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The Old Man lived on a sliver of land by the edge of a great delta - the Sundarbans. Two of the world’s greatest rivers - the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, drained into the Bay of Bengal, forming this great delta, across two countries, India and Bangladesh. The Old Man did not know it, but it was the biggest delta in the world.
Every year, this sliver of land he called home, would submerge a little in the water. His village would soon have to move again, abandoning homes which families had so painstakingly built. They would have to load cattle and poultry, along with pots, pans and fishing nets into boats, in a great chaos. They would have to dismantle the windows and wooden beams of houses. It was unhappy work. Move they must, because the sea would start beating at their doors.
The village had moved thrice in the last four years and there was no more place to go.
The Old Man did not know why the sea rose up and lurked at their doors. He knew of growling cyclones and roaring storms which scratched, mangled and tore up houses like a great beast; and had lived through all of them. But now, the sea was just rising up, mean, cunning and stealthy like a crocodile threatening to swallow them all up.
He was a very old man and he had much memory of things past; but of the sea slithering at the doors, he had none. So he did not like it.
On this day, some young men were coming from the city for an important meeting, and the Old Man hoped, they would tell him, why the sea threatened the land. The villagers were forbidden from going fishing or hunting. They had to gather in the village square when the men came.
The Old Man was a honey-hunter. He was the best and the longest-lived honey hunter in the village. He could hear the honey bees buzzing where others could hear none. He could navigate expertly through the creeks and alleyways, past the tangled roots of the mangroves, to the biggest hives with the sweetest honey.
He was a lucky old man too. He had never been attacked by a tiger in the mangroves. Every household in the village had lost a member to the tiger, or bore signs of an attack: a missing limb or a terrible scar. But the Old Man was unscathed. He did not know why he had been spared. There are, after all things that the oldest and wisest do not know.
Like everyone else, the Old Man worshipped the Bon-Bibi: The Goddess of the mangrove forest. Her abode – a mound of earth and stone, lay untouched by the rising water. The Goddess was covered in red vermillion and yellow turmeric paste, and she rode a Tiger. Her huge unblinking eyes stared straight past the men, as they prostrated at her feet, and applied a smear of sacred vermillion on their foreheads, as a mark of blessing.
After this ritual, the honey-hunters would tie a mask around the backs of their heads. They did this to fool the tiger. After all, the tiger behaved like a large cat, sneaking up on a mouse, stealthily stalking his unsuspecting prey, before catching the rodent unawares. The mask stared at the tiger, from the back of their heads, with unblinking eyes, and deceived the beast into thinking that it had been spotted.
The Old Man never wore a mask. As I said, the Old Man did not know why he was never attacked. It was just that he did not like the masks of his colleagues in the boat, staring back at him, so he did not wear one himself.
A clamour announced the arrival of the young men in the village. Their boat was spotted from afar and the villagers gathered to meet them. It turned out that the men were there for the National Census. They asked everyone their age, and the villagers ran back to fetch various pieces of paper recording their birth and qualifications.
The Old Man did not have any papers. The young men from the city urged him to recollect events – like the Great Wars. But the Great War did not come to marshes in the delta, so the Old Man did not know about it. All he could remember was that when he was a boy, his mother and father walked seven days and seven nights through a large forest till they came to the water’s edge, where they set up the first village. But even the erstwhile British Government records did not show such a large forest a hundred years ago.
“There were many tigers then” the Old Man said, helpfully, as if counting tigers would reveal his age. “Not many crocodiles” he added. “And the tigers those days did not tread the water, nor come near the shore. That is why we built our homes by the sea” he recollected. The tigers of the Sundarbans have always lived in the tidal flats among the mangroves, is what the young men had read in books. The villagers tittered and the children began to laugh at the Old Man’s ignorance.
The Old Man was piqued. He had planned to ask the young men from the city about the rising waters, but left without doing so.
He walked slowly to the edge of the sea, untied his catamaran and started to row. He rowed past tidal flats, expertly avoiding the swirl of muddy waters, deep into the mangrove forest where other men never ventured alone. At the mound of Bon-Bibi, he paused his rowing. He noticed there were pug-marks. Fresh pug-marks. The tiger must have been here not long ago.
The sight of pug-marks on the sacred mound made the Old Man uneasy. He had no memory of pug-marks on the mound. This was a place where the tiger never came.
The Old Man loved tigers. He loved to see the golden body with the black stripes, dripping with muddy water, as the beast waded through the mangrove roots, in the mud flats. Once a tiger had sat by the shore looking at the Old Man nonchalantly. Each time he saw the tiger, it filled the Old Man with awe. He knew that if there were no tigers, there would be no forests. The last stand of trees would be cut down for fire-wood. It was fear of the tiger that kept the people away.
The Old Man’s reverie was broken by a splash in the water. It was an annoying splash. A splash of suffering. And it hung in the air.
The Old Man immediately knew what it was – a crocodile. He did not like crocodiles. The mud-banks always betrayed their presence with slithery marks of their great bulk sliding down into the muddy waters. The Old Man did not like the idea of them lurking motionless in the water. Neither did he like the idea of death by drowning: it was not a valorous way to die or to hunt.
“How could the waters that brought him fishes and crabs for a living harbour such suffering”, he mused. The Old Man remembered that after the monsoon months, he would see tigers making a meal of baby crocodiles. It made him happy to think about it.
But in the past few years, along with the rising waters, the numbers of crocodiles were increasing. They were getting bigger and bigger. And aggressive too. Would Bon-Bibi, the Goddess who rode a tiger, protect the villagers from crocodiles, he wondered?
The world was changing and the Old Man now had more questions than answers. There were now a lot of things that the Old Man did not understand.
The waters beside him parted as the massive beast broke the surface. His jaws were weighed down with something large and muddy. And it was still struggling.