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.