Chalsa forest is one of my favourite places in the Dooars, and when the roads were in better shape, I'd drive into it once a week, just to look around and soak in the atmosphere. One road leads deep into the forest and climbs up to the Jaldhaka settlement in Darjeeling district.
On Sunday last, we went up that way. It is a quiet place, and a drive there offers some lovely views of the Jaldhaka River and the hills. It also gives us a chance to take short walks in the hills. There is hardly any tourist traffic there.
The Sipchu Beat Office
Before we crossed over into Darjeeling district, we passed the Sipchu Beat Forest Office. We saw a small hothouse with flowering plants and stopped. There was a cluster of buildings belonging to the Forest Department and we didn't want to enter without permission. A little boy was the only person in sight. He looked nothing like a forest officer, but he told us we could go in, and then ran off, shouting that he would call the 'Beat Babu'.
We entered the hothouse and found excellent specimens of gerberas growing there. The 'Beat Babu' -- Beat Officer -- turned up with the little boy. He was a pleasant, soft-spoken man. Probir Choudhary was happy that we liked his flowers. I'd assumed they were part of a tissue culture project, but he told us they were grown from seeds bought in Pune, Maharashtra - the other end of India. We asked if he could sell us any plants, but he said they only sold flowers. He didn't have little seedling plants, or else he would have shared them with us, he said. However, he plucked five beautiful blooms for us - one in each of the colours that grew there. They're still standing tall in a vase in the dining room, a week later.
The little settlement had a Sunday quiet about it. The boy couldn't get over the way we were fussing over him. He was shy and happy all at the same time. We asked him his name and whether he went to school. His name was Saddam Hussein, he said, and he went to the small school which stood among the cluster of buildings.
Mr Choudhary with Saddam
These people lived in the heart of the forest, surrounded by wild animals, including bison, leopards and elephants. There was no market for miles around. I wondered how often they had people they knew visiting them. Mr.Choudhary asked us where we'd come from. When we told him Moraghat Tea Estate, he said he'd always wanted to visit the nearby Gairkata town, where his in-laws live. He said it was too far away for him to make the trip. It isn't over 35 kilometres away from the beat, but that is a remote settlement, and there's probably just one bus a day out of it.
Mr. Choudhary brought out a visitors book for us to sign. A lot of people seemed to have stopped and visited here on their way to Jaldhaka or the Chhapramari Wildlife Reserve, and some were from overseas too. There was something very fine about this man. He seemed to exemplify that courtesy, goodness and dignity which reminded one of an older, unhurried world.
Entry in the Visitors Book made by some overseas visitors on the day of the Total Eclipse, July 2009.'Who knows, maybe we can extend a project with tulips?' they write.
The Jaldhaka River