In a clearing of dense jungle, near the India-Bangladesh border, I step from my thatched bungalow and am transfixed by a spangled cosmos, a sky lit with sparkling sequins. It is not—let’s face it—easy to be awed anymore. This idea was reinforced for me a few days earlier at the Taj Mahal, which was jammed with people setting up point-and-click shots to make someone appear to be holding the mausoleum’s dome. This, before tour guides on autopilot herded them through the architectural wonder.
The night sky, here in the Sunderbans, is something different altogether. I share my wonder with Roy, my guide and caretaker. “It would be better if you didn’t go out at night,” he says, with a polite but reproving smile.
“Well … no. Snakes,” he replies. “And scorpions. It’s not really a problem. Well, but you never know.”
I sense maybe Roy harbors some superstition that naming the danger could elevate it. A former insurance agent from Kolkata (né Calcutta), Roy speaks and moves with the slow elegance of a swami. A few years ago, he visited this prelapsarian tide country—a jumble of 100 islands knitted with gnarled mangroves, sitting just above the Bay of Bengal—and felt induced to stay. It is a wild place, populated with fierce animals and dotted with small villages where cattle dung remains the primary source of fuel. Visitors might feel they were stepping into The Jungle Book, except that aside from designated settlements, the mangroves are so thick and dangerous that visitors are forbidden to step here at all. Instead, you move slowly by boat along rivers, canals, and creeks that divide the islands.
I rode three hours from Kolkata by SUV, past bucolic swampland and rice paddies, before an hour-long boat ride deposited me at Sunderbans Jungle Camp, a low-key resort comprising a few bungalows and an open-air dining room and appended to a village of 6,000 people. Founded 10 years ago by local conservationists, the lodge is now managed by a conservation outfit hoping to use the largesse of tourists to protect the fragile ecosystem and provide a few jobs.
When I arrived, the Sunderbans had a lovely calm, making serenity easily mistakable for security. But this place can be perilous, a setting for monsoons and floods, and a home for crocodiles and estuarine sharks. More famously, it is also a reserve of the swamp tiger, a rare feline that subsists on deer but will consume a Sunderbans villager every couple of weeks or so.
Hoping to glimpse one, I hop a boat with Roy for a marine safari. The waterways widen and narrow as we move between dense stands of trees and broad expanses of sea and sky. Roy and I are joined by the guard-cum-guide that the West Bengal Forest Department required me to have along, as well as the pilot and two deckhands who periodically fetch tea as we drift, all peering into impossibly dense foliage for signs of wildlife. I am astonished to remember that more than 4 million people live in the Sunderbans—during eight hours plying the water, we see only a handful of fishermen casting nets from their wooden skiffs. What we do see in abundance is birds: kingfishers, egrets, and herons, their wings pulling colorful chests and heads against the sun-bleached sky. A massive white crocodile suns on a bank, and everyone leaps to attention. The deckhands brandish their cellphones to take photos.