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Bastar Banter

Naxalites are locked in combat with the state in these beautiful lands. This is the Red corridor – iron rich, Maoist-dominated. The visitor seldom gets to meet Maoists but their presence is easily felt.

Kingshuk Mukherji
Fri, Jun 20 2014

Photographs: Kingshuk Mukherji

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The views expressed by the blogger and the subsequent comments by readers do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of Prabashi Post

About Kingshuk

My thoughts are that of a wanderer in search of an address. Err, many addresses actually. And unique life experiences. I am an expert at nothing but curious about most things. If my writing provides a moment's joy or respite to a fellow traveller looking for a destination, I would have done my job.
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Vast stretches of emptiness, a picture-perfect avenue, landscape that gently rolls and falls, bold rock formations, flaming-red flowers and fields of swaying crops. That’s how Bastar is in some parts. Then, there are the forests – thick, intimidating and genuine, still, sombre, dignified. All one hears are crickets. Sunlight filters through bathing patches in bright light. Ant hills erupt in places breaking the carpet of dry leaves. The woods hide and protect many treasures – caves, waterfalls, human beings from another age and time.

Naxalites are locked in combat with the state in these beautiful lands. Danger lurks everywhere. A culvert could be mined, bands of Maoists could line the crests of the low, rolling hills, snipe from behind boulders, emerge from nowhere, dissolve in the crowds without a trace. This is the Red corridor – iron rich, Maoist-dominated. The visitor seldom gets to meet Maoists, or so he believes. But their presence is easily felt.

The highway from Raipur – a satiny black band that heads to Visakhapatnam – has been laid with care, quickly leaving the city it slices through the countryside. This road is a product of love and it’s on show everywhere. Neat signage appear at regular intervals filling in the motorist with details on distances and directions. At night, cats eyes on either flanks light up like a Christmas tree, reflectors on trees lining the road sparkle in the glare of headlights helping drivers hold course. The ride to Jagdalpur is a breeze.

Jagdalpur

This isn’t a single-street town. It is busy, noisy and dusty. Shop-lined narrow roads, crowded, bursting with action, haggling and bargaining, honking cars cut through neighborhoods packed with ugly apartment blocks. This isn’t a new town. Years ago, where those unattractive blocks of flats stand, probably were spacious bungalows with lawns. Life was slow and easy. But this Jagdalpur is gasping for breath, it has no time to spare, full of clutter, noise and confusion. Policemen and women in ill-fitting baggy uniforms try to rein in the unruly traffic – bulky SUVs, pushy two-wheelers, pesky cycle-rickshaws, lumbering trucks, smoke-belching buses.

The hotel is tacky, but comfortable, its rooms spacious, air-conditioned, beds and curtains clean. A sticker pasted behind the bathroom door talks of “heavenly massage sessions”.

At the restaurant, it’s vegetarian meals only, and that’s because “honourable guests” put up here. In these parts meat-eating, it appears, is associated with drinking sessions, promiscuous living, sexual mores. Never mind, the sandwiches are well-made, the curries and dal tasty.

Solitary, strong Teerathgarh

The post-lunch drive to the Kutomsar caves and the Teerathgarh waterfalls is a pleasure. It’s around 3pm and the sun beats down, yet the heat isn’t unbearable. Once again on that splendid up-and-down, rise-and-fall road, the drive induces sleep. Small villages, mud huts many of them painted blue zip past, men and women are hard to spot, and when you spot a few, they’re in a tight huddle under a shade chatting animatedly. There are long stretches of stark emptiness.

Police stations along the route are heavily barricaded with barbed-wire fences, gun turrets, pillboxes sandbag bunkers at the entrance, sentries with automatic weapons. Still, the defences look flimsy. In some places, the bolted front gates are rickety – one push and they’d topple over. As you marvel at the state’s suspect defenses, the driver interrupts: “Yahaan tak naxali aa jaatey hain”. He draws a wide arc with his right hand, his index finger pointing to the horizon. The driver is an intriguing character. Not an ounce of fat on his wiry frame, he wears old-fashioned bell-bottoms and a bush shirt that hangs loose at the waist. His eyes burn, irreverence and silent defiance in them. He was once a police driver and drove policemen long distances across states in search of fugitives. You’d want to believe he’s one of those taking on the might of the state.

Red columns, the Maoist hammer and sickle sitting atop, serve as constant reminders of Bastar’s blood-soaked record. Unknown Maoists who lost their lives fighting security forces. And, there are so many of them, many forgotten even by the people they fought for. The red paint on the pillars having faded over years of neglect, plaster peeling off, marble plaque defaced and the hammer and sickle rusty. Someone’s son, a brother or a sister even their kin don’t remember any more. There are some that are distinctly more recent, built with multi-colored tiles.

