I think it is time that I should write down an account of everything I have seen, heard and experienced today. The candle is also burning out fast, maybe it will last for another half an hour, or a bit longer at the most. The rain outside shows no signs of stopping. Marcus should be here any moment now. If I am unable to return, hopefully this note would reach my dear friend Rishiraj in the least…
‘Rishiraj my friend, this letter is for you and in case I don’t make it alive and we never get to meet again, find solace in the fact that I finally found Marcus! I have not shared this with anyone, but now I feel you must know it….’
But let me start from the beginning…
Kalapahari is not new to me, neither are the expansive forests in these parts of Palamau. Albeit I have set foot here after a very long time and had it not been for Marcus, I may never have come back here. Marcus Behera, my friend from my days in the junior school in Daltonganj where I had spent a few years of my early growing up time. They had converted to Christianity and had relocated from Orissa some years ago – so Marcus used to say about his family history. Then Rishiraj joined our class and almost instantly there formed a closely-knit brotherhood amongst us!
Last year, when I had returned to Calcutta with my new job as senior reporter with one of the leading dailies in eastern India, it was truly a homecoming of sorts. It was since then that I had been on the search for Marcus. The last time we had met was when he had completed his studies in medicine, and having attained his degree had joined as a doctor with a general hospital in Calcutta.
However, it was during a visit some months ago to the Government General Hospital in the city of Howrah, adjacent to Calcutta, that I chanced upon his name. I had accidentally overheard a conversation between a patient and his visitor. The repeated mention of “Dr Behera” caught my attention and upon enquiring I learnt that they were indeed speaking about our friend Marcus. The visitor, Banshi, seemed to know him quite closely. It was through Banshi that I reconnected with Marcus over the next few months. Though Banshi initially appeared to be quite reluctant and hesitant in sharing information about Marcus, very soon he had become our messenger and on many of his visits to Calcutta he would have a brief letter for me from Marcus.
Last month, I received an invitation from Marcus in his brief note, to visit him in Daltonganj. Banshi handed me the train tickets to reach and told me that Marcus had made arrangements for me to be received by one of his group members at the station and also had arranged for my stay at a lodge near to the Daltonganj Railway station.
So as scheduled, day before yesterday, my train pulled into Daltonganj station about an hour past its appointed time of arrival, in the dead of the night. As I walked out of the almost deserted and dark station and looked around, I could not see anyone who seemed to be waiting for me. Suddenly I felt a light tap on my shoulder. I turned to see a middle-aged man peering at me from within a red checked headscarf which was wrapped around his head with the loose end covering the better part of his face. He adjusted the scarf to reveal his bearded face when I told him my name. His face was pock-marked, and his eyes deep set. He took me hurriedly to a waiting auto-rickshaw and ushered me into the back seat while he perched himself on the side of the driver’s seat in the front. We soon reached a locality with small lanes crisscrossing all over and each lane lined with houses, mostly of the same type. He took me inside one of these and up the stairs and opened the lock to a room on the first floor.
As I stepped inside, I was pleasantly surprised to feel the freshness of the room. It seemed that the room had been cleaned just the evening before and the place looked done up neatly. “Dr Behera will be here by early morning to meet you…” the man said in a gruff voice and before I had hardly acknowledged him, he hurriedly went down the stairs and disappeared into the darkness.
The day-break today was eventful indeed, as I met Marcus, after what seemed ages! He had not changed much, except for a few strands of grey in his hair and beard and his build appearing stouter. He was dressed in plain shirt and trousers, as we were always used to seeing him in during his study days in Calcutta. We were truly delighted to see each other after such a long time.
As the morning rolled on, we engaged deeply in conversation, sometimes going back to our school days and talking of the happy memories of our childhood, and sometimes discussing the development which Daltonganj has seen over the years. As we finished our simple breakfast and sipped on masala chai, I decided to ask Marcus about his work and what kept him still so deep rooted in the forests of Palamau.
Marcus sat up from his half-reclining position on the bed and after a pause, started to speak. “As I have told you, I work for an organisation which looks after the welfare of the local tribal communities in the forests of Palamau…” Marcus said.
“I know Marcus, but…” I hesitated for a minute and spoke out, “from whatever I have gathered from my interactions with Banshi, yours does not seem to be simple NGO work. There is something more to it, something larger, which you all are keeping away…”
Marcus looked hard at me for some time and I felt I saw his expressions undergo a change.
“I know what you may be thinking…” Marcus spoke slowly. “And you are right. This is not simple NGO work. We fight for the tribals, the villagers and everyone who lives on the fringes of the society here… and since the system has chosen to ignore them and keep them down-trodden, someone has to stand up for them and get them their rights and justice.”
