In 2010, the ruling leftist Inquilabi party was in power in Bengal. At that time Gobria forest of Ayodhya Hills in Purulia district, was sanctuary for militant guerrillas.
On the shoulder of Gobria forest, hidden from the eyes of the people, it was the innocuous destination of my infrequent journeys. My muddy hut had two basic rooms, kitchen, separate bathroom-toilet, and a stone well. Hijal shrub grew carelessly in a mud yard surrounded by hedge. Behind the house there was a dense forest. A canopy of tropical trees like fire forest Palash, white teak Gamhar, Mahua, Kendu, Kurchi, Shaal, Pial painted the blue sky green.
In front of my hut an unavoidable narrow causeway cuts through the rough dirt terrain which headed to the skin-peeled tar road. I happily co-existed in the kingdom of small insects and miniature reptiles, termites, blunt-headed tumblebug, caterpillars, stink bugs, and earthworms. A mammoth beehive hung on a teak tree. Procession of head-butting army ants, colony of weaver ants in sal-leaf, dragon pose of lizard, squirrel's gymnastics, these all were the ingredients of wildlife there.
My dwelling was the refuge for spider webs, centipedes, and rodents. There was a number of boltholes of jewel worms, ribbon-tunnels of termites crept high on the walls. Innumerable chewy woodlouse were having heydays in the timber joist. In the morning, the birds quarreled, abused, loved among themselves. In the morning, tuk-tuk-tuk, sweet sounding singing of green barbet, the tui-tui-tui of yellow hooded oriole made the ambience musical. At midday creye- creye the train rattle of peacock, wooing call of dove's coo-woo and wild roosters crow created an extra melodious dimension. In the evening, the black owl hooted in its nest.
When the darkness fell on earth incessant chirping of bush crickets, mating calls of howling jackals inundated the forest life. A short distance away, being attracted by the continuous trill of frogs in a waterbody, a waiting hermit snake in search of a croaker crawled into the water. I am a nonbeliever in ghost's presence, so I was free from the fear of spirit. Nature worshippers have no fear of nature's animals. But there was endless human terror.
I had no philosophy behind being a loner and staying in such electricity less solitude. It was just a little desire to enjoy a green leisure and detaching myself from urban life, free from pollution. Shankar Baske, the caretaker of my jungle base, was a Santhal youth in his twenties. He had a brown colored half-breed canine as a bodyguard. The interior of the jungle was full of terror, and I was a 'sitting duck'. Any radical could have willingly made me some news, or they could have taken an easier route to make money, kidnapped me and asked for ransom. The remoteness of the hut in the thicket of the forest was heard of little and was beyond people's vicinity. So, there were rarely intersperse of humans.
That night was in the waxing phase of moon in the month of November. Constellation of seven holy saints in the sky were flickering and smothering with various intensity. I was passing the time boozing a little with peanuts. Shankar was cooking rice in a dented aluminum appliance by burning wood in the clay stove.
At that time, a few expats' doggies appeared wagging their tails at the smell of the broiler. Suddenly, a police jeep on patrol flashed its lights on my down-and-out shelter and pressed the brakes on the driveway. As soon as the roar of the engine died down, the five-battery spotlight swept across the forest and settled on my hovel.
Recently in village of Dungridih, militants liquidated a backward caste youth and absconded. The bullet-ridden body was lying face down in the tidal water of a stream. His crime was, he did not compromise and paint a graffiti of lion on the wall, the political symbol of one of the leftist parties, which was much to the displeasure of a swashbuckling militant. The second offence was, they failed to send the monthly allocated rice to the aggressor's bastion in the jungle. It was a rule set by the radicals. Police was running everywhere in counter insurgency to apprehend the criminal of such political murders under the pressure from high office.
As the dogs barked, two armed constables, led by an officer, entered my wild quarters with torches.
My occasional visit to Ayodhya hill started from the period when Congress Government was at the helm in those seventies. Beard on cheeks was yet to grow properly. Everything about me was known to the police. They came here looking for another clue. Turning a cautious eye around, the hot-tempered officer said, "A few crazy dogs have gone berserk, better leave the place as early as possible if you can before something big happens. If any untoward incident happens to urbanites like you, the media will jump on it. And boss will put un-stripped bamboo behind us.' The police warning created a tense atmosphere. It was pitch dark, as soon as policemen left, we turned off the lamp. Ambience plunged into abyss of silence. Only audible sound was a continuous concert of bush crickets and rustling of fallen leaves in the gentle breeze.
A moment ago, the silence was subdued by the alien dogs. They created an altercation over the remains of chicken bones in the limits of stone well. Shankar's best friend was lethargically sleeping after having belly full of chicken rice. He had already chased out the expatriate doggies by stone throwing.
