Friday, May 28, 2010

Hilarious Movie Experience

Though this blog is a travelogue that I maintain, I am hereby sharing a hilarious movie experience with you all. Since I watched this movie on one of my trips, hence including it into this blog would not be an awkward thing I guess. As promised, my next posts would be on Kumaon. This is in some way a comic relief if I may say so.

More than two years ago, I along with three of my friends visited Hazaribag. The return train was from Koderma and we reached the place in evening. Since the train was around midnight, we had ample time at our hands and we decided to roam around the city after keeping our luggage at the station cloak room. First we had our evening tea and snacks but still there was plenty of time to kill and wandering through the streets of Koderma after sundown did not seem to be a good option, so we started looking forward to any cinema that we could watch until it was time for us to catch the train. We saw a poster of “Welcome”, a new Hindi release running at a local theatre and sought the direction of the cinema hall from a few local shopkeepers. However, when we reached the theatre, we found another movie was running there and did not find any known face in the leading star cast. Only we could recognize a couple of veteran character artists. Since there was no alternative we decided to go for it albeit it appeared to be a B-grade movie. But to tell the truth we would have missed a lifetime experience should we have given it a miss. I have never seen a more unintentionally humorous movie and only a few flicks shown at late night Zee Cinema or some dubbed South Indian flicks repeated regularly on Set Max can come close. I am trying to give you all an overview of the story but do not recall the name of the movie.

Before the movie however, I would like to give a few details about the cinema hall just to create the atmosphere. A square piece of land between two three storied buildings was converted into a theatre with a screen at one end. One of the buildings was being painted and the workers often enjoyed the movie and smoked bidis during their breaks relaxing on the bamboo structure that built for the painting purpose. And anyone could go inside the hall since there was no gatekeeper and there were no seat numbers as well so anyone could sit anywhere. And only after the movie started, the front gates were closed and the ushers checked the tickets. I was wondering what they would do with someone without a ticket since he would not have any chance of escaping. Now I should start sharing with you all the story of the movie.

The movie starts with a front angle shot of Rashtrapati Bhavan and then shows a man standing on one of the balconies of the President’s residence, from the back, who very much resembles Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, the then President , with his long white hair. In the movie also he was the current President of India. Then suddenly the movie goes to flashback thirty years behind present age and starts narrating his journey to Mumbai, then Bombay, from a small village in Tamil Nadu, just like Dr. Kalam. He is on his way to Bombay IIT where thirty brilliant scientists from all over India are summoned by a government initiative to build a deadly war weapon. Before that it was shown that the then President called for the three chiefs of army, navy and air-force respectively and stressed for building an indigenous war weapon. Now our hero is a promising young nuclear scientist and fits to the requirement but we were amazed to find a botanist in that group as well. So I presume biological weapons were not alien thirty years earlier or at least the director did not think so. Our hero boards from a small ferry boat in a custom tailored suit and heads straight for Bombay IIT and from then the movie goes to “A Beautiful Mind” mode.

Just like John Nash the hero is in search for something unique and indigenous to submit his thesis on, derailing from the fact that the scientists were called in the first place for researching on weaponry. And to confirm if you have already guessed, he is schizophrenic like Russel Crowe who portrayed Nash in the original. And similar to Ed Harris who portrayed the fictitious secret agent in the original, here a wing commander (who will be later found out to be imagination of the hero) contacts our hero to catch signals of the Pakistani spies and believe it or not he goes up a ladder and adjusts a Tata-Sky like dish antenna and boom, the job is done. Our intelligence offices should learn a trick or two from our directors and scrip-writers. And in the mean time the others were busy doing their experiments in a chemistry laboratory at IIT which is more appropriate for a class VI science project in some junior school. As in “A Beautiful Mind” the end date is approaching for submission of the report and our hero has not found anything yet. During one such morning, the news paper man throws a rolled up news paper at his feet and he gets his million dollar idea. No, it has nothing to do with the throw or the trajectory it followed but a front page news story on video piracy. But all this time the news paper has remained rolled up, so how he sees the story is anybody’s guess. The hero plans to provide the video CDs with a protective layer of gamma rays so that each time one watches a pirated video disc one will lose one’s eyesight little by little and once one reaches watching a fair amount of pirated movies, say hundred, one will go blind. Nothing will happen if one only watches the original disc. Now can you imagine CDs in 1970s, even if you can fathom the bizarre idea about protection against video piracy? But the problem is where from to get the gamma rays. No problem whatsoever, a friend of the hero is in touch with the underworld where gamma rays are black-marketed and he brings some for our hero in a brief case.

