Teja, the great old man, aged seventy five, was sitting on his haunches on the open yard of his tin-hut. He was all bare, except a short napkin stuck to his loin. He was huge, over six feet and well-built. He was almost bald, and his thick eyebrows all white, nose sharp. The man was clean-shaven. He had bulging muscles, though loosened at the burden of age. His face was square, and eyes small but keen. And the veins of his neck, when he spoke, twitched, and stirred. His marooned teeth were in perfect array, and he enjoyed his food much. His long hands and sturdy legs were rough, scabbard and furrowed with protruding veins.
The man was extremely proud of his past life, the days of difficulties, and joys. He sat not straight, a little bent forward. It was noon, and the day was mildly cold. He was basking in the sun before bath. The rays of the sun fell on his hairless smooth long back, and his black body glistened. But his legs and hands, smeared with mud, didn’t reflect. The light was all absorbed by the mud. And it seemed his bare begrimed legs and hands were jealous to his polished and chiseled body.
A cow tied to a bamboo pole at a corner, hens pecking grains and worms, pigs roaming around, and hundred pigeons were making such a noise, that I had to shut my ears for a while. The sky was all blue, and the air was light. They flew upward the sky, and vaulted, and vaulted in sheer joy and dexterity, as if to welcome the guest. Some sat on the tin roof for a while, moved around the yards, and making continuous bokom bokom noise. Some even sat on the shoulder of the man. Those were respectable and domineering, and they always wanted to be in the limelight. And he felt happy. But when enraged, he took a stick, and tried to make them a temporary fly from him. But they didn’t heed. They flew some paces away, and again in a minute came back to him. He became exhausted, and finally let the birds do their likes.
At the back of the hut was a shade made of bamboo and wooden planks and twigs on which the juicy fat tendrils of pumpkins slithered, and entwined them. Two school going girls came sudden from nowhere, and whispered something to their grandfather’s ears, and went running away in glee. The elderly man shone bright.
“Heard, you’ve beaten a Royal Bengal Tiger.” I said while sitting on a plastic chair before him. And I gave a brief of myself. The man seemed unassuming at first look. But in reality he had an unmatched pride in his youthful prowess and his past brave deeds. He was a man of forest, and he had been a legend for his fight with the tiger among the village folks.
“Huh, I did that.” He was not happy with me, and he took me as a novice in the matters of jungle and its ferocity. I was a civil town boy, and the way he looked at me, irritated me. His eyes were a bit reddish, and the muscles of his face slackened. But his muscular biceps and thighs still bore the ravages of beauty and strength of his youth.
“Oh, Buri, bring a glass of water,” he called his wife who was cooking in the kitchen, and she went limping to the tube well. She was of medium height, lean, white, face wrinkled. She was not bald, but her hair thinned. She wore no saree, only a clumsy blouse and a petticoat. And the her blouse loosened out of her shoulders, as her breasts once young and robust, now dried and shrank into small betel nuts. She came back with a glass of fresh water, and handed me, but said nothing.
“Achha, tui esob shune ki korbi?” (what you do with my story?) The man looked thoughtful, and the pigeons made my task more difficult. I could not hear him well. I took the chair and came closer to him.
“I’ll build a story with your story.” I said and laughed.
“Ha, ha, ha…,” he laughed for thirty seconds or so, and soon after became grim and morose, and sat silent. He went back down the memory lane. His face reflected multitudes of myriad scenes, some happy, some unhappy, others fatal.
“It was in the year 1980,” he began. “The Jaldapara forest was dense and deep. Animals all ferocious were seen in plenty, even at broad daylight. There was a mud path running from Saalkumar to Holong Bunglow. The path was always deserted, occasionally marauded by the forest officials sitting on kunkis (tamed elephants) as a measure to guard the forest from the fellers and poachers. The trees were humongous, and underneath grew the shorter growths of shrubs, and bushes, and thickets. And the long blades of purundi grass narrowed the path so, that you had to brush them aside to move through it. The forest was always shadowy, and cool, and calm. Even at midday noon, you could hear the songs of myriad insects, and birds. And an incessant whirring sound from the depths of the forest struck you. And the fear of elephants, bisons, rhinos, cheetahas, wild boars, pythons, wild buffaloes loomed large at each step. And the scent of the woods, if you had any experience, so strong and sweet. And if you drank it, you would forget all, and never came home back. Such was the forest.”
He stopped, and rose to his heel, and went to his cow to give some fodder of hays and grass. His wide hairy breast with muscular shapes, though not toned, awed me. Indeed, he was a man of the forest, I thought myself, and his giant size made me a Lilliput.
