The Forest Beneath the Mountains: Read an excerpt from Ankush Saikia's book where fiction meets history and Assam's ecology

Weaving in local elements in its language and texture, Saikia examines issues that do not often appear in Indian fiction.

Ankush Saikia April 24, 2021 15:26:14 IST
The Forest Beneath the Mountains: Read an excerpt from Ankush Saikia's book where fiction meets history and Assam's ecology

Cover of Ankush Saikia's latest fiction offering, The Forest Beneath the Mountains. Photo via Speaking Tiger Books.

"Shaken by the news of his mother’s death, a man leaves his job in Delhi and returns to Assam. Twenty-five years ago, his father, a forest officer here, was found shot dead in his jeep. With the passing of his mother, the man learns new and startling details of his father’s life, and trying to reclaim an entire life suddenly made unfamiliar, he starts digging into events from far back in time, visiting places where his father had served, in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas."

Journalist and author Ankush Saikia, in his latest book, The Forest Beneath the Mountains, sheds light on how Assam has been shaped, and the ways it has changed over the decades.

Weaving in local elements in its language and texture, Saikia examines issues that do not often appear in Indian fiction, namely the life of insurgents, people who work with wildlife, those living on the margins of the Indian republic. With The Forest Beneath the Mountains, Saikia masterfully blends human memories, family anecdotes with the history and ecology of Assam, and thus aims at presenting an honest and authentic portrayal of the state.

The following excerpt from The Forest Beneath the Mountains has been reproduced here on Firstpost with due permission of the publishers Speaking Tree Books.

*** TALES OF INSURGENTS ***

His research into the human-elephant crisis had shown Abhijit that there were links to the issue of deforestation, and to the groups involved in the struggle for a separate Bodo state, or even country, and which were all in a way connected to his father’s death. He had come across the stories of several people, for instance of the Bodo police commando Haphang. Another one was of an insurgent by the name of Ananta (alias Ankhwma), associated with the eastern group fighting for independence. Over time, from talking to people and following newspaper stories closely, Abhijit managed to build up a picture of Ankhwma.

He had been born into a poor Bodo family in a nondescript village toward the west of Assam, in Chirang district. The family was dirt poor, sometimes with not enough food for them as Ankhwma grew up. Two of his sisters were sent to work as maids in Shillong (they were a Baptist Christian family). One account had the small children crying themselves to sleep at night because there wasn’t even rice to eat. The father was something of a wastrel; he lost the small plot of family land and then deserted his family. The mother moved to Kokrajhar where she found work in a rice hotel.

Ankhwma did a bit of schooling, then sometime in 2004 disappeared from home. He was with a group of boys who had joined the insurgents, and the new life in the forests above Kokrajhar, while tough, gave him a new sense of direction. He was taught how the Bodos, the original inhabitants of Assam, had been steadily marginalised by the Assamese and other communities. His teenage angst, sharpened by years of deprivation, found just the right path, as the people who had encouraged them to move to the camp in the forest had anticipated, and as was the case with countless other youth across the North East with other insurgent groups. He declared he was ready to undergo training in Myanmar in order to fight for their own country, an independent Bodoland.

In 2005, he and another boy went to Guwahati, and caught a train to Tinsukia, a trading city in upper Assam. From there they made their way to the coalfields of Ledo, where a contact met them and took them into Arunachal Pradesh, and then a two-day trek through forested hills into Myanmar’s Sagaing state, a Naga-administered area, where they waited some days at a temporary camp for other boys to join them. Several more days of trekking brought them to a camp of the insurgent group near the Chindwin river, where there were Bodo boys and girls from their area as well.

He was in the twenty-sixth batch of the outfit, and was personally received by their leader Ringkhang. Ankhwma spent more than a year there, being trained in handling guns and explosives, and taking classes in map reading and revolutionary theory. India was the villain: they would have to use force to liberate their land from India. Nearby were other camps, with cadres from groups in Nagaland and Assam and Manipur, including from the ‘organisation’. Twice there were visitors to the camp: fair, Oriental-looking men—but they were kept away from the recruits. Ankhwma and a few others trekked back after the rainy season the next year; this time through Mon district in Nagaland.

They were given dry rations in backpacks, to supplement whatever they were served in the Naga villages along the way, and an assault rifle each and ammunition. Cadres from the Naga group operating in the Konyak area took them across, after which they had to leave their guns with them. The guns were later routed to Dimapur, from where they were picked up by sympathisers (including government officials like ADCs and SDOs posted in the BTAD) and transported to the north bank and BTAD areas in their official cars. Ankhwma and the others, singly and in pairs, came down to Assam and went to Guwahati, from where they made their way up by train to Rangapara near Tezpur.

