Sana Majhi was waiting on the roadside, sitting on stone, all through the afternoon; hoping to sell her coils of rope. Evening is approaching and soon it will be dark and the Hut (weekly market) has started to break-up. She had to return to her thatched hut, some four kms away, before it gets completely dark. She started to stand-up. Her bent wobbly old legs could hardly take her weight. She could not sell a single coil of rope. The thought of spending another night on empty stomach was sitting heavily on her shoulder too. She makes coil of crude ropes from a creeper, known locally as Chihar and sells those to make a living. That was her sole livelihood.
We were sitting on a Khatia (cot made of rope & wood) on the courtyard of a road side tea stall, sipping hot tea and watching the motley crowd that came in the Hut and now is melting around the field. Sana hesitantly approached my wife and begged for some money to buy rice. She spoke haltingly, in a low tone. Clearly, she is not in the habit of begging. Instead of giving her money we purchased four coils of rope for twenty rupees.
That was the weekly hut of Duarsini, a remote Eco-tourism centre in Purulia developed by the Forest Development Corporation.
It was on a late morning of March when the sun is just getting hot, we de-trained at Ghatsila. As I was haggling over the fare with the driver cum owner of a jeep for going to Duarsini, a couple approached us; they also want to go to Duarsini. Well, more the merrier.
As our jeep left the dusty town of Ghatsila and sped along the Ranchi road, the rocky Chhotonagpur plateau greeted us. Small hillocks, bits of green and lots of gray sunburn field emerged all around. The road was smooth like the cheek of that famous old-time film actress.
It turned right at Galudi and we were amidst a vast stretch of open land barren at this time of the year. The asphalt road ran straight as an arrow to meet the distance hill range. The scene came straight out of a western movie. Soon we entered forestland. Here the forest, mostly made of Sal trees, was not dense but sparse and rocky. We crossed Satgurung, a streamlet, which marks the border of Jharkhand with West Bengal. From this point the road became rough and rocky, negotiable only by a jeep. But it is only a stretch of about three kilometers and the bumpy ride ended as soon as we reached a asphalt road and Duarsini.
Surrounded by small hillocks, amidst Sal, Piyal and Piyasal trees, stand three magnificent looking cottages on the slope of a hill with terracotta curving on the walls. One thatched top, dining cum adda room adds village flavour to the eco-tourism centre. But the courtyard in front of the cottages, girdled with barbed wire turned out to be the unanimous choice for our daily session of adda with lots of Pakoda washed down by gallons of tea & coffee (we brought tea bags & coffee).
This eco-tourism centre of Forest Development Corporation was inaugurated on February 19, 2001.The rooms were big and airy. Each cottage stands on a raised platform and the steps leading to its’ door was fenced by concrete railing, which replicates bamboo. That was a fine touch. Only the bathroom, where water accumulates due to wrong floor leveling was a bother. There was no electricity; a generator supplies electricity from 6 to 10 in the evening. Its sound shatters the stillness of the night and disturbs the sync that one develops with the nature. I felt, lanterns are the best option here. A submersible pump supplies water from a nearby deep well.
Next morning, a cacophony of sound woke me up; birds – Bulbul, Basantabouri, Kath-thokra, Tuntuni, Tia and many others (there’s a whole bunch of them) – are calling and singing. I came out of the room and sat on the veranda. Birds swarmed every tree around the cottage. A cool breeze was blowing and just then the sun came out of the horizon — it was one of those perfect mornings.
While we were having breakfast, Pradip Sengupta — the beat officer came for an inspection and I grabbed the opportunity to quiz him on the forest around here. The forest came under the Kachua beat. The natural Sal forest along with few Kend, Kusum, Mahul and Piyal trees covers an area of 1700 ha. A few blooming Palash trees break the green monotony. Nim, Jam, Piyasal, Bahera trees are being planted as a supplement. A few bears and wolves along with boars, peacocks and jungle fowls roam the forest. Excepting two or three elephants who are resident, bands of elephant migrate every year from the Dalma forest of adjoining Jharkhand during the paddy season (October to February) to feast on the ripe paddy.
It was Saturday, the day of the weekly market (Hut) where locals (aborigines) gather for their weekly purchase and sale and to offer puja to the goddess Duarsini. The legend has it that demons wanted to dam the Satgurung River and the goddess Duarsini allowed them with one condition; they must construct the dam before the first call of the rooster. The demons failed and Duarsini’s supremacy was established. The locals started to offer puja to the goddess and the area around the Than (open place of worship) was named after the goddess. Not surprisingly, the goddess is a natural granite stone smeared with vermilion. Cocks, pigeons, ducks and sometimes goats are sacrificed to appease the goddess.
Slowly the Hut was gathering momentum. People in their holiday best, were flocking to the few shops. Eateries and Manihari shops, selling mainly fried potatoes and imitation jewelry, were doing brisk business; so were the women selling Hadiya (an intoxicating cheap brew made from rancid rice) in simmering urns. Amidst such bustling activities sat a half-naked mother clutching her naked & dirty son. As I approached her for a snap, she cringed away. She did not have faith on the Dikhu (the city dwellers). A bit of assurance and I was allowed to take the shot. As I offered her some money, she very hesitantly accepts it and immediately ran away. Curious, I followed her from a distance. She went straight to the only rice shop of the Hut and started to talk animatedly with the shopkeeper.