Marcus stopped. I continued to look at him in the eye. My foreboding seemed to be coming true.
“The system with their machinery wants to push us down, they want to obliterate our revolution with their forces, but they will not succeed…” Marcus continued to speak agitatedly. I understood that I had unknowingly touched a chord of deep passion and grief in his heart: something that he lived for now.
“But Marcus, this is dangerous! Fighting against the system this way may not be the proper path to adopt…” I replied, almost at a loss of words at Marcus’s sudden burst of passion.
“No! We must push back the system. The government must realise our problems, our pain and also our rights and correct its measures and policies. Until then, we will fight. Do not think we are alone, we have many supporters and sympathisers to our cause. Even people from the urban cities where you all live, support us through donations and other means.
We need money, lots of it, to buy ammunition, supplies, to run the revolution for ourselves and for those whom we protect. These donations help us in a great way. This is a movement which will rise like a phoenix and no system or force can extinguish the oath of the Red Salute!”
I continued to look at Marcus as he paced about in the room in front of me speaking with raw grit and passion. I understood he was mentally too deep rooted and convinced in his path by now. A chill went down my spine as I recollected Banshi’s visits to Calcutta: the purpose was coming clear now.
Marcus caught my confused expression and continued,” You don’t seem to understand brother! This is the way…” He came close and put his hands on my shoulders and looking straight into my eyes spoke in a whisper “only then they will listen… and perhaps act!” His voice was stony cold. I fell silent. Our friendly banter of the morning had given way to heated political arguments and I didn’t know what to say to Marcus. The thought which rocked my mind was that Marcus was courting danger at every step, and he knew that very well. As a friend I felt very concerned for him.
“Very well…” Marcus said after we had had another set of arguments on the issue. “I am not here to convince you my friend, let alone induct you in the movement!” I looked at him, surprised at his words.
“However, if you wish I could give you an opportunity today: we have a meeting planned in the evening and I can take you there, using your identity as a journalist from a big city. You can listen to the speeches and understand our cause… see for yourself what we fight for, before you pass judgement!” Marcus stopped and looked at me with questioning eyes.
“Though I cannot guarantee it, but I will do everything to ensure your safety!” These last words from Marcus came with a faint smile on his lips.
Later in the evening, some distance north of Daltonganj, as we drove past the brick kilns and approached the Palamau forest border, Marcus stopped his jeep and beckoned to me as he pointed to a dilapidated building almost hidden among the trees, a short distance away. He smiled at me and asked “do you recognise the house?”
Even in the midst of all the anxiety and apprehension, I could not hold back my surprise. “Yes, indeed: Dalton-villa!” I exclaimed. This was the very house where we used to come for our picnics while in school. We have some great fun memories of the place. I am sure our other friend Rishiraj would recall the house as well. But it was not the time to wallow in those memories.
Marcus drove on and into the denser part of the jungle, till there was not even a mud road trail left. Only the lit headlamps of the vehicle cut through the dense leafy darkness and soon we reached a clearing in the forest. The camp could hardly be seen from a distance: the place was so well camouflaged, only sparingly lit up with fire torches and a few tents propped up. But what caught my attention the most was the presence of dozens of men and women in dark green attire with guns in hand and ammunition tied to their waists, patrolling watchfully, as if prepared for an impending war.
Marcus took me to a small tent nearby and as I entered, a couple of men with guns in hand stood up with a questioning look. Marcus whispered something to them and indicated to me to sit on a makeshift bed at one side of the tent.
“Wait here till I come back for you. Stay silent and don’t move out of the tent at all” his instructions were very clear. I assumed that the meetings were underway in the larger tents towards the centre of the clearing, and towards those Marcus walked.
As I kept waiting, the two young men with guns continued to look at me suspiciously from time to time. Their furtive glances, measuring any movement that I made, were making me extremely uncomfortable. It was eerily calm and the air felt laden heavy with danger. Occasional sounds of crickets, coupled with sporadic whispered chants of ‘Long liveNaxalbari’, wafted in from time to time. And then it happened….
I had not heard such a deafening sound ever in my life. It was as if everything around us exploded in a fiery blast suddenly. We were all shaken and thrown to the ground. But the two young gun-men quickly recovered and rushed out of the tent, leaving me alone. I peered through the opening of the tent and what I saw sent my blood curdling. The tents in the clearing were up in flames and men and women with guns were running and firing helter-skelter. Sound of gun-fire quickly enveloped the area and smoke and darkness made it difficult to see anything.
“Come out of the tent…” A man shouted to me in Hindi. Before I could even react, he yanked me by my arm and threw me out on the ground outside. Minutes later, my small tent too went up in flames as a grenade shell dropped on it.