From here on the movie goes in the RGV flick “Company” mode. There are two groups in the underworld just like Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan gangs as was played by Ajay Devgan and Vivek Oberoi and one of them makes its fortune from video piracy. So they are hell bent on stopping our hero from implementing his plan. The other group tries to protect him and the result is a gang-war on the Bombay streets with men going down daily in number which may give competition to the annual mortality count of India. And in the mean time, the bad baddies go up to the hero’s village and kills every one of his family. Too sad, that the good baddies could not prevent. One funny scene I remember is that one of the female relatives of the hero reacted to a bullet wound even before the bullet could reach her. I am sure Rajnikanth would have surely dodged the bullets given his speed which is faster than light. So, the hero becomes all the more determined to teach a lesson to the gang who killed his family by actually making his great idea work. I was slowly coming to terms with the concept of video piracy in India in 1970s. And in between there was references to a dictatorial ruler of an African state who eats human flesh that the other underworld group supplies to him. This too I think has some factual basis if I can recall a not so recent news report. So who blames our cinema not to be based on society truths?

Did I tell you that there was a heroine thrown in as well who passed medicine from Italy (is this the Sonia Gandhi twist?) and is treating our hero’s schizophrenia. She seems to have worked in some TV commercials or at least can be a look alike. The interesting thing is for all the song dance sequences she is shot in foreign locations where as the hero is shot in Bandra or Marine Drive. But then again the budget may be just enough to fly the heroine, the cameraman and of course the producer and may be the director to fly to the foreign locations. And as far as treatment is concerned, she relies more on praying to deities than any medical action.

Now that finally our hero has come out with his invention and the test was successful (I was wondering how many people he must have turned blind for testing his invention and people only complain about government eye hospitals!) NASA came in to recruit him into its fold and with him his invention. This was a little over the top even for the particular movie standard. Why would NASA need anti-video-piracy invention for space research? Are there aliens out there doing video piracy as well? Only if some one tells Steven Spielberg about this. Then we can have a sequel to E.T. While we were thinking about this the nationalist twist came into the movie. The hero rejected the American citizenship and million dollar job because of his strong loyalty to his motherland. After all “saare jahaan se achchha Hindustan humara” as he told the men from NASA.

And what to tell about the acting skills of the hero. He is well built and has a good physique. And he goes shirtless many a times. And… Hello we were talking about acting skills here. Okay, okay, so to sum it up he was trying to copy Salman Khan. What? Now don’t tell me he does not have any acting skills? After all he is demigod only may be lesser in stature that Big B or Shahrukh Khan for that matter. He surely knows how to act.

We were so much engrossed in the movie by then that we did not notice that we were running late and we did not have our dinner also. So with a heavy heart and against our free will we had to leave the cinema hall. I do not remember the name of the movie now but if I can ever get hold of a CD of the movie (not pirated – I don’t want to go blind!) I would surely love to watch the end. Why the authorities did not send it to the Oscars? Where is Lagaan in comparison? Whew!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Charismatic Coochbehar

It was the last day of our Dooars trip and we were set to board the return train from Alipurduar Jn. in the evening. The last night at Chilapata forest rest house was a charming one with heavy showers throughout the night and a power cut in between. The fresh smell of the earth together with the constant clattering of insects had a pleasant effect. But in the morning we started hearing a different type of noise altogether. Peeping from the bungalow, we saw a group of men outside the rest house compound. Walking a few steps towards the gate we realized that they are actually demonstrating with flags and cutouts under the banner of CITU, a left wing trade union. Soon, one of them came up to us and informed that they are agitating against the forest department over temporary staff not being made permanent and would block anyone entering the rest house for the next 3 days. When we told him that we would be leaving that day only, he said that we could leave in peace (the earlier the better) but they would not allow any vehicle inside the compound. We finished our breakfast (thanks to the caretaker who could still make one for us) and planned to leave right after that. Thankfully the car we booked was allowed to come inside the bungalow compound; otherwise we would have to walk with our luggage outside. Since we had quite some time at our disposal before we could board our train, we decided to make a brief stop at the Coochbehar town.