“We needed hays to repair the thatched huts of the village. But the Beat officer then was L. N. Chaki, a very tough guy. Hays grew abundant in the forest. But none were allowed to cut it. I made a plan. I hired a dozen tribals. I bribed the mahut on whose kunki Chaki with a gun slung at his shoulder always, roamed in the forest. The plan was that the mahut would not come to our parts of the jungle, and we in two three days could collect a huge mass of hays.”
He stopped, drank a jug of water, took a liberal pinch of gundi (a mixture of dried tobacco leaves and two or three pieces of betel nuts, used as mouth refresher as well as addiction) from a crumpled paper, and kept it at the farthest edge of his left gum. And he offered me the same, and when I put it into my mouth, ridges of the gums shrank and burnt soon, and I threw it, and gurgled my mouth. But the stench remained, and I kept moving my tongue around the walls of the mouth. He thought I relished the taste and began. The lost shorn look was gone, and an aura of enthusiasm and energy lit his face and eyes.
“So, my men were working. I came home back for fetching bread for them.” He swallowed the juice of gundi, and he felt refreshed. “And I was a bit late, uhhu, and I took a short cut through the forest. I walked quickly, but the twigs and the blades of grass twirled so thick and heavy, covered with cobwebs sometimes, made my walk hard. The forest was still. Only weird cacophonies of some birds were heard. And some langurs passed me unheeded. I came to a broad area, scattered thickets and purundi grass, and the light of the sun made a chiaroscuro there. And the trees were all buntus, and the foliage not long. And there wallowing the babaji. He saw me, and eyed me face to face. I also saw his eyes staring at me. And the smell was nauseating, so pungent, so filthy.” He spat, and wiped his lips.
“Have you seen a tiger?” He was serious, and he wanted to showcase his lost virility.
“Many at Khairbari Eco Park.” I said.
“Phoo…Sher in jungle have you seen?” He looked at me with a sheer negligence and queer disgust. “You all educated men happy to live in the holes of town. Never know jungle. Come and take some photos from parks of Khairbari, Kunjnagar, and do a savari, and you write columns on wild life. Phoo…phoo.” He spat again. The pigeons perhaps knew the mood of their master. They flew away and began vaulting in the clean blue sky.
“You know, Maharaja sat on my path. And I was before him. He eyed me, I eyed him. I thought no escape. He sat still and groaned grrum grrum grrum and his tail twirling, and his whiskers rapidly stirring. If I moved back, he would jump over me, and I couldn’t run with him. I had nothing, no axe, no knife. I saw my death. But I never lost my courage. I challenged him.
In those days, you know, I had huge strength, sei fikar (healthy and very beautiful figure). I ate 2kg meat at a time, drank 1 liter milk daily evening, and could eat 100 rosogullas at marriage party. And I had produced five sons, and four daughters. So I didn’t move, and stood fearless before babaji. I saw his sharp claws, and he smelt foul. I thought I didn’t attack first, and I kept my head cool. That was the basic thing in time of danger. This way thirty minutes passed. If he went away, I could have my life back. But babaji thought of me as delicious bait. And suddenly he moved his left leg, and straightened his body, and leaped over me with a loud wowh. I turned and saved my head. He missed the target, and I clutched his neck, and boxed it at random. I had no hodol (sense) then. I looked at his face, and tied his tail tight with one hand. One hand was on its neck, and other on its tail. And I gripped the tail tightly. After five minutes or so, it tried hard to escape from me. But he couldn’t. He groaned, and twisted, and turned. And finally he fled, but with its shorn tail. Blood gushed out of my wounds. I tore my napkin, and tied the wounds, and ran home somehow.”
“Any trace of the fight?” I said, and he showed me the marks of wounds on his shoulders. Four wounds I saw. Those were very deep, and the lesser ones could no longer be noticed. I touched those wounds. His eyes twinkled.
“Any disease you have, or sugar, pressure?”
“Nothing. I’m seventy five, and still going strong. Teeth are all fine, and eat everything I like.” He claimed with a broad smile.
I folded my hands for namaskar, and took my leave. But he called Rani loud, and a girl of nine with large liquid eyes and curly thick hair came running to him, and hugged him. She then went to the kitchen, and soon brought a small cheap tray with some biscuits, and two cups of tea. The tea smelt smoky. We drank. The girl went to play with friends. And the pigeons all came one by one, and sat on the roof of the hut again. They basked in the sun, and their oily plumes glistened. Buri stayed in the kitchen, and thick black smoke covered us. My eyes burnt, and the old man coughed and abused his Buri.