The lesser adjutant perched on the branch of a sundari tree in the Sundarban mangrove forest, the world's largest, in the south of Bangladesh. A pair of racquet-tailed drongos flew past me into the canopy above. Save for the hum of the steamer's engine, the forest was quiet. The mudbanks glistened in the sun and the trees sent up their pneumatophores out of the water into the air like claws. An egret flew close to the hyaline surface of the stream, its double mirrored below. The sun beat oppressively down and the air was close, but pure.
We approached the make-shift jetty of the village of Rupganj; it was an affair of planks of wood suspended on bamboo poles immersed in the mud beneath the water. I had doubts as to whether it could hold my weight. The steamer stopped and I disembarked without any mishap. A monkey came and sat beside my feet. I told the captain I would see him in three days and stepped off the jetty with my satchel. The steamer left.
The sun was going down as the moon was coming up - diametrically opposite each other.
A few tethered wooden boats, tarred black, floated nearby. Fishing nets hung in the mudbanks. A crowd had gathered to see me - men in lungis and vests, and children with runny noses. I heard gun-shots and made my way towards the sound. The crowd followed.
A woman in a red and black shalwar kameez lay on a wicker mat, cradling a rifle, in a field next to paddy fields. She was shooting at tin cans several hundred yards away. Even in the fading light, her aim was unerring. The cans dropped off one by one. It was a telescopic gun; nevertheless her prowess was impressive. And every time she fired a shot, a group of egrets flew up out of the paddy field. Another crowd stood behind her, watching. The two crowds merged. Their collective sweat wafted through the air.
A Tokay gecko called three times from the forest.
The last of the tin cans spun off with a ping, and the shooter rose and adjusted her dupatta before slipping into her leather sandals. She was a tall, handsome woman with regular features, fair of complexion albeit browned by the sun. Her hair was combed back in a ponytail. She wore round earrings and a silver chain. Her collarbones were prominent. She held the rifle in the crook of her right arm with the barrel pointing downwards. She exuded a strong perfume. The crowd dispersed, chattering.
"You must be Tazreen Zaman," I said.
"And you must be Zafar Shah," said Tazreen. She had a deep voice. "I've been expecting you."
We began to walk on the dirt road.
"Is it necessary to shoot the tiger?"
"Civil society has been after me for years. Come, I'll show you."
The village consisted of several huts of bamboo and thatch in circles. It was surrounded on three sides by the forest and in the north by the river. We crossed some huts and stopped at one. Cockerels crowed.
"Dipu! Dipu!" called Tazreen. A tall young man in a lungi and vest came out, holding a piece of cloth to his face and a hurricane lamp in the other hand - the village had no electricity. They spoke rapidly in the local dialect and the man removed the cloth. He raised the lamp to his face.
It was an ugly sight. Nearly the whole of his left jaw was missing and I could see inside his mouth.
"He has to be fed with a tube and he has regular infections, so he's on antibiotics most of the time." She spoke softly to Dipu and he went back inside.
"I'll show you more."
The muezzin called the faithful to prayer.
A couple of houses later, she stopped and called "Karim! Karim!" I could smell the cooking inside. A little child with shaven hair came out and spoke rapidly.
"Karim has gone out fishing," Tazreen told me. "On one leg."
"What happened?" I asked.
"Tiger clawed his leg; it developed gangrene and had to be amputated. Still, he has to earn a living. But I'll show you more."
I stopped her by the arm.
"That's not necessary. I get the point."
Suddenly, there was wailing and weeping from behind us. We could see a group of men with hurricane lamps gathered about a hut. A woman was crying inside. Tazreen rushed to the spot and spoke to one of the men.
"Crocodile! Grabbed one of the men while fishing," she explained.
She went inside and I waited. Presently she came out and we resumed our walk.
"Tigers! Crocodiles! Snakes!" she exclaimed. "These people live surrounded by danger. The other day a snake bit and killed a child."