The rain got to us before we could get to Coochbehar. And there was a dark cloud cover and a drizzle when we reached the Coochbehar Palace which is now maintained by the Archeological Survey of India. I managed a few quick snaps of the palace from outside and went in. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside. The entry point of the palace is a large room which used to be the Durbar Hall. There was a large royal insignia of Coochbehar princely state engraved on the ground in the middle of the room which comprises an elephant, a lion and a monkey. On the four corners there were four busts respectively of kings Jitendra Narayan and Nripendra Narayan and queens Maharani Indira Devi and Sunita Devi. There were some old photographs and oil paintings of the members of the royal family, a family tree and other information about Coochbehar. Coochbehar used to be a princely state in British India and became a district of West Bengal on 1st Jan, 1950.

I had always thought of Coochbehar as a small princely state but the palace with its Victorian style architecture was awe inspiring, to tell the truth.

The remaining part of the palace has been converted to a museum and there are some seven galleries. Some of them contained the royal seals and medals issued by the Coochbehar princely state, while others comprised more oil paintings of the royalty. There was one large painting of Maharaja Jagaddipendra Narayan who was the last king (1921 – 1949). Most of the later kings and queens were portrayed in attires similar to their European counterparts. There was a billiard room as well. The other fascinating gallery was the one where dresses, musical instruments and idols of gods and goddesses of the different ethnic groups of Coochbehar were displayed. The ones I remember are Dumpra (men’s wear), Nambrek (belt) and Thayaktuk (cap) of the Lepcha community, Kanikalay (men’s wear) and Lufun (women’s wear) of the Rabha community, Zompa (ladies shoe), Bakhu ( women’s wear) and Pangden (symbol of marriage) of the Bhutia community and Gamcha (mean’s wear), Dokhna (women’s wear) and Panchra (veil) of the Mech community. There were some horrifying masks as well like the Shialbag (devil) and Signidhel (female devil) decorating the walls of the gallery.

By the time we finished our tour of the palace museum, the drizzle had transformed into a heavy shower. We literally ran towards our car that was waiting outside the palace but still got drenched big time in spite of the umbrellas.

The next stop was the famous Madan Mohan Temple which was built by Maharaja Nripendra Narayan in late nineteenth century and is dedicated to Lord Krishna. Rash Mela is one of the celebrated festivals held here. The rain was pouring so heavily by the time we reached the temple that I did not even dare to bring out my camera. The temple architecture is attractive but it seemed to have a Mughal influence according to me.

As the intensity of the rain increased further, we abandoned our plan to visit any other place and headed straight to Alipurduar.

The trip had finally come to an end and looking behind I found it quite enchanting. My long desire to visit the northern part of my state had come been fulfilled and I resolved to come back and visit the places I could not make this time round. My aunt bought a book with comprehensive details on Dooars and we were already planning our next trip to Dooars and finalizing on the places that we should include in that visit. It is a pity that with so many marvelous places at bay, Dooars is still not a hot and happening tourist destination. I don’t know what to blame – the lacklustre tourism policy of the state government or the political instability of the hills. But then again, if it attracts a huge influx of tourists, it may well lose its charm. I would like to come back and have a feel of this charm over and over again, here, at this home away from home.

Chagrined at Chilapata

Our third and last destination of our Dooars' trip was Chilapata which is a dense forest near Jaldapara. We drove through Hasimara past the Airforce Station and halted to buy some local tea. Surprisingly, where our driver stopped the car, all the teashops side by side had their signboards in Telegu. We bought two varieties of tea, one for flavour (the costly and recommended one) and another to which milk can be added (the way I like tea personally). However, to tell the truth I did not quite enjoy either type once I got back to home.

Soon, we reached Chilapata and after querying some locals, we made our way to the forest rest house. Unlike Jaldapara, this place again has only two rooms at the bungalow and no ready ration for the guests. The caretaker took some money from us and went to the market which is a few kilometers away. However the bungalow is quite well maintained. The beds rooms and bathrooms are spacious, the living room is very well furnished and on the top of it, it had a television with satellite connection. This is the first time we could watch TV during our trip to Dooars and my aunt fully utilized the time watching the daily soaps (including repeat telecasts) that she had missed in the last few days.

