The bangs and crashes woke her from her sleep. Something was going on outside. She peeped from her hidey-hole. Her hair, dark auburn even without any dye, fell open from her bun, cascading down to her knees, her innocent emerald eyes widened in all the curious excitement. Her dark brown skin glistened as the sun rays hit her. But her excitement soon turned to horror. Her heart skipped a beat. The giants were here, again! She rubbed her eyes, just to be certain. Yes, there was no mistaking those mammoth black claws. She could see the big green one too, that roared its feral growls, egging on the others. Sheer fright held her rooted, but her mind was racing. They must not wake up mother! Mother must not wake up! For an instant, she tried to imagine what would happen if mother did wake up. She shuddered. No, she must do something to stop them! She must reach out to them, she must warn them. “Shh! Stop! Stop you foolish monsters!” She screamed with all her might, but her voice got lost in the cacophony. Helpless tears raced down her face, the din was too loud. She wasn’t sure if her voice would reach them in time.
Pranav tilted his head towards the window and let the cool wind ruffle his hair, as the train whistled and chugged across rural Bengal. Autumn was nearing its end, and yet nature didn’t seem keen on letting her go. Pranav watched as the train passed by the catkins swaying on the river-banks, the sun smiling in her mellowed golden glory, and the cotton-candy clouds of fall infusing spurts of white into the turquoise-blue sky. He watched as the lush green verdure slowly became sparse, giving way to the dusty red soils of Rahr Bengal as the train rolled towards the rugged terrains of Purulia. In an artistic mind perhaps, this show of exuberance by nature would have inspired poetry. In fact, a group of teens in the compartment broke into an impromptu jig of an old Bengali folk song-
“Tui ranga maatir deshe jaa
Laal pahaarir deshe jaa,
Ikhane toke manaise na reee…
Ikkebare manaise na ree…”
A few others joined in. Some hummed, some swayed their heads to the catchy rhythm. But Pranav remained impervious to all these. His mind was still latched on to the thought of his new project: the huge challenge that lay before him; he was excited.
Sukhen, Pranav’s junior engineer for the project, seated opposite him, tried to strike up a conversation-
“Pranav-da, did you know, this folk song was written by an Engineer, that too in the 70s?”
Sukhen Hembram was a native of Purulia. He had been staying in Kolkata for the past few years on account of his college education and then his job. He and city-bred Pranav had become fast friends since the time the two had been assigned the project last month. Over a few rounds of smoke and drinks, Sukhen had let go of the customary ‘Sir’ address on Pranav’s insistence.
“Really? Pretty interesting!”
Pranav probably didn’t sound as keen as he intended to, for Sukhen smiled, “You look stressed, Pranav-da. Don’t worry, you’ll like it there in my place. The people are so simple and warm, there will be no dearth of hospitality. I’ll see to that.”
“To be honest, I’m not worried about that. I’m thrilled. I mean a tunnel through the mountains, for heaven’s sake! A chance to put into work everything we have read in the books!”
Pranav’s enthusiasm was infectious, and they soon got immersed in a discussion they had already had before.