The forest villages above Rangapara were where cadres from the early batches of Ankhwma’s group had been trained by a few members from a powerful Naga insurgent group, then undivided. Ankhwma and the others regrouped in the forests on the foothills along the interstate border (including above the Mansiri river, where the phandi Dilwar Saikia had once seen the gun-making camp), and here they set up camp and started operating. Ankhwma rose to become an area commander, looking after the places above Rangapara. They had in place an extortion and taxation racket (including on timber), which, along with kidnappings, saw the group collecting several crore rupees a year from Sonitpur district alone—this money was taken to Dimapur to be delivered to the group. Over time Ankhwma became a dreaded name, and many boys joined the group inspired by his story.

However, unlike cadres such as Thulunga, Ankhwma came overground at one point, following a series of blasts carried out by the insurgent group in Guwahati in 2008: after that, it had split into two factions. Very soon he was working with the Assam Police and the Indian army in tracking down boys from the other faction, while they were only too happy to let him carry on certain ‘collection’ activities, such as from the supply of sand and stones, boulders from the rivers near his village running down into Assam from Bhutan.

Abhijit never went and met Ankhwma: some details of his story were given to him by Krishna Brahma, an ex-cadre from the independence group who had worked alongside the Naga trainers above Rangapara. This was the same Krishna Brahma who had long ago taken the phandi Dilwar to the gun-making camp up in the hills above the Mansiri river.

Abhijit first met him in Udalguri, the headquarters of the district of the same name which was immediately to the west of Sonitpur district, when he had gone there while researching the elephant story. Padma Bora had put him in touch with a journalist from Udalguri called Bijon Das, and it was through Das that he managed to contact Brahma. They met at the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Udalguri. Das had arranged a room for Abhijit at the circuit house, beside the DC’s office, and before those two concrete structures, their walls discoloured by the rain and humidity, there was an overgrown field (where presumably the grass was cut and events held on 15 August and 26 January every year) gazed upon by a forlorn statue of Mahatma Gandhi.

Brahma the ex-insurgent would have been in his late forties, with short grey-white hair. Abhijit noticed the spring in his step (he was wearing a pair of old Chinese sneakers) despite the gentle paunch under a faded polo shirt, and the air of fitness and athleticism about him, similar to that which good sportsmen seem to retain even with age. There was a tribal easygoingness and cheerfulness to the man. It was during that trip that a group of them— the journalist Das, Brahma, Abhijit, and Tarun Boro, the former bodyguard of an important Bodo student leader (Abhijit was meeting him for the first time as well)—went up from Udalguri past the tea gardens to the Khalingduar reserve forest which stretched north to the border with Bhutan. Here too there was deforestation by settlers and loggers, but nothing on the scale of what had happened in neighbouring Sonitpur district (Udalguri was one of four districts that made up the BTAD). Abhijit found himself observing Brahma and Boro, ex-cadres of the sovereignty group and the statehood group respectively, but they were easy around one another, as if the passions of that earlier phase of life had now been spent.

They landed up at the Nonoi forest beat office, and the Bodo ranger sent two forest guards (one with a .315 rifle, the other with a shotgun) and the department Gypsy along with them. A recent thunderstorm had felled a large number of trees so they soon had to abandon the vehicle and proceed on foot through the forest. It was an uncommonly muggy and humid day, and after a while three of the group decided to turn back, while Abhijit, one of the guards and the ex-bodyguard Boro decided to press on to Jalimukh on the border. That was when Boro told Abhijit about their journey from Kokrajhar to Udalguri on foot more than twenty years ago along the forest belt at the foothills of the mountains, carrying with them several carbines which they had obtained from somewhere near Siliguri.

Khalingduar had thick forest cover then, he said, but that had been reduced over the years with loggers chopping down valuable trees like segun, xal, titasopa, and bonsum. The loggers were now at work in areas of Khalingduar like Xarmati and also up in the Bhutan hills, using power saws of late.

But there were still signs of wildlife all along the trail: two separate elephant herds calling out from deep within the forest, besides their foot impressions in the muddy ground, and the bark worn high up on a tree where an elephant had rubbed his tusks, even marks — which the forest guard pointed out — where a herd had crossed the trail. The two men with Abhijit read the forest in a way only those who had spent their lives within it could do: signs of wild pigs having dug up the ground in search of edible roots, marks made by mithun hooves. They saw a pair of giant hornbills as well, flapping away from the treetops as the men approached. The reserve forest still had a population of deer and tigers, the forest guard said.

