‘You could manage to escape in the nick of time.’ The tone at the other end was sarcastic.
Kabir chuckled. ‘Yes, a few minutes before’. He said.
‘You have some more years to live. But how did you know? You did not even open the packets!’ The unknown person asked from the other side.
‘These are the least taught in the police training. But how did you know? Our trip was a top secret one.’
‘There are always some loopholes in the training. You were not taught that high end cars do not ply in our area. That was enough for us.’ The man at the other end seemed to be smiling.
Kabir is a high ranking Police officer in love with the Nature. He loves forests and mountains. At times he craves to escape to the jungle leaving behind the hectic official duties, especially to the jungles of Koraput which he feels invite him with open arms. But now these forests are not safe for the Nature lovers. The hapless forests have now become the bastion of the Maoists. The game of hide and seek is going on continuously between the Police and the Maoists. One is ever ready to kill the other. Both sides are well trained for this killer game. Even a slight mistake can be the cause of death. Soumya the wife of Kabir is equally mad to be in the lap of Nature like her husband. She is the darling daughter of an aristocratic family and wife of a high ranking Police officer. Yet, she has no qualms to stay in old fashioned bungalows or to take snack and tea sitting on a wooden bench at road side tea stalls in the forest. She loves to video herself in dancing poses by the side of a stream, shaking her feet rhythmically in the water flowing down with musical sound. She is much afraid of snakes, scorpions, centipedes and insects. While roaming about in the forest she imagines that all these creatures would simply vanish with the news of her arrival.
Sweta is a close friend of Soumya. Were they friends from their previous birth? Whether it is shopping, chatting or partying, they are always together. Sweta’s husband Sandeep is a young entrepreneur. Sandeep is younger to Kabir. He frequently goes on tour in connection with his business. He moves around from Delhi to San Francisco. So Sweta spends much of her time with Soumya, as if they are a joint family. Whenever Sandeep spends some time in Bhubaneswar, they plan an outing. On that particular occasion they decided to enjoy the torrential rain in the jungle of Koraput which was forecast earlier. They paid no heed to the consequences as the beauty of Koraput during heavy rain is unique. The series of mountain ranges one behind other have the simile in the hair on Soumya’s head fashioned in a wavy pattern. The dense bluish green forests are similar to Sweta’s dense curly hair. At some places there are streams of crystal clear water. Simple to the hilt and ignorant, Adivasis live away from the towns. In the serpentine roads the cold wind tickles you. You feel it’s not Koraput; its Switzerland or Quebec, the city in Canada. Once you reach there you get the inner urge to stay put.
At six in the morning they got into the black Pajero of Sandep. Sandeep was behind the steering wheel. All of them were afflicted with morning drowsiness and drowsed for a few moments at times. Kabir was in the front seat by the side of Sandeep. They were engaged in light conversation. Soumya and Sweta were drowsing intermittently with half closed eyes as if they were drunk. But in reality both of them even do not touch liquor bottles. Sweta’s two sons and Kabir’s daughter were seated in the back seat. The children were enjoying the drive through the forest more than the elders. Among themselves they imagined to have spotted a tiger, an elephant or a snake. Police officer’s daughter Tanya even shouted that she saw a ‘Maoist’. Sandeep’s two sons asked her, ‘Does the Maoist have a trunk like the mammoth’?
Tanya replied, ‘I don’t know, but they are very dangerous animals. I have heard my Papa and his friends talking about them. I haven’t seen one yet. It will be exiting if we see one today. We can narrate the incident to our school friends’.
