Abhijit Saikia is at the start of a career in publishing and writing, but abruptly quits his life in Delhi and returns to Tezpur in Upper Assam, where he had lived with his parents twenty-five years earlier. The recent death of his mother pulls him back, to confront another rupture that took place in his boyhood: the never fully explained death of his father. The body of Khagen Saikia, a forest beat officer, had been discovered in his jeep out in the forest, his death evidently caused by a bullet wound. Was his father killed by insurgents, as the story went, or was it suicide?
In The Forest Beneath the Mountains, Ankush Saikia’s Assam is a terrain of unanswered questions buried by politics and implacable change, an all too visible ecocide sidelined by political strife. The following excerpt is taken from the fourth chapter, “An Altered Landscape”.
The newspaper that morning had a small item on the front page about two Bodo insurgents, supposed to be part of a larger group recently returned from the camps in Myanmar, who had been killed in a joint police and army operation somewhere close to a village above Rangapara, near the Assam–Arunachal border. After reading it, he thought of the mud-splattered vehicle without number plates outside the police thana the previous evening. Past the new medical college at Tumuki the landscape was more rural, but with enormous transmission towers running across the paddy fields. The passengers in the van, poor villagers mostly, were a mixed lot: Adivasi, Nepali, Bengali Muslim, Bengali Hindu, Bihari, Bodo and Assamese. There was even a solitary Marwari man. Among the major communities of the north bank area, only the Karbi and Mising were unrepresented.
He got down at Thelamara where there were a couple of shops and tea stalls around the junction where a road went north to the Missamari army base, and hopped into the back of an auto headed that way. Soon they were going past more villages and paddy fields, shade trees on either side of the potholed road, and then they came to a tea garden, where Abhijit again spotted a couple of police commandos, this time standing beside a battered Sumo. A signboard told him the place was Kolakuchi; he remembered the name from long ago.
The road passed a tea factory and then turned to the left, the houses of tea workers to the right, the neat lines of the plantation to the left. From the back of the auto he saw a stone crusher in a field, a vast pile of stone chips sloping away from it at one end. They passed a line of small shops and then they were at the army base’s gate, where the driver stopped the auto and got down to make an entry.
‘This is a PWD road,’ a Nepali man sitting in the middle told his companion, ‘else they would have sealed it off long ago.’
The driver came back and they set off again, soon coming to a medium-sized replica of the Red Fort’s ramparts, a golf course, then the offices with undergrowth and trees behind them, and then blocks of quarters and regimental huts, with buildings of varying sizes being constructed here and there. The Nepali man spoke up again.
‘In another ten years this place will become like Chandigarh,’ he said.
The auto trundled through the Missamari bazar with its dusty shops. Up ahead, past a couple of villages, the road curved in an S shape, and he saw first the thatch-covered stalls, now empty, of the Gabharu haat or market to his left, the wide, flat river flowing beyond the rice fields, and the distant plantations of the Tarajuli tea garden beyond it. And, almost before he could prepare himself, he saw on the other side of the road, the bamboo fencing and signboard of the Gabharu beat office, the same small building, whitewashed now and in good shape, with a couple of new structures to either side of it. The auto stopped to drop off someone. On the other side the school was still there, and now some shops opposite the beat office. A couple of forest guards in vests and trousers were sitting outside one of the newer buildings. Further off, there was a tractor with a trailer parked in the overgrown grounds. The auto started moving again, and the office soon receded from view.
He was vaguely aware of crossing Lama Camp, and a while later the auto took a left and stopped. Abhijit got down and paid his fare. Behind the auto stood the Kolamati forest gate, now a range office, with larger buildings painted orange-brown and set some distance from the road, with a single gigantic tree before the buildings. The auto spluttered off along the dirt track that led to Dhankhana Centre and the old forest village of Ramnathpur. From the Kolamati range office (the pole of the old gate was now raised) the road carried on straight as before, but the sensation he got as he turned onto it was of a great openness. His memory of the forest looming up ahead after crossing the gate had been imprinted on his mind over the years, and what he saw now made him feel disoriented and slightly dizzy. To his left was an empty field with a hut at the far end, and beyond that was the black and green of mud and paddy, interspersed with clumps of bamboo, beside or within which were mudplastered huts. Further up the road, again on the left, were what seemed to be a couple of shops. To the right side of the road was a stretch of green undergrowth, but it had no cover; only in the far distance did he see the silhouette of several tall, isolated trees. The wind was pushing the cloud cover away, and up ahead he could see the sun lighting up the road.