Pranav Basu, the brightest civil engineer of his batch, had ditched the allure of plush overseas job unlike many of his friends to stay back and “do some good” for the people in his country. Within a year of his graduation, he had landed this government job, and in five short years, he had made a name for himself in his organization. He had realized that the main difficulty in getting a public work done in his country is less of an engineering challenge and more of public management. The hardest part lay in convincing the general public that the work was for the benefit of the public. Funnily enough, no one trusted the government. He had dealt with both the ill-informed rural mass and the well-informed urban people, and both invariably always held the impression that they were being duped out of their basic rights in some way or the other. He had successfully handled the project of a riverine bridge last year, which was almost stalled at the last stage, because a few of the villagers thought that the approach road of the bridge would ruin the view of their plot of farming land. Pranav had cleverly negotiated by building a beautiful gated fence along the farming land – a manoeuvre that added a few thousands of rupees to his project expenses, but saved wastage of crores. But this time, it was different. Cutting a tunnel through the rocks was no mean feat. There were only a handful of tunnels through mountains in India, and Pranav wouldn’t miss this opportunity for the world. It came as no surprise to him when Sukhen was assigned his junior engineer. Purulia was home to the Santhals, the oldest tribes still living in the country. Not that they were a hostile bunch, but the peace-loving people had been down-trodden and alienated for so long, that it would be foolish not to expect some amount of bitterness and opposition. It had only been a few years that the Maoist-outlaws, called Naxals, who infested the Jangalmahal of Purulia and the neighbouring districts had subsided. Ironically, the Santhals had, for years now, resisted the Naxals, who claimed to speak for the poor, tried to induce young rebel Santhals into the path of armed aggression and yet did their fair share of exploitation on the old tribe. But there was no denying the fire that burnt secretly in their minds. After all, an oppressor’s greatest fear lies in the oppressed. The management knew that, and thus, they chose Sukhen, for he was one of them.
It had been two weeks now that Pranav and Sukhen had landed in Baghmundi, a big village which they called ‘town’ in Purulia. He had explored the GajaBuru Hills, where the tunnel was to be built, set up meetings with the contractors, chalked down rules and deadlines and felt satisfied with himself. He had met Sarla Kisku, the assistant engineer of their department who was in charge of the district. The lady had been an enigma from the beginning, a native of the district, and yet a city-bred like Pranav, she had declared on the first day that the project would be impossible!
“You know you wouldn’t have been here had I not stood up against the management,” she had thrown the words around casually on their first encounter. Pranav was astounded by her brazenness, he was three years senior to her, and she knew it!
“And why did you stand up against the management? What is the problem?”
“A tunnel in this place is redundant.”
Pranav had laughed, “I can’t believe this is coming from you. You belong to this place. I thought you’d be the last person to object to some development.”
Sarla had mellowed a bit, “I’m not objecting to development, Sir. But honestly, the hills here would do better without this bit of ‘development’ . What good will a tunnel do here?”
Pranav had begun enthusiastically, “Well, a tunnel through the hill would shorten the distance between places, against roads that loop around mountains. It’d be an engineering mar…”
But Sarla had cut in, “I know all this, Sir. I’m an engineer like you too, see?” And Pranav had known in that instant she wasn’t one to be patronized. Sarla had continued, with a spark gleaming in her eyes, “These rocks are hard. You know that there’s no other way to cut these rocks than to drill holes and then blast them with explosives. You do realize how much that is going to harm the Eco-system of the hills here? I had proposed the use of a tunnel-boring machine for the project, but the authority rejected my idea. That’s not unexpected : given the short length of the tunnel, the machine would be an economic burden, commercially unfeasible. But what about the ecological burden?”
Pranav had sighed, “I understand. But there will always be collateral damage to nature when you want to build something that provides ease and comfort to humans.”
“But, isn’t it our job to minimize the collateral damage as much as we can?”
Pranav had been insistent, “It is, I admit. But why do you say the project is impossible?”
Sarla had smiled, “The people here worship their mountains. ‘MaranBuru’ is their God of Mountains. They won’t let you harm their God, would they?”
Two weeks into this conversation with Sarla, Pranav had been mildly annoyed. It was one thing negotiating and explaining to the disgruntled locals, but working with a disgruntled local in their team was a first. Just this morning, they had had an argument over this. Pranav, Sukhen and Sarla, along with a few of the labours had been to the hills. Pranav had been answering some queries shot by Sukhen, “You see why we have to have a bend inside the tunnel, Hembram? If we bore a tunnel straight through, the light from the other end would blind the drivers passing through it.” Sarla never contributed to the discussion, but she was an avid listener. Trying to draw her in, Pranav had said, “Sarla, why don’t you tell Hembram what you know about tunneling?”
