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Published: June 25th 2014
Towards the end of our 4th. Year engineering studies, there was a long weekend on the occasion of holi and three of us decided to slip out of the campus over the holidays. Long ago I had read two short pieces namely, Sarenda – Land of seven hundred hills and One night at Thalkobad by the famous writer, Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay on his escapades to Chhotanagpur forest. Without much information on the area (sadly no Wikipedia or Google those days!), we set out for the forest…I vaguely remembered that Bibhuti Bhushan had travelled from Chaibasa to Sarenda.
From Kharagpur station, three of us boarded the night passenger train to Chaibasa via Tatanagar and reached Chaibasa in the morning. On enquiring with the local folks, it revealed that the road access to Thalkobad was from a railway station called Seraikela, which was on the way to Rourkela from Tatanagar. So we changed our tracks, took a bus from Chaibasa to come to Chakradharpur, ahead of Tatanagar for proceeding further to Seraikela. It was around midday and there was no passenger train at that time. The Asst Station Master at Chakradharpur took pity on us, he informed that a goods train was on its way soon and if we could impress upon the train’s guard, he could drop us off at Seraikela. The goods train guard gleefully allowed us into his austere cabin, a complete steel shell without any furnishing whatsoever. He turned out to be quite a buddy and we chatted on his travails of railway duty as the train chugged along...we stood out at the small deck adjoining the cabin; the journey in a goods train was quite a thrilling affair! After about an hour, our good friend did stop the train for us at Seraikela and thanking him profusely we simply jumped off !
As the sun was mellowing down in the horizon, we headed straight to the forest naka only to be told that no one could enter the forest without permission from the local ranger and entry was anyway permitted only in the morning. Our hearts sank...so where was this all powerful forest ranger? He had gone off to Rourkela on a shopping trip with his wife and was expected to return only in the late evening. Meanwhile, the forest guards advised that if we we were bent upon going to Thalkobad next morning, we should carry basic supplies like rice, dal, turmeric, oil etc. as there would be nothing available there. We stocked them up from the local grocer's...had a hearty meal at a dhaba and waited on for the ranger saab.
The forest ranger finally showed up at about 9 pm and as we told him about our proposed trip to Thalkobad, he took an umbrage to our most audacious plan and took off with his long tirade...nobody could enter the forest without proper permission issued by his superiors from Chaibasa...it was too risky to go to the forest hitching hikes from the timber carrying trucks...there was naxalite movement in that area and he could not allow three young guys just like that...as such there was nothing to see in Thalkobad et al...We listened to him intently and patiently with all due respect and sincerity, tried to establish our credentials with the IDs and literally pleaded with him to allow us just for a day, promising to return the same evening...it was three IITians versus the lone forest ranger and finally he said, 'OK...just for a day'!
We spent the night trying to sleep in the open veranda in front of forest ranger's office and took off in the early morning next day on a ramshackle truck carrying building materials & steel for some forest department construction work...bumping along the meandering path through the dense green foliage, gurgling streams and tribal hamlets. The women carrying faggots and pots of water for their homes were waving at us with smiles.The visuals of an ever changing landscape kept our minds away from the bone shattering journey! We finally reached Thalkobad and the truck driver pointed out the forest bungalow to us...it was on the top of a hillock, a vantage point surveying the forest all around...and a narrow river flowed along at the foothill...the green peaks of Sarenda mountain range hemmed in the panorama...we were in the lap of mother nature!
We spotted the bungalow caretaker, cajoled him to allow us in a large room against some tips...and got down to cooking; having skipped our breakfast we were famished and badly needed some food. After a good scrub in the river, taste of our modest culinary experiment on rice, dal, potato & onion curry was heavenly...such an extravaganza (!) with food lulled us into a deep slumber. As the caretaker woke us up at about 5 pm informing us the last truck was on its way out, we told him that we had changed our plans, we would get back only the next morning! We knew that no forest authorities from Saraikela would venture deep inside the forest in the evening to throw us out. We took a calculated risk and were amply rewarded with the sights & sounds of forest nightlife!
A ten-rupee note was enough to get us a live country chicken from a villager but we had nothing for its dressing. We went to the Thalkobad forest naka and borrowed a tangi from the guards...cooked chicken curry & rice and just to build up an appetite for it, we walked down to the naka again to return the tangi. As the sun had set, it was darkness all around...the forest guards were almost dozing off to sleep around a bonfire and were startled to see us at that time...they were quite worried, how could we venture out into the open in darkness...the forest was full of rogue bears and they simply tore open people with their sharp nails...leopards also prowl silently and their attacks could be fatal...along with went the stories of recent incidents...at the end of it we were too eager to get back into the bungalow!
The way back to forest bungalow was scary...not even a torch with us to dilute the darkness, we were trying to negotiate the way...darkness densified around the groves, under the ancient trees reaching out to the sky. We were ambling along the path playing a guessing game, unsure of our steps but stepping down with thuds to scare the serpents away...fireflies, our humble source of light, were weaving wonderful mosaic in the darkness and apparitions assuming the shapes of bears took our breaths away! A slight movement in the bushes and we were sure of a leopard stalking us. We finally reached the safe environs of the bungalow and set out the most exciting candle lit dinner for savouring the chicken curry and rice.
It was a full-moon night and a large yellow disc gradually appeared on the eastern sky...nature, the great virtuoso was playing its symphony orchestrating the soundtracks of the forest...the crickets & their cousins were outdoing each other with humming tunes, the owls got busy with their high bass interjections...night-birds responded with octets and we were sure we had heard a few roars from the big cats too...the forest was aglow with the bright moonlight washing off its dark secrets, we were witnessing the nature enjoying heavenly ablutions! It was an ethereal experience.
The early morning sun jolted us back to reality...we bid adieu to Thalkobad to return to big, bad civilized world with worries for the ensuing end-term exams looming large on our minds.
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