Musical Evenings

One of the most important ingredients of the evenings in my life has been music. In my boyhood, when I used to return home after playing football in the afternoon, my elder sisters in the village would be rehearsing musical notes ‘Sa Re Ga Ma…’ or some songs like prayers, Rabindrasangeet (Rabindranath Tagore’s songs) etc.

I would walk back home, tired and hungry, listening to the lovely music – the next activity in my routine being a few hours of studies. The brief musical interludes then energized me to read for two or three hours before going to bed.

Representative Image (PC : Pixabay)

Flute is one thing village boys are good at playing. So quite often flute music would come wafting from a distance through the darkness in the evenings. The melancholy tunes of the flute filled my mind with both joy and sorrow. The silence in the evening was the perfect foil for the music to travel and reach a large audience. As painting requires a canvas so does music need silence to be heard in its purest form.

I also hear birdsong before sunset. Birds also perhaps sense that evening is the best time to warble and send their music into the air. Notes sung by one are picked up by the others in the vicinity who replay the same and thus they continue their musical conversations for some time.

Music is abundant in nature, birds being just one of their best exponents. In the rainy seasons, the swish of the rains, wind coming in gusts and rustle of leaves together create a music that has a particular rhyme and rhythm.

Besides, it is again music in which human creativity is at its best and is endless. I studied in a residential college. The alleys of college campus very often resonated with evergreen  Kishore Kumar songs, ‘Pal pal dil ke paas’, ‘Aanewala pal janewala hai’, etc.  that blared from the college hostels in the evenings. Those songs brought a spring in our steps as we moved inside the campus.

I used to enjoy songs differently though. Doors shut and lights switched off, lying on bed, I switched on my radio at the time of scheduled musical programmes and listened to the songs telecast by the radio centre. And before exams, when I had to stay up and study till midnight,  music helped me reset my mind for long hours of studies.

After I moved to Hyderabad for my job, the evenings are even more musical with community programmes and musical concerts happening every now and then. I hear great singers singing Hindi playback, ghazal, khayal, classical, etc. I marvel at the talent of the lyricists, composers, singers and instrumentalists who put together all the elements to produce great music.

The lyrics carry a wide variety of emotions. A song that is rich in lyrics can be inspirational and can make great impact on our minds. Songs with good lyrics and melody touch a chord and soothe my mind. Rabindrasangeet carries deep emotions and makes a great impact on one’s mind.

The vagaries of life make us pass through never ending twists and turns that make us both laugh and cry. I have at least one thing to fall back on in all circumstances – musical evenings

Cycling in A Park

Yesterday I went cycling to Pala Pita Park at Gachibowli, Hyderabad, which has been developed exclusively for bicycle rides. A park for cycling has two admirable aspects about it – firstly, the park itself that offers lung space and a pleasing sight to our eyes, and secondly, the cycling that exercises our muscles and refreshes our mind and spirit.

Inside Pala Pitta Park

Pala Pita Park has both of them in equal measure. Cycling tracks wind their way through trees and bushes, and seem to take us deep into the unknown. The long paths without any traffic and the excitement of the fellow riders inspire one to keep on pedalling till the time it is dark and the park authorities blow whistle for visitors to leave the park. By that time, the body gets exercised, and mind become de-stressed.

Bicycles are available on rent from the park office. I hired one of them and went for the ride. The tracks are undulating as usual for the terrains of the Deccan Plateau, making the ride more enjoyable. While riding, I could hear the birds chirping in the trees and see peacocks roaming around the open spaces of the park. I stopped at the turnings and took a few clicks on my mobile camera.

Then the ride also reminded me of the days in my boyhood when my legs would be itching to go cycling every afternoon. I was born and brought up in a village in Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal. I would cycle along the village paths bifurcating the agricultural fields and the road that connects my village to the National Highway. I went from one end of the road to the other and did the same over and over till the time the Sun was setting and it was time to return home. But I never really felt tired of cycling.

In those good old days, there were not so many bikes and cars as we see in the streets nowadays. Very few could afford expensive vehicles and people mostly used bicycles. And there were two or three brands of bicycles – Hero, Hercules and Raleigh. The design was just plain and simple with straight cross bar and the handle bent inward. People used bicycles for going to office or market, making short trips and carrying goods. My private tutor used to ride to our home on a bicycle. The tinkle of bells indicated to me that he arrived.

