Now, true thick forests are mere ghosts of their original state
Amid the stress of Covid, I go back to my childhood, remembering experiences such as visiting forests with my father. Among them, Modhupur forest stands out.
My father, whom we called Baba, was an IPS police officer. He was posted in Mymensingh as SP from 1955 but was there earlier in the 1940s. He told us that the Modhupur jungle was a 4,244 square km elevated land with small hills. It was then owned by zamindars and inhabited by Garo and Koch who paid taxes to them as owners and lived in peace.
In 1950, control of all zamindar-forested and landed areas was given to East Pakistan Forest Department (FD) marking the end of the zamindari system. The tribal Garo and Koch were virtually usurpers but in the early period, Forest Department conflicts with them were rare.
When I was eight I begged Baba to take us into the interior of the forest for a few days. He agreed, but cautioned us to be careful, showing us pictures of wild animals. A five-day tour program included living in camps in a large clearing. We reached it over hilly and forested terrain with great difficulty. After breakfast, Baba would go in a jeep escorted by armed police guards to the outskirts of the forest to stop Bengalis felling trees and to examine the road being built. For me and my elder sister he selected armed Garo senior constables with knowledge of the jungle to escort us. We wore gum boots and water-proof thick clothing. It was November. At night the camp was surrounded by burning wood fire to ward off dangerous animals.
In the morning, I set off with the Garo constable Hafta. We had sticks to clear the ground of pernicious insects and reptiles. Hafta had a large sack with numerous useful items.
The forest was thick with sal trees interspersed with asoth, gajari, korai, amlochi, jarul, neem, and others. Thick undergrowth and climbing plants in some areas created dense dark patches giving a primeval feeling. Some monkeys on trees threw fruits at us. The forest was vibrant with sounds of animals, rustle of leaves, chattering of monkeys, howling of wild beasts, and twittering of birds, doves, woodpeckers, pigeons, thrush, mainah cuckoo, and others. In some places, the thick shrubs were covered with spectacular wild flowers. As we walked on, we saw some unusual flowers in many hues. “Hafta I want some,” I pleaded. He dug up three flowers with intact bulbs and put them in his sack.
Next morning, we took a different route. The undergrowth was thick and we saw lizards, frogs, and snakes crawling in it. We walked cautiously seeing a thick forest of trees on a large hillock. Behind it, we found a lake, a watering hole for animals. Some spotted deer and black bucks were drinking. Suddenly, they raised their ears and vanished. A tiger walked in sight. I was mesmerized.
A monkey jumped from a tree to drink water. He hadn’t seen the tiger which pounced on the monkey by the throat and took it away. A rhinoceros came to quench its thirst followed by a nilgai. I had never seen these animals before, and was breathless with excitement. I asked Hafta whether I could sit on the craggy fallen bark of a tree nearby. Hafta walked towards the fallen tree and examined it, and returned. “It is a sleeping crocodile. The falling leaves of sal trees have covered its face and tail.” Just then, with a yawn, the crocodile opened its huge mouth and rolled over to the water hole. It was an alarming sight.
Next day, we headed in a different direction. I saw a tree filled with flowers. It was a marvellous sight, and I put my hand on the bark and screamed.
A poisonous insect had stung me. Next day, it was no better. With Baba’s permission, Hafta took me on a bicycle to get indigenous medicine from tribal people. It was a rough ride over undulating land that seemed to shatter my bones.
We saw a clean village. The tribes are matriarchal, so Hafta approached an elderly woman. Her hands were full of mushrooms and bamboo shoots. She put them down, examined my palm, and put some wet green stuff on it. Immediately my burning decreased. She gave me more on a leaf. I gave her fruits I had kept in Hafta’s sack. She was pleased. The tribes lived on forest resources and shifting cultivation, so a gift of fruits was welcome.
We got down from the bicycle and walked. I saw some fragrant shrubs with flowers on a hillock with thousands of yellow butterflies, like dots of sunshine. Then I saw many red-breasted parakeets eating seeds on the ground. “I want some, I want some” I pleaded, until Hafta took a net and caught 10 of them. His sack was full.
Just then, a snake reared its head at me, Hafta instantly shot it. I was trembling with fear. Hafta soothed me. I realized that a forest was a different world, amazingly beautiful, varied but dangerous, and in seconds one could be at the brink of death.
On departure day, my sister had a box behind her back. Baba ordered her to show it. It had a water snake. I screamed. It was thrown in the water.
Once home, Baba got us two spotted deer which were fed with amloki. Two peacocks arrived, walked in the gardens and ate seeds. The parakeets flew like sparkling gems. Soon, we got a blackbuck, a green pea fowl, and a partridge. Our happiness was complete.
With no TV or mobile phones to entertain us, our pleasures were simple: Reading books, devising new games with friends, and tending to plants, animals, birds with the keeper. This gave me joy and respect for forests.
Now, true thick forests are ghosts of their original state. My Modhupur jungle is no more.
Selina Mohsin is a former ambassador.