He looked back at the range office and then, without consciously thinking about it, started walking. There was a fence running ahead from the range office, three or four lines of wire with spaces between them, he had noticed it before Lama Camp as well, and it ran for a while into and above the undergrowth and then stopped; now he saw, in the distance, beyond the solitary trees, a solid dark-green haziness where the forest was. He neared the shops which were little more than huts—simple grocery shops and tea stalls, with a couple of snot-nosed children in grimy blue and white school uniforms playing near them, dark complexioned Adivasi children and fairer Nepali ones. The shops were set back from the road, and before them was a small bamboo chang or platform on which was a bloody butchered pig, a stout middle-aged Bodo woman in a dokhona standing beside it with a dao in hand. Everyone was staring at him, the children and the shopkeepers, so instead of stopping Abhijit kept walking.
The cluster of shops was soon left behind. All he could hear were his footsteps on the road. The road rose up over a culvert and went down. Very soon he was walking in the sun and could feel the sweat on his back. To his right the aspect remained the same: a tangle of undergrowth, a few solitary trees, and the forest in the distance. To his left was a stretch of undulating land through which runnels of water ran, then gave way to huts with rough gardens. Here, too, one or two Adivasis outside their houses stared at him. His apprehension had given way to confusion. Where was he? How could the landscape have so utterly changed? He approached another culvert, and then he understood—they had come up in place of the old wooden bridges; maybe it was here, with a stream flowing under the culvert, that he and his father had seen the tiger that evening long ago. But there was no forest left, just huts with thatch or tin roofs, two sometimes three of them to a homestead, a solar panel on a roof and in front by the road two or three wires strung across wooden posts like the earlier fence. These huts too were surrounded by rough gardens, with greens growing there, and patches of paddy field behind them. Here the people were noticeably Bodo tribals with weathered features, clad in old, faded clothes and regarding him with suspicion.
The more he looked around, the more disoriented he grew. How could an entire forest have just disappeared? His feet worked mechanically, one foot going forward after the other. Here and there small paths led into the green scrub on the right. After a while there appeared another cluster of mud-hut shops beside the road, with several changs before them where people were selling vegetables. The same hard, suspicious looks from the people, the men in faded green or blue wraparounds, equally faded shirts and rubber chappals, the women in their high orange-patterned wraparounds. There were a couple of flashy motorbikes before what seemed to be a hardware store, and around them stood a couple of well-built tribal youths laughing and chatting. They stared at him as he passed. One of them called out something in the rounded Bodo speech, and the others laughed. He walked on, a little quicker. A solitary tree stood near a high culvert on the road, and leaning on the cemented railings was a skinny young boy in jeans and a black unzipped hoodie which showed his bare chest. As Abhijit went ahead something made him turn and look, and he saw the young boy looking at him as he talked on his phone. The apprehension from the morning returned, and he was suddenly aware of how far behind he had left Kolamati gate.
To the left he saw more houses now, some amid bamboo groves, most of them larger and better built than the earlier ones, but they were further in. Beside the road were rectangular fields with raised edges, some with light-green paddy growing in them, others where the dark, muddy soil was being ploughed by cows, mud-splattered men and women moving slowly, guiding the wooden ploughs. He could see two or three large tree stumps protruding in the fields, and there was a covered wooden platform built on a solitary tree with its top chopped off. Between the road and fields was the makeshift wire fence, with plastic bottles tied to the wires in the middle. Abhijit stopped to look: it seemed to him like an old painting, maybe something by a Dutch master. How strange to think that once this had been a thick, shaded forest, dark even at midday, where elephants, tigers and deer had roamed!
Then he heard voices behind him, and he whirled around. The scrub on the right was high and thick and from a path leading into it emerged five or six children, a mixed group of boys and girls, the boys with catapults in their hands. One of the girls was clutching a dead bird. Their feet were bare and their clothes ragged. The boy who had spoken first now repeated his taunting remark in Bodo while the others laughed. Abhijit smiled hesitantly and moved back. The children stepped forward, emboldened now, and they started gesturing while repeating the remark: jwngni mansia homgwn, jwngni mansia homgwn. He turned and started walking, his ears suddenly red, fear and anger coursing through him. The children followed him, laughing and yelling.
Though he had read about the deforestation in the area, and people had told him about it (his uncle most recently), and he had seen how the satellite view in Google maps showed cropland and settlements in place of the reserve forest (the map view still showed those areas as green and untouched though), there was still a part of him which had believed there would be something left, somewhere he could find some peace. This wasn’t it, being trailed by a bunch of rowdy children. They stopped following him after a while, but he kept walking, wishing to open up as much distance between them as possible. It was bright and sunny now, and the hills of Arunachal in the near distance were hazily visible. The idea came to him that he should walk till he reached them, and, wiping his face and neck with a handkerchief, he carried on. The road curved a little, and on the right, closer now, there were several tall trees.