One winter afternoon I went to Galakata haat. It was on the western side of Jaldapara forest. On a clear noon one could eye the treetops of the forest, swaying and singing, from the haat. And in the evening one could see the line of men and women carrying homes loads of lakri and pieces of timber on their heads from the forest. They were all set towards their huts. Of course there were some patches of greenery and some acres of tea foliage, and some peasant huts stood at the extreme outskirts of the forest. But the tall trees of the forest had overshadowed them. The forest with all its wild animals and trees, its shades and hues, its beauty and ferocity, its truth and myth, its stillness and calmness touched the daily lives of Dooars. The haat was all abuzz. The street from Falakata to Nine Miles through Kunjnagar went zigzag and touched the haat. It was relatively small. Only thirty to forty tin shops were there. There was a huge tree in the middle. The trunk of the tree was cemented, and elderly men sat on it, and talked, and passed the days. Two lottery tables, A tea stall, a saloon, a tailoring shop, four or five clothes stores, two stationeries, two groceries, two slippers stalls, an open space for the vegetable sellers, a corner foe fish and meat sellers, a damaged tube well, a pucca temple and a tin mosque lay like good neighbours. On haat days the peasants brought fresh vegetables from the fields and live fish from ponds and streams running through the forest. Men and women of the village came to buy daily necessities. They also crowded for nothing—chattering, gossiping, chewing betel leaves, smoking, sipping tea, quarreling, and spitting. The rays of the setting sun fell aslant on the people. It made their faces hued. Everyone was speaking, laughing, shouting, and hollering. I felt amazed at their vivacity.
I lazily walked around the haat and thought of taking another glass of tea. A student suddenly caught me, “Sir, here! What’re you for?” I saw a nylon bag hung from the handle of his cycle. The bag was too fat with all wintry vegetables—brinjals, turnips, cauliflowers, cabbages, peas, carrots, etc. and the juicy leaves of a cauliflower coming out of the bag. I made my point. He scratched his head, and looked to the ground for a while. He perhaps understood me half, and brought me to a tailoring shop and introduced me with the tailor. The shop was tiny tin hut. A sewing machine, four or five pants and two shirts, all dusted, hung from a bamboo pole. The tailor sat on stool, and was busy in stitching the ends of lungis newly brought from the haat by some peasants. A plastic badna (water pot, especially used by muslim villagers of Bengal for purification of body parts), stood at a corner of the tin shed. Beneath his stool scattered all rejected ends of clothes of myriad colours. A tiny bulb hung above. A small rusted wooden bench lay vacant at one side. We sat on the bench, and after chit a chat my student left for home.
The tailor was in his late thirties, and a father of two children. He wore a muffler on his neck. The ends of his pant were folded. He wore plastic chappals. His black windcheater was old and soiled. His hair was thick and black, and back brushed. His nose was sharp, and lips thin, and eyebrows broad. His teeth somewhat marooned and tongue reddish. He had dark eyes, and the cheeks a bit dimpled. He was tall, fair and quite handsome in a rustic way.
“Your home Falakata?” He smiled.
“Living at Falakata almost a decade and visited all the villages in and around the block. Every morning and evening I visit some haats or villages. It’s my hobby.” Exaggerated I to make him ease and comfortable. I also said my name and as a coreligionist, perhaps, he gained confidence and became more affable soon.
“You’re a rhino fighter of Galakata?” I heard a lot of you.
“Ohoo…No Saar.” He completed stitching a lungi. He folded and kept it beside me. He then stopped his work, called a boy to keep an eye on the shop, and brought me to a tea stall.
“Hey, Gobindo, give us two special cups.” Gobindo heard and made no reply. He face was dull, and he was serving the men mechanically, as if he lost interest in them.
We sat at one corner of the shop. It was already dark. The mist had thickened, and from a tall tree dews clotted and fell beneath on a rhythm. The crowd wore everything they found at home. An elderly man with an old brown monkey cap sat beside us. He was clean shaven, and he bit a samosa. The muscles of his mouth twitched, and when the flickering light of the bulb fell on his face, he looked exactly one of our forefathers, the monkey men.
