EDITOR’S PICK OF THE WEEK
(As the editor’s pick for this week, this article will be available for free reading till a week)
An exclusive excerpt from The Forest Beneath the Mountains by Ankush Saikia (Published by Speaking Tiger, 2021)
A Memory of Elephants
On his second day in Tezpur Abhijit got up late. He woke to what felt like an unnatural silence, and it took him a few moments to realize where he was. He had planned to head toward Foothills, but decided to wait a day. Now that he was in Tezpur, with Foothills just some 60 kilometres away, he finally acknowledged something he had tried not to think about in Delhi: how safe were those areas now? The idea came to him that he could move around as a reporter: he still had his old press card with him. It would give him a cover of sorts while he went around trying to find out more about his father. But what would he report about, and for whom? As he was having his breakfast of chira with milk and gur, sitting by the table in the rear veranda, his uncle came and sat nearby on a moorah with a cup of red tea. His grandmother liked to sit on the bench out in the front in the morning, before the sun got to the veranda. The helper, a lean, dark, self-contained Adivasi Christian woman called Julie, had taken the morning’s dishes to the well for washing. She called his grandmother ma, and his uncle dada. Abhijit felt as though he had come and merged into this small community of three people in a matter of hours.
He asked his uncle about the old characters from when his father had been posted at Chariduar. Most of them were dead, his uncle told him, like the contractor Pradip Deka. Others had moved away or were housebound with various ailments. One person who was still out and about was a man named Karuna, who lived somewhere near Dipota off the highway that went west toward Dhekiajuli and Orang. The contractor Dulu da, as everyone called him, a relative of Pradip Deka’s, was still around. His uncle asked him if he remembered Mohen Doctor, whom his father had been friendly with and Abhijit was able to recall a bespectacled man with a neat French beard, a homeopathic doctor from somewhere in upper Assam who for some reason had moved to Tezpur and set up a small practice, and had then become, improbably, a sort of overseer for a couple of projects Pradip Deka had done up in Arunachal Pradesh. His uncle said he had seen him briefly a few months ago, in an auto passing through Mission Chariali. Mohen Doctor had known his father well, his uncle said, but who knew where he was now? His uncle wasn’t a very social person, Abhijit reflected, and was unlikely to find out where the former doctor had gone. He returned to the topic of his father’s death. How did people know he had been shot by the insurgents? He had stayed with his father at the beat office just before the incident and hadn’t noticed anything untoward. ‘You were a child,’ his uncle said, ‘how would you know everything that was going on then? They wanted all of that area for their Bodoland, so they sent villagers from elsewhere to go and cut the trees and settle down.’
His uncle got up and put his cup on the table, saying he had to go to town for a while. Abhijit spent the rest of the morning sitting near his grandmother in the rear veranda, reading a book. She asked him several times what he was reading, ki podhisa? using the more formal interrogative, and smiled when he took a photo of her with his phone and showed it to her. The things that have come out nowadays, she said to him. When he asked about Khagen, his father, she said he was the naughtiest of her three boys, and loved to climb trees and to throw stones and get at any fruit: jolphai (olive), teteli (tamarind), modhuriam (guava), bogori (jujube). Then she fell silent, and looked at Abhijit fixedly as if some faint recollection had come to her of her son’s death and her daughter-in-law’s desertion. He walked through the empty rooms of the house—ancient and silent and comforting spaces. In his grandmother’s room, with its smell of talcum powder and coconut oil and camphor, he bent to have a look at the photos of his father and grandfather; of the latter he had only a faint memory, a tall gruff man with a white moustache, while of the former, he admitted grudgingly to himself, most of his memories were fading. Beyond that sharp clear picture of the last day and night at the beat office and at the camp it was a bit of a blur: being dropped to school by him sometimes, going with him to the garage to get the department Gypsy fixed, a theatre show once, Bihu functions from which his mother would bring him back early while his father would stay on, the small things his father would bring for him from the forest: a hornbill feather, dried seeds of the rudraksha tree, a piece of driftwood from the Belsiri river. Abhijit felt a deep heavy pain in his heart that he almost never allowed himself to feel. After lunch he went to his room, drowsy from the heat and the rice he had eaten. He lay down on the bed and fell asleep. He woke in the late afternoon, his pillow damp with sweat, and after making himself a cup of tea, went out for a walk. It was a short distance to the main road, and now, in the light of day, Abhijit saw new houses along the gravel path, and several shops and two-wheeler showrooms on the main road, in front of people’s houses, as a constant stream of traffic went past: autos, cars, buses, rundown pick-up trucks filled with sand, motorcycles and scooters.
Excerpted with permission from The Forest Beneath the Mountains by Ankush Saikia, published by Speaking Tiger in March 2021.
Shaken by the news of his mother’s death,a man leaves his job in Delhi and returns toAssam.Twenty-five years ago, his father,a forest officer here,was found shot dead in his jeep.With the passing of his mother, the man learns new and startling details of his father’s life,and trying to reclaim an entire life suddenly made unfamiliar, he starts digging into events from far back in time, visiting places where his father had served, in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas.
But the forests he had once roamed as a boy with his father and his band of hard drinking, rugged companions, have long disappeared. Settlers have moved in, and insurgents and security forces now prowl the area.Wandering what was once the Chariduar reserve forest, the man meets a kaleidoscopic cast of characters—people trying to find anchor in an uncertain world— some of whom are remnants of a rapidly disappearing past and some from the region’s turbulent present: foresters, elephant catchers, army contractors, insurgents, police commandos, drifters and double-dealers. As he gets closer to the truth about his father, he finds himself drawn into a local conflict, a world of shifting realities from which he will struggle to disentangle himself.
Wide, unhurried and immersive, The Forest Beneath the Mountains is a compelling blend of memory, family stories, ecology and history. It is a story of people and places at the margins of the Indian republic, and of the inevitable taming of wilderness by man.