Inside Pala Pitta Park

Nowadays newspapermen, milkmen and postmen still use bicycles as they ferry newspapers and milk packets or deliver letters to people’s houses. It is convenient for them to move through the narrow paths and alleys, and to mount, ride and then dismount within short distances. But with economic progress, people now have bikes and cars. The streets are owned by cars and bicycles are very rare in the roads in cities or even villages. If one wants to cycle for nothing but just exercise, they have to use the extreme side of the road, intimidated by the large vehicles.

The saving grace is that people today are health conscious and have taken to regular exercises in a big way. While bicycles are not used much for commuting or going to market, youths or even middle-aged people can be seen setting off early in the morning or late in the afternoon on the less crowded roads, wearing helmets and they ride long distances for pleasure and exercise. What was a necessity once for day-to-day activities now has to be nurtured as a passion for exercise.

As for myself, I still enjoy cycling but not amidst the din and bustle of the city’s roads. Ideally, I would love to cycle on a village path or a park like Pala Pitta undisturbed by the noise of traffic or the fear of being hit by a bike or a car. For me, it is as enjoyable as boating in a lake or swimming in a pool.

Peter and Paul ring in 2022 (A Skit)

The Sun is rising on the first day of the new year, 2022. Paul is one of the early risers among the crow community in the Tali Park. He wakes up and flies to his friend Peter’s nest to greet him with a rhyme.

PAUL: Hello, Peter,
Mr. Late Riser,
Crow name spoiler,
Get up and see the new dawn,
Good moments don’t last long.

(Peter takes a moment to respond to his friend’s call – it is a little earlier than his usual waking time in the morning.)

Sunrise (Image Credit : http://www.unsplash.com)

PETER:  What’s happened? Sounding so poetic today! Let me have a drink. I’ll soon be back.

(Peter flies to the lake inside the park, has a drink and quickly comes back.)

PETER:  So what rhyme were you singing?

PAUL:  Idiot, this is the new year! Year 2022! See the wonderful sunrise in the new dawn! Ah, see the crimson hue in the sky! Is it a time to sleep?

PETER:  Oh, I see. That’s why you’re so excited!

PAUL:  Naturally so.

PETER:  But is the sunrise different from any other day? Is the crimson hue brighter than usual?

PAUL:  Oh, you’re being cynical as always. This is the beginning of the new year. You have to be optimistic.

PETER:  What optimism? Is there fresh air to breathe? Is the food safe to eat? Will the new year be any different for us – the crows? Will the cyclones stop coming? Will humans love rather than hate us?

PAUL:  Oh, Peter, will there ever be a moment in life without any problems? You have to live with them. And when it’s time to celebrate, you celebrate, or else life will be boring!

PETER:  Yes, they were celebrating it with song and dance yesterday night. I was watching them from the top. Then they started bursting firecrackers. I choked and almost died. Is that the way to celebrate, tell me? The air is already polluted and now you make it dirtier.

PAUL:  Oh, that’s pathetic. Are you fine?  

PETER:  Is the food safe to eat? They’re using pesticides to kill insects, rats and using chemicals for all purposes. They’re poisoning us slowly and silently. Vultures have almost become extinct! We don’t know when it’ll be our turn to die.

PAUL:  By polluting the environment, they’re, in fact, digging their own graves. They live in this world for many more years than us and therefore should be more concerned. But now it seems they’re realizing what harm they’ve caused to life on Earth.

PETER:  We’ve the right to live in this world. We don’t need their mercy.

PAUL:  You’re right. The world is ours – and literally so. They live in small compartments while the entire sky belongs to us. Why don’t we take advantage of it and move elsewhere?  

PETER:  That won’t save you from cyclones, you know. My nest was blown away twice. Thank God, I was not and am alive to tell you my story. I sheltered under the roof of a building and saved my life.

Ripe papaya in plant (Image Credit: http://www.unsplash.com)

PAUL:  That’s worrisome. But that’s a natural phenomenon.

PETER:  Natural phenomenon? You know so many things but not this or are just pretending not to know. It’s again pollution that’s warming the ocean. Thus, more and more cyclones are happening.

