PQ: The book provides us with a compilation of ways through which the Sundrabans celebrates life. It is a vivid portrayal of the fine, intricate balance upon which the fate of the forest and Bangladesh stands.
Close your eyes and picture the Sundarbans. Naturally, the tiger –the iconic mangrove predator – will be the first to invade most of the imaginations. Serene, winter mangrove morning and deer in the mist might follow next. The sequence could then be filled well by the seasonal fishing villages within the forest.
Views of migratory birds and mudflats, temples and effigies, creeks, crabs and crocodiles might also shore up in the process. Yes, the magical mangrove hosts all of these fascinating perspectives and even beyond.
Sundarbans The World Heritage, a massive 362-page illustrious book that came out in the last quarter of 2021, attempted a mammoth task.
It made a courageous, never-tried-before effort to embroider every known or unknown frame of the Sundarbans together in black-and-white.
The attempt was successful. The book is the latest work of Dr M M H Khan, a Cambridge scholar and a zoology professor at Jahangirnagar University.
With raw passion, first-hand experience, and profound knowledge, Dr Khan crafted an exquisite view of the world's largest mangrove forest. The book provides a biological brief of the Sundarbans. It also tells us how tigers and tides are intertwined with the lives and livelihoods around the Sundarbans.
It provides us with a compilation of ways through which the forest celebrates life. It is a vivid portrayal of the fine, intricate balance upon which the fate of the Sundarbans and Bangladesh stands.
Although all these frames come as a non-fiction narrative, Dr Khan draws them eloquently, in easy language, considerate of readers. He also resorted to intense visual story-telling techniques.
The book comes with more than 200 stirring photographs, simple figures and thought-provoking drawings. The carefully structured 12 chapters thus take any reader on a surreal trip inside the mangrove.
Sundarbans The World Heritage is the latest Sundarbans encyclopedia that is unskippable even for a single page.
A perspective beyond borders
From the very first chapter, Dr Khan followed a holistic approach. This is the first thing that had me hooked immediately. The Sundarbans, straddling the international borders of Bangladesh and West Bengal (India), is a trans-border forest.
"The forest is about 10, 000 sq km; of which 60 % lies in south-western Bangladesh and the other 40% in the southeast of the Indian state of West Bengal," says the book.
Thus, from the very beginning, Dr Khan treated the mangrove as a single unit. He continued to construct the book providing information invaluable for both sides of the mangrove. The book also stands out in this way.
A comprehensive list of known wildlife
Sundarbans The World Heritage presents an in-depth view of the major plants and animals of the mangroves.
To this, Dr Khan dedicated half-a-dozen chapters. "Mangroves are salt-tolerant forest ecosystems," he started by defining mangroves, and then hopped onto describing specific traits of the Sundarbans, saying "a total 30 true mangrove and 46 obligate mangrove plants have been recorded."
The tigers get a solo chapter in the book. The other mammals, Sundarbans birds, frogs and snakes, fish and invertebrates get one each.
The book strongly reflects on the tiger census processes and results. In addition, we get to know the names of 44 mammals, 374 birds, 68 reptiles, 16 frogs, 380 fish and 82 crustaceans recorded in the Sundarbans. Highlights and separate profiles are provided on the threatened species. The checklists provided in appendices make the book the latest compilation of the Sundarbans wildlife.
Of history, ancient beliefs and a delicate balance
If one asks how old the Sundarbans is, the answer would likely require a nose-dive into piles of literature.
Sundarbans The World Heritage gives a vivid overview of the recent past, as well as the geological history of the Sundarbans.
The book lets us know that "Archaeological excavation near the Ganges River in Lucknow Town, India, found remains of mangrove trees," indicating the extent of the mangrove 5,000 years back.
Information provided on the recent past (from the Pala dynasty to the colonial era) can also be a head-start for any research or a source to quench the curiosity of any enthusiast.
The book introduces the reader to the local deities and beliefs that steer the life of the people who depend on the mangrove.
The tenth chapter Myths and Cultures gives a narrative on all the principal mangrove demigods: Banbibi (the lady of the forest), Dakhsin Rai (an anthropomorphised form of the tiger), and Gazi-Kalu brothers (mythical Muslim leaders).
The chapters People and Profession, Threats and Deaths and Conserving the Creation remind the reader that the Sundarbans is a paradise-in-peril in the making.
It starts with the resourcefulness of the mangrove that has "supported the lives and livelihoods of people for centuries" but is now directly affected by human activities and "needs to safeguard for future generations." (sic)
A rare blend of knowledge and love
Whenever I come across any conservation literature, I try to understand the connection between the author and the work, because a work without a psychological connection is a recipe for the void.
I know of coffee-table books that were written with hidden agendas, had exploited creativity and subsequently succeeded at nothing. Sundarbans The World Heritage is a stand out, falling under a different genre – the kind that comprises the works of Dr Alan Rabinowitz and Dr George Schaller and many others.
I leafed through the pages and tried to fathom the zeal required to single-handedly, scientifically and passionately bring together a book of this volume. The connection I sought after appears one of the strongest.
Dr Khan is an eminent wildlife biologist of Bangladesh. He holds the first of many other feats, including daring a PhD research on the Sundarbans tigers. As a 90s kid, I understand how he distantly or directly influences our community of young researchers.
Dr Khan, please keep writing and inspiring generations.