They walked for about three hours that afternoon in the humid, energy-sapping heat till they reached a vast grassy area ahead of which the misty hills of Bhutan rose up one behind the other, their tops wreathed in golden-tinged clouds as the sun went down. Boro pointed to the hills and said that the insurgent group fighting for an independent Bodoland had their camps there, even the ‘organisation’ had set up camps there, after they had fled from Bangladesh. In 2003, a joint operation by the Indian and Bhutanese armies had put an end to that chapter. There were still boys from the eastern group up there, but in small groups, like how Rankhw’s group were moving around in the Arunachal hills.

The forest guard, a grizzled Assamese man from Tangla not too far from Udalguri, told Abhijit that during the time of the British they had created stone bunds with the help of wires (hence the name Jalimukh) to control the flow of the Nonoi river down toward Mangaldoi, but later people had opened up the wires and stolen them and the bunds collapsed. These half-forgotten stories were exactly what he had come looking for, but at that moment he was distracted by what they had seen just a while ago, on the trail that led out from the forest to the grassy plain. There was a large border-marking stone on the trail, and near it, in the grass, a couple of bones and some rags, which, when Abhijit stopped and looked, he realised with a shock were the remains of a human being, possibly a woman.

He had to hurry to catch up with the forest guard and Boro (who had with them the rifle and shotgun), and when he told them what he had seen the forest guard told Boro casually that those were the remains of the pagoli or mad woman who had been seen near the beat office some days back, and that she must have come wandering this side before being trampled to death by an elephant herd.

In that case where was the skull, Abhijit wondered? And the rest of the bones? Had a tiger come upon the body? Or, did it hint at something darker altogether? In any case, there was no time to ponder on those remains, or gaze at the nearby mountains, as it had started growing dark, and his companions decided to return by another route so that they stayed out of the path of the two herds that had been calling from within the forest. This meant cutting a wide arc east along the Nonoi river, which in that area was really several fast-flowing streams coming down from the Bhutan hills. Their shoes were soaked as they crossed and re-crossed the meandering streams, and soon it was pitch dark, with a boulder-strewn ground before them and a vast, faintly grey sky overhead. They kept moving, but it felt to a weary Abhijit as though they were stuck in one spot.

Finally, some six hours after they had started the trek, they met the rest of the group who had been out looking for them. Brahma had fashioned a trap in a stream with sticks and caught a few small fish, which he put into a small plastic bag. As they walked back to the forest beat office nearby, Brahma told Abhijit that when they set off on their operations in the old days, they would come down from the Bhutan hills and walk along the streams in the dark, and while returning he would always trap some small fish to carry up to their camp.

The range officer, a Bodo person from Kokrajhar, had several quarter bottles of whisky waiting for them at the beat office, and they sat outside at a table (the three of them who had walked all the way had their wet shoes and socks off), seized logs and rusting vehicles lying nearby under the tall sal trees. The range officer told them how difficult it was to deal with the ‘public’ in incidents involving deaths caused by wild elephants, as everyone was ready to blame the forest department. But when a wild elephant died, from whatever reason, the villagers would still scatter flowers on its body, out of an old reverence.

It was past 10 pm when they finally left, with Krishna Brahma driving the Bolero from the DC’s office, and they sped back to Udalguri along the darkened roads, trees and old houses appearing in the headlights in the humid night. They dropped off the former bodyguard Boro and then the journalist Das along the way, before Brahma brought Abhijit back to the circuit house. There, in the porch of that large building blazing with lights and eerily quiet at that hour, he finally shared some memories of his past life, when he had been in his twenties: an ambush on the Assam police, travelling to Calcutta to collect funds from the head offices of the tea gardens there and then depositing that money in new accounts; how before kidnapping a person they would study his movements for several weeks; and how the cadres up in the camps in Bhutan underwent ‘study’ sessions—Abhijit took this to mean self-criticism of the Maoist sort, something their original Naga trainers would have picked up from the old China returnees.

The next day, Abhijit was supposed to meet Brahma. But before that the journalist Das took him to meet an ex-tea garden labourer to the north of the district (which was to the west of Sonitpur district), again close to the border with Bhutan. The man was in his late forties, small, wiry and dark, from a village called No 2 Kosubil. He was an Adivasi, whose ancestors had been brought from central
India during the time of the British to work in the tea gardens. Sometime earlier that year he had been in a patch of jungle near the Corramore tea estate, where he had formerly worked, collecting leaves for a puja, when he realised a wild elephant was standing right beside him.