“Sahib, this way… quick!” A bearded man in dark green attire with a gun in hand pulled me by the shoulder as I stood rooted to the spot in utter panic. His head and face was covered in the usual red checked headscarf, as was worn by many in the group. As I ran after him into the darkness, I thought that his voice sounded familiar. Almost out of nowhere from amongst the bushy undergrowth, the man revealed a jeep. He patted the seat next to him as he took the wheel, and I jumped in. Driving precariously in the darkness, without headlamps, the jeep bounced up and down almost throwing us off at every turn. A thought quickly crossed my mind: was I being taken hostage or was this an escape plan?
After a terribly bumpy ride in the darkness which lasted for a short while, the jeep stopped with a sudden jerk and the man thrust out his hand to push me out. I noticed a lamp-post with a faint light nearby and a broken brick wall amidst some trees.
“Go to the house, you will be safe… Dr Behera will come soon.” The man spoke in a gruff voice as I alighted from his jeep. He turned his head away abruptly and the headscarf moved revealing the pock-marks on his left cheek, before the jeep drove away back towards the dark forest. I recognised the man as my escort from the railway station yesterday.
It had started to rain by then and I looked around to find my bearings. I walked slowly towards the lamp-post a few feet ahead and then recognised the house: ‘Dalton villa’. I realised it was Marcus who had already kept the escape route planned for me, and had deliberately shown me the house on our way to the camp. Perhaps he had sensed danger. But what about him? I had no idea about his safety or what happened to him.
A few stray dogs barked in the distance. The rain had started its splatter by then. I limped across the broken gate and into the courtyard. The mango tree still stood there, illuminated by the faint light from the lamp-post just outside the gate. Dalton-villa was not unknown to me and even in the darkness I could make out that the place had been intermittently used. It was not totally unkempt. I reached the upper floor of the two-storey house and entered the main bedroom. The only furniture there was a table and a few chairs. Perhaps Marcus and his group used this as a hideout sometimes. Thankfully, I found a couple of half-burnt candles and a match-box on the table. I lit one of them and opened the door to the balcony. From there I could get a good glimpse of the courtyard, the mango tree, the broken gate and beyond.
It has been more than two hours now, yet Marcus has not returned. It was getting late enough to be worried. I once again stepped into the balcony and looked down. Except for a drenched street dog that was lying down miserably near the gate, there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Rain water had puddled under the lamp post. A breeze ruffled the mango tree in the courtyard and a few twigs fell down and broke. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I turned back....
Rishiraj sat dumbfounded in the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Police, in the Headquarters of Calcutta Police. A slightly tattered small notebook was held in his hands.
“Thankfully your friend had left your number and address in the notebook, which helped us to immediately establish contact with you.” The DCP said, breaking the long silence which had ensued in the room.
“I have read your friend’s letter,” the DCP pointed at the notebook which Rishiraj held in his hand and had been reading from. He continued, “Let me give you the rest of the details...”
“The Central Reserve Force and Jharkhand Police teams already had information about the high level meeting of the rebel group at Kalapahari, and had made adequate preparations for ambush. You may have read the newspaper reports about Operation Red which was carried out successfully.
However, here is some additional information of interest for you: as per the account of a special Police team, from the location of the attack they had followed a rebel leader and tracked him to a house on the outskirts of the forests. Apparently the rebel leader had come there to meet your friend and the duo were escaping when the Police opened fire on them.”
The DCP paused. Rishiraj looked up in earnest apprehension.
“During the shootout, the rebel leader suddenly hit your friend in the head and chest with the butt of his rifle and he immediately slumped to the ground with the blow. This sudden surprise action from the rebel leader startled the Police and the leader took that brief fortuitous moment to turn and escape. The Police did fire after him, but he fled into the darkness of the forests. They were not sure if they had hit him.
It was only later that the Police learnt that your friend was a journalist from Calcutta and not a part of the rebel group. And had the rebel leader not hit him unconscious, he would have surely been mistakenly killed by the Police. It beats us as to why the leader would save the life of your friend.
Your friend is still unconscious in the hospital and while we wait for him to regain consciousness, we thought we shall speak to you as well, as the writing in the notebook is clearly intended for you.” The DCP stopped, looking straight at Rishiraj with firm yet suspicious eyes.
Rishiraj suddenly picked up something from the table, which looked like an identity card. Seeing that, the DCP said, “Oh! That’s something which was found at the place of the encounter, where your friend fell unconscious. It was collected along with your friend’s backpack and some other items.”
Rishiraj turned the card over in his hand. It was an old identity card issued by a local NGO of Daltonganj. The name read: Dr Marcus Behera.