The boy, no more than four, rose when the rooster crowed. If he did not wake up immediately, his younger brother would, and Ma would say, ‘See, Khoka, your younger brother can barely walk, and yet he is so eager to go to school.’ So little Khoka had made it a habit to talk to his pillow the night before, asking it to jerk him awake as soon as he heard the rooster, and there were days when the pillow, quite like Alladin’s genie, did so even earlier.
Ma was already up roasting a fistful of flattened rice on the iron griddle, the half burnt aroma of which filled the thatched house. God knows what time she woke up, or if she got a wink of sleep at all. Khoka had only seen her working, bustling around the house, in the kitchen, in the fields, milking the cows… But mothers are like that, he thought to himself.
He rubbed his eyes and tying his thin gamchha around his waist, went to the well to draw water for his morning bath. A bath was a must, regardless of the hour of the day – no one went to school without a bath. His teeth chattering, he lowered the metal bucket into the water, the loud clang against the wall, the only sound in the silent, cold, dark morning. Hands shaking under the weight, he poured all the water on his head, then darted in, as the sky turned a slow crimson.
As usual, Ma was waiting with his brass bowl of piping hot milk and some flattened rice soaked in it. Quietly, quickly, Khoka slurped it all up, picked up his cloth bag, and started his trek to school – alone.
This was his regular routine – the long march to the government primary school at Kulunga passing through a dense sal forest adjoining his village, Sagjor. He was the only child of his age to go to school; his neighbours – children of peasants, herdsmen – were the lucky ones who got to roam around the village aimlessly the whole day, following their parents, playing, going for a swim when they felt like. If only he had been as fortunate. Somehow he liked his walk, trudging through the jungles at that unearthly hour, the sound of his solitary footsteps on the dry bed of leaves, too early even for the birds to start chirping or crows to start cawing. He walked and walked and walked. It would take him at least two hours to get anywhere close to Kulunga, a good five to six kilometres away from his village.
In those days, parents in his village did not think of earthly dangers, only supernatural ones – ghosts and spirits laying their claims on children in the dark. But Khoka’s father, posted in a distant town, was determined to educate the boy. So what if the school was far away and began at 7 a.m. sharp.
His word was law. Gradually, walking to school in the dark along the forest path, in some stretches just his feeble torchlight to guide his way, became a habit till one day when he saw the amber lightning.
As usual, Khoka was on his way, his homework neatly completed, thinking about the candy he would buy with the one paisa his mother had given him, when suddenly there it was! A streak of amber lightning, leaping barely fifty steps ahead, in an arc almost twenty feet high. Lightning in the forest? It was so beautiful. Was it a forest fire?
Khoka stopped. Colour drained from his cheeks. He had never seen anything like it before. Then he saw it again, this time at a distance, again an arc. For reasons he could not explain, he started shivering. He turned around and ran.
He ran through the forest, not stopping for a moment and almost collapsed when he reached home. ‘Lightning in the forest, lightning,’ was all he could blurt out.
Mother called Kamal, the village elder.
‘It was a tiger. You must offer puja today. Last month I took Raghab to the hospital in Rourkela; he was mauled when he went to chop firewood. As we were carrying him on the bamboo stretcher, he kept muttering, “Yellow lighting, it was lightning that fell on me”. The Goddess of the Forest has returned your son to you. Raghab didn’t return.’
Next morning, Khoka rose at the usual hour, the sky still ink black. He was about to pick up the metal bucket when Mother called out, ‘You can sleep as much as you want today, babu, no school for you.’
‘Why?’ asked Khoka. His year-old routine was almost like a sacred ritual, even the smallest detail could not be cut short.
‘Baba is returning next week. He will decide if you should go to school again or not.’
Ma did not disclose details of the hush-hush meetings in the courtyard held till late in the evening with Kamal, their neighbours Charan and Bhagi, and Dusa, the village school teacher. In any case, he had been too busy playing volleyball in the fallow field nearby to care and the courtyard was a place where the neighbours often met for tea and banter at the end of the day – a tradition that was at least two generations old in the house. In one voice, they had all advised her not to send Khoka to Kulunga through the forest path.
What if the tiger was a man-eater that had already tasted blood? What if there were other dangerous beasts lurking in the deep? What if Banadurga, the goddess of the forest, suddenly took offence to this little soul treading Her path in the dark without offering her obeisance?
In Sagjor, boundaries between fact and fiction, the mundane and the supernatural were often intertwined. And Mother thought it best to wait till her husband arrived.
In the flicker of the oil lamp, she warmed some milk for Khoka and then tucked him to sleep once again, next to Shubho, his younger brother.
Khoka was soon lost in his world of dreams – the fireflies, the enchanted forest, the blue hills stretching far away, the sky that slowly turned crimson, the fragrance of mohul…
Baba arrived a day earlier than usual. The village priest or pahan was immediately summoned to perform the puja; Khoka’s hair was anointed with sweet smelling oil and vermillion dabbed on his forehead. The pahan sat next to him and chanted prayers to the goddess of the forest. A feast was held and the entire village ate a meal of daal, coarse rice and vegetables served on plates of sal, leaves stitched together with twigs, under the mohul tree.
In the evening, Baba broke the news. Khoka was a big boy now, he said. Old enough to take care of himself. Old enough to stay away from his mother, not cling to her all the time, old enough to study in a big school in the city, like he had once done, learn new things, and dream big. There was nothing in Sagjor for him. Khoka was too stunned to react. He stood still, absolutely still. Father, he knew, would never take no for an answer. His mother, the village stream, the mohul tree under which he spent many a winter afternoon, were to be wrenched away from him, and he could not murmur a word in protest. He just looked at his mother’s eyes, as she instinctively lowered her gaze.
The very next month Khoka was packed off to a boarding school in Rourkela. Mother packed flattened rice in a steel container and some jaggery.
Father hired a bullock cart for the journey from Sagjor to the world outside that would take a couple of hours to complete… and a lifetime to retrace one’s steps.
For Khoka, now a retired government servant in Bhubaneswar, a trip to Sagjor, his mother’s house by the magnificent mohul tree, the blue hills in the background, a walk through the Sal forest still brings back memories of dark cold mornings punctuated by fireflies, and that amber light, so beautiful, that he saw but once. The sacred forest with all its mysteries remain in his heart forever.
Soumi Das teaches English and Journalism at a school in Delhi, where she loves interacting with and learning from her students within and outside the classroom. For a decade, she worked at the news desk of two national newspapers, The Hindustan Times and The Indian Express, New Delhi. She was a recipient of the National Foundation for India (NFI) Media Fellowship (2003-2004) and has researched and written stories on women’s hockey, witch-hunting, and migration in Jharkhand, that were published in HT, Ranchi. Although she lives with her family in New Delhi, her soul resides in the Chhotanagpur Plateau.
She has a post graduate degree in English Literature from Jadavpur University and a B Ed from St Xavier’s College, Calcutta University.