Kabir warned them all, ‘Listen, we are now going to the Maoist-infected area and we are going most secretly. So we have to remain alert and careful. This is our private and personal trip. We do not have Police protection. So we have to be extremely careful. The most important point is no one should get an inkling that the family of a police officer is travelling in this car. If the Maoists come to know they will kidnap us and no one knows what kind of drama will ensue then. The Government shall be put to embarrassment to secure our freedom. Either ten Maoists are to be freed from jail or we will be beheaded. It is a question of our life and death. All of you listen to me with full attention. Sandeep is a business man. Every one shall behave that he is an ordinary businessman. I myself am a computer engineer. I work in Boston in the USA. We are from Bhubaneswar and we have come to Koraput on a pleasure trip. I have not brought my official identity card deliberately. The two ladies are housewives. My daughter goes to School in Boston and Sandeep’s two sons go to school in Bhubaneswar. They don’t have to do any acting; only Tanya has to speak with American accent if required. That is not a problem for her. If situation demands all of us can do a bit of acting. Do you all understand?’
Kabir further continued, ‘This second point is very important. If by chance one of us loses way in the jungle then do not panic, don’t be afraid. Try to reach the nearest Police station and ask for help. Keep the cell phone handy. Every one’s cell phone has the full charge. So do not worry. Everyone has some money and a few chocolate bars. Phone is required to contact each other and chocolate to satisfy hunger and money to seek help from others. The car’s fuel tank is full. When we have all these we can face any adverse situation for a longer time.’
Sandeep suddenly increased the volume of the FM radio and started to mumble the tune of the song in his own discordant note not to turn the pleasure trip to a fearful one by the cautionary remarks of the Police officer. In the meantime the car reached Bramhapur. Besides enjoying the deft driving of Sandeep they also enjoyed the snacks like vada, idli, chana and green cocoanut throughout the journey, all consumed in small quantities like the ‘prasad.’
When they reached the breathtakingly beautiful Saloor ghat, dark clouds were encompassing the sky. There was a sharp shower also. Suking ghat starts where Saloor ghat ends. This ghat portion is an enchanting beauty. It is a long ghat at high altitude. The more they climbed the more cold it was. The AC of the car was switched off and the window glasses pulled down. The mind calmed down and happiness surged from the soul to pervade the whole body. All of them were enchanted with the beauty of the mountains. On one side half of the mountain was covered with clouds while on the other the valley below was fresh, clean and beautiful. All got down from the car to enjoy the Nature and to have a photo session also. What is the value of a pleasure trip if photos are not posted in the FaceBook and Whatsapp?
Kabir said,‘ We must move on without spending more time in Suking. Two months back seven police men were martyred in Suking ghat by the explosion of bombs set by the Maoists. How does it matter if this place is beautiful when it has become a dangerous place due to the activities of the Maoists? This is a truth of life-beauty is always tied up with danger’. Before he joined the Police Service Kabir worked in the MIG factory at Sunabeda. There he prepared for the Indian Police Service examination and cracked it. In those days he walked through the Suking ghat up to Patangi and the trekked to Rayagada. But everything changed with the rise of the Maoists. Now it is not possible to trek alone. The more they climbed the ghat the more Kabir reminisced. The road is now comparatively smoother and beautiful, but at same time it has become dangerous because of the Maoists. They crossed Patangi, Semiliguda and then Sunabeda when the water mass of the Kolab dam came to view. The water of the reservoir was crystal clear. The hillocks in the water body looked like small islands. Boating in this stagnant water would be fun. While thus imagining the car crossed Dumuriput and reached Koraput.
The circuit House at Koraput is built on a hillock. As the car entered the portico some police officers came forward. They welcomed Kabir and others and led them to their respective rooms. After freshening up they all gathered in the open to have some bite. The aroma of the hot food increased their appetite. They enjoyed the food. Koraput is really a summer resort. Like the hot golapjamuns served to cap the endearing meal, Koraput, the summer resort is both amiable and cool.
