To get to the Village of Widows, we take a boat which ferries us across the clear waters of the Vidya in the Sunderbans, and land on the banks of Goshaba Island, where Jelepara is situated. A winding road along the river leads us into a sunny hamlet dotted with lily ponds, fruit trees and flowering creepers, and tiny mud huts with thatched roofs. These idyllic precincts, in the largest delta in the world, are home to the Royal Bengal Tiger. Though official records state there were just nine deaths caused by tiger attacks in the area during the past year, the locals maintain that in the last couple of years there have been as many as two such deaths every month. Among the dead are fishermen, honey collectors and wood gatherers. At every turn in the village is a hut where a 'tiger widow' lives. You run into them elsewhere in the village too—women dressed in stark white, washing clothes by the riverside, or working in the fields. A little distance away from Shukla's hut, beyond the emerald green paddy fields, is the sun-washed courtyard of Duroboli Halder, in her fifties, who sits on the mud floor of her verandah, and recounts to us the horror of her husband's death. Duroboli's husband was killed by a tiger which sneaked up from behind and grabbed him by the neck when his boat got stuck in a narrow canal deep in the forest. "His fishing companions, who came back from the jungle without him, told me how he was dragged into the forest, bleeding and pleading for help. Never to be seen again! Not even his dead body!" she tells us. Duroboli had to perform his cremation by burning a straw effigy of him, as is the practice in such cases. In another hut, Sunita Halder tells us how a tiger sprang on her husband while he was gathering wood for fuel and dragged him away into the forest. Sunita, however, is that rare Jelepara widow who remarried a few years later.Not so long ago, tigers roamed free over this delta island and its environs undisturbed because it was uninhabited by humans. Then, forty years ago, two little settlements, Malopara and Rajbongshipara, which would later merge into Jelepara, grew up here. It was settled by fisherfolk from Bangladesh, fleeing the violence and bloodshed of 1971, who crossed over into India through the riverine borders along the Sunderbans. But the widows started being noticed only over the past two decades, says B.D. Sharma, former superintendent of police of the South 24 Parganas district, under which Jelepara falls. "People going past on boats would notice the large number of women wearing the widow's traditional white garb on this island," he said. In the 1990s, a journalist reporting on the delta also remembered being struck by "the almost surreal vision of rows of women, all clad in white, standing on the bank of the river, looking desolately out ahead." And thus was born the legend of the Village of Widows.But the "tiger widows", as we discovered, are a reality, and continue to be. Forest officials blame "illegal" entrants, including poachers, into restricted core areas of the forest, for the increasing number of deaths of humans from tiger attacks. But there are other theories, too, to explain this phenomenon. The success of the National Tiger Protection Project, for one, which has increased the tiger population in the Sunderbans delta region to 250, according to the last count in 2004. Another theory holds that tigers are increasingly hungry for human flesh because of lack of adequate food in the forest. The deer population, for instance, has not increased in comparison. Climate change and the resulting increased salinity of water too has been cited as a reason for turning tigers into man-eaters, giving them a taste for salty human blood. Honey collectors claim that they can no longer rely on the traditional practice of wearing a mask over the back of the head to scare away tigers: the big cats are no longer fooled.The debate over what has caused the tigers to attack men continues as we leave Jelepara. And as we board our boat and turn back for a last look at the island, we see a line of women in white, standing on the shore, looking desolately out across the water.
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