“Tell me your story.” I persisted, and he fell silent, and went down to the memory lane, and sighed.
“It happened at childhood. I was a boy of ten. My father along with some other workers was engaged to make a street from Jaldapara to Kunjnagar through the forest. Five carts, all driven by buffaloes, were recruited by Beat Babu for carrying bricks and mortars. It was noon. I with other six boys of the village carried roti and sabji to our fathers. There were stretches of long wild grass on both sides of the path. The forest was deep, and silent. We felt cold. The sideways of the path was shrouded with the long blades of wild grass, almost ten feet high. Hamidul walked first, and we lined behind. We reached a few miles of the forest. A one-horned rhino all of a sudden came from nowhere and caught Hamidul, and hit him. The boy fell on the ground and the rhino began to lick him. My friend bled in profusion. Our friends all fled. I tried to rescue Hamidul, and then the rhino, the ugly beast with all ferocity chased and caught me then, and licked me whole. Its tongue was all razor sharp, and I was peeled and skinned to the bone. Blood gushed out forth, and I thought I would die.” Gobinda put two cups of brewing tea with a thud, and went to his counter back sullen. The tailor’s face was a bit reddish, and tiny beads of sweat marked his temple. He was terribly excited. He gulped the cup, and made a loud “aahh” out of satisfaction. More people crowded him. The darkness thickened.
“How did you survive then? It was a miracle! And perhaps nobody would disagree?” I said.
The man looked around the crowd, and resumed. “Huhh…, all in Allah’s hands. Without His favour and grace I couldn’t survive. But I could never repay the debt I owed to Suma Bhagat, the adivasi man. All I heard it later from my parents and brothers. The rhino tried to kill me. But what happened…I couldn’t tell. I lay on the ground smeared with blood and sand. I wasn’t senseless. I was fully awake, but could not raise my voice. I groaned in pain, and tried hard to raise my voice. Had you ever heard the sound of rhino? It sounded like running truck, gharar, gharar. And it was huge and ugly. You would be pale in fear, and your blood would clot, if you saw the beast in its ferocity alone in the jungle. Oh…what was I telling? You knew I tried to raise my voice. My groaning was suppressed under the terrific gharar gharar sound of the rhino. But I was fearless, and hoped the best. Meanwhile my friends informed my father and other workers. They all came with whatever they got at hand, bamboo sticks, lakris, shovels, knives, hatchets, axes, and scared the beast, and it then left me, and went to the forest. They saw me lying in a pool of blood. I was soon brought then to the hut of the Bhagat. I was wrapped with a blanket, and my head laid rest in a pillow. They nursed me with a glass of warm milk. Then I was carried in a van to Six Miles Hospital. The van, pulled and pushed by four men, was followed by a huge crowd. Men and women came out of their huts hearing the commotion on the street. Some enquired my parentage; some sighed, and prayed for my recovery. After primary medication at Six Miles I was transferred to Falakata Rural Hospital, and then to North Bengal Medical College and Hospital, Siliguri. I had twenty five stitches. I was treated for six months there. A doctor, whose name I couldn’t remember now, used to come to see me from Calcutta with bags full of fruits. The doctor loved me very much, and he often padded my head and said I could go home soon.”
He stopped and looked around. He then suddenly called a pigmy man from the crowd, and ordered for two vaga paans (betel leaves with a rotten piece of betel nut that has a foul smell, popular in some areas of Dooars). The man, a bundle of cotton clothes, limped toward some corner of the haat, and soon came back with paans. He offered me one, and with a style inserted the other into his mouth. He chewed with a noise, and his tongue, and the edges of his thin lips became red. His mouth and lips all watered with the juice of the paan and betel nut.
“So, it took six long months to be cured completely?” I suggested. The buzz of the haat was on the wane. Buyers bought all for tomorrow and the next day, and the sellers were busy to repack their sacks, bags, and polythene sheets after the day’s end. All thought of going home now. Only the tea stalls and paan stall still was abuzz. Some fortunate peasants, in mufflers and second hand overcoats, sat on the benches, all lazy, drinking tea and chewing paan for hours.
