Friday, October 30, 2009

Gerberas and Saddam Hussein in the Forest

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'.

The Hothouse
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

Monday, October 26, 2009

Close Encounters of the Herd Kind

Last Monday, we went to Bagdogra, a drive that takes about three hours from our garden. At around ten in the morning, we were crossing Damdim in the Western Dooars, and we saw a large crowd and some jeeps on the road ahead. We thought it was a 'jhamela' (trouble) of some kind. Our Dooars residents are volatile and quick to take offence, and they vent their feelings very visibly, so that 'jhamela' is a part of daily life, like 'Bandh' (strike) or potholes on the road.

There were men in uniform there too, and that helped to confirm what we believed. We expected anything from a murder to a road accident to a political demonstration. Since no one stopped our car, we drove ahead.

The cause of all the excitement was a herd of elephants. They were in the tea area off the road about 500m away from the highway, around 30 in all, adults and calves, all standing in a tight group, facing out in different directions.

The crowds had collected there to stare. The uniformed men, who were officials of the Forest Department, couldn't do much to convince them to make way for the elephants to get away. An ice cream seller was doing brisk business, and it looked like the start of a long day - and a long wait for the elephants. They were trapped where they were, not wanting to move because of the growing crowd of people.

The poor elephants were still stranded when we returned down that road around sunset time. The gawping crowds had grown, and now it was like a mela - a fairground - with so many motorbikes, cars, cycles and drifters. We slowed down, but didn't stop to join them.

My husband Mohan said sundown was the time when the elephants would come into their element. But while they waited, which had been all day, they had stood without a sound and without a drink of water, intent on protecting their young. They showed no signs of wanting to harm the crowds of people. There was no shade where they were standing, and they had been hurling mud on their backs to keep cool.

We'd experienced much the same thing in Moraghat T.E. early this year when around seven elephants strayed into the tea area and were forced to stand there all day, while the crowds - some of them coming in hired cars from Birpara, 20 km away - stayed till it was dark.

It was obvious all through that the elephants showed more maturity than human beings! Their behaviour signifies a superior instinct for survival and a superior understanding of coexistence with fellow creatures. They follow all the old rules, while we break them.

And yesterday, on one of our early-start-to the-cold-weather Sunday drives, we just missed running into a herd of around 40 to 50 elephants in the heart of Chalsa forest, between Jaldhaka and Chhapramari. It was sundown -- their time, and the forest -- their beat. Had we dawdled five minutes before setting back from Jaldhaka, we'd have driven into them. I'm glad we didn't disturb each other.

This is a picture of a tame elephant that belongs to the Forest Department, probably on its way to give tourists a ride. This was shot near Chhapramari Wildlife Reserve in Chalsa forest by Mohan.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Niswarth and Durga Puja

Puja, the biggest festival of the year, just went past. Nothing could dampen the spirit of celebration in the Dooars gardens - not the drought, and not even the high prices of food and goodies. Niswarth's people celebrated with a musical entertainment show in Bagracote Tea Garden on September 25, 2009.

In keeping with the Puja spirit, the show was open to all. There were a number of entertainers from Bagracote, but the Niswarth performers were the highlight of the show. Surjya Oraon's song had everone cheering and clapping loudly. This was the only way they communicate their appreciation to Surjya, who can't see.

About half an hour into the show, we heard there were two and a half thousand spectators. Later, even more gathered. It wasnt possible to get the exact number, but it turned out that all the labour lines were 'Khaali' and every resident of the garden was at the show!

The show stealer was Deepa, who danced to a lively Hindi film song. This lovely girl has malformed feet; they are twisted and point backwards. The CD took some time to find. Deepa was all ready to dance, and she waited quietly, smiling and excited.

When the music began, Deepa danced with terrific energy, mouthing the words of the song and enacting all the emotions expressed by the singer. There were four boys dancing with her. Two of them cannot hear at all, and the other two have very limited mobility. Their team work was remarkable.

As they danced, the crowd went wild. There was no way anyone present would think of the hardship or sorrow of such physical afflictions. Emotions ran high. There were some women sitting behind me, clapping with their hands high in the air, smiling and weeping at the same time.

Thank you, Deepa, and boys. You showed us that music and dance are for everyone, and that they have the power to fill us with happiness.

Deepa became something of a star that night. Representatives of the local press were seen clustered around her for a long time.