PAUL:  Ok, Peter, no point arguing on this. I can’t force you to celebrate. If you don’t want to celebrate, so be it. But be thankful to God, we’re alive despite all this. At least, be grateful to the mother Earth. She’s completed another journey around the Sun. At least say cheers to her!

PETER:  OK, cheers to mother Earth! And I’m done with my lecture. Tell me what you want me to do.

PAUL:  Papaya? Are you interested?

PETER: Yes, very much.

PAUL:  Can you see the spire of a temple above the trees there? There’s a clump of papaya near the temple. It’s a little far from here. But it’s worth the effort.

PETER:  Oh, I know that very well.  

PAUL:  But there’re scarecrows.

PETER:   Oh, they’re quite funny. I love them and find it amusing that those fellows invented this stupid thing to keep us away. What made them think that we will see those zombies and fly away, frightened?

PAUL:  OK then, let’s go and meet them.

Peter and Paul fly to the clump of papaya where the ripe fruits are hanging tantalizingly from the crowns of the plants. They peck holes in the papayas and start feasting on their soft red pulp. They quickly devour two or three fruits to celebrate the new year as the scarecrows stand overseeing the plunder happening under their noses. 

Old Theatres and Golden Days of Watching Movies

You see them by the side of a road, at the corner of a town or beside a busy market. The buildings with auditoriums inside are standing there, forlorn and abandoned, waiting with a faint hope for return to the days of long queues, houseful shows and a spellbound audience. But ten or fifteen years back, no one imagined this was what they were destined to be for these theatres were then a great source of entertainment.

I was in my hometown, Maynaguri, a few days back. Wandering aimlessly in the streets, I went to one corner of the town, where there is the theatre, Bharati. The marquee has been closed for the last few years. I am keen to see it open again, so I asked a bystander whether anything was being done to restart the shows. He told me that the owners were indeed keen but would like to combine it with some other business to make the whole thing profitable.

Theatre, Bharati, in my hometown, Maynaguri.

Elsewhere in the country too, single-screen theatres are struggling to survive with audience turning to television, internet, streaming platforms and cinemas in the multiplexes for entertainment. Technology and lifestyle have changed the way people now watch films. Now they go to the malls, do shopping, have lunch or dinner and choose movies from multiple screens available there. The digital screens offer better viewing experience with improved picture quality, sound system or even 3-D view.

However, at one time, there were only those single-screen theatres with projectors and they were part of our growing up into adulthood. My schooling was at Jalpesh and Coochbehar of North Bengal, and then I spent my college life at Howrah. During those days, every Friday, town criers used to come in cabs or rickshaws in the mornings to announce the screening of a new movie. I had to strain my ears to hear those announcements. After the morning hours of studies, I used to go to the market to see the posters, which was a welcome distraction from the daily routine.

Going to cinemas, however, required consent from parents and arrangement of tickets. Parents were concerned about our losing focus from studies and going astray. This concern only resulted in seeing only a few of them, whether it was in company with them or with friends. On those rare occasions, we used to take rickshaws or ride to the theatres on bicycles. After watching movies, we would go to a restaurant, eat egg-rolls or cutlets and come back home. Thankfully, with the artistry of great actors and directors, and music by master musicians, remarkable art films and blockbusters were made those days, and the old screen hardly made the fun any less for us.

Then there were those guys who maintained hairstyles like those of the matinee idols, roam the towns on motorcycles, loaf about the teashops and perhaps watched each and every movie screened in the town. I envied them for their freedom and way of life. Sadly, they are the kind of boys that our parents tried to keep us away from and feared we would be like, if allowed to watch more films.

While too much of anything is bad, it is tough to survive in this complex world, being innocent of things happening around us – styles and fashion, love and romance, crime and violence, and inequalities in the society. Those screens were our windows on the world and helped us grow as adults by both educating and entertaining us.

In later years, when I was a grown-up, I had the freedom to go to the cinemas with friends and colleagues. I spent the time in theatres, when I had few hours’ break during journeys just long enough to squeeze in a matinee or evening show. The theatres – Bharati, Rupmaya, Dipti, Lipi, Kamala, Bhavani, etc. just to name a few – were there almost everywhere in the country to entertain me.

