Of the Forest

[This is the way I’d like to write – as the celebrated Bengali novelist Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay (1894-1950) did in his travelogue Aranyak, which means ‘Of the Forest’. Bibhutibhusan wrote Aranyak between 1937 and 1939. It might well be the first ‘environmental’ novel in the world, to my mind. Here, the short Prologue, in my own translation]

I had made myself comfortable on the green grass near Fort William after a hectic day at the office.

Sitting there quietly near a stray almond tree watching the ground undulate from the moat around the fort, I suddenly felt as if I was sitting on the bank of Lake Saraswati to the north of Lobtulia – till the honking of a motor horn from the Plassey Gate broke my reverie.

Seems like yesterday though it all happened so long ago.

Immersed in the hustle and bustle of the city of Kolkata from the morning till the evening as I am today, when I think of the forests, the moonlight, the dark and still nights, lonely groves of tamarisk and sandbanks covered with the tall kash grass, the grey line of hills on the horizon, the rapid pattering of the hooves of nilgai antelopes in the deep of the night, wild buffalo coming to the lake at noon to slake their thirst, the wonderful sight of wild flowers of all shapes and colours spreading across a stony field, dense forests of the flowering red palash – I feel as if I had dreamt of a world full of beauty at the end of a long and leisurely day – a land and a country not of this earth.

Not just the forests and the fields, I met so many different kinds of people.

Kunta… I remember Musammat Kunta. As if the poor girl was still collecting wild berries with her children in the jungles of Sungthia Baihar, just to keep herself and her family alive.

Or she would be standing silently near the well in a corner of the courtyard of the Azamabad kutcheri on a cold and moonlit night at the height of winter, in the hope of collecting the leftovers of my dinner – mainly the rice.

I remember Dhaturia… the boy dancer!

Dhaturia came from the Dharampur district in the south, after a bad crop, to earn a living with his singing and his dancing in the sparsely populated villages of Lobtulia… I had seen his face light up with a happy smile at the prospect of a meal of roasted china grass seeds with jaggery. Curly hair and wide eyes, a little girlish in his gestures and his behaviour, otherwise a handsome boy of thirteen or fourteen, Dhaturia had neither a mother nor a father, no relatives anywhere. That is why he had had to fend for himself at that tender age… Before he drifted away again in the currents of time and life. I remember Dhaotal Sahu, the honest moneylender, who used to sit in a corner of my hay-roofed bungalow and cut betel nuts to size with his nutcracker. I remember Raju Pandey the poor Brahmin squatting next to his shanty deep inside the forest, watching his three buffaloes graze while Raju sang –

Have mercy on us, o lord.

Springtime in the vast forests and pastures at the foot of Mount Mahalikharup; clusters of yellow golgoli flowers littering Lobtulia Baihar; the copper-coloured, sunburnt horizon disappearing in the haze of a sandstorm at noon; garlands of fire on Mount Mahalikharup at night when they set the sal forests ablaze. I came to know so many boys and girls and men and women from the poor to the poorest; so many lawless money-lenders; so many singers, woodcutters, beggars whose strange lives I got to know. Sitting in my thatched bungalow in the middle of the dark fields, I used to listen to the strange stories told by the tribal hunters, how they had seen the god of the wild buffaloes deep inside the Mohanpura Reserve Forest: it was next to the hole they had dug in the ground and covered with branches and leaves to trap the wild buffalo.

I shall tell their stories. Those paths in this world which are unfrequented by civilised human beings, where so many strange lives trickle down the unknown riverbed among the pebbles and the stones – to this day, I have not been able to forget my memories of their acquaintance.

But these are not happy memories, rather the opposite. That free and unrestrained playground of Nature was destroyed by my own hand, I know the gods of the forest will never forgive me for that. To talk about one’s sins lightens the load, I have heard.

That is why I am telling this tale.