In the Sundarbans, Fish is Gold
The fishermen of Sonagar village in the Sundarbans leave for a fortnight-long voyage to the narrow creeks in the mangroves in the hope of a big catch. The preparations start 15 days earlier.
Aishwarya Tripathi 23 Aug 2023 9:59 AM GMT
Sundarbans (South 24 Parganas), West Bengal
The road to Sonagar is bustling with fishermen fiddling with their nets on a sweltering afternoon. They are preparing to leave on a long trip deep into the mangrove forests where they hope to net a big catch in the narrow creeks of the rivers.
The creeks are home to a variety of inland aquatic species, making it attractive to the fisherman. But they are only too aware that where they are headed is also the hunting ground of the Bengal Tigers. The fishermen and their small boats are an easy target.
Sonagar is part of the Indian Sundarbans archipelago — home to the largest expanse of continuous mangrove forests in the world located at the confluence of the rivers Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna that flow into the Bay of Bengal.
Two fishermen unfurl a gigantic fishing net, salt-hardened. Next, a freshly painted green ice-box is kept out for drying. Further ahead, a few more spread out their 180 feet by 25 feet net to attach the little ball-like orange anchor floats to them. These keep one end of the fishing nets buoyant and floating on the surface of the rivers. Bricks tied to the other end of the net weigh it down and submerge the nets in the water.
“Sundarban ka machli mano sona hai (Consider the Sundarbans fishes gold),” Gurupado Mondal, a fisherman told Gaon Connection.
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Six days before full-moon, Mondal, along with others, has been working 12 hours a day to ready the fishing nets. He will require to ready at least 30 such nets and each one takes him three days to assemble. Between the new moon and full moon, the tides are high. It is when the full moon starts waning, and signals the low tides, that the fisherfolk set out.
“We lie in wait for the bigger fishes such as Telebhola and Javabhola. Some of them weigh about 20 kgs each and can fetch us about Rs 40,000,” said Mondal.
A lot rides on these expeditions. The fishermen invest as much as Rs 2 lakhs to buy Sal wood to build their boats. Then they have to spend on fibre fishing nets, ropes, bait and other fishing provisions. This money has to be recovered.
The boat lasts for 15 years and needs minor repairs every year which again costs them anywhere between Rs 15,000 and Rs 25,000.
Mondal who was working as a labourer in Odisha at a steel manufacturing factory, returned to the Sundarbans after he lost an eye in an accident.
“I wasn’t offered any compensation. I decided to return to fishing and be closer to my home and family,” he said. About the risk of tiger attacks, he shrugged and said “The tiger risk exists, but what is the guarantee of life anyway.” If not a tiger, then a bus accident perhaps in the city, chipped in Karthik Jana, another fisherman.
Their best bet is Bonbibi — the goddess of the forest and the protector of the realm. They worship the forest goddess, prepare kheer for her and offer her a new red saree. Inside the mangroves, they never fail to place a garland on the Sundari tree that represents Bonbibi, seek her blessings, and only then embark on their fishing.
For her part, Jana’s wife Rekha, is careful not to apply sindoor till he returns from his voyage.
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“Women stop applying the sindoor because one is never sure if their husbands will return. This ritual is to show that they are fully aware they may not see their husbands again,” fisherman Bhupal Sahu explained to Gaon Connection. Another unwritten rule is that the family will not eat food after sunset till the fishermen are back home and safe.
Mondal, Jana and three others hope to fix their boat by the 14th of July — a day prior to their voyage. Their hope is that they will get a generous catch which will earn each of them at least Rs 10, 000. They paint five ice boxes, arrange for ice from the local market in Gosaba, and procure enough food rations to last for a fortnight.
Mondal and the party will carry along with them 40 kgs each of rice and dal, eight kilos of potato and onions, five litres of cooking oil, a gas cylinder fitted with a cooking stove and 300 litres of drinking water.
The Boat Licence Certificates [BLC] which needs to be presented to the forest authorities during fishing in the forests are carefully stored. The forest department doesn’t issue new licences to local fishermen to go into the permitted mangrove fishing spots. The fishermen rent their licences from BLC owners for which they pay roughly a lakh to them.
After ensuring the boat is as comfortable as they can possibly make it for their 15-day sojourn, the fishermen hurry back home to spend time with their dear ones. There will be no ‘getting in touch’ with family in between as the boat has no network reception. All they have is a prayer on their lips and faith in Bonbibi to get them back safe and well and with a healthy catch of fish.