled again and retreated a few steps and a strange noise started coming from near where they were collecting honey just moments before, did they come back to their senses. Zarul had gotten hold of the tin drum and lacking the beating stick was banging at it with his bare hands as he inched towards the bank and their skiff.
Within seconds, on cue, the men in the boat had started throwing their alight torches towards the tigress and screaming as if their life depended on it. It did.
The tigress had been taken by surprise by Zarul, the hidden adversary. She could not locate him, for she could not turn her head away from the men in the boat. And, Zarul was very cleverly hidden from her view, by the low hanging tree branches, the smoke from the torches effectively masking his scent and the direction of his location. Dithering for a moment, the majestic beast tiptoed backwards into the forest, then turned and was soon hidden from view in her emerald home.
Zarul rushed towards the skiff as his fellow men urged him to make haste. In his hurry, he stumbled upon a breathing root and was thrown head long almost into the water. Honey dripping from his wet body Zarul struggled to get his footing in the slippery mud and beckoned his fellow gatherers to bring the skiff closer.
Chacha’s out stretched hands couldn’t reach Zarul’s, in time, however. The skiff was still about a meter away from Zarul and he was still struggling to get closer to it, when he felt a shearing pain tear through his shank. His realization of what had just happened came as soon as his face hit water, as he slipped and fell. Zarul caught a glimpse of his fellow honey gatherers wailing in fear and panic on the skiff, remembered Fatima’s imploring eyes before he had left home that morning, then let a shy of regret escape his mouth along with his final cry of agony, as the crocodile dragged him by his feet deeper into the waters.
Back in the village, Fatima tipped over the sacred metal pot in the shrine of Bonbibi while trying to tie a red thread around its neck for the safe return of her husband. As the other women gathered around her started whispering about what bad luck that brought, Fatima welled up inside in fear and sorrow, and humiliation. “Let him come back”, she thought, “I will kill him myself”.
For EMILY WALKER, NOVA SCOTIA
Authors note: I started writing this story for the ‘Bee Party’ at the conclusion of our very fun and amazingly informative Native Bee Seminar organized by the Eagle Hill institute, in Steuben, Maine, the USA, and conducted by Dr. Frank Drummond and Dr. Alison Dibble (both of whom inspired me immensely), but could not finish it in time. It is because of the insistence and interest of one of my classmates in the seminar, the wonderful Emily Walker, who herself is working on bees of Nova Scotia, that I have finished this story and am posting it here now. Thanks Emily for the encouragement!