“No, no Saar; after the release from hospital, merely the risk of my life had gone. But still I needed medication and care, and the blessings of Allah and my villagers. Wounds were deep, especially on two shoulders and two thighs, and they took prolonged treatment to be cured. My family, friends, neighbours, doctors from Falakata, Beat babu of Moiradanga—all stood beside me, and helped me with money and medicine and love. I’m grateful to all of them. Allah and all these men saved me. Nobody thought of my survival. All feared the worst. But you know the saying, “Rakhe hari, mare ke” (If God is with you, no harm can reach you).” He laughed and stopped speaking.
“Could you show me the wounds?”
He lost no time. He came direct under the bulb, hung from the thatch. He put off his windcheater, his shirt and made bare his shoulders. He also pulled up his pants to the waist. I saw the wounds on his shoulders and thighs, and became dumb. The wounds are still fresh, only covered with thin layer of renewed skin. The wounds on his left thigh was too deep, flesh was all eaten, only the bones remained. It made the left leg somewhat rickety. If he was made bare, the big four brown patches of cut and eaten flesh, and stitches struck your eyes. The crowd knew it all. But they didn’t miss the chance of revisiting the past. They all leaned upon the rhino attacker, and glued their eyes to the marks of the wounds. It seemed to their daily dry poor life, the rhino fighter with his heroic endurance and boldness, courage and bravery, rumour and myth, injected an aura of otherworldly reality under the dim light of the thatch. The people were all animated. The hero of the evening was the rhino fighter. They all gossiped, talked, laughed, sighed, spat and didn’t move.
“Do you fear the forest?” I saw the crowd of peasants encircled us. Their clothes were all shabby, but their eyes shone bright with enthusiasm and curiosity. They eyed me as a very important person from top to toe.
“Saar,” The man rose to spit, and the crowd moved and made a passage. The speaker went to one corner, spat, and took seat on the bench. “Saar, I feared both the jungle and its beasts. I often dreamt of the fight, and shuddered in fear and sweated. I screamed in sleep, and my wife and children had bad sleep for me.”
The man stopped. His head lowered, shoulders shrunk. He was soft, and contemplative. His muffler dangled from his neck.
“Saar, it wasn’t so. My childhood days spent in the forest. I loved a kunki (tamed elephant) so much that I often climbed on its back. Her name was Laxmi Piyari. I played with her at Moiradanga Depot. She knew my smell. Every day I went to the Depot. She saw me, and called me with her trunk to climb on her back. After a round, I with my tiny hands brushed, and messaged Piyari’s temple. She felt joy at my caress, and shook her head and fanned her ears continuously. If one day I not attended her, she was all day sullen, and sorrowful. She often cried for me, and people of the Dept said, tears welled on her tiny eyes.”
The young man brushed his face with both hands, and sighed deep. The people around him were all silent. A sense of remorse pervaded the haat. The men knew not what to do. But all felt a sympathy for the speaker. They spoke with their eyes, and believed his tale.
“The jungle was a mystery Saar,” the man continued. “I loved it long long ago, but since the attack I feared and hated it. Have you heard the story of my grandfather?”
“No. Who is he?” I asked him in surprise and total ignorance.
“It was a sad tale, Saar. Everyone of Moiradanga knew it. My grandfather, Darbar Miah was a stout over six feet tall, handsome man. He, along with other forty men one day in the year of 1985 went to the river to catch fish. The river flowed through the forest. All forty men after the day’s fishing came back home. Only my grandfather didn’t. We made every possible search for him. He was nowhere found. He had gone forever. No trace of him could later be found. Nobody had any clue to his missing still now.”
The man sighed long, and deep. He was bewildered. He wiped his moistened eyes, and stood up for his shop. The crowd broke. They hurried towards their huts. The air was heavy. The haat was almost empty. I also stood up, and shook his hand. I left him with a promise to meet him again.
(First published in Setu)