Dressed in jeans and kurti, Annu Jalais does not look like the hardened researcher who spent more than a year living in a Sunderbans village. In her mid-30s, Jalais, a “Franco-Bong”, is painfully shy of talking about herself and would rather talk about her first book, Forest of Tigers: People, Politics and Environment in the Sunderbans. It is based on her PhD thesis at Yale, where she is currently a post-doctoral associate in the agrarian studies programme.
Reading from her book at Weavers Studio Centre for the Arts recently, Jalais (pronounced “jalay”) reminisced about the people she has written about. They are residents of Satjelia, where Jalais lived from September 1999 to March 2001. She has since returned every year.
“I first visited the Sunderbans when I was eight, when I stayed at Basanti for two months,” recalls the ex-student of Loreto Day School, Sealdah. While studying Bengali literature at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris, her professor drew her attention to Bonbibir Johuranama, a 19th century booklet by Abdur Rahim that narrates Bonbibi’s story and which is used for her worship.
The Sunderbans are today at the forefront of environmental discussions, but Jalais’s book is more about the people who inhabit the islands. She examines how they perceive the mangrove forests and how their identity is fashioned by the man-eating tigers.
“A man from a lower socio-economic strata speaks of the tiger differently from one who is well-off,” she says. “While they narrate stories of the tigers as sharing creatures, the poachers and prawn collectors speak of ‘hybrid’ tigers that have been sent to kill them.”
According to Jalais, the islanders feel that the government is trying to preserve forests and protect tigers at the cost of the people.