With a secret apprehension in mind, I hurriedly settled inside the mosquito net pretending to be asleep covering myself wholly with a blanket. Even imbibing few pegs of booze I could not have catnap. Alertness was still in full swing. A chime of hooting, the owl seemed to have caught its prey. It was twelve in the night on the lunar clock. Gradually my fatigued eyes pulled into slumber. My chest got sudden jerk in shock as I woke up with the jittery barking of the dog. My ears lifted in excitement. Whose mumble voice could be at night? The question drove me to sweating. A feeling of horror passed through my spine. I stepped out of the mosquito net surreptitiously and pressed myself against the wall next to the window and hid. A limping table used as latch was placed on the closed door from inside. A loud bang would have forced the feeble door to open if anybody wished to enter my room.
Quiet for a while, then whisper in broken Bengali punched with Hindi. This time Shankar's voice came to my ears. As I peeped through the window's borehole I noticed in the faded moon light a dark figure strolling in the courtyard. Thinking of the alarming situation I retreated further into the gloom in great fear.
Shankar's voice trembled. — 'Malik, open the way now, these fellows have come to see you' .
I indulged myself in speak-to-not. The dog was frowning. There was a knock of alacrity on the door. Who was the ferocious adventitious? And how he came to know of my presence here? Was he here to harm me? My heart was pounding at the thought. They chatted in low tone. Then there was a knock of annoyance on the door. I thought when I was trapped, it was better to face them without being afraid. So, I opened the door.
A man standing in the blurred light, smiled at me, and said, ‘Why are you nervous? No problem. Koi Bhi Apko Nuksan Nahi Pahuchayga.’ Shankar's edgy face dried up in nervousness. He swelled the cotton line of the flame of the kerosene lamp and put it on the table on the veranda and pushed the plastic chair forward.
One was thick lipped, flat nosed, dark skinned guy, other one little fairer and countenance not like a tribal's and had a round tummy.
I asked with inertia in my tongue - Aplog Kaun? (who are you).
The brunette guy in half sweater over kurta pajama with sneakers on his feet said with a fierce snarl: 'Main hun Dhunia Jado. This is my friend. Aap apne admi ko humare liye jaldi kuch khana banane ke liye koho. We are hungry.’ (My name is Dhunia Jado. This is my friend. Tell your man to cook some food for us. We are hungry.)
The warmonger might have told me his false name and he knew every detail of me like police.
His rustic associate in baggy full pants, dirty wind cheater, and cap on his head said, 'Hapni adibasider Ubgar Karis, mayader bihar taka diyechis. Hamra jani’.(You help tribal people. You have given marriage money to quite a few tribal belles here. We know.)
I could guess their identity and was tensed without knowing their actual intention whether they would kill me or elope me into the jungle.
The man started rubbing tobacco on his palm and spoke about their activities. It sounded overrated and egocentric.
'Jangalmahal me adivasiko kuch faida nehi mila. bhukha pet, bina bijli, bina pani. Kaccha loha khodai ke liye adibasi jomin chin liya dikku ne. “Marang Buru” dhoka khaya. Hum unki modot karne ke liye lage huye’. (Tribal land is taken away by the higher caste for iron ore mining. The government does not support the poor tribal people in jungle mahal. Marang Buru (Tribal God) is befooled by them. We are here to give them support.’)
I didn't join in the discussion, kept myself mum. So, the conversation didn't expand.
They ate the remaining chicken scrap together with eggs curry and rice. While eating he tucked in his pipe gun in his waist and warned me. 'Hamara Gadar men apko mafik shikshit aur buddhiman Bengalika zarurat hai. Hame asha apse sohayota milega. Hamara aneka bat, chugli mat kijie. Fin mulakat hoga. Bhaiya time khota ho raha hanay, avi chal.' (In our fold we need educated and intelligent people like you. We hope we will get support from you. Don't tell anybody about our presence here. Bhaiya we are running out our time, let's go.)
The duo rushed on the way to the forest at the break of dawn, after grabbing some hard cash from me. This is the way they survive. We kept the incident secret within us. And I had a stress relief, Uff.
2011, the regime of red flag was over in Bengal. The pennant of power changed, and a firebrand woman was enthroned. Within a quick succession a reckless self-styled rebel from the south, once hand in glove accomplice of the new government, who holed up in the jungles in West Midnapur got killed in an encounter. The incident caused an uproar. The politics of red-soiled Jangle mahal became volatile. Gradually stamped desperados were nabbed and sent to jail. Those who surrendered, were shown olive branch, and rewarded with jobs and other facilities. The balloon of so-called romantic rebellion got busted. Hooliganism, and extortion mitigated, opportunist revolutionary mafias became silent.