“Ah! yes, since we don’t have a boring machine here, we’ll dig the opening first, then drill holes to plant the explosives. The controlled explosion will blast the rocks, and an excavator will claw out the debris and the loose-bits as we delve deeper, blasting more rocks with more explosives, all the while surveying for the weak spots, and strengthening the walls with concrete slabs. Once the tunnel is dug, we will use steel-reinforcement and then finally seal the walls and roof with concrete. Of course, I’ve only read about this in books. Like you two, this would be the first time I’d be seeing the work done, if it gets done at all.”
Pranav had been mighty impressed at her short and lucid way of explaining the job, but her last words irked him. “You still think this tunnel wouldn’t see daylight, right? It’s been weeks now, we’ve been coming here daily, I don’t see anyone coming to protest.”
“Oh, they will, soon. I’ve known them for years. These are simple people, they live and let live, but when you meddle with their home, why will they tolerate? They’ll come, they’re busy for the festival, you see?”
“Yes, Sohrai!”Sukhen had chipped in.
Pranav had lost his cool, “You know a lot about them. I hope you know which side you’re on. I hope you’re not the one instigating them.”
Sarla had looked shocked at the wild accusation. Pranav had realized too late that his words were uncalled for, but he didn’t want to apologize to her in front of Sukhen, who stood awkward between them.
Sarla had simply said after a few minutes, in a voice that didn’t sound like hers, “There are no sides to be taken, Sir. I’d love to see the tunnel built here. It’d be a grand thing to drive though.”
A vexed Pranav had nevertheless called his senior at the headquarter in the afternoon.
“Sir, the assistant engineer here is a pain in the neck,” he had been straight, sans pretense.
After a pause, his boss had said, “We know. Don’t bother her though, she’ll be transferred out of there in a few months. We know you can do it, go for it. Don’t forget the deadline, our minister wants to inaugurate it by March, next year.”
Now, tossing on his bed late in the night, Pranav decided that he’d be the one approaching the villagers first, he’d initiate the talks. He had to be one of them first, in order to win them over. He’d start by apologizing to Sarla.
Pranav had no regrets cancelling his Diwali Holidays- the Sohrai festival, that coincided with Diwali, was a sight to behold. The men and women, both dressed in colorful skirts, with flowers tucked behind their ears, sang and danced to the tunes of tribal songs. He captured a video of the Chhau Dance on his phone, this deserved worldwide viewing. There were many tourists too, mainly trekkers. Pranav had by now realized that not all inhabitants of the village were Santhals. The Santhals lived in the more secluded parts, a little away from their ‘town’. Even though Pranav was fluent in Bengali, he was amazed that the villagers spoke the language in a different dialect that he hardly understood. The Santhals, of course, spoke Santhali. Sukhen was right, these were simple people, with little to no demands.
On the work front, the rock blasting was due to start in a week. The excavators, detonators, generators and other equipment had reached two days before. Pranav felt tensed. With Sukhen’s help, he had mastered a bit of broken Santhali, and tried to negotiate with the people, but they wouldn’t listen. The Santhals had their own head, Chand. He was furious when he heard they wanted to a dig a hole through the mountain’s heart. Pranav approached the Sarpanch, who treated him with high regard, but whenever he broached the topic of the tunnel, they sighed, “I know the minister wants this, it’s for the people’s welfare, but what can I do? I have to consider their opinions too, they voted for us after all, and we can’t lose votes.” Vote-bank, that was the main concern!
Four days before the start of the work, the Santhal-head had sent a message: They would sit at the foot of the GajaBuru on a hunger-strike if Pranav didn’t make the giants leave.
Pranav sighed. If only they understood the giant machines were there for their welfare! He knew the last resort would be to involve the local police and use brute force, that’s how the government worked. But he was still hoping for a metanoia, a change in their heart. He was determined to see this through. He tried thinking of making the villagers an offer they wouldn’t be able to refuse. What did they really need here? He could give them that treasure. He wanted to ask Sarla, but she had mysteriously withdrawn herself from this brouhaha. She came to work everyday, but her mind remained absent. She had gracefully brushed off Pranav’s apology earlier, and emailed him an article about the ecological impacts of a tunnel through the mountains that included weakening of its base leading to disasters like landslides and earthquakes. Pranav had ignored it.