‘Old order changeth yielding place to new.’ The world keeps changing and there is no point holding on to the past. Screens in the multiplexes offer better viewing experience, making it impossible for the old theatres to compete with them and survive, especially in the cities. But in small towns like mine, there is now no screening at all as for many reasons cinemas have closed. People are obsessed with televisions or smartphones, but they can hardly replace the experience of big screens and social viewing. I believe audience in small towns will return to these theatres, if they upgrade their facilities to suit the taste of the modern viewers. Coupled with these, incentives from governments can help. The theatres in small towns must survive and the show must go on.

Salaam Mumbai

‘Ee hai Bambai nagariya tu dekh Babua,’ (This is the city of Mumbai, my boy) I crooned to myself as I, along with my family, stepped out of Dadar railway station of Mumbai. That was in 2003 and I was in the city for the first time as we went to visit a relative there. Before that, the city was known to me in those days without internet through glimpses I had of it in Hindi movies, bioscope, postcards of its landmarks and images in newspapers and magazines.

On that visit, I was struck by the city’s skyscrapers, the dizzy heights of which filled me with awe and wonder. No other city in India has them in such heights and numbers! But then the city has sea fronts on its sides. Walking along the breezy Juhu beach and Marine drive relieved me of the dizziness. The atmosphere was relaxing and I promised myself a visit to these spots next time I am in Mumbai. 

Mumbai is a city of contrast. The opulence of the billionaires is as much in contrast to the poverty in the slums as the high-rises are to the depth of the Arabian sea. Pomp and splendour coexist with the stench and squalor. Asia’s biggest slum, Dharavy, are there as much as are the castles of industrialists, film stars and cricketer. 

But the city welcomes all with a friendly spirit. Ask a taxi driver where he is from. He would probably be from UP or Bihar. The city respects industry and enterprise as also talent in art. If anyone has them, Maya ki nagariya mein Badle jhatpat badle muqaddar ka lekh babuwa (In this city of wealth, writing on one’s destiny changes very quickly), irrespective of who they are and where they are from. Few cities in the world lift one’s destiny the way Mumbai does. There are so many instances of people rising from rags to riches.

The city was a beacon of hope for the educated youth looking for job opportunities. Later IT revolution created jobs in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai and took away much of sheen from Mumbai. But the city still remains a destination for jobs in manufacturing and service as all major industries are headquartered there. Many of my relatives and friends are well settled in the city with jobs, condos, cars and other comforts of life.

The city is overcrowded and space is at a premium. One could see how people squeeze themselves in small compartments, which is not quite living in wretched conditions. They may have willingly embraced this life and are used to it. And who knows some of them might well be living their Mumbai dreams, trying to make it big in some walks of life? We hear stories of people making their beginnings in railway station and footpaths and later becoming successful in music, film, fashion or modelling.

Despite the paucity of space, the citizens of Mumbai zealously protect its green zones and wildlife. Sanjay Gandhi National Park spreads out to a large part of the city and leopards often come into conflict with people living in adjoining areas. Still the support of citizens for the forest and wildlife remains undiminished! Recent movement of Mumbai citizens for protection of Arrey forest is a shining example of their commitment to environment.

I have been to Mumbai many times later for personal and official work. My admiration for the city only grew with those visits and with time watching the way the city responds to situations of celebrations as well as of distress. The city’s legendary resilience enables it to come back to normal life quickly even after very tragic incidents. I had a feel of it when I had to board a train from Mumbai at CST railway station barely a month after 26/11 terror attack.

Trains are the fastest mode of travel in the city. The southern tip where the Gateway of India, Marine Drive and the Taj Palace Hotel are located is relatively calm and less congested. It is the ideal place for tourists to stay and relax with the view of the sea and get refreshed by the breeze from the Arabian sea.

Very often it is only a one-day trip for me to Mumbai and I have to return by the evening flight. Look downward from the flight, the city looks resplendent with lights from streets and high-rise buildings. Surrounded by the sea, the city lights remain concentrated, increasing the brightness of the place at night. I wish that the city retains its virtues and remains bright like this forever. ‘Jai ho Bambai dham ki.’ (Glory to the city of Mumbai.)

A Walk for Talk and Snaps

I would do it invariably every morning whenever I go home to Maynaguri – be it a day in summer or winter or a day in the rainy season. It is a walk through the path that leads from my home to a nearby village, which takes just a little more than half an hour.

