IN the Sundarbans' spookiest outback, gusty winds whistle through clumps of eucalyptus trees, desolate dirt-tracks snake past expansive prawn fisheries and miles of nothingness melts into rivers. The eerie idyll of Jharkhali island is also an apt setting for its most famous resident—Bachu Sardar. In his lair—a spartan mud home set on a three-acre plot—the legendary Sundarbans
pirate insists that he has quit the river. "I don't understand how I have gained such infamy," he says. "I left the river over a decade back. But the police keeps on harassing me and calling me names." Wrong, says the police: Sardar has been nabbed at least seven times in the past decade, and his trawler has been seized. He is still suspected of cosying up to gangs and offering them assistance.
This piques Sardar most. A few months ago, the police landed up at his door to check out a piracy case where some fish-ing nets had been looted. He says he 'tapped' his contacts to recover the nets from a jungle. And once in December, the police picked him up, he says, "simply because I was drinking by the roadside." The nagging suspicion remains. South 24-Parganas SP B.D. Sharma avers: "When we arrested him three months ago, he told us he had reformed. We'll check out whether this is true." For his part, the forty something man with a potbelly, who still sends shivers down the spine of the delta's fishermen, says he is making an honest living on his 16-acre prawn fishery and living a sedentary life with his quiet wife Phulbasi and his nephews and nieces. The couple are childless. "I don't need riches. And I have no vices. I am happy with what I have," says Sardar, who spends his afternoons swigging local brew, chewing betel and playing with his 12 cats and three dogs. When evening falls over Jhar-khali, he invites his neighbours over for another session of raucouskirtans. He also dabbles in politics, roots for the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and has friends in high places. "When we arrested him last time, there were phone calls from an MP and an MLA telling us that he had reformed," says a district police official.
All this is still not helping Sardar to live down his past. Born to a crab-catcher in a family of 18, the legend of the Sundarbans refuses to divulge details anyway: "Don't ask me about the past. But piracy is not a good thing."
HIS trawler is rotting on the banks of Thakuran, and Sundar Mollah no longer rides the waves. He doesn't need to, he says. Today, he lords over 13 acres of lush farmlands growing paddy, watermelon and 60,000 green chilli plants. He also owns a six-room one-storey brick and concrete home—one of the few in the bustling Moipith island—and runs a flourishing provisions store.
Ask him about piracy and the lean and wiry man with a grey-ing moustache waves his hands and says: "Lies, all lies. I am wealthy, I don't need to rob fishermen for my livelihood." Mollah says he was slapped with just one dacoity case, for which he spent 13 days in jail 15 years ago. The case is pending: he visits the courts once every month, "pay Rs 30 to my lawyer for god knows what", and then returns home with a fresh date.
Police records reveal at least five pending cases, including a couple of murders, against the man. Fisherman Ananda Kayal of Jata remembers: "Sundar Mollah was a terror. He wore a blood-stained shirt to terrorise fishermen." And trawler owner Mritunjoy Raj of Raidighi says: "Mollah was ruthless. In 1983, he fired at my trawler and chased us. But we managed to escape." Mollah flatly denies this: "People commit dacoities and use my name." Last July, he helped the police rescue the 52 captured fishermen in the Bidyadhari river heist. "It was Allah's grace that the police called me. Had I refused, the pirates would have been described as my men. I had to grab this opportunity," he says.
Living in an 18-member joint family with two brothers, Mollah is the archetypal family man, sending his four children to school, tending to his farm, playing football and watching cricket on a battery-powered black and white television set. In his dank room, a curious 'Do Not Smoking' (sic) sign hangs on the door, calendars of Mumbai film stars adorn the walls and the only book, a Sarat Rachanabali (Saratchandra Chatterjee's anthology) is preserved carefully. "I love reading Saratchandra's works," says the man who dropped out of school when he was 15.