In an early morning in late September I made a visit to Kunjnagar haat. The street from Falakata to Kunjnagar was almost deserted. A few peasants in lungi and napkin sat on haunches on the both sides of the street and smoked bidis and began day’s gossip. The village was all silent. Rows of betel nut trees guarded the tin-roofed huts. I passed the neighbourhood and came soon to the open ploughed fields and drove straight to the haat. Some dogs lied at one corner of the haat like logs of wood. The haat was littered with plastic cups, bottles, and carry bags. All shops were shut. The night-dew moistened the dust of the haat. Somewhere from the neighbourhood a cow mooed and cocks crowed. Only from a tea stall smoke billowed up and peasants and daily labouerers sat on the bamboo benches to start the day’s odyssey by drinking a cup of tea from Volu, the shopkeeper. Men sat and gossiped. Tea was boiled and boiled. Volu would not serve it till it turned into thick brown liquid. After a while men were served tea in plastic squat cups. They sipped and threw the cups somehow all around and left hurriedly to their work. When rain fell, the heap of cups looked snowflakes from a distance. Beyond the stall, wild pigeons, sparrows, crows and mynahs pecked the worms, pieces of biscuits and other leftovers of last night. And their plumes all glistened by the first rays of the sun.
I sipped a cup of tea sitting idly. The first batch of Volu’s regular customers left and the second batch still not arrived. Meanwhile a man came and sat beside me and ordered a cup of tea. He was black and tall, aged fifty. He wore a dirty half shirt and a napkin and slippers. And only noticeable was his wide snub nose, and wet thick lips.
“Where did you live?” he asked and I said “Falakata.”
“Half-govt.” and I explained the position and nature of a college teacher’s job. “We have no attestation power. Though we hold highly-paid post, our qualifying documents were to be attested by a gazetted officer!”
The man looked harrowed, and said, “Babu, I’m not educated, I can write my name anyhow.”
“What’s about your family?”
“My family (wife) is illiterate. But I have two ‘changras’ (boys), one studying B. A. and other in class IX and my ‘chengri’ (daughter) is a graduate.”
“You’re a proud father.” I commended.
“Your source of income?” I asked.
The man was hesitant first. He then stooped his head and said, “It was a long tale, babu. Our forefathers had come from Chottonagpur during the British rule. They were coolies. It was long long ago. My father was asked by Chuni Bose of Falakata, the great estate holder to come and settle at Kunjnagar as cultivators. We were given some lands and we worked on them with cows and ploughs. The soil was not suitable for paddy or wheat and there was no irrigation system here. We had to depend on the mercy of gods for rain. Today all are gone. But still I have an acre of land where my changras grow tea. And the leaves and the buds of the tea plants sustain us.”
“Oh! Where’s your tea garden?”
“By the outer fringe of Kunjnagar Eco Park and Jaldapara forest.”
The sun had not yet full bloomed. I could not resist temptation to visit his garden at this lazy hour of the day. Kunjnagar Park I visited many a time. But the lure to be accompanied in the forest by a Madeshi was too irresistible. Soon I rode and he sat behind. We passed through the village. Women with the naked children on their laps, sat on bamboo chatai or wooden planks by the side of the dusty path. They all saw me with such a look I could never forget. After ten minutes we reached a clearing by the side of the forest. We sat on the cushions of long grass and fallen leaves and drank beer. I looked around and saw long leaves of the wild tall trees baked their backs in the morning sun. A gust of wind blew and we felt icy. A constant whirring sound came somewhere from the depths of the jungle. A flock of langurs with babies stuck to their bellies passed us. Some of them jumped from the branches of simul, sal, sheshum, nail, palash, sirish and fell almost on us, and one fat young langur showed us teeth. Many rare birds of variegated hues and cacophonies played hide and seek amid the huge leaves and the twigs of the trees. A flock of milk white herons flew over our heads. They would peck worms and insects in the freshly ploughed fields nearby. Wild peacocks grazed in the grasslands beyond. Layers of mist still embraced the forest.
The Adivasi man felt somewhat dizzy. His head lowered, and a strain of saliva coming out from his slackened mouth.
“Are you ok?” I said.
“Haa, babu.” But I saw beer had worked on him. His eyes became a bit reddish, and his words blurred.
“Hey, man. Feel good. You’re a haria (a homemade beverage) drinker. Beer is nothing in comparison to haria. And haria is one of your staple drinks both in celebration and funeral.”
“Huh.. babu, you’re right. No haria; no pleasure, no pain.”
“Could you tell me how you make haria.”
“Durrh… babu. What do you do listening words of making haria.” And his face flushed and he began to laugh himself, as if some evil spirit possessed him. He in a moment became a child and began.
“We take rice and roots of trees. Dry them first, then grind both with the help of a dekhi (a traditional wooden plank supported on two short wooden or bamboo lever for grinding rice). Make the flour wet and make small pithas, which we call ‘bori guli’ or ‘osudh’. Then we cover the gulis with dry hays and keep them on a pot to be kept on a fire. After five minutes or so, the gulis will be baked and are ready to be mixed with atab rice to be prepared on a separate hari (cooking pot of mud or stainless). The rice is cooked and boiled and boiled until it turns into a thick starch, and next the gulis are mixed with the starch and the thick concoction is poured into a pitcher and the mouth of the pitcher is sealed and the pitcher is left untouched for four to ten days for germination. By this time the starch turns into liquid haria which is again filtered with a cotton napkin and the first and best quality haria known as ‘rasipani’ is now ready to be served. One litre rasipani costs Rs. 80 to 90. And we serve it to our guests as token of love and hospitality and we drink it to withstand the heat of the sun in summer, and in winter to keep us warm.”