The pathway has on its both sides agricultural fields, ponds, clumps of bamboo, plantations of sal and teak, and hamlets draped in thick foliage of banana, betel vines and all kinds of trees.

Kash phool on the pathway

Nature assumes wide variety of forms and colour in different seasons, changing from lush green during the rains to golden in winter with paddy covering the fields. My passion for photography only pushes me to go along this path, looking for a scene or a moment to capture in my mobile phone camera.

The people living in the hamlets do not only know me but also have known my parents and grandparents. In villages, people know each other for generations. Now I live in Hyderabad and can visit home only once a year.

Thus, when I come across an acquaintance, they would naturally smile and ask, ‘Oh, you have come.’
‘Yes, yesterday,’ I would say.
‘For how many days?’
‘Seven days.’
‘Only seven days?’
‘You’re now an officer, doing an important job. You must be a busy man now.’
‘But you’re free,’ I would say. ‘You don’t need anyone’s permission to go anywhere.’
‘So how many more years will you be there?’
‘Still more than ten years.’
‘You’ll be old by then.’

I break into a conversation and ask about their well-being and then take leave. To be recognised on the road by people is a privilege I do not have in Hyderabad.

Again, I tramp and look for something special to feast my eyes on and capture in my camera. Water lilies flower in the pond after it gets filled with water after the rains. In the autumn just before Durga puja, Kash phool (Kans Grass) adorns the fields with their white chiffon like flowers. Bengalis have a deep emotional connect with Kash phool as it heralds the festive season. I look at the flowers for a while and judge the spot and angle for capturing them in my camera.

Fishing in the paddy fields

But then there would be a moment which I need to capture immediately, or else the moment would be gone and opportunity missed. In the rainy season, it rains incessantly all day in North Bengal, leaving brief interludes when it would be drizzling.

I go out with an umbrella. As rivers and ponds overflow, fish comes with the flood to the agricultural fields. In those interludes between spells of rains, people come out with nets and fishing rods to catch fish in the streams and the paddy fields with knee deep water. I quickly position myself and take snaps for my recollection of the visit later or a Facebook post for my friends to enjoy the beauty of life in my native place.

After a brief stay at home, I have to return to Hyderabad. I have to wait for a year or so for this pathway to appear in a new form. But what I see year after year and season after season go into my mind’s album, and all the talk I have with people and snaps I get from the walk become a part of my lasting memories.

Dance of Rain

Monsoon has set in! The dark clouds are hovering over our heads, threatening more rains. It is usually after the summer months of heat and dust that rainy days start, bringing relief to the part of the earth we live in. However, it was a little different this year here at Hyderabad and also most other parts of the country. The summer was quite an extension of the spring, cool and pleasant, with disturbances in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian sea causing spells of showers, keeping the mercury down.

So after a very enjoyable summer, monsoon rains are here and are pouring with the rhyme and rhythm of their own. People caught in the middle of the road are scurrying for cover. The bird that perched on the branch of a tree seems to go into deep meditation, fluttering its wings from time to time to shed water from its feathers. I am reminded of the rainy days of my childhood.

Rains in my village

My childhood was spent in the Dooars region of West Bengal in the floodplains of the Himalayas. There the monsoon clouds hit the mountains, causing precipitation, and as a result, it pours profusely for two months and more. The rains would start in the evening and continue incessantly throughout the night. And then what a sight to behold in the morning! My village has lakes, ponds and also a river. The ponds would be filled to the brim! The cacophony of frogs would be heard all over! The rills would cut through the ground in front of my home! The river would suddenly swell up and the water would gush, forming a swirl!

I loved to frolic in the rains. Along with other children, I would go around the neighbours’ homes in our hamlet. The houses were made with slant tin roofs. Through the troughs of the roofs, water would pour in gushing torrents. We would stand just under them and bathe, holding our hands close to our chests.

After ponds were filled, on a sunny day, diving into the water and swimming was a way to release our energies. The water lilies would flower! They have long stems that extend from the bottom of the pond up to the surface of water. We would make garlands of the stems with the flowers at the bottom and wear them for some time before throwing them away.