Once, in the 1970s, when Charu Mazumdar and his band of youngsters were bleeding Bengal white, such martyrs’ columns sprouted in Kolkata neighbourhoods. I’m not sure if any exist in Kolkata now, but they abound in this new naxalite theatre of war.

The state fights a seesaw battle with the Maoists here, or have they agreed to co-exist? Two universes with clashing beliefs, can they ever find common ground? Looks difficult, for one believes the other must not exist. Their convictions are different, so are their takes on justice and problem-solving.

The highway zigzags through a thickly-wooded tract, there’s hardly any traffic, rarely a truck lumbers by, belching smoke, grumbling at the steep climb it must negotiate. Otherwise, the deep silence, tall trees, the play of light and shade, the shrill song of an unknown bird captivate. Conversation ceases.

The Kutomsar caves are deep inside the forests and should preferably be visited in the morning or early afternoon. Around 4.30pm, entry to the jungle is barred. Forest guards stop all movement. Teerathgarh is the next stop, a pristine waterfall that the state government advertises in its brochures as a tourist hotspot, but few know of or get to visit. Its remoteness and proximity to the dreaded Jeeram Ghati, where the Maoists in May 2013 wiped out the Chhattisgrh Congress leadership, are deterrents.

“Jeeram Ghati ka rasta idhar sey,” the driver informs as the car turns a bend. He points to a red, dirt track that cuts off from the main black-top road and gets lost in a mysterious, forbidding jungle.

From where our car stops near a cluster of thatch-roof shops selling spurious Coca-cola and Pepsi, uneven, winding stairs take visitors to the base of the fall. A couple of tribal women sit around in the fading sunlight selling tendu fruit – a sweet kernel hidden in a tasteless, brittle shell — a bagful of fruit for Rs 10.

At Teerathgarh, the hill river dances down steep, scraggy rock formations and in summer the flow is reduced to a delicate, single, fast-flowing ribbon. When it rains, the dancing silver ribbon transforms into a torrent, angry, roaring and foaming. Monkeys have a free run of this area, frolicking in the trees, grimacing at visitors, snatching at packets of Lays chips.

With the light fading fast, it’s imperative we return. “Shaam key baad safe nahin,” the driver informs as he hustles us back into the car and drives off along the lonely country road.

Cave wonder

Early next morning, it’s time for a trip to Kutomsar caves and the Chitrakot waterfalls. Breakfast is no-frills but tasty – cheese sandwiches, aloo parantha, coffee. Back on the road we drove down the previous day, there’s a little more bustle in these early hours, more cars and trucks, some villagers out with their cattle. At the check gate where the dirt track runs into the forest that hides the caves, the guards charge a nominal fee. And, some distance away a guide joins in with solar lanterns. He speaks Hindi with a strange nasal accent making ordinary words sound alien. Reeking of the local rice beer, he talks of “hundreds of undiscovered, secret caves in these forests where the rock formations are milky white harbouring unique wild life.”

The entrance to the Kutomsar caves – a hole in the hill, moist overgrown with thick vegetation and fern, can give the faint hearted a scare. But beat fear, squeeze in, duck and crawl into this dark world of wonders and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The guide, solar lantern in hand, barking instructions and commentating in Japani-Hindi, ushers us down a narrow, slippery causeway, focusing the light on fascinating formations of stalactite and stalagmite, where Mother Nature has painted pictures of elephants and lions, a unique formation that resembles the Titanic hull, a pool of muddy water where the blind fish live, a Shiva linga hidden in the depths of the cavern, beyond which it’s impossible to venture for the air gets thin. He abruptly switches off the lantern submerging us in an ocean of deep, authentic, overwhelming darkness.

When the rains come, the caves become inaccessible. An angry hill stream barrels down this dark, twisted cave, carving and etching new formations, painting new pictures, emptying itself in some distant river. The morning sun pierces the eye as we emerge from pure darkness. “On Shiva Ratri, this place is packed, there’s hardly any space to set foot on and worshippers come in droves. Policemen regulate the crowds, too many people in the cave at the same time can suffocate them and set off a stampede,” the guide informs.

Chitrakot’s charm

Onward to Chitrakot, our very own Niagara. The drive to the waterfall is through a large stretch of flat land – fertile and cultivated, villages where life is barebones and not rushed, busy mother hens strut on the road leading a procession of chicks shuffling along to stay close to Mom. It’s good to stop by and drink a glass or two of Tadi, the local brew extracted from palm trees. It’s a great drink, pungent, sour and energizing. It gives you a nice, gentle high. Salfie, the unfermented version of the drink is hard to get in the vends. Extracted fresh from the tree, this must be drunk quickly.





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