Monkeys screeched in the trees overhead. It was nearly dark. We stopped before a bungalow. It was large, made of brick with a tin roof. It was apparently Tazreen's home. There was a garden and a pond attached to it and a perimeter wall.
"You must be wondering. Several villages got together and built me this villa because I shot a few tigers."
Although the sun had gone down, the heat was oppressive.
"Where are you staying?" she asked.
"I don't know." I shrugged.
"You can stay in my guest room."
The moon was now quarter of the way up, and the villagers were blowing out their hurricane lamps. We had dinner of rice and chicken curry by the light of a hurricane lamp, and then we turned in.
I woke up, perspiring. It was the middle of the night. Moonlight framed the bars of the window on the floor. A scraping sound had woken me. It was like claws on tin, and it was coming from the roof. I sat up, tasting fear. I thought I could smell fur.
Tazreen stood beside me, motioning me to be silent. She wore a corset of tiger skin which the village women had made for her. The fur I smelled came from her.
The scraping continued.
Presently we breathed a sigh of relief as we heard a 'meow' and the scraping stopped. It was a cat! We laughed.
I bent down and kissed her on the crotch. She shut her eyes, and shivered. Then she kissed me full on the mouth. We made love in the heat and the humidity, and finished, breathless, in perspiration.
"Let's have some of this," I suggested, as I drew a flask of whiskey from my satchel.
"Let me get a glass," she said.
Together we drank until we giggled.
"Let's go for a swim," she said, taking a sip.
"What? At this time of the night?"
"No one will see us. The whole village is asleep."
"Good idea. We need to cool off."
We felt like Adam and Eve before the Fall as we made our way, naked, towards the pond. The water felt divine; it tasted sweet. The air smelled of bole and leaf. Moonlight reigned everywhere, and the moon beamed directly overhead. Only a pair of screech owls, perched on a branch of a mango tree, disturbed the peace, and the occasional Tokay gecko. We made love again on the bank.
I woke to the din of drums and urchins screaming "Tiger, Tiger!" on the streets outside my window. Tazreen came in with her rifle and said, "They've cornered a tiger. I'm going."
I dressed hurriedly and followed her out into the dazzling sunlight. Surely enough, there was a Royal Bengal Tiger in the field and the men in lungis beat drums at a distance around it. Tazreen wore a flowered shalwar kameez. She lay on the grass, took aim and fired. The beast keeled over. The drums grew louder and the entire village burst out into screams of relief and delight.
Throughout the day the village rejoiced. Men, women and children came to see Tazreen, offering thanks and food. The odour of pilau pervaded every house.
The next day, I left. I waited for the steamer in Tazreen's verandah. We sat talking. She wore her red and black shalwar kameez and fanned us with the ineffective hand-fan. The smell of cooking rose from a nearby house. The village was quiet, save for the occasional cockerel. The taste of breakfast of bread and eggs still lingered in my mouth.
"There's something I must tell you, Tazreen," I began.
I perspired under my shirt.
"I was sent here by the NGO Women for the Wild."
Her eyes widened and she quit fanning.
"They wanted me to persuade you to stop shooting tigers, but now I know they are wrong."
"And how many women did you seduce?" Her face had gone pale with anger. "You have considerable powers of persuasion."
She put on her sandals and half-rose from the chair.
"Please don't be angry with me. I'm in love with you."
"And I loved you too! But you are one of them!"
"I'll do my best to persuade civil society that they are mistaken."
"Don't bother! They'll never listen! They're paid by western donors." Tears shone on the edge of her eyes. She left and shut the door.
A boy came to tell me that the steamer had arrived.
Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English. He was born and lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has contributed to The Danforth Review, Axis of Logic, Enter Text, Postcolonial Text, Southern Cross Review, Opednews.com, Left Curve, Mobius, Erbacce, Down In The Dirt and other publications. He is also a freelance journalist. He and his wife love to tour Bangladesh. You may find him at http://www.iftekharsayeed.weebly.com/