Lunch was simple comprising Khichdi and finger chips and we settled for a jungle safari in the late afternoon after a quick nap. Our car and guide came to pick us up at 4 o’clock. The guide enlightened us that the name Chilapata has its origin from Chila Ray, a general of Coochbehar after whom the place was named. Very early during our trip we could locate a deer in the woods from some distance and hoped that we would be able to see many animals there especially since it is considered as an elephant corridor and sighting of elephants are almost regular according to my research before the tour. But alas, during the entire safari we were not able to see any other animal except for some wild pigs and wild hens. The guide did not seem to be quite competent and we figured out that he was living in the area only for the last five years after his father, who works in the forest department, got transferred to Chilapata. The driver was in fact more alert and interested to make us see some animals and sensing our disappointment drove farther to what is common and allowed but to no avail. However, the drive through the forest was quite fascinating in its own. We halted at a couple of places in between.

Our first halt was at Nalraja Garh which is a fort built during the Gupta period in fifth century and only the ruins are left now. That too our guide only showed us what used to be the front gate of the fort and convinced us not to go any further inside as it was not safe. Later I learnt that many people actually take a tour inside on foot. Most part of the gate had been buried under earth and one has to actually bend quite a bit or crawl to go to the other side. Our guide actually told us that the fort is going beneath the ground inch by inch, which is quite possible and makes sense, but the reason he told was a bit over the top. His justification was that the destruction of the fort was in fact due to a curse on the Nal kings.

While we were coming to terms with this explanation of history, he showed us some trees and told us yet another enthralling story about their origin. The myth goes that while the fort was being destroyed and buried due to the curse, some faithful guards favoured to be associated with the fort out of their loyalty and were transformed into trees and since then there are still guarding the ruins of the fort. And the bizarre thing with these trees is that they bleed just like humans if they are cut. Actually, I found some dark marks and dried up sticky liquid on the trees which is very similar to blood clot. The guide even volunteered to make a fresh cut and let us see for ourselves but we decided in the negative since we were not experts to come up with any scientific explanation and from my earlier conversation with the caretaker at the forest bungalow, I knew that what he was talking about blood like liquid secreted by the tree was a fact. I don’t remember the name of the tree now but the guide told us that that species of tree is available only in that place and there are only a few of them and any attempt to grow it elsewhere had failed.

Our next and last stop was a watch tower just beside the Torsha river. I had fallen asleep on the way and just as the car stopped I woke up and screamed in enjoyment seeing an elephant. But soon I saw the chains around its legs bound to a nearby post and realized that it was not indeed a wild elephant but a trained one, one which is called “kunki” in local terms and there is not much excitement in sighting one. The watch tower again was a disappointment as there were no animals in the vicinity. The guide showed us some unraveled grass along the river bed and explained that that must be the doing of the rhinocerous who might have gone to Jaldapara. However, in spite of the discontent of not seeing any animal from the watch tower, we were happy to witness the sunset across Torsha.

As the sun was going down, I became conscious that my vacation is also coming to the end and was saddened by the realization that it was time to go back to the busy routine of city life.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Jubilant at Jaldapara

Jaldapara Sanctuary was the second spot on our Dooars itinerary. Initially there were some anxieties whether our booking at the Hollong Bungalow would hold good since there was some news of the forest department minister and dignitaries visiting the sanctuary at that time and that would have meant cancellation of all other bookings. But thankfully, we got our booking at the forest bungalow alright and if we did not stay there we should have definitely missed out on many things.

We reached Jaldapara at around noon. But in spite of the warmly welcome by the bungalow staff, we felt terrible hearing the news that lunch would not be served there. The forest bungalow is located quite inside from the main entrance of the sanctuary, around 2 kms I guess, and we had already released the car that drove us from Jayanti to there. After settling down in our room, named Hornbill after a species of bird, we decided to book another car for the rest of the day. We were contemplating to take a jungle safari in the evening but the hotel staff discouraged us against it since we would in any case take the elephant safari the following day. Following their advice, we decided to visit the Khoirabari Nature Park in the afternoon after having lunch in one of the restaurants outside the sanctuary.