I hadn't been to Ayodhya hill for quite some time. It was year 2012, I visited a village named Misirdih near Purulia to observe Karam festival, a carnival of tree worshiping. Pralhad Quiri who lived in the village, was my friend. His daughter gave birth to a son on the pledge that he would offer a pair of sheep to the 'Hatikheda Temple’. The temple is in Jharkhand's Bhulla Laozora village of Singhbhum district, 40 kilometers away from Purulia. Being his companion, I was also at the front door of the temple. Stone idols of elephant are regularly worshiped in the hundred-year-old temple built on the vested land.
It is a big temple. The priest belongs to the indigenous Laya community.
In addition to unbelieving tribals, queues of worshippers from other castes and even the upper born worship the idol. They split coconuts according to the puja protocol to renew their devotion tying red thread to the banyan tree and bow to the awakened fetish. A villager said, — 'Every house in the village has a photo or stone idol of the Elephant God. The militants also humbly bow down in fear of the elephant deity.'
There is a Folklore, once upon a time people of a tribal village deep in the forest, faced a menace. A group of delinquent elephants used to massacre the village trumpeting bugle. Food crops were regularly looted. Countless people had been killed being crushed under their feet or thrown into the void. People got scared and didn't dare to come out. A saint using his black magic reconciled with the elephant and brought peace in the area. He established this temple and people started worshipping the Elephant God.
An unusual thing happened; elephants stopped bullying. Since then, the people grew blind faith. Even being vegan elephant God became happy to the offering of the blood of the lamb. But the color of the lamb must be fair. All the wishes of the devotees always are fulfilled by Hatikheda shrine.
Inside a cloth enclosure, there was a butchery. A sheep's neck was pushed in a guillotine. A deputy was pulling back hapless sheep's hindquarters, so that sheep's scruff was rigidly fixed in the sacrificial post. A slaughterman was operating the execution. The neck with the head of the animal was decapitated from the torso by the oscillating friction of the sharp lance. The stars of the eyes got frozen at once as the last downcast cry Myaaaaaa came out from the mouth of the severed cranium. A guy was piling up the executed scull to another place to be sold to the customers. One dead scull was easily sold for Rs. 150. Through the crater of the neckless chassis I could see the throbbing of the heart of the beheaded animal. Dark red blood was oozing profusely. It was a nerve-chilling sight, and my head was spinning. Adjacent to the temple all the fertile land got contaminated by the rotten blood and the soil looked cursed and barren.
Near the temple priest Bhagirath Laya built a palatial dwelling house. Within the limit of the temple puja item dealers, grocery store, and sheep sellers were busy minting money. A group of people were dressing the skin of the slaughtered sheep by using razors and knives. Multiple number of contract chefs were cooking the vowed corpse. On the wooden stove, oil, spices, onion, and garlic were roasted in the hot pot, and the sacrificed animals while being cooked spread the aroma. Pious devotees after receiving the blessing of the God lined up to eat the cooked carcass to follow the oblation ritual.
It is the custom that sacrificed mutton cannot be taken home as it will bring misfortune to the family. Women do not have the autonomy to taste sacrificed lamb.
While I was taking firsthand snaps in the killing field standing on the blood littered floor, my attention drew to the stout executioner. The face of the bare-chested man with a round tummy, wearing a gamcha-towel, seemed known to me. As I could contemplate, I met this person couple years back in Ayodhya Hill in my address. It happened two years ago, but the memory was still fresh. Initially, I had little confusion. He had put on weight, chubbier with fatty cheek
I grew courage and straight away asked — ' Are not you Dhunia Jado the Maoist, whom I met in the Gobria forest?
Hearing the sudden petition, the hangman was shocked. Disregarding my bone-burning pleas, furrowing his brows, he cast a fiery glance at me and continued with his slaying activity with a serious face. I repeated the question. Now he burst into fury and leaving the half slaughtered animal in the guillotine he rushed down at me holding high the blood-stained blade in his fist, and with gritted teeth –he started delivering the choicest abusive words to me. I was totally horrified by his terrible look. Lastly he threatened, “ Bakwas mat kar, suar ka bachcha. Bahar niklo joldi, Varna Boli Men Dal Dunga. " ( Don't talk rubbish, you son of a bitch, get out immediately otherwise I will put you into the guillotine. )
(Pijush Roychowdhury is a globe trotter , who frequented 63 countrires. His travelgoues have been published in renowned journals. He is an awardee of " Kalom" Prize for being the best travel writer in 2020.)
( Boudhayan Mukherjee is a traveler, poet, author and translator .He is the author of five poetry anthologies , a collection of short stories and books of translations. He received the Swamagata Literary Prize (2022))