Dinner was to be at SP’s residence. All of them took rest for some time. Refreshed after some rest all got ready to go for the dinner. They wore some light warm clothes. The British-era bungalow for the SP is built on a hill top. Dinner was arranged with all police formalities and paraphernalia. Collector of the district and trainee IAS and IPS officers were also invited. They were fresh entrants to the Service having lots of dream. They surrounded Kabir and asked many questions. Kabir replied to each question keeping in mind the generation gap. All of them dined and danced to the tune of the Police band. In police service all things do not pass off smoothly. One has to work taking in stride all aspects. How can you have faith in ‘time’? After the dinner everyone got into the car. SP was thanked for the delightful evening. Kabir spoke to the ear of the SP that the next day they would go to Lamtaput and halt at the Travel cottage. He told the SP that since the trip was private and a secret, police protection was not needed.
SP was visibly concerned. He said, ‘Sir, the area is the hot bed of Maoists. Please be careful.’
That was the second day in Koraput. There is a Travel Cottage named ‘Desia’ by the road side near Machhakund. It has been built like the house of an Adivasi. One gets the feel of staying in an Adivasi hut. Night halt was arranged there. The place is infected with the Maoists. This is what Kabir learnt from the SP. So his intuition cautioned him not to spend the night there. Everyone has to return home hale and hearty. They started from Koraput early in the morning. While going to Machhakund from Jaypur they took a wrong road. They had to take a U turn and took the right road to Machhakund. It is good to change route in the Mao- affected area. It is safe. At the bridge at Patraput they had a barbecued corn each and then they moved on in haste. The dense forest on either side of the road effectively acted as shield against the blazing sun. The cool wind dashing against the face was a solace. The car reached at Lamtaput hat. Right turn at that place leads to Machhakund reservoir.
Sandeep said, ‘I will have to check the car.’ He found that a rear tyre had punctured. The tyre was fixed right there in the hat. There was a big crowd at the hat that day. This particular hat has something special. Adivasis from far off places come to this hat. They purchase articles of their need and go back happily. Life of Adivasis centre round the hat. If the hat does not take place they face untold misery. Neither can they sell their produce nor can they buy what they need. Hat is their heart.
Kabir was standing by the side of the car. A jeep loaded with passengers passed by. A person sitting in the jeep saluted Kabir in the formal Police style. Kabir, by habit acknowledged it as is wont of a Police officer. But the next moment he got the jolt of his life. How could someone recognize him as a Policeman at Lamtaput of Koraput? Probably that man worked under him somewhere at some time. But it is not a good omen to be recognized as a Policeman in Mao affected area. He himself forgot at the crucial moment that he had planned to pose himself as a Computer Engineer. It was a great mistake. Sandeep meanwhile fixed the tyre and announced that the car was ready. All of them got into it and drove on the Machhakund road.
‘Desia Cottage, their destination for the day was five kilometers ahead of Machhakund reservoir. There was no electricity there. All of them were enchanted by the natural beauty of the place. As soon as they got down from the car some Adivasi maidens welcomed them. They had arranged dining table nicely. The food- rice, dal, brinjal fry and fish curry-all items were tasty. They felt slightly uncomfortable as there were no fans. But then be a Roman when in Rome! After food they all retired to the rooms to take rest. It was cool inside. Wash rooms were specially designed. The wash basins fitted there were of brass and the floor below the shower was spread with pebbles. You get the feeling of bathing in a stream. It was a pleasant surprise for everyone to see the blend of western and the local styles.
‘Salap’ of Koraput is a drink equivalent to the date-palm juice of the coastal area. They wanted to taste this drink. So they drove to the nearby village. When they asked for ‘Salap’, some boys of the village said ‘Salap is available in the morning, not in the evening. If you come tomorrow morning time you will surely get it. Kabir then asked Sandeep to drive to Machhakund. It would not have been wise to spend more time in a village. Every village has Mao-informers. They stopped at Machhakund market. It was getting dark then. The police station was at the marker square. The car was parked close to the Police Station and then they walked down to the small barrage. They crossed over to the other side of the barrage. The current of water below was very high, fearsome. Just a single slip and you don’t know how far you will be swept away. On the other side of the river it is Andhra Pradesh. They all crossed the barrage, touched the soil of Andhra Pradesh and returned back. Duduma-Machhakund project is a joint venture of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh of the independence era. After buying some mixture and chips from the market they came back to the car. The market was about to be closed. In the hilly and forest area the markets close early. After evening, the usually bustling market wears a desolate look. The dark evening of the hilly area was unbearable for the city dwellers. When they returned to ‘Desia’ it was pitch dark. On arrival, when they got out of the car after parking it, they saw some young men riding away from the place in bikes. They looked strong and stout. Their gestures evoked suspicion. The children headed straight to their rooms after alighting from the car. Kabir took a quick shower and came out. Sandeep and Kabir sat down for a drink. The boy engaged at ‘Desia’ was asked to bring two glasses. The boy placed a bottle of Sprite on the table along with the glasses.