Unlike Jayanti, we found Jaldapara to be quite a celebrated and commercialized tourist place and the forest bungalow staff too showed more proneness to being the urbane persons we are more accustomed to in our city, rather than the raw innocence we experienced earlier. The bungalow too exhibited a more hotel like atmosphere since there were many other groups staying there as well (there are six rooms to rent out at the bungalow for general public) in contrast to our Jayanti experience where we were all by ourselves. But then one must not forget that Jaldapara had been a favourite resting place of the former chief minister, Jyoti Basu, and hence the people at the bungalow also are familiar with the VIP guests and are at ease with us, petty commoners. Later on, one of the bungalow staffs even showed us the rooms (from outside) where Jyotibabu used to stay.

We had Chinese cuisine at lunch at the restaurant recommended to us by the hotel staff, a feat that is unbelievable in any other remote forest, I guess. After lunch, we went to visit a museum where remains of certain animals are kept, or so our driver told us. Though we reached during the working hours, we found the museum doors closed and the ticket counter empty as the staff had went for lunch. Some other tourists were also waiting nearby and we joined them in the wait for the staff to return. But when they did not return even after 15 minutes, we decided to move ahead as the sun was quite hard and the museum did not even look fascinating from the outside.

At the entrance of the Khoirabari Nature Park, a quote from “Aranyak”, one of the classics of Bengali literature written by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, is displayed which speaks against deforestation and warns that a day will come when forests will be so scarce that people will visit forests as they go to pilgrimage today. I could not think of any more apt quote and the fact that the book was written years before only add to the credit of the writer.

The nature park comprises a leopard rehabilitation centre and we looked forward to taking a leopard safari where one takes a ride in a well guarded battery driven car inside a wired place where leopards roam about freely. We were hoping to see leopards from close vicinity but blame it on the heat or our luck, we could only spot one of them from quite some distance and then it disappeared behind thick bushes. The driver of the battery car then took us to an earthen room with iron gates where the leopards take shelter and are given food to and we located another couple resting in the shade of the room. Though the doors were open, it would have been more exciting to see them in the open. However the leopards did not seem to come out of their den soon and we decided to leave without bothering them any more.

On our way back to the Hollong bungalow, along the Falakata Road, that goes up to Joyga which is an Indian border town, we noticed large grey clouds creeping in and enveloping the blue sky. There were a few drops of rain as well. Though the picturesque green stretches along the road added to its appeal in the dead light and the cloudy backdrop, we were getting anxious for the fact that heavy rains would keep away the animals in deeper forest and we would not be able to see them from the bungalow in the evening as was assured by the bungalow staff.

Thankfully, the rains kept away and when we were having our evening tea back in the bungalow a sudden uproar indicated that some animal had come to the close proximity of the bungalow. There was a narrow stream of water just beside the bungalow and on the other side the animals would come to eat the salt kept for them by the forest staff. There were a flight of steps bordering the stream towards the side of the bungalow and the inmates of the bungalow were waiting there with eager anticipation. At first I could not see any animal. Then after a little while I noticed some movement behind the bushes. After some more time an outline of an animal was visible and the bungalow staffs present there could distinguish it as a rhinocerous. As time passed on, the outline grew clearer and eventually we could see the rhinocerous. Slowly the animal walked up to the place where the salt was kept totally oblivious and unaffected by the fact that so many human beings were exclaiming in sheer awe at its sight on the other side and the shutterbugs were engaged in taking some quick snaps. The evening light was fading out and we had enough view of the lone rhinocerous. It was without any horn by the way. Some opined that it must have damaged its horn while some others were of the belief that it might be a young one yet to develop a horn. It was growing dark and we waited for some more time in the darkness in anticipation of some more animals to show up. After quite some time we could spot a deer (not the spotted one but may be of sambar variety) but it soon ran away into the bushes once the forest guards focused search lights on it. We were feeling worn-out from the day’s toil and retired to our room. Our decision was hastened by the fact that I could hear the sound of the Thakshak snake in the vicinity and was not feeling safe to stay any more there in the darkness. However, before returning to our room we made arrangements with the forest guards to alert us if any more animal visit the place in the late evening. From our room also we had a good view of the spot through the windows and any action from the other tourists would have made us aware.

