Tuesday, 9 December 2008
Diwali offered a long weekend that year. Early in the morning the day before, we boarded the only passenger train that goes from Visag to Kirandul, the centre of the iron ore mines in Bailadila. Some of the loveliest places on the Eastern Ghats are en route: Aruku Valley, Borra Guhalu, Mahendragiri and Semiliguda, which was, perhaps still is the highest broad gauge rail station in India.
Iron ore was discovered in the Bailadila range around the year 1900 by a geologist, P. N. Bose. It took another 55 years and a Japanese to rediscover the deposits for commercial mining. Professor Euemura drew the attention of the Japanese Steel Mills Association to these deposits after studying the old records of the Geological Survey of India. The railway track from Kirandul to Visag was laid in the late 1960s to facilitate export of iron ore to Japan. Mostly goods trains run on the line. The passenger train is a collateral benefit.
As I gazed at an endless train carrying haematite in roofless wagons coming from the opposite direction, I wondered how the Japanese could import ore from such a distant place and manage to sell us back finished steel at a price lower than what it costs in India. But soon, the enormous beauty of the hills drove away economics from my head.
As the train chugged on, the distant misty hills seen on the horizon came closer and Mother Nature revealed herself in all her riveting glory. The hills were densely covered by tall saal and other trees that were perhaps centuries old. The sun rose in the clear November sky and smiled on the lush green forest as we went through scores of tunnels that burrow through the hills. Thin, chiselled tribal men with bundles, and women with children on their backs got on and off the train. Where were they going? What lay at the end of their journey?
We reached Jagdalpur, the district town of Bastar, as the sun was going down. We gave the name of our hotel to a rickshaw puller and asked him how much he would charge. The wiry man looked at the ground and said, ‘Do rupaiah.’
Two rupees was a small amount even in 1986; no self-respecting rickshaw puller anywhere else would take two adults and two children and their luggage for such a pittance. Perhaps this little economic fact (we can’t run away from economics, can we?) indicated the centuries of exploitation that our tribal people have been suffering at the hands of people like yours truly. The adivasis here are poor, even by Indian standards, and marginalized. As late as in 1966, Maharaja Pravir Chandra Bhanj Deo, the erstwhile king of the principality of Bastar revolted against the Union of India for the rights of his tribal subjects. The maharaja was killed by police on 25 March 1966 in his palace. He took in 13 bullets. And “scores, if not hundreds” of tribals got killed trying to defend their former ruler. Even as I write this in 2008, in the adjacent Dantewada district, tribals are being dislodged from their homes by police and a government backed militia called Salwa Julum, so that steel plants by Tatas and Essar can come up there.
A clean and unpolluted small town, Jagdalpur had a few people and vehicles on its dimly lit roads. We had our supper at the hotel’s dining hall in dim light; the voltage was low. The power went off while we were eating.
The next morning we left for the Chitrakoot Waterfall, 38 kilometres away. Our bus went through arid plains with little vegetation and cultivation, and no hills on the horizon. After some time, the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. The conductor declared we were in Chitrakoot. We got off, although we knew that we had come to a wrong place. Where was the hill from which water would cascade down?
Besides, there was nothing around to suggest that we were in the vicinity of the biggest waterfall in the country. No restaurants, no shops selling useless “souvenirs”, no tourist taxis, not even a cycle rickshaw. The tourism infrastructure of the place was limited to a ramshackle teashop with bamboo posts and a thatched roof, and a few wooden benches. The establishment was run by a thin, haggard looking Bengali, a former refugee from East Bengal who had been “rehabilitated” in Dandakaranya in early 1950s. ‘You have come to the right place,’ he assured us, ‘Walk a mile that way, you will find the waterfall. It rained last night; you’ll see a lot of water.’
We trudged through the barren plain, with nothing but small shrubs and trees on the distant horizon, but we still couldn’t figure out how that path could possibly take us to a waterfall. Then we heard water roaring at a distance.
Millennia ago, as the river Indravati was meandering along the rocky earth of Dandakaranya, she encountered soft soil at Chitrakoot. The flowing water eroded the soft soil, creating a waterfall. When we reached the river, we found ourselves at the top of the cataract. Water was gushing down hundred metres below, off a semicircular edge. The Chitrakoot waterfall is like her rich North American cousin, the Niagara, although much smaller. But unlike in the Niagara, the place was not burdened with concrete. Nature was at her pristine best.
That was the day of Diwali. Our seven-year-old son was worried that we might not find firecrackers in a remote place like Jagdalpur. But we were surprised to see the range that was available in the local bazaar teeming with holiday shoppers. And sweets were sold by the tonne. Sweetmeat shops had extended themselves halfway into the roads.
Come evening, the sleepy, dimly lit town of the previous day was transformed into a gorgeous theatre of light and sound. The entire population was on roads and it seemed one big family was celebrating Diwali together. Crackers burst, rockets whooshed, Catherine wheels spun thousands of golden suns on the ground ... Late in the evening, when stocks of crackers dwindled, women came out in colourful dresses, young ones in salwar-kameez, and married women with heads covered with the end of their saris. Each one of them carried a plateful of sweets covered under a piece of embroidered cloth for their friends and relatives. We were not left out either. The hotel owner sent us a plateful.
The next morning, we had to catch a bus at five. I left the hotel in total darkness and woke up an adivasi rickshaw puller who was crumpled up like a shrimp in his rickshaw. When I told him that we had to go to the bus stop, he jumped off his rickshaw, wide awake. I told him there were four of us and asked him how much he would charge.
He said, ‘Do rupaiah.’
Photo: Courtesy Wikipedia
Trumbull, Connecticut / 8 December 2008