Hundreds of plans and counter-plans crowded his head, making him restless. He couldn’t focus. Lately, he had been having this strange dream every night, of a beautiful Santhal girl, with burning red hair that cascaded down to her knees. Her big eyes were green like the vegetation that was so sparse in GajaBuru, always full to the brim with tears. She wanted to say something, but couldn’t. Her unvoiced helplessness tugged at Pranav’s heart. He would wake up every time, and the girl would vanish. He would have forgotten it, but this girl looked familiar, and last night, she had pleaded, “Don’t wake my mother please!”
It was the first day of excavation. All negotiations had failed. The Santhals flocked against the forest around the hill, cordoned off by heavy police enforcement, deputed on the government’s request. The diesel generator whirred to life. The excavator stood ready. The drills had bored holes and the detonators were in place. Pranav and his team watched from a distance. “Boom!” The first explosion shook the earth. They cheered and clapped. Chand wailed, “Forgive us! MaranBuru!” But the earth didn’t stop shaking. The ominous grumble continued : It was an earthquake! They ran wherever they could. In all the hullabaloo, Pranav noticed Sarla’s tear-stricken face. The dust from the red soil had settled on her hair, dying it red. He wondered how he had never noticed her emerald-green eyes, that glowed in pain and defiance, “See what you’ve done! Mother earth’s woken up! She’s in pain! She’s angry!” And he forgot to run. Sukhen appeared from nowhere and jerked him away towards the main road.
It had been a month since the earthquake. The Richter scale had pinned it at a mild 4.3. There was no destruction of property reported. The experts had declared it was due to a shift in the tectonic plates deep down, and not triggered by the detonation. The government wanted to carry on with the tunnel. But Pranav was out. He was on the train back to Kolkata. The devastation that the earthquake had wrecked inside his mind was an unreported scar, to be carried forever.
“It’s alright ,Pranav. We’ll send someone else. You can come back,” Pranav’s boss had sighed after the umpteenth call.
For the first time, Pranav had failed his boss, but he felt this odd satisfaction. He had been cured of his ‘tunnel vision’. Back at the headquarters, they might have been wondering about his sudden metanoia. Critics could even be saying that he chickened out because of the earthquake. But Pranav had no time for speculations. He had lots to do. For one, he had promised Chand, and also Sarla, the true daughter of the mountain soil, that he’d let no harm come to their God, their Mother. All he had to do was to spread the word among his friends, and activists. The tunnel didn’t fit in there. He hummed a familiar tune – “Ikkebare manaise na ree…”
- Rahr Bengal : The Rahr Region of West Bengal, that is made up of its characteristic red alluvial soil.
- Tui Ranga Maatir Deshe Jaa/Laal Paharir Deshe Jaa/Ikhane toke manaise na reee/Ikkebare manaise na ree : Leave for the land of the red soil/Go to the land of the red mountains/You don’t fit in here/ You don’t fit in here at all ; a soulful Bengali folk song of 1970 by Arun Chakraborty, later modernized by rock bands.
- -da : Shortened form of dada (used as a suffix), which means elder brother in Bengali.
- Jangalmahal : The forest area in Rahr Bengal, towards Midnapur and Purulia.
- Sohrai : The harvesting festival of the Santhals, held in late autumn.
- Diwali : Hindu festival of lights, held in late autumn.
- Chhau Dance : A special form of masked tribal martial dance that is widely popular in Purulia, and the neighbouring states of Jharkhand and Orissa in India.
- Sarpanch : A village head in the Indian administrative system.
The place is real. The characters and events are fictitious. The opinions expressed in this story are a result of the author’s experience with field work in India, and are solely the author’s own.
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