We did not see any other animal on that day. Later, next morning, I heard some over-enthusiastic tourists stayed near the stream till lat e night and could witness one bison. We had our dinner (which had many courses and even sweets) and went to sleep early because next day we needed to wake up early for the elephant ride at six in the morning.

The next morning, the bungalow stuff woke us up with morning tea and after freshening up we went for the elephant ride. There were four elephants waiting for us and on each one of them a maximum of four tourists could board. Even tourists staying outside the sanctuary in some other hotels are eligible for the elephant ride but they need to intimate the bungalow stuff earlier. The hour long elephant ride takes place three times in the morning one in every hour, but the probability of spotting animals is higher in the first such ride that begins at six o’clock in the morning. The elephants in turn stood beside a cement stand which was at a flight of steps above the ground and from the stand one could easily board on the elephant. There is a howdah type seat with iron fencing around for the safety of the tourists. Once all the tourists were atop the elephants, the mahouts (elephant riders) gave some strange instructions and the elephants started moving in unison inside the forest. Our mahout Nurul told that our elephant was ten years old and her name was Mandakini. The elephants were moving along roads created by the movements of the animals and crossed a few creeks and ponds in between. In one such water body, we witnessed two rhinocerous taking baths. These two were with their horns intact. They looked up and gazed at the elephants for a few seconds but did not seem bothered. After pausing for a few minutes at that place the elephants again continued their walk. We noticed some peacocks and parakeets and another lone rhinocerous within the bushes but did not see any bison or leopard or wild elephants. However, I was content with whatever I could see. The only grievance I had was that the snaps I took were ill-focused and did not turn up well due to the constant jerking and shaking of the elephant ride. The ride ended at the same place it started from and we were welcomed at the bungalow with a nice breakfast.

It was time to bid good bye to Jaldapara and to move along to our next destination and we hoped to enjoy there as well as we did at Jaldapara.

I hope the readers would also be interested to come back to go through my next experiences in Dooars.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Joy of Jayanti

The trip to Dooars in mid April was suddenly planned out of thin air. There was no deliberation earlier and I was looking forward to my trip to Uttarakhand in May but the opportunity for a short tour arrived as there was a long weekend around “Poila Baisakh”, the Bengali New Year and I grabbed it with both hands. My aunt and uncle were my companions in this journey to the Dooars and all of us were thrilled since none of us had a chance to enjoy before a vacation in the midst of uninhibited surroundings of forest.

The name Dooars has its origin from “duar” or door. Historically, the gateways to Bhutan were known as “duar” and hence the name Dooars which is the plural form of “duar”. Now the entire region is known as Dooars.

Our first destination was the Jayanti forest that is part of the Buxa Tiger Reserve. We took the Kanchankanya Express to Alipurduar Jn. which is about 25 kms and one hour’s drive away from the Jayanti forest. Before entering the forest area one needs to get the entry fee paid for individuals, cars and cameras at the forest check post. Once beyond the check post our cell phones did not catch any towers (though we were later told that the Vodafone connection works at some places within the forest area but none of us had Vodafone service provider) and soon we reached the forest rest house, we had out booking at.

The bungalow has an exquisite location with the panoramic view of the Jayanti River (which remains dry for most part of the year) just beyond of the fencing of the rest house with a range of blue hills bordering the other side.

There had been nor’wester rains the earlier night along with hail storm, the effects of which we had noticed on our way to the rest house in the form of uprooted trees. But we found that part of the rest house was damaged as well. However our rooms were spared, thankfully. Two suites named Hoopoe and Treepie respectively (both named after species of birds) were booked for us at the Forest Rest House also referred to as Jainty 1. The other accommodations available there are a dormitory run by the forest department known as Jainty 2, “Abakash” – a CESC guest house and another PHE guest house. I came to know about those other options from Tubu, our caretaker. Later on we noticed the “Abakash” guest house which was nearby.

After lunch we decided to go for a jungle safari. My uncle has acquaintances in the forest department and they informed the Ranger of our arrival in advance. The Ranger in turn arranged a car for us and also provided a forest guard to accompany us as a guide. Anyway, one must take along a guide for a forest safari and we felt happy since ours’ was an armed one.

