‘Aranyak’ by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay: An Excerpt
In Aranyak, a semi-autobiographical novel, Satyacharan is a young graduate in 1920s Calcutta, who, unable to find a job in the city, takes up the post of a ‘manager’ of a vast tract of forested land in neighbouring Bihar. As he is increasingly enchanted and hypnotized by the exquisite beauty of nature, he is burdened with the painful task of clearing this land for cultivation. As ancient trees fall to the cultivator’s axe, indigenous tribes—to whom the forest had been home for millennia—lose their ancient way of life. The promise of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ brings in streams of landless labourers, impoverished schoolmasters and starving boys from around the region, and the narrator chronicles in visionary prose the tale of destruction and dispossession that is the universal saga of man’s struggle to bend nature to his will.
Translated by Rimli Bhattacharya
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I was sitting on the Maidan, close by the side of the Fort after a whole day of backbreaking work at the office.
Near me was an almond tree. I sat quietly, letting my gaze travel beyond the tree towards the Fort area when my eyes fell on the undulating land beside the moat: suddenly, it seemed to be evening and I was sitting by the waters of Saraswati kundi on the northern borders of Lobtulia. The next instant, the sound of a car horn on the road to the Palashi gates shattered my delusion.
It seems like it was yesterday, although it is a tale of events long ago.
Submerged without respite in the hubbub and the frenetic activity of the city, when I think now of the forestlands of Lobtulia-baihar or Ajmabad—the brilliant moonlight, or the still dark nights; banks of flowering kash and sparse stretches of jhau trees and the range of grey hills merging into the horizon; the quick-drumming hooves of herds of wild neelgai passing by in the depths of night, and in the intense mid-day heat, thirst-maddened wild buffaloes at the waters of Saraswati kundi; wild flowers in glorious colour in that wonderful stretch of rocky ground and the dense forest, blood-red with the flowering palash—I feel as though it had been a dream of a world filled with beauty, dreamt in the half-awake slumber of a holiday evening. As though there is no such land to be found in all the world.
Not just the forests, what a variety of human beings had I seen.
Kunta . . . I remember Musammat Kunta . . . as if I can see, even now, the poor woman with her trail of children picking wild berries in the jungle of Sungthia-baihar, forever anxious, searching ways to eke out her everyday life.
Or, it is a bitter cold moonlit night: Kunta stands near the well in a corner of the katcheri courtyard in Ajmabad hoping to take for her children some rice left over from my meal.
Dhaturia. I remember the boy Dhaturia . . . the dancer, the natua lad . . .
Southwards in Dharampur district, the crops had failed: Dhaturia had come to the sparsely populated wildish villages around Lobtulia to keep body and soul together with his singing and dancing. I’d seen such a smile of pleasure on his face when he got to eat some molasses with the fried grains of what they called cheena-grass in these parts. Curly hair, big eyes, and somewhat girlish in the way he moved—he was a good-looking boy of thirteen or so. He had no father, no mother, nobody at all anywhere in the world, and so his own efforts to look after himself at that young age . . . Where to, I wonder, had the turbulent course of life swept him away once more.
I remember Dhautal Sahu, the simple moneylender. He sits in a corner of my thatched bungalow, slicing slivers off big areca nuts with his nutcracker. In the heart of the forest by his little hut sits the poor brahman Raju Parey singing his refrain Daya hoi ji as he grazes his stock of three buffaloes.
Spring has descended on the huge expanse of forest at the foot of the Mahalikharoop range and a crowd of yellow golgoli flowers swamps all of Lobtulia-baihar. In mid-afternoon a dust storm blurs the copper tinted horizon; at night, a garland of fire hangs around the distant Mahalikharoop: the sal forests have been set on fire to clear the land. I have known the lives of many boys and girls wretchedly poor, the curious lives of so many terrible moneylenders, singers, woodcutters and beggars . . . I have sat in the dark courtyard of my thatched house and listened to strange tales told by hunters of the forest: how they had set out in the dark of night to hunt wild buffaloes in the Mohanpura Reserve Forest, and how, on the very edge of the pit criss-crossed with twigs, they had seen the immense frame of the wild buffalo god . . .
It is of these people that I shall speak. Our earth has many paths where civilized men seldom tread. Along those paths the strange cross-currents of life trickle their way through obscure pebbly channels. Such currents I had known and the memory of knowing them remains with me.
But these memories do not give me pleasure; they are filled with sorrow. By my hands was destroyed an unfettered playground of nature. I know too, that for this act the forest gods will never forgive me. I have heard that to confess a crime in one’s own words lightens somewhat the burden of the crime. Therefore, this story.