The adult male struck the man down with his trunk, then stamped on his right leg, breaking the thigh bone. As he lay in agony on the ground, thinking he would surely be trampled to death, a few more wild elephants appeared. A female elephant charged and butted the male elephant away from the fallen man. The man said she tapped him on his back, as if warning him to stay down, even as she fought off the male elephant, which then backed away. ‘Maybe a human being had been kind to her earlier, given her food or rescued her,’ the man said.

He had taken six months to walk again, but was luckier than the twenty-two people, mostly Adivasis, killed by wild elephants just in Udalguri district that year alone. As for the elephant coming to his aid: this was something Abhijit was to hear over and over again from people familiar with the pachyderms, that they were remarkably human-like in their behaviour. Even while driving there in the journalist’s car, through Nonoipara tea garden, an undulating carpet of green on either side of the road in the midst of which were regular lines of shade trees, just before the ex-labourer’s whitewashed quarters in the labour lines beside the road, they had come upon a herd moving through the shaded tea bushes. They stopped and got down to take a few photos. The huge bulk of the elephants, the vulnerable-looking baby elephants with their small trunks, and the adults herding them along: Abhijit had felt he was watching something recognisably human. As they were looking at them, they became aware of a lone elephant to their right and behind the herd. As it moved, Abhijit could make out the fold of skin under its tail that marked it as a male, and then it turned, flapped out its ears and began moving toward the two of them: Das said it looked like a rogue, an outcast from the herd, and it was better they moved on.

Later, a senior manager at the Bhooteachang tea estate told Abhijit that they had counted up to 350 elephants in a single herd in the nearby Paneri tea estate in the early 1990s. Elephants had always entered the estates, he said, but now the herds were fragmented, with thirty to forty in a herd at the most. The one they had seen would have been about twelve to fourteen strong, including three or four calves, and the lone male would have been hanging around them, but wasn’t allowed to be part of the herd. Traditionally large herds would come down from the hills in the winter and make their way down south to the Brahmaputra river, toward Singri Hill where there was an old Shiva temple. Now there were roads, traffic, towns, spreading villages and cropland, and the herds were confused, had shrunk in number, and preferred the relative quiet of the tea gardens, which due to various first-world trade certifications, were compelled to shelter them, and not chase them away.

Abhijit met the ex-insurgent Brahma in the offices of the main students’ group among the Bodos — it seemed he was now helping them campaign for a separate state. They talked in the darkened, deserted library and meeting room, surrounded by books in bookcases (the office had a hostel too, for Bodo students from interior areas), and Abhijit could sense he wasn’t in a mood to go into the former role of the Nagas with their sovereignty movement, beyond the fact that they had supplied them with arms. Brahma was more forthcoming though on what Abhijit really wanted to ask him about: the beat officer Khagen Saikia.

Brahma was surprised Abhijit knew about that old incident, and was even more surprised to know how Abhijit was connected to the late beat officer. Abhijit had asked him, what did he know about the incident? He had just joined the group then, Brahma said, and they were moving along the forests in the north bank, from Bhairabkunda to Foothills and Kamengbari to Bhalukpung (and here Abhijit remembered the camp Pegu said they had come across near Foothills in the Chariduar reserve forest, with the ‘off size’ planks), and they had heard about Khagen Saikia, a strict officer, but the Bodo people liked him. He had helped a Bodo woman who was almost killed by her husband, and then something happened, and he went into the forest one day in his jeep and shot himself. Abhijit asked Brahma if he was sure it was a case of suicide, and not murder, and he gave a similar reasoning to what the retired forest guard Ali had given Abhijit.

‘In those days, the only people inside those forests were the boys from our group, some settlers, and a few forest guards. If we had killed him, wouldn’t we have taken away his rifle? He shot himself with his own service rifle. A very sad case.’

Which still left Abhijit with the question: if his father had taken his own life, then why had he done it?

***

Ankush Saikia has worked in journalism and publishing in New Delhi, and has authored several crime thrillers including The Girl from Nongrim Hills and the Detective Arjun Arora series. The Forest Beneath the Mountains is his eighth book, and the first to be set primarily in his home state of Assam. His articles and long-form stories (mostly on North-East India) have appeared in some of the leading news publications in India.

The Forest Beneath the Mountains by Ankush Saikia is published by Speaking Tiger Books (2021 | Paperback | Rs 499 | 328 pages)

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