Soon we were inside the core area of the forest where deforestation is not allowed. We were driving through a narrow road between the woods with trees like Sal and Segun on both sides and little by little the forest was growing dense. We were acclimatizing with the absolute silence of the forest punctuated at times by some bird voices and some rattling noises made by unknown animals and insects. This was quite a new experience for us who are more accustomed to constant city noises. Suddenly we noticed a Hornbill (known as Dhanesh in Bengali) sitting on a perch. Our driver Omprakash was alert and put the brakes on to allow us get a closer look. I was getting my camera ready but the bird flew away before I could take a snap, probably disturbed by the unwelcome interference of us – Humans.

Our first destination was a watch tower known as “Teish Mile” or 23 Miles named so because it stands at a distance of 23 miles from the Coochbehar Palace, or that is what our guide Amulya told us. He also made us aware that not all tourists are allowed to come to this point as it requires special permission. That information certainly boosted our ego of being treated with special care. The three storied watch tower is located at a crossroad from where one can see animals coming from one part of the dense forest and going to another. But our luck was such that over a stretch of three quarters of an hour we could only see one Indian Bison and that too for a few seconds. The guards at the watch tower told us that the previous day itself a herd of elephants came very near to the watch tower but that did not help our cause. The only consolation was a deer cub which had been abandoned in the forest and sort of adopted by the watch tower guards. Though it roams around the forest during the day, it stays at the watch tower at night and behaves like any other domesticated animal. I must also mention the different varieties of butterflies we witnessed around the watch tower. I have never seen so many at a time and of so many types as well.

On our return journey from the watch tower we did not anticipate that our day without any incident would end up being so much exciting and adventurous.

Only God knows what was going on inside our driver’s mind while he was driving back. Probably he was way too keen on keeping an alert eye on the forest at both sides rather than on the road ahead, so that he could make us take a glimpse of more birds and animals and make up for our disappointment at the watch tower. The result was that the car skidded into the low bushes beside the road and just avoided a head-on collision with a tree. We were safe and unhurt, thankfully, but it was difficult to put the car on the road again, at least for the few of us. The accident took place at more than 1 km away from the watch tower and the driver went back to the tower to fetch one of the guards for an extra pair of hands to help bring the car back to the road. But even with his assistance the car could not be restored back. After much discussion we finally decided to go back to the tower and call for more assistance from the ranger’s office via walkie-talkie. The light of the day was fading out and we were feeling a bit nervous being stranded out in the middle of the forest. Our guide Amulya loaded his double barreled gun and that made us more uneasy. He also warned us of possible leeches along the road and soon my aunt and I got the taste of the bloodsuckers tickling on our feet. Somehow we made ourselves free of the leeches but the lower ends of our dresses and socks were left soaked with our own blood that the leeches have sucked out of us.

We reached the watch tower soon and waited for the rescue party. Evening had set in by then and there was uninterrupted darkness around us. We were feeling pity for the forest guards who stay at the watch tower for two to three days at a stretch and were trying to imagine the loneliness they suffer from. After some time we were amused to notice fireflies blinking all around us and forming some arbitrary pattern of flash lights with the complete black backdrop of darkness. Suddenly there was a different kind of noise and with the help of the search light that our guide carried, we located a large solitary elephant with trunks which had come to eat salt kept a place near the tower. Afterwards we learnt that it is a common practice in reserved forests and sanctuaries to keep salt at some specific places for the animals and the salt actually act as medicine for the animals. The elephant was hardly 25 feet away from us and was a bit startled at the sudden light focused on it. We put off the search light and I along with the guard went to the furthest point of the tower fencing to take a snap. The guard again focused the search light on the elephant and I took some quick snaps (later I found that they did not turn up as well as I would have liked). The elephant was now at less than 15 feet’s distance and it took refuge behind a tree and looked at us with untrusting eyes. A few moments later it retreated further and could be hardly seen any more. The guards at the tower opined that there may be more elephants nearby since they generally move in a group. But we could not wait any longer since in the meantime the rescue jeep had arrived and along it came our car as well. We were a little surprised since the driver was with us and he had the car keys but we were told that there was another set of keys at the forest office and the rescue team had restored the car on their way to the tower.

