There are no borders here to divide fresh water from salt, river from
sea. The tides reach as far as two hundred miles inland and every day
thousands of acres of forest disappear underwater, only to reemerge hours
later. The currents are so powerful as to reshape the islands almost daily
some days the water tears away entire promontories and peninsulas; at other
times it throws up new shelves and sandbanks where there were none before.
When the tides create new land, overnight mangroves begin to
gestate, and if the conditions are right they can spread so fast as to cover a
new island within a few short years. A mangrove forest is a universe unto
itself, utterly unlike other woodlands or jungles. There are no towering, vine-
looped trees, no ferns, no wildflowers, no chattering monkeys or cockatoos.
Mangrove leaves are tough and leathery, the branches gnarled and the foliage
often impassably dense. Visibility is short and the air still and fetid. At no
moment can human beings have any doubt of the terrains hostility to their
presence, of its cunning and resourcefulness, of its determination to destroy
or expel them. Every year, dozens of people perish in the embrace of that
dense foliage, killed by tigers, snakes and crocodiles.
There is no prettiness here to invite the stranger in: yet to the
world at large this archipelago is known as the Sundarbans, which
means the beautiful forest. There are some who believe the word to be
derived from the name of a common species of mangrove the sundari tree,
But the words origin is no easier to account for than is its present br>
prevalence, for in the record books of the Mughal emperors this region is
named not in reference to a tree but to a tide bhati. And to the inhabitants
of the islands this land is known as bhatir desh the tide country except
that bhati is not just the tide but one tide in particular, the ebb tide, the
bhata. This is a land half submerged at high tide: it is only in falling that
water gives birth to the forest. To look upon this strange parturition, midwifed
by the moon, is to know why the name tide country is not just right but
necessary. For as with Rilkes catkins hanging from the hazel and the spring
rain upon the dark earth, when we behold the lowering tide
we, who have always thought of joy
as rising . . . feel the emotion
that almost amazes us
when a happy thing falls.
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