In the afternoon when rain would let up, it was a great fun to play in the grounds that would be slippery after rains. We would play football, splashing water in the puddles. Trying to kick the ball but not quite making it and instead slipping and falling on the ground was perhaps the ultimate game and had no parallel!

Pond with water lily

The rivers would overflow and the fish would come to the ponds and agricultural fields. To catch fish with fishing rods required patience what with sitting in a corner for a long time, making the baits and waiting for the right moment to lift the rod. Far easier was to place a basket of bamboo with an opening, through which the fish would only enter and not come out, against the flow of water in a channel in the evening and collect your prized catch in the morning. The fish would always flow with the current.

School hours used to be cut short because of rains. The teacher would come to the class and do roll call. And notice would come also immediately and we knew what it was for. The matron would clang the bell, ‘dhong dhong’ twice and then ‘dhong dhong…dhong’ in close succession, sending music to our ears.

Today life has brought me to the city of Hyderbad. An average rainfall here causes water-logging in the streets, traffic jams and all sorts of things. Sometimes I get caught in the rains while driving my car or scooty. I enjoy the showers by making a detour on the roads. I often get drenched. Then I fondly remember the dance of rain in my childhood.

Golconda Fort – A Travel in Time

Surreal! That unmistakable feeling overwhelms me every time I visit the Golconda Fort – and it is not just once or twice that I have been to this historical place at Hyderabad. Outings on holidays or sight-seeing with a relative have occasioned these visits quite often and I have never felt less enthusiastic about it.

The fort was once the stronghold of Qutb Sahi Dynasty. Imagining the regal presence of the Sultans in it is a travel in time and I get transported five centuries back. But soon I stumble upon the relics of stone and I am knocked down to the present!

Inside Golconda Fort (photo credit : Arief)

It was first built as a mud fort by Kakatiyas dynasty of Warangal. Its control passed on the Bahmani dynasty of Karnataka in 1363. The commander of that dynasty, Sultan Quli Qutub Shah, declared independence in 1518 and established Qutub Shahi dynasty. He developed the fort and the township inside it with rocks naturally found in the region.

As I drive into the fort, I can see a comprehensive defence strategy at work in every aspect of its build. The S-shaped gateway one km away from the fort ensured no free entry of the enemy into the precinct without resistance from sentinels hidden in its bends.

The high fortified walls made of granite have defied the vagaries of time and stood strong. Rocks were carved into blocks to build those impregnable walls. I wonder how many people worked for how many years to build those walls and how many elephants might have been employed to move those rocks.

The gate Balahisar opens to the township inside the fort, which looks quite gigantic. It had reservoirs and water supply system that pumped water to the top of the fort where Sultans lived.

The Sultans needed to always beware of the enemy and conspirators, so they had to keep their eyes and ears open all the times. The acoustics engineering to capture the sound was mind boggling. The sound at the portico just after the entrance to the fort called clapping portico could reach the top of the fort!

Relics of the fort (photo credit : Arief)

And warfare in the days of the Sultans meant pitched battles in large fields with guns and cannons, and with soldiers attacking the enemy riding horses and carrying swords, rapiers and all sorts of hand weapons. An ambush or a guerrilla attack was also used to take the enemy by surprise. The fort served as the reserve for the weaponry and was also where the kings lived with his consorts, descendants and all trusted lieutenants.

How the world has changed in the last 500 years! Modern warfare involves the use of missiles or fighter jets unlike that in the past and that would make such known reserve of weapons and palace of the kings the prime targets of airstrikes.

The once impregnable Golconda is now in ruins with only the relics remaining to tell the story of its glorious past. Canons fell silent long back and now lie abandoned! And the fort so painstakingly built is now home to nocturnal creatures and is at the mercy of current dispensation for preservation. Valour, power, prestige or empire – all are transitory. Everything succumbs to the all-consuming demon of our existence…TIME.

Jaldapara Calling

Should our dream destination always be far away from home? Minds wander away from our horizons into distant islands and continents. Yet, the locations within our vicinity may hold the thrill and wonder not to be found elsewhere in the world! I realized this to my surprise when I visited Jaldapara forest close to my home last month.  My wanderlust has taken me mostly to far-off destinations, as though anything worth seeing must reside in distant places beyond my reach. But now a trip to the forest has so thrilled me with the view of nature and wildlife that I am left wanting to visit the jungle again and again.