However, the herd of elephants did not give us a miss. On our way back suddenly both the cars came to a halt since the herd was passing by (we were able to see around six to seven of them again with the help of the search lights and a couple of them were very close in fact) and only when all the elephants disappeared into the dense forests we again started our journey back to the rest house. Unfortunately I could not take any snap of the herd since the driver and the guards did not allow keeping the search light focused for long for the fear that the elephants might attack us.

A heart warming dinner was ready for us in the rest house. After dinner our caretaker Tubu left for his quarters which is nearby but before that locked all the doors and windows and left the key with us. We were left all by ourselves at the rest house, an experience I never had before on any of my previous tours. There was a chirping sound from nearby and I asked Tubu which bird it was. To my utter shock he revealed that it was not a bird but a “Thakshak” snake which resides on the roof of the balcony of the rest house. Seeing me panic he assured that it was a “vaastu” snake and won’t harm but I could not keep aside my fear for the rest of the night.

The following morning I woke up before six contrary to my late rising habit. There was enough light outside but the sun had not risen till then. We went out of the rest house and enjoyed the sunrise from behind the hills which outlines the dried up Jayanti river. It was a marvelous experience and this time I had enough time to take a few snaps. A couple of young kids were playing within the rest house complex and talking to them we came to know that they were relatives of the caretaker. To our much amusement, the elder boy’s name was Colonel. I had never heard such a name and could not help but chuckle at the fact that so young a kid could bear such a intense name.

After breakfast, we went to see another view point named the Tashi Gaon Lake on Pukuri Hills. That the name means a hanging lake in Nepali, we came to know courtesy our guide Amar who belongs to the local Rava tribe. The car halted around 50 metres before the lake and there was a steep road to travel on feet to reach the lake. On our way to the lake, we noticed many peacocks and peahens but they flew away before I could attempt taking any photo of them. The lake was not very spectacular but the peaceful calm around the region touches one’s heart. And there were many fishes and tortoises in the lake which came to the surface of the water as we scattered the puffed rice (“Muri” as we call in Bengali) we took with us to feed them, in the water of the lake. Just beside the lake there were many colourful festoons and a place of worship for the Bhutias. There was no temple of sort but a small block of stone over which some metallic symbols were present and from the amount of molten wax around the place, one can conclude that candles are lighted regularly there as a mark of respect.

Our time at Jayanti had come to the end. After lunch, we packed our bags and started our journey to the next destination. We booked the same car and this time one of the acquaintances of the driver accompanied us as he did not want to drive alone on his return journey back to Jayanti. The name of the new person was Sajal and he turned up to be very friendly and enlightened us with many anecdotes on the place. He told us that Buddhadeb Guha (who is a well known Bengali writer and writes predominantly on forests) had visited Jayanti many a times and he was the writer’s companion on a couple of occasions. He also said that his name exists as one of the characters in one of his books but could not name the book. On the way he showed us the road to Mahakal Mandir, a temple atop a steep hill which is one of the “Sati Piths” (i.e. according to Hindu mythology, a place where one part of the body of Uma fell when her husband, Lord Shiva, danced in rage over her dead body). We noticed some tea gardens on our way as well. The first of them was the Atiabari Tea Estate near Rajabhatkhawa and after that we drove for quite a distance just next to the rail tracks. It was a new experience to us and when the trains passed by our side we felt quite excited. Here I must mention a very interesting story on the origin of the name of the place Rajabhatkhawa. The saying goes that at one point of time, the Raja (King) of Coochbehar swore that he will not eat rice (bhat) until he defeats the Bhutanese army and drives them off. After a treaty was signed between Coochbehar and Bhutan and the Bhutanese army retreated, the Raja ate (khawa) rice at this place to end his vow and hence the name of the place.

Soon we reached Hasimara. Going further straight we could reach Phuntsholing, the border town of Bhutan. But we took a left turn on to NH31 and after we crossed the Torsha river, we were almost approaching our next destination, the Jaldapara Sanctuary. We witnessed elephants in Jayanti and hoped to see Rhinocerous in Jaldapara, for which Jaldapara is renowned for. But that is a different story that I would share in my next post.