The idea that tiger attack widows are ill omen can be traced to the Bonbibi’r Johuranma (The Miracles of Bonbibi)—the religious text of the Bengal delta. The story goes that Maa Bonbibi and her brother, Shahjongoli, were sent to Sundarbans by Allah to resolve the conflict between humans and the shape-shifting tiger, Dokkhin Rai. Anyone who gathered resources from Rai’s forest without his permission was attacked by tigers. After a long combat, Maa Bonbibi defeated Rai and divided the land between forest and human settlement. She declared that anybody who took from the forest out of greed should fear death by tiger attack, and she would not come to their rescue.
This religious tale has led to the superstition, in the Bengal delta, that tiger attacks are a divine punishment. Hindus and Muslims adhere to this belief and unanimously pray to Maa Bonbibi for mercy. Although the region has many widows who lost their spouses to snakes and crocodiles, because of these religious beliefs, it is only ‘tiger widows’ who are affected by social stigma.
The islanders believe that the ill omen of death by tiger attack can be avoided by the penitence of and observance of austerity by the wife back home while the husband gathers forest resources for a living. If the spouse falls prey to a tiger attack despite following the rituals, the woman is blamed for being impious. Hence, the burden of the ‘swami khejo’ slur (husband eater) is shouldered only by tiger widows, and not women who become widows because of snake bites or crocodile attacks.
Tiger widows are often pushed out of the house by their in-laws who may keep any male children she may have. Their identity as ill omens makes it difficult to get jobs in the delta. With no family to lean on and little to no access to government support, tiger widows are forced to take up any available jobs in the city of Kolkata, often as house maids or construction labourers. Vulnerable as they are, many are lured to the city under false promises of work and end up in sex work out of coercion or will in the city’s brothels.