A lone woman and a hungry, man-eating tiger come face-to-face in the Sunderbans. What happens next?
‘There she is,’ said the farmer. ‘That is her…’
I followed his gaze and saw the tiny figure of a woman walking toward us, slowly. Her green Sari dazzled against the vast spread of crops coloured golden.
Just that morning, I had been lucky to get a fleeting glimpse of a lone Tiger prowling majestically in the marshland.
Barely a few yards from where I stood were deep imprints of its massive paws; pressed down mightily on the river bank, intimidating and warning all who dared entered its kingdom.
Watching the woman’s delicate frame grow larger as she approached us, I recalled all that was learnt from history books and great anecdotes of warriors and kings.
I envisioned the great Mughal, Akbar, take slow, measured steps in my direction, his hand tense over the hilt of his sword.
I saw the fearless Tiger of Mysore, Tippu Sultan, walking toward me in long, sweeping strides. With his sword drawn and eyes narrowed to fiery slits.
I watched the Gallant Maharana Pratap charge forth astride a regal horse. His sword raised above his head, mere moments from a downward slash.
Because these were the courageous men who were known to have fought Tigers – An unbelievable feat considered dauntless and incredible even with a sword in hand. A mere human standing his ground before a tenacious beast thrice as large and stronger in every way, was no match after all. Snapping, gnashing jaws that crushed one’s spine in an instant and tenacious paws that brought down a buffalo with just a single blow were the fiercest enemies a man could be up against in combat. Praises were sung in memoirs and verses, immortalising the heroic adventures of these great, strong men.
And yet, visions of kings and heroes blurred, dimmed and disintegrated into a haze and shadows; and from them emerged the modest figure of Bijoya Bain – The woman who fought off a full grown Royal Bengal Tiger.
‘Yes, I am Bijoya Bain.’ She said, ‘You have come to hear my story?’
Though not a fearsome warrior, though not a brave king. Bijoya Bain was to me, a portrait of courage and resolve. And I humbly assumed a position not unlike a chronicler in the courtyard, moving his quill over parchment in awe as his great king recounted intrepid adventures.
In Bijoya Bain’s words, these are the events that unfolded on the day she found herself in the man-eater’s shadow…
‘My husband and I joined a group of 5 others and went into the forest that morning. We were there to collect crabs which are found in great numbers along the many streams that run through the Sunderbans. I had with me a stick for probing in the water and a vessel to put the crabs in.’
‘We all decided to pick individual spots for collection. We were only a few hundred meters beyond the forest fence. From where I was, I could see Bonobibi’s temple outside my house. Soon, we were all spread out and away from each other. I knew my husband was somewhere close by.’
‘There were plenty of crabs in the water and I got busy at once, reaching down to the river bed and picking them up one after another. With my hands full, I walked to the river bank to put the crabs in the vessel. While I was doing this, for no reason in particular, I turned around.’
‘What I saw froze my being to a deathly stillness. Fear consumed me in an instant. I was scared. Scared by instinct and not because I knew what was happening.’
‘No more than 10 feet from me was a Bagh. As still as me, perhaps even more. He was crouched on the ground; head dropped very low, front paws delicately in front of his jaws, hind legs arched back in recoil. His brilliant eyes weighed me down with just a look. It was as if I had been captured without him making a single move. I believe just as he had caught me unawares, I had caught him unawares too, by turning around, catching him midway through some sacred ritual. I knew what him being crouched like that meant.’
‘His massive body sprung at me through the air, faster than anything I had ever seen. I had time not even to cry for help. He threw me to the ground with incredible force. His front paw bore down on my left shoulder. One of the hind legs stomped over my left leg. His striped, lashing tail loomed high over his monstrous head as it descended over me.’
‘I was being crushed under a Tiger. It was only a matter of moments before he wrapped his powerful jaws around my neck. I knew I was going to die. But I didn’t want to die. Not without a fight.’
‘So I began my feeble retaliation. The first thing I did was to jam my head against my left shoulder, protecting my neck. I knew if the Bagh got around to my neck, I would be done. He pawed at my shoulders to bite the neck but I resisted. I realised my right hand was clutching the stick. I brought it sideways into the tigers chest and neck. It was as if I was hitting a wall. Striking with weak thumps, I wasn’t causing the strong beast any pain. But this managed to distract him a bit.’
‘He continued to drive his paws into my shoulders and ear. Nails sharp as knives tore through the flesh, bloodying me gravely. But I refused to ease up. He grunted and growled and paused at times, only to resume his onslaught even more fiercely. I continued to beat him with the stick. This carried on for a long time. I cannot tell you how many minutes passed but it seemed like a very, very long time. I saw him grow frustrated as his jabs and swipes grew frantic. When he paused, I could hear him breathe. His warm, shallow breaths danced over my face.’
‘There is a thing about the Tigers in the Sunderbans. Their coats don’t dazzle brilliantly like the Tigers you see everywhere else. Their coats are muddy and brown. The silt from the river and the moist sand from the mangroves cling to their fur, coating them in this single colour so dominant in the forest. With the Bagh towering over me like that, It felt like the forest had come to claim me.’
‘I was growing weak. I was trying to stay alive with every ounce of energy. I wondered why nobody had heard me. I wondered why nobody was coming to help me. Had they not heard me at all? There had to be somebody! If not a human, then my goddess, Bonobibi – The goddess of the forest! The one I praise and seek blessings from every single day. Surely, she must have heard me? Why wasn’t she coming to my rescue?’
‘Tired and frustrated, I cried out, ‘Bonobibi! I am fighting with everything I have. You are not with me. You are not doing anything! I’m going to die…’
‘Then, something about the wind changed. Something about all that made up the present changed. I felt a gust of wind sweep across the forest. It swept over us – the Bagh and I – and then this gruesome beast that has been known to be so relentless and unforgiving in our land, the harbinger of death responsible for so many widowed wives, the infernal one that stood over me; hellbent on snapping its vicious jaws around my frail neck and taking me away into the forest forever, simply stood back and left.’
‘He turned his back to me and returned to where he came from. He leapt into the trees and mingled with the forest.’
I heard people coming. I heard a commotion. I got up to see that my husband had collapsed in shock. He had watched the Bagh bring down its paws over me. He watched me scream and fight. It was too much to take.’
‘Don’t do anything. Just take me to the hospital.’ I told the others who had reached me and were examining my wounds.’
‘I was at the hospital for a month, my wounds healed slowly. As I lay recovering, I thought about the incident and believed strongly that it was my goddess, Bonobibi who came to my rescue and saved me.’
‘My Bonobibi – the goddess of the forest – the watchful guardian I bow down to everyday outside my house before setting foot into the jungle had watched over me. I was wrong in believing the forest had come to claim me when it was indeed the forest that saved me.’
I left Bijoya Bain’s home that day with an invitation to return to pray with her at Bonobibi’s temple, when she will have managed to rebuild the clay structure into a larger, concrete temple.
Did the wind change? Was she saved by a god? Did she chase the fierce beast away with her own might? Questions will always loom and challenge her truth. But what remains certain is that she had looked a tiger in the eye, felt its breath over her face and heard it roar into her ears. She had fought off a Royal Bengal Tiger with just a stick and prayers.