“Starry, Starry night,
Paint your palette blue and grey,
Look out on a summer’s day,
With eyes that know the darkness of my soul,
Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and daffodils……”
This summers’ night is starry, blue and grey, stealthily in the dark shadows of the trees, “Junglee Dharmendra” romps with carefree abandon among the mesmerizing wilds of Assam. He is the local super hero, the Goonda tusker thus nicknamed after the superstar Dharmendra by the foresters and mahouts alike.
Carefree, tough and uncompromising, words which sums up the gallant forester, the erstwhile defender of the wild forests and its inhabitants. He lives a dangerous life in solitude, with nothing to gain but lots to lose, probably his own precious life, well many have lost theirs protecting the forests they so loved that they gave up their today so that the rest of the human race could survive one more tomorrow.
The forester welcomes me to his hearth, a dilapidated wooden structure built in the days of the “Raj”, the walls of which resounds to the strains of “Vincent” on a western music programme of AIR (All India Radio).
“Starry, Starry night,
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze,
Swirling clouds in violet haze,
Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue,
Colors changing hue, morning field of amber grain…”
A cell phone rings, disturbing the soulful rendition, the foresters cajoles his baby boy to sleep in faraway Guwahati through this gadget which makes hearts and souls touch each other even beyond the barriers of geography. Smug and contented, the forester returns to me, a one day intruder into his wild domain which he so fiercely protects personally and so fiercely detests professionally.“….It has become a beast of burden……. The entire world is up in arms screeching and urging us to protect the environment, the forests and the wildlife but has the world ever faced the ground realities, has this world seen the environment in its naked form..?” The forester’s eyes burn and emit fire with utter disgust. ..” Protect the rhino, the elephant, the wild cat, who does not want to but just take my place for a day in this jungle and then only will you realize the drudgery of a foresters’ life…… romance of adventure indeed… all this is only for the National Geographic and Animal Planet channels on television…”
An elephant trumpets in the distance…….. alongside the river Bharmaputra, this is one sound that has echoed for more than hundreds of years – the kind of sound that can shock, startle, unnerve, excite and delight man. There is really something in an elephant’s call which invokes all human emotions….
“Junglee Dharmendra” is on one of his nightly trails to the paddy fields of the neighboring villages. The trumpet, a signal to the two junior tuskers one of which he himself fathered and aptly named as “Jr. Dharmendra” belonging to the forest department, since here there are no resident herds of female elephants and these visiting males namely Junglee Dharmendra and three other makhnas always mate with the domesticated elephants of the forest department giving birth to juniors all of whom are yet to be trained. Since, trainers are no longer existent and the age old art of training wild elephants which is an integral part of the Assamese culture and history is already on the verge of extinction. Funds sanctioned, funds cancelled, NGO’s visit to the area for assessment and survey of the problem, NGO’S never returns back……….So, at least twice a week the three cronies perform a nightly ritual and stomps across hectares of fresh green paddy, occasionally nudging off a hutment or a solitary reaper of the night.
Vincent croons louder……
“Now I understand what you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free……”
A crackle of the forester’s wireless, a commodity, a necessity in this wilderness which he has so proudly procured as a grant from an environmental goodwill group from across the seven seas……… “Minivet calling Bison7..… over…..” a group of villagers are up in arms against the marauding elephants with poisoned arrows and spears…. They will probably kill one of them……… reports the wireless.
Biotic pressure, habitat degradation, daily a square inch is lost to erosion and to man; this is inevitable laments the forester and calmly totally disinterested in the wireless increases the volume of the radio.
“Starry, Starry night,
Portraits hung in empty halls,
Frameless head on nameless walls,
With eyes that watch the world and cant forget,
Like strangers that you’ve met.
The silver thorn of bloody rose,
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow……”
A dozen encounters with armed poachers, the forester proudly swears of eliminating at least some of them, but ironically narrates that the one with the “machine’ (weapon) got away and is now unattainable being politically hallowed into oblivion by the political and poaching mafia nexus. “…….Life is really difficult for the men who protect our forest wealth”, laughs the man…. “Guardians in danger………..for years there has been various talks of appointing armed commando units but till date they (Forest Department) are yet to enroll the existing master roll staff into their permanent posts, so the commando force sounds too farfetched. In fact I still have around 12-15 foresters working on a meager salary of a single thousand rupees which too is paid in lapses of 3-4 months. The world has globalized but sadly we are yet to be regularized, in fact some of the staff has already attained the age of 40+ making them naturally ineligible for a permanent posting but what do these simple people understand, they are even today asked to appear for interviews which are based not on aptitude and experience but simply on various other irrelevant factors such as caste, creed, connections and the jargon so that they live with a flicker of hope which will ultimately die in the hands of the poacher or the tiger or of course naturally. What chance does a single rifle toting forester stand against the sophisticated AK 47 and the carbines of the erstwhile mafia?
“ This is All India Radio, the news read by……..”
Silence descends the enraged forester as he listens aptly to the happenings of the world, and regains his calm, but I spot a sign of delusion and dejection in his eyes. He is probably one of the last few warriors defending nature, the rest have all joined the “territorial gang”, where there are plush postings, notings and hoardings but he affirms his integrity to help increase the rhino populations, improve and regenerate the natural habitats but once again resigns sadly that he has definitely failed miserably in evolving and sustaining his kind and clan. Reorganization of the foresters is the need of the hour – there should be viable units of foresters armed with proper arms and ammunition and covered with all essential safeguards like pension and other retirement benefits, insurance and life cover and above all permanence of employment, but the officers, those damned officers having wielded extensive powers for years are reluctant to share power with people who are lower down the cadre, thus creating a large void and delay in responses to all local problems. There is no denying that a person from the deserts of Rajasthan will know a sand dune better than the forests and that a person from the forests of Assam will definitely know the forests better than the deserts.
A final wish………….. to resurrect the endangered forests and its inhabitants and to be remembered as someone who loved to fight humans to protect their extinction……
AIR crackles……. Vincent languishes sadly……,
“ For they could not love you,
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left in sight,
On that Starry, starry night,
You took your life, as lovers often do,
But I could have told you, Vincent,
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you……..”
an ode to the foresters….the guardians of our forests…our lives….