Reviewed by Purva Variyar
There are stories. Then there are stories that change you. Even more so when the reality is stranger than fiction. A multiple international award-winning author and wildlife writer par excellence, Sy Montgomery weaves a beautiful book that reflects her spiritual journey through the most challenging, dangerous and pristine place on earth, the Sundarbans. This largest, contiguous tract of mangrove forests in the world spans over 10,000 sq. km. across two countries - Bangladesh and India. And in the words of Montgomery:
[In Sundarbans] Nature does not obey the rules: fish climb trees, the animals drink salt water; the roots of trees grow up toward the sky instead of down to the earth... [A]nd here, the tigers do not obey the same rules by which tigers elsewhere govern their lives.
She almost poetically recites the wonders of the forest as she soaks in, observes and becomes one with the people of Sundarbans. Each page of this short book leaves you enchanted and humbled. Humbled because the more you learn about the Sundarbans and its tigers, you know you are never going to look at a tiger the same way again. Now I know how people feel when they feel inclined to worship something. Now I understand why the tiger is god in these saltwater swamps and why it is both feared and revered in equal measure.
Montgomery writes that locals here swear that these amphibious tigers materialise out of thin air and literally fly out of the water onto boats they have been swimming after to take down their prey. And vanish even before the hunted and the bystanders realise it. Some of the experiences narrated in the book are simply jaw-dropping and defy everything you think you know about the tiger. I remember having closed the book after almost every page to let the powerful truths about the magical and mystical Sundarbans sink in. Theories abound about why the tigers here behave the way they do, or rather what they are capable of. Do we believe what Montgomery writes about tigers here stalking and hunting humans just like any other prey in the mangrove forests, or do we attribute it to the mystique of the place and the Sundarbans folklore that has been born out of centuries of coexistence between people and the forest? No matter what you believe, the book reflects the compelling drama, fear and beauty of the Sundarbans and makes it a spellbinding book that is hard to put down.
Purva Variyar is a conservationist, writer, and editor. Her true passion lies in science communication. She currently works with the Wildlife Conservation Trust. Purva has previously worked as a Senior Editor and Science Communicator with Sanctuary Asia magazine. She has also worked on human-snake conflict mitigation and radio-telemetry of Russell’s vipers under The Gerry Martin Project.