Jaldapara is a deciduous forest in the floodplains of Himalayas and is home to India’s second largest population of one-horned rhinos after Kajiranga. It is a forest of mainly sal, teak and mahogany trees standing tall and forming thick foliage with a canopy at the top. Inside the forest, there is a quaint bungalow for the tourists to lodge in. This is Hollong Forest Bungalow. Accommodation in the bungalow is limited and tourists have to book rooms well in advance.

I, along with my family, set off early in the morning. We reached the forest, which is 80 km away from my hometown, Maynaguri, in just over two hours. The entrance to the forest is on the highway connecting Jalpaiguri with Alipurduar and the lodge is eight km inside. As we drove towards the lodge, we peered into the jungle on both sides of the approach road for wild animals. Was something stirring in the bush? Rhinos are sedentary animals and can be sighted easily. Finally, there it was! A rhino resting under a tree as we came near the lodge – a huge animal with a horn that would give anyone a scare! Our car stopped for a while for us to take some snaps. Then, within a minute, we were at the lodge. 

Hollong bungalow

Hollong tourist bungalow is a two-storey wooden house with five rooms, and around it are forest offices, cottages for foresters and a temple. The lodge overlooks a vast stretch of grassland surrounded by tall trees standing like walls on all sides. An attendant helped us check into the room named Kingfisher in the second floor. Opening the window of Kingfisher, we were thrilled to get the bewitching view of the grassland! There is a stream nearby and on the other side, a clearing made by removing the grass cover. The attendant told us that there was a salt pit in the clearing and animals frequented the spot to taste the salt, which was replenished by the staff of the lodge every morning.                            

I went near the stream, where tourists thronged to behold the scenic beauty of the jungle. Everyone was expecting to see some wild animals present themselves at the clearing. And they were not to be disappointed! Two bisons were soon seen coming out of the woods and tiptoeing towards the salt pit! I never knew that the taste of salt could be so enticing that they were ready to risk being sighted by people!  But their wide open eyes and taut ears were indicating their alertness – the slightest hint of trouble was sure to make them run away to the safety of jungle. Then came a sub-adult rhino. Young and inexperienced, it stood there with its head down, relishing the salt, and looked up from time to time, giving the tourists the opportunity to have some good shots from a close distance.

Rhino in front of tourist lodge

The silence of the forest was seeping into my mind and soul. The cacophony of urban life makes us oblivious to the sounds of nature. But there the tranquility of the place aroused my alertness to the sound of breeze and the rustle of leaves. As daylight dimmed, birds started warbling and in the twilight, the atmosphere was filled with the song of birds. Suddenly, I noticed a rhino just at the gate of the tourist lodge. I was horrified, but was told that rhinos roam freely around the lodge at night.

We had a decent meal in the restaurant of the lodge. Returning to the room, we sat near the window and looked out towards the salt pit for more inhabitants of the forest. We stayed up till midnight as the staff of the lodge kept focusing their searchlights on the animals visiting the spot. A herd of chital was there and so also a herd of bison for a pinch of salt!

After a good night’s sleep, we woke up early in the morning to go for the elephant safari. There are four elephants for the safari.  One has to climb the elephant’s back through a ladder and a platform. Guided by mahouts, four of us rode one of the elephants and left for the safari. As she ambled gracefully through the jungle, the mahout sitting in front of us kept putting aside the branches dangling from the trees along the way. He was raving about his skills as a mahout, the elephants he cared for and about how once chased by a rhino he took the tourist back to safety.

There are several streams crisscrossing the forest. The elephant dutifully crossed two of them with the load of five of us on her back. While crossing the stream, she drew water through her trunk, quenched her thirst and moved on. She entered the grassland that stretched far from the tourist lodge. And what variety of grass there was! Tall and bushy with blades spread like a fountain of water! It was elephant grass. We explored the pasture for a while. Then the mahout guided her back to the lodge, and the safari was completed within one and a half hours.

I wanted to spend one more night at the lodge. But, alas, my booking was for only one night! So it was time to pack up and return. It was drizzling and a cool breeze was blowing. The attendant came and put our luggage in the car. We had another look at the clearing and, while driving away, took some more snaps to treasure the memories of the trip for the future. We left with a desire to visit the place once again.