Guillotine of Fanatics and Faith: An Encounter in Junglemahal (Part I)

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My refuge in the Gobria forest

In 2010, the ruling leftist Inqilab party was in power in Bengal. At that time Gobria forest of Ajodhya Hills in the Purulia district, was a safe refuge for militant guerrillas. Located on the fringes of the jungle, hidden from the vicinity, it was an innocuous destination of my infrequent journeys. My mud hut had two basic rooms, kitchen, a separate rudimentary bathroom-toilet, and a stone well. Hijal shrubs grew carelessly in the mud yard surrounded by hedges. Behind the hut was a stretch of dense woods. Canopy of tropical trees like Palash, white teak Gamhar, Mahua, Kendu, Kurchi, Sal, Pial painted the blue sky green.
In front of my hut an unavoidable narrow causeway cuts through the rough terrain, headed to the metalled road. I happily co-existed in the kingdom of small insects, pygmy reptiles, termites, blunt-headed tumblebugs, caterpillars, stink bugs, and earthworms. A mammoth beehive hung on a nearby teak tree. Processions of head-butting army ants, colonies of weaver ants in Sal-leaves, dragon pose of lizard, squirrel’s gymnastics all were the ingredients of my wild stay there.
My dwelling was the refuge for spider webs, centipedes, and rodents. Boltholes of jewel worms, ribbon-tunnels of termites crept high on walls. Innumerable chewy woodlouse were having heydays in the timber joist. In the morning, the birds quarrelled, abused, and loved among themselves. Tuk-tuk-tuk went the sweet cries of green barbets; tui-tui-tui of yellow hooded orioles made the ambience musical. At midday the creye-creye rattle of peacocks, wooing call of doves and wild roosters created an extra melodious dimension. In the evening, the black owl hooted in its nest.

Canopy of tropical trees like Palash, Mahua, Kendu, Sal, Pial painted the blue sky green.

When darkness fell on earth an incessant chirping of bush crickets, mating calls of howling jackals inundated the forest life. A short distance away, being attracted to the continuous trill of frogs in a waterbody, a hermit snake in search of a croaker crawled into the water. I do not believe in the existence of ghosts, so I was free from the fear of spirits. Nature worshippers have no fear of nature’s animals. But there was endless human terror.
My reasons for being a loner and staying in such solitude were not philosophical. It was just a desire for living amidst nature, away from urban life and pollution. Shankar Baske, the caretaker of my jungle base, was a Santhal youth in his twenties. He had a brown coloured half-breed canine as a bodyguard. The interior of the jungle was full of terror, and I was a ‘sitting duck’. The risk of being killed or kidnapped by radical insurgents was real. The hut located deep in the thicket of the forest was quite remote and was beyond the nearest village’s vicinity.
That night was in the waxing phase of the moon in the month of November. Constellation of seven holy saints was flickering in the sky. I was passing the time with a little booze and some peanuts. Shankar was cooking rice in a dented aluminium utensil by burning wood in the clay stove.
At that time, a few expats’ dogs appeared wagging their tails at the smell of the broiler. Suddenly, a police jeep on patrol flashes its lights on my down-and-out shelter and presses 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.

Behind the hut was a stretch of dense woods.

Recently in the village of Dungridih, militants killed 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 the political symbol of one of the leftist parties, much to the displeasure of a swashbuckling militant. The second offence was, they failed to send the monthly ration of rice to the aggressor’s bastion in the jungle. It was a rule set by the radicals. Police were running everywhere to apprehend the criminal under pressure from high office.
As the dogs barked, two armed constables, led by an officer, entered my hut with metal torches.
My occasional visit to Ajodhya hill started from the period when the Congress Government was at the helm in the seventies.I was a fresh-faced young man then. 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 the boss will make our lives hell.’ The police warning created a tense atmosphere. It was pitch dark, and as soon as the policemen left, we turned off the lamp. The surroundings plunged into an 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 broken by the barking of alien dogs. They fought over the remains of chicken bones in the limits of stone well. Shankar’s best friend was lethargically sleeping after a satisfying meal of chicken and rice. He had already chased out the expatriate dogs by throwing stones at them.

A man stood in the blurred light

With an inexplicable apprehension in mind, I hurriedly settled inside the mosquito net pretending to be asleep covering myself fully with a blanket. But I was wide awake, and alert. A chime of hooting, the owl seemed to have caught its prey. It was midnight on the lunar clock. Gradually my fatigued eyes pulled into slumber. It was with the jittery barking of the dog. My ears lifted in excitement. Whose muffled voice could it 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 a latch was placed on the closed door from inside. A strong-willed bang would have forced the feeble door open if anybody wished to.
It was quiet for a while, then there was a 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 moonlight 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 door now, these fellows have come to see you’.

Who could be the unexpected stranger? And how did he know about my presence here? Was he here to harm me? My heart pounded. They chatted in low tone. Then there was a knock on the door. I thought when trapped, it was better to face them without being afraid. So, I opened the door.
A man stood in the blurred light, smiled at me, and said, ‘Why are you nervous? No problem. Noone will harm you.” Shankar’s face wore a terrified expression. He turned up the cotton line of the kerosene lamp, flamed and put it on the table on the veranda then pushed a plastic chair forward.
A short, thick-lipped, flat-nosed, dark skinned man stood in the corner silently watching me. The other one had lighter skin and did not look like the local tribal folk. He had a round bulging tummy.

I asked “who are you?”
The guy dressed in a half sweater over kurta pyjama, with sneakers on his feet said with a fierce snarl: “I am Dhunia Jado. This is my friend. Tell your help to quickly cook some food for us. We are hungry.” The militant possibly gave a false name and he seemed to know every detail about me like the police.

I hurriedly settled inside the mosquito net pretending to be asleep covering myself fully with a blanket. But I was wide awake, and alert. A chime of hooting, the owl seemed to have caught its prey. It was midnight on the lunar clock. Gradually my fatigued eyes pulled into slumber. It was 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.

The rustic comrade in baggy full pants, dirty wind cheater, cap on his head said, “you have helped the tribal people, gave them money for their daughters’ weddings, we know.”
I could guess their identity and was tensed without knowing their actual intention whether they would kill me or kidnap me into the jungle.
The man started rubbing tobacco on his palm and spoke about their activities. It sounded overrated and egocentric.
“The tribal people of jungle mahal are always neglected. There’s no food, no water, no electricity. Their land was taken from them for iron mines. Marang Buru was betrayed. We want to help them.”
I didn’t join in the discussion, and kept mum. So, the conversation didn’t continue.
They ate the remaining chicken scraps with a curry of eggs and rice. While eating he tucked his pipe gun in his waist and warned me. ‘We need intelligent Bengali people like you. We hope you will cooperate. Do not tell anyone about our visit. We are running out of time now, we have to 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.

Images courtesy: Pijush Roychowdhury, Pallavi Banerjee & Facebook

To be continued…

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