India’s ‘tiger widows’ defy stigma, fear and regulations to survive
Karuna Mondal clearly remembers the morning seven years ago that her husband, Ajit, ventured out to fish along with a group of other men from her community — it was the last time she would ever see him.
From various accounts, Karuna, 51, learnt that a tiger in the Indian Sundarbans leapt into their boat and snatched Ajit away.
The animal dug its teeth into his neck, dragging him into the water — he put up a fight, but it was in vain.
Unfortunately, Ajit's body was never recovered as the tiger had dragged his corpse into the forest's deep recesses.
"I was helpless initially," laments Karuna.
"It is a miracle how I am surviving and supporting my two children. Some charities have helped but that is not enough."
Just like Karuna, Saraswati Chowkidar's husband, Pratap, also met a similar fate two years ago.
He had gone crab fishing in the swampy jungle when from nowhere and without warning, a full-grown male tiger leapt at Pratap as he was to cast his net — his fellow fishermen could do nothing, terrified by the spectacle.
"The river has made me poor and the forest has taken my husband away," says a resolute Saraswati, 54.
"It is with great difficulty that we manage to get two square meals a day."
Human-tiger conflict remains a major issue in the Sundarbans. In the aftermath of tiger attacks, widows have to deal not only with the bereavement of the sudden and violent loss, but also the cultural stigma and social rejection associated with being killed by a tiger.
Tiger widows defy the slur of 'husband-eaters'
Ironically, both Karuna and Saraswati are called "swami-khego" — or husband-eaters — because their relatives blame them for their spouses' deaths.
It is a slur they live with but are fiercely set on defying with their bravery. To keep the home fires burning, they along with a number of other widows have had to turn to fishing or wild honey gathering in the forest reserve, exposing themselves to the sanctuary's tiger population.
Defying regulations, impoverished tiger widows regularly sneak back into tiger reserves to hunt so they can survive.
Such heart-rending tales are rife among residents who reside in a clutch of villages in the 140,000-hectare Sundarbans. The UNESCO world heritage site is also home to more than 100 tigers, according to the most recent census, down from 440 in 2004.
Unlike in other sanctuaries, the royal Bengal tiger in this enclosed territory is able to survive both on land and water.
And in village after village across this vast watery landscape one hears the same story — tales of mourning, young widows, and the fear of the tiger.
'Women lose husbands and there's nobody to help them'
Protima Rai, 27, is yet to come to terms with the aftermath of Cyclone Aila that struck the Sundarbans in 2009.
A mother of two, she still struggles with the salt water that has rendered her fertile farming land unusable in Sonargoan village, one of the worst-hit villages. Her husband Bhanu also died in a vicious tiger attack.
"Sometimes tigers come to the village," Protima says.
"Obviously we get scared as the tigers have attacked humans in the past … we try to stay indoors but the threat is there."
Although it's illegal, villagers go into the wildlife protected areas or core zones for hunting.
Humans are not allowed to enter these 'core area' zones for any form of trade, so in many cases women don't report the deaths for fear of being fined, and the women seldom get compensation from the authorities.
It is for this reason that the unofficial count of tiger-related deaths is believed to be higher than the official records — some estimates say there are fatalities in almost one in three families.
"It is really a sad situation. Women lose their husbands and there's nobody to help them. One constantly lives in fear here," says Satyanath Patra, a fisherman.