Saturday, November 12, 2011

In Bon Bibi's Forest

In Bon Bibi's Forest
In Bon Bibi’s Forest is the third book in the series Our Myths that seeks to re-visit well-known and less known stories that have come down to us over the ages. In the process of passing from mouth to ear, they have travelled far away from the circumstances in which they were born, and have acquired new and different meanings. Some have even been catapulted into the realm of ‘unquestionable truths’ fiercely protected by diehard fans. Hence, the furore over the idea of ‘300 Ramayanas’.

But we know that it is the nature of stories to change as people change, society changes, and the ways in which human beings tell or listen to stories in order to make sense of their lives, change. Hanuman’s Ramayana gently shifts the focus from heroic action to humane understanding, Vyasa’s Mahabharata humourously suggests that writing down this massive epic must have involved some moves and countermoves. 

While these first Our Myths titles reach into the two established epics of India, In Bon Bibi’s Forest dips into the ocean of people’s stories. It has an actual and still pristinely preserved setting: Sundarban spread across a vast delta that spills into the Bay of Bengal and across India and Bangladesh. The forests there are different, and the habitat difficult to negotiate, for both humans and animals. This is the home of the Royal Bengal Tiger. It is also the home of many families who live spread out over some of the inhabited mudflats and islands that are crisscrossed by river waters swelling and ebbing as the sea rushes in and out every night and day. These mangroves are some of the most biodiverse regions in the world and the least impacted by human development activities.

Bon Bibi, the 'Lady of the Forest'
Naturally, therefore, stories grew around the tiger as human beings discovered they were powerless before its might. This is how the story of Bon Bibi was born. And although she is today considered a goddess, she really doesn’t have any religious affiliation herself and those who worship her do so because she speaks to them of things that matter to their lives. 

Painting by six-year old Patachitrakar Sonal
As with all myths and hoary stories, this one too twists and turns with different elements. In Bon Bibi’s Forest focuses on the tiger of Sundarban which is smaller in size, researchers tell us, than the other tigers of India. It is also more aggressive, although researchers don’t quite know why. The people of Sundarban live in its shadow, but they also somehow feel protected by it. They regularly re-enact the story of Bon Bibi and Dokkhin Rai to renew an old promise to use the forest with a pure heart. This retelling reminds readers that if the tiger is healthy, the ecosystem will be healthy.

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