Bonbibi protects the forests and always lives with its people. She will never leave Sunderbans – she didn’t even though her father Ibrahim (or Berahim) had come to take his wife and children back. Her parents had tired of the hard life of the jungle and wanted to go back to the life that they had left behind. But Bonbibi was not willing to leave the jungle. She felt that she would be unfaithful to her people if she abandoned them — the torture and cruelty being inflicted upon them by Dakshin Ray and his followers had increased and they needed her more than anything else. Thus even though her mother Gulab Bibi was leaving the forests forever, she decided to stay back. Her twin, Shah Jongli was torn between his sister and his parents. He didn’t want to leave her behind and neither did he want his parents to leave without him. Finally he chose to stay back and the two swore to protect all the people from the evil Dakshin Ray.

Dakshin Ray, once a great ruler had fallen upon evil times. He would change his form to that of a tiger and devour those who ventured into the forest to collect honey and wood from the forests.The people began praying to Ma Bonbibi for protection. Small shrines were set up under a tree, beneath a stone and inside their homes.

Upon hearing this, Ray flew into a rage. He got ready for battle but his mother Narayani Devi calmed him down. She said that only a woman could fight a woman and hence the fight would have to be between her and Bonbibi and Ray should take on her brother Shah Jongli. The day arrived and a great fight followed. Shah Jongli and Dakshin Ray and Bonbibi and Narayani Devi fought hard and long. Finally Bonbibi defeated Narayani who fell at her feet asking for protection and forgiveness for herself and her son. Ray did the same. Bonbibi embraced Narayani Devi and called her ‘soi’, (a term used to signify close friendship between women in Bengal). From that day on the two became close allies and Bonbibi said that the people would worship both of them.

However Ray was not happy with the truce and he continued to harass all those who worshipped Bonbibi. She, in turn, along with her twin Shah Jongli protected her followers and outsmarted his every move. Meanwhile in a village close to the shore, a young boy Dukhey lived with his mother. His father, a honey collector, had fallen prey to a tiger. The mother and son lived in abject poverty but the mother was unwilling to let her son out of sight. Dukhey was unhappy and wanted to go out to work like his father and would often plead with all and sundry to take him along on their boats. But none agreed for fear of angering his mother. One day, a distant uncle called Dhona Chacha came over and asked if Dukhey would go with him to bring back some honey from the forests. Despite his mother’s weeping and screaming, Dukhey agreed. The boat left with Dukhey and a crew of 4-5 men. Dhona Chacha was the leader of the team and he took the boat from one clump of forest to another but without any success. One night, Dhona lay down to sleep on one of the islands when Dhona was visited by Dakshin Ray. Dressed up as part tiger and part demon, he asked Dhona to sacrifice Dukhey if he wanted enough honey to fill his boats. Dhona was initially reluctant but temptation and fear got the better of him. Dakshin Ray threatened that if Dhona went back on his promise, he and his men would drown in the waters. It was agreed that Dhona would lead his men to Kedokhali – a particularly remote island of the Sunderbans which they had visited in the past but without any success – and after collecting honey to his heart’s content leave Dukhey behind.

Dukhey eavesdropped on the entire conversation. Frightened and alone, he wept for his mother in the dead of the night. And then he remembered that his mother had asked him to call Bonbibi if he was in trouble and he let out a cry for her. His cries were heard and the goddess appeared before him. She said that she would always protect him and he should go forward without fear.

Morning came early and Dhona told his men that they would have to row back to Kedokhali island. The men refused because they said that they had already been there but when Dhona told them all that had transpired between him and the demon king, they recoiled in horror. They were reluctant to sacrifice the boy. However their fear of death overpowered their love for the boy.

Dakshin Ray followed the boat. He gathered his followers, the honey bees and asked them to load all the trees on the island with hives full of honey. Dhona’s men were awestruck by the sight and wasted no time filling their boat with jars of honey. After a day of backbreaking work, the men were ready to leave when Dhona was visited once again by Ray in his tiger form. He reminded him of his promise and also told him that he will make far more money if his men offloaded the honey and keep the wax from the hives (one version has it that he teaches him how to extract the wax and separate it from the honey) on the boat as that would fetch him a far better market price. Dhona asked his men to do that and the waters were flooded with honey. That is why, say the village elders, the waters of the region around Kedokhali called MadhuPani are always sweet. The boat filled, the men asked Dukhey to fetch them some timber from the forest so that they could cook themselves a meal. An unwilling Dukhey left and Dhona and his men fled with the boat.

Ray who had been waiting for this moment all day long, pounced on Dukhey who let out a wail. The boy pleaded with him repeatedly to spare his life. But Ray refused saying that he needed to eat. Bonbibi heard Dukhey’s cries and with Shah Jongli came to him. Dukhey ran into her arms while she ordered Shah Jongli to kill Dakshin Ray.

The fight went on for days and finally Dakshin Ray had to surrender. When he realised that there was no escape for him, he began pleading for his life with Bonbibi. He begged for her to see his part of the problem too – the people had stopped paying their respects to him and he had no food to fill his belly and that was why he had to resort to such treachery to capture a young boy, he said.

Bonbibi agreed to let the Gazi Saheb, an old friend of the people and an ally of Ray, intervene. Gazi Saheb convinced Ray that he should apologise to Bonbibi for preying on those who had sought her protection and he also asked Bonbibi to forgive Dakshin Ray this transgression because he had promised never to repeat the same.

Story collected by: Arundhuti Dasgupta
Source: Collected from the shrine of Bonbibi at Sajnekhali, Sunderbans; also from a play performed by a local theatre troupe at Bali islands, Sunderbans
Location: Sunderbans, West Bengal