‘What is there in this bottle?’ Kabir asked the boy.
The boy replied that the Officer of the Police Station had sent ‘salap’ in it. Kabir was surprised. How did the Officer know that they were here at ‘Desia’? The officer has not been informed about his programme. None was told that they were looking for ‘salap’ How did the officer of the police Station know? Fear gripped Kabir. He was deeply perturbed.
‘Why did the officer of the Police station come here’? He asked the boy.
‘Just as you left some people came from the police Station to enquire about you. We told them that you will stay here for the night. They left this Sprite bottle saying that this has ‘salap’ in it. After they left some other men came and left some fruits and a gift packet in both of your rooms.’ The boy replied.
Kabir shouted to ask everyone to come out to the verandah at once. He told all of them not to touch any article or packet. He signaled Sandeep to get the car started immediately; shouted at everyone to get into the car without losing time. He quickly pulled out the suitcases from the rooms and threw them into the boot and almost lifted the children to push them into the car. Sweta and Soumya sat dumbfounded. Jaypur is at a distance of forty kilometers from Machhakund. Once they reach Jaypur they would be out of danger. He advised Sandeep that if it was possible to drive in the moonlight, it would be better to switch off the lights of the car. Just before Lamtaput they found some people cutting a road side tree. Kabir whispered to Sandeep to drive past before the tree fell. Although it was a dangerous act, the expert driver sandeep drove fast without head light. The tree first made creaking sound and then fell on the road with a thud just as Sandeep drove past it. Kabir closed his eyes. Some people were waiving hands to stop the car but Kabir asked Sandeep to drive on at full throttle. After a short time they crossed the danger zone to reach Jaypur market area. Kabir interrogated the SP over phone, ‘Why did you inform the officer of Machhakund Police Station that we would halt at ‘desia cottage’ for the night’?
‘No sir, I have not spoken to the officer on this issue’. The SP replied. ‘It has been kept a secret. But where are you now? Is everything ok? Do I send a protection team?’ The SP asked.
‘I shall tell you when we meet tomorrow. Now ask the officer at Machhakund Police station to go to ‘Desia Cottage’ and tell those people over there not to open either the Sprite bottle or the gift packs’. Kabir said.
Kabir and Sandeep drove from Jaypur to Koraput safely. As they were climbing the Jaypur ghat Koraput SP telephoned. He said, ‘Officer of Machhakund Police Station has informed that the ‘Desia Cottage’ was gutted in fire and that he did not send anyone there. You and your family escaped certain danger due to your presence of mind. God is great.’
Kabir thanked Sandeep for his deft and safe driving. He thought to himself- there is danger at every step in life and God has given the power to identify it. He lets one know of it through the intuition. It may not work all the time, but if one ignores it then he has to face danger for sure because most of the time God’s instructions come through intuition. But, the Police in him was being tortured for the defeat. Where did he go wrong in spite of so much precautions and secrecy? He thought to himself.
Probably he failed to realize that it was not the ‘time’ alone but the forest too was in danger. When the forest is in danger how can life be safe? The head light of the car illuminated a big stone by the side of the road on which it was written, ‘If the village is on fire we retreat to the jungle, but if the jungle is on fire where do we go’?
Originally written in Odia by Lalit Das.
Translation to English by Rabinarayan Patnaik.