“Can I have a glass of haria, no rasipani at your home, man?”
“Babu, you can’t drink it. It smells bad.”
Suddenly A friend of my company came with a herd of cows by the path of the jungle where we sat. He let his cows graze on the outskirts of the forest, and sat beside us uninvited. The newcomer asked about my whereabouts and I told him my bares of self. We three sat and they talked a lot of the days and nights of the forest. They had seen all animals—tigers, cheetahs, bisons, one horned rhinos, wild pigs, peacocks, flocks of deer, herds of Mahakals or Ganesh Thakurs etc. Mahakal what? I asked myself. And out of curiosity I asked, “Mahakal or Ganesh Thakur what?”
“We call elephant Mahakal or Ganesh Thakur as you know god Ganesha has an elephant head. To call his name is forbidden. It’s our custom. We don’t call his name. If we call his name, something evil will happen to our family. Many such incidents have happened earlier.”
“Accha dada, it’s fine. Tell me the most memorable incident of the forest you witness” I pursued.
They felt silent and pondered for a moment and both agreed to tell the story of Nirmal Tirkey and my companion of the day began with such vivacity as if he found his pet theme. “Babu, Nirmal Tirkey was our neighbour. He was brave and powerful and knew much of the ways of the forest. He was a poacher and woodcutter. His eyes and ears were so sharp that from a distance of five miles he could tell you the story of the jungle—was there any rhino, leopard, bison, elephant, etc. He was tall and stout and hairy broad-breasted with huge black moustache and curly hair hung over his forehead and shoulder. His eyes were fireballs. We feared and awed him. He had killed many leopards and elephants. He rarely stayed at home. Police were befooled by him many a time. Babu what could I tell? Six or seven years ago, one night he went to the forest for poaching and harassed a baby pachyderm by calling his name. After the incident, ten days gone. Nothing happened. On the eleventh night Nirmal sleeping at his hut and next to him were asleep his wife and child. Mother Mahakal came and took Nirmal by her trunk and threw him away. He died. She also pressed Nirmal’s wife with one leg, but left the child untouched. Nirmal’s wife was still alive but she had been lame forever.” The man paused and looked around. The sun shone brilliant. And it was almost late noon. The rays of the sun penetrated through the verdures of the leaves and fell on the shrubs and long grasses and dry leaves under, and it seemed that it was moonlit night. My companion’s friend so far was silent and felt perhaps exhilarated by the talk of his friend and told me how they lived in fear and difficulty. He had an acre of farming lands where he grew paddy in rainy season and it was destroyed by the herd of elephants every year.
“Your life is in serious danger day and night?”
“We live in constant fear but the forest guards and beat officers inform us about the possibility of the attack. If we get information prior to the attack, we make us ready with homemade supplies, and beat drums and burn mashals (a fire work), burst crackers, and the village women give ulooo..ulooo dhani to make them know our existence. And they don’t disturb us.”
“Of late they are coming frequently. We read in Uttar Banga many of such incidents. A year before an elephant entered Siliguri, and people were puzzled a lot” I added.
The man only nodded his head. He made many a repetition of a particular incident and when he was satisfied at last, he came to the basic. “Babu, Ganesh Thakurs aren’t at fault. We human beings are. Our greed made us blind. We destroy forest and make highways and highrises. They need food like us. They’re not getting it and they enter human habitats. And because of a few corrupt forest officials, poaching and felling of trees are going on unbridled. This is forest! Go inside, you can see vast woodless lands in the midst of the forest.” He talked and spat with such a disgust and anger that I felt his pain to my ribs. “Men think that this universe is theirs only. Most selfish and abominable creature of this beautiful earth.” I empathized as a way of goodwill gesture.
My companion’s friend still fiery with anger left us soon. My host stood and walked haltingly and showed me his acre of lush green tea garden, bordered with papaya, jarul, gamari, shimul, and the entire garden spotted with tender rain trees of many sizes, short, medium and tall. Some of the trees are bushy, others naked, leafless staring at the late noon sky. The sun rays fell on the dark green fresh leaves and buds and they glistened and my eyes dazzled. From his garden I stretched my eyes to meet the beauty of the never ending greenery of the tea orchards, all spread miles after miles. My eyes feasted on the greenery and I was indeed buoyed by the beauty of Dooars.
My host was busy to straighten a branch of a rain tree. The tree laid on reclines because of heavy wind. After his work he came to my side and told, “It’s too late. I need to go home and take my cows to the field.”
We rode and returned straight from the forest to Kunjnagar haat through the bushes and bumpy path and crossed a rotten wooden bridge. Under it shallow water of a rivulet murmured and ripples purpled. Fish dived and scuttled. Men and women and children bathed. Children naked sprinkled water and men gurgled poking index finger in their mouth. Village women gossiped lazily and bathed. And their breasts and buttocks protruded as wet saris and salwars stuck tight to their body lines. We passed the rivulet and reached the haat. Under a huge banyan tree we sat and ordered tea and snacks. We drank water and tea and felt refreshed. We were both tired. I thanked the man and asked his name. The Mahdeshi was a little hesitant. I pledged him that no harm would reach him, and I’m neither a reporter nor a man of police or politics, only a petty college teacher.
“Babu, my name is Sukra Oraon.” And he laughed and his brown teeth flashed and his eyes glowed. He invited me for a glass of haria in his hut. I thanked him and promised, “Not today, but certainly I will come one day and drink haria, and see your family.” The man took his bi-cycle and rode and at the turn of the path, he turned back and waved his hand. I also waved my hand to bid him adieu, and stood there for a moment and thought nothing particular.
I then took my bike, and rode back home.
(First published in Muse India)