By Abhijit Dey
‘Now everyone enters the forest by themselves to collect Mahua (flowers). They divided the trees like this is mine, that one yours. There was a time when the entire village used to go to collect Mahua. Those days are lost, those days have gone…’
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It was the middle of July. Kolkata was still burning under the scorching sun and I had a couple of free days – perfect for a short trip. So, I packed my bag and left for one of my favorite destinations – Garh Panchkot (GPK), Purulia, West Bengal. GPK is one of the last remaining pockets of forest of this region – the eastern part of Chhota Nagpur plateau – being dominated by Sal (Shorea robusta), Shimul (Bombax ceiba), Mahua (Madhuca indica) and Palash (Butea monosperma). Though Purulia was not a great choice for a trip in the hot summer days of July, I was sure that the forests of GPK, and the reservoir of Panchet dam (on river Damodar) wouldn’t fail me. And they didn’t. The first glance of the hill, the clear blue sky, cool breeze from the reservoir presented much-awaited relief.
There was no plan at all other than roaming around here and there with a couple of like-minded local friends. So, after satisfying our stomach at Arjun Kaka’s place, we hit the road.
Intrigued by a grand Kendu (Diospyros melanoxylon) tree and a few other surrounding old trees, we stopped. We went ahead toward the old fellow, standing as a guardian of the forest patch – a big termite mound was a few feet away from it with a square-shaped stone (approx. 1ft x 1.5ft) at the base. The base of the mound and the stone was reddened and smoothened by vermilion and oil. A few earthen horse-shaped small toys were scattered around and half-burnt incense sticks were still stuck in the soil. Just as we realized that it was a sacred grove and we must not be here with our shoes on, as that might hurt the sentiment of locals, someone called us. A newly married young woman, with a broad smile on her face, requested us to remove our shoes. Feeling embarrassed, we quickly moved away from there. She readily informed us that there was nothing much to look at now and we must come back in the month of Maagh (the eleventh month of the Bengali calendar, which corresponds with January/February), when they celebrate the main ‘Parab’ (festival), to experience the glory of the place and the beauty of their culture. A sense of pride and happiness was evident in her voice.
We moved on, but her voice was still reverberating in my ears. It spelt a strange emotion of happiness and sorrow that such simplicity is still alive in these villages, but we – the ‘enlightened’ ones – think twice before approaching a stranger. Maybe the simplicity of one’s environment also governs the simplicity of oneself?
My jovial mood was banished by the sight of a huge pile of plastic waste, mainly packaged drinking water bottles that satiate the city tourists, and the sudden disappearance of the green cover alongside the road. A newly constructed hotel, dubbed as ‘eco-tourist’ lodge, was ridiculing the surroundings. Tourism is a budding industry in GPK. A long stretch of felled trees along the forest edges could just be the beginning. The so-called model of development has never been merciful to the local socio-ecological fabric of forest-based life. Well, as our road again entered a forest patch, the possibility of a grim future of GPK was replaced by the lush greenery of the present.
We reached the main tourist attraction of GPK – the ‘Garh’ or fort – which is an archeological ruin of the 18th century, when the Maratha ruler of Nagpur (known as ‘Bargi’) attacked and looted this part of Bengal. Bengal was then under the rule of the Nawab of Bengal, Alibardi Khan.
Here, the first thing that caught my attention was a huge board placed by the local administration, prohibiting playing loudspeakers and use of disposable plastic plates. It was clear that a lot has been spent in putting up the notice board. We wished that the administration would provide equal attention in implementing the same. Upon hearing our words, the local shop-owner joined in our conversation. His shop had almost everything that was of use or interest to a tourist – from tea to mask of ‘chhou nach’ (an indigenous tribal dance form). Degradable plates made of dried sal leaves were piled in one corner in his shop. Pointing to that, he replied – it’s the local shop-owners who made the rule to be followed. Why? Are they all ecologically aware? Probably not. The reasoning is simple – tourists / picnic-parties carry plastic plates. As it is banned, shop owners don’t let them use it. But, they need plates anyway. Shop owners come to the rescue and they sell them sal-leaf plates. Therefore, it serves a dual purpose – monetary benefit for locals and ecological benefit for all. But unfortunately, the case of loudspeakers was not so promising.
While on the way back, we met Lakha kaka. He was returning from the nearby forest with his entire day’s collection of Mahua seeds. They call it ‘Kochra aati’ – seeds are not as prized as Mahua flowers, but they still have some value for the tribals, as they extract oil out of them for daily household use. And whatever remains can be used as compost or can be put on fire to deter snakes. Lakha kaka had a bag full of them. He said the oil has a local market that can earn him subsistence. Since it is not much favoured, very few tribal people collect it. So, the more he can toil, the more he can manage to get.
It was almost evening and we returned to Arjun kaka’s place. Darkness wrapped the forest all of a sudden, accompanied by a continuous chorus of crickets. We were relaxing under a huge Mahua tree, and the gentle forest wind was relieving us. The melody of some tribal song was floating in the air – filling the gaps in our chit-chat. Arjun kaka joined us with muri (puffed rice), peyanji (onion pakora) and tea – sharing his stories of the forest, people and folklore.
Our adda was in full swing – at such a moment, he called upon someone – ‘O! Goshai Buda’. Two shadowy figures responded to his call – Goshai buda (old fellow), an octogenarian, accompanied by his great-grandson – and joined us for tea. Arjun kaka said that there were very few old people left in the villages who can talk about the earlier days. Though Goshai buda was not a good fellow for an engaging conversation, because of his lack of hearing, he was a nice person who could enrich you with stories of tribal life if you were interested in them.
How time has changed – how was life at their time and how is it now? How not only the villages had been displaced by the Panchet reservoir, but also the tribal life. How forests were shrinking and their dependence on forest getting dwindled. How open-cast coal mines, refineries and just one sponge iron unit blacken the soil and impact local subsistence agriculture. How a forest dweller became a daily wage labourer. And how the intricately woven social life of tribal communities became alienated from each other.
‘Now everyone enters the forest by themselves to collect Mahua (flowers). They have divided the trees like this is mine, that one yours. There was a time when the entire village used to go to collect Mahua. Those days are lost, those days have gone…’ his voice got choked. The mild air became heavy. Even the mood of the joyful tribal song turned into a tune of melancholy. Goshai buda seemed to somehow gather strength in his old muscles and stood up, and without uttering a second word, headed for his home. Probably, he couldn’t gather strength to bid goodbye. His great-grandson wished us good night on his behalf and followed him. The ‘loss’ in Goshai buda’s words was visible in all of our faces.
Next morning, I left GPK. I sat by the window on a local train and plugged in my earphones – saddened by the stories of change and baffled by many questions. Why does life deteriorate like this? Would we then find a way to make a ‘better’ life? Can I do something for the place that is so close to me? Well, with a hope to find answers, my smartphone probably played the apt song –
“The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wind”.
About the author:
Abhijit is a PhD student at ATREE, joined in August 2019. He is fascinated by the Chhota Nagpur plateau landscape. Through the political ecology framework, he wants to explore part of this region – once enriched by dry deciduous forest and its tribal communities, but now dwindling in remnants.