Days and nights of the forest

Years ago, a television producer had commissioned me to interview Sunil Gangopadhyay, the finest writer of Bengali prose who was also considered by many to be the best contemporary poet. That was almost a decade before Sunil passed away.

The interview was scheduled for a monsoon afternoon. It had been raining heavily since the previous evening and Kolkata had decided to take a day off as streets and lanes rapidly disappeared under water. There’s no way he will come to the studio in this weather, we might as well call it off, I told the producer. But Sunil did come and he wasn’t late either. We chatted for a while, had coffee, and then settled down for the interview.

The dense shaal forest shimmering in the early autumn morning light in Dhalbhumgarh is what brought Aranyer Din Raatri to life. Representation Pic/Thinkstock
The dense shaal forest shimmering in the early autumn morning light in Dhalbhumgarh is what brought Aranyer Din Raatri to life. Representation Pic/Thinkstock

I found Sunil to be a great raconteur and an effortless communicator who, once he warmed up, held me spellbound with his masterful ability to recall events and make them come alive without so much as shifting in his chair. What was equally remarkable was his humility. He was the story-teller, not the story.

It was while talking about his early years that he mentioned how he and his friends, including Shakti Chattopadhyay, all of them poets, would travel deep into rural Bengal and Bihar, explore forests and lead a Bohemian life that was all the rage in the 1960s and 1970s. It was more than the shallow mystical flower power of the times; it was intense and, to an extent, daringly reckless — you pushed yourself to the brink and then pulled back.

For Sunil, Shakti and others, it was their most creative years which they spent rescuing Bengali prose and poetry from sloganeers and pamphleteers masquerading as writers. There was nothing dark and desolate about what they wrote; there was passion and ebullience. Even unrequited love was to be celebrated and treasured, not mourned over.

One such ‘trip’ that’s the word Sunil used was to Dhalbhumgarh. “Four of us decided we should get out of Kolkata, we needed a breath of fresh air. So we just got into a train at Howrah station. We had not even purchased tickets for the journey... the idea was to get off at a place that would catch our imagination.” As Dhalbhumgarh approached, they were enchanted by the dense shaal forest shimmering in the early autumn morning light and they decided to get off at the tiny station.

The next few days were a journey of discovery for Sunil, an exploration of the way we who live in cities look at forests and their tribal dwellers, and the way they look at us. The mahua-soaked story of that ‘trip’ appeared in a puja baarshiki (annual literary magazines published during Durga Puja) in 1967 as Aranyer Din Raatri.

“One day, I think it was Ashtami, I received a call. The person at the other end had a deep, baritone voice and introduced himself as Satyajit Ray,” Sunil said, “I couldn’t believe myself. Satyajit Ray? Calling me?” The master filmmaker told Sunil that he had just finished reading Aranyer Din Raatri and wanted to make a film based on the novel. Could he get the rights? Sunil, of course, said yes.

The eponymous film was released in 1969 and was a big hit, marking Ray’s shift to contemporary issues and 1960s Bengali middle class angst. Like many other films directed by Ray, Aranyer Din Raatri (or Days and Nights of the Forest, as it was titled for foreign audience) featured Soumitra Chatterjee, Rabi Ghosh and Aparna Sen. Pahari Sanyal and Kaberi Bose were there too.

The surprise inclusions were Samit Bhanja and Subhendu Chatterjee. And the biggest surprise was the inclusion of Simi Garewal who played the role of a seductive young tribal woman, Duli, lisping in half-Bengali, half-Santhali, her large kohl-lined eyes as intoxicating as the heady smell of mahua even before it has been dried and fermented.

Ray elevated Sunil’s portrayal of the eternal conflict between man and nature and the clash of two worlds, one in which we live and the other inhabited by tribals, to cinematic brilliance. Next year, in 1970, Ray produced a second film based on a novel written by Sunil. Pratidwandi was an urban story, in sharp contrast to Aranyer Din Raatri.

That afternoon, after the interview was over and we were smoking cigarettes over coffee, Sunil reverted to Aranyer Din Raatri. “You know, I felt honoured by Ray deciding to make a film based on my novel. But I do wish he had consulted me on the script. When I saw the film, it was a lot different from my book,” he told me. Which is true. If you read the book and then watch the film, the differences become stark. But Ray would argue that he was making a film while Sunil was writing a novel. The medium forced the changes.

Meanwhile, Dhalbhumgarh has changed, as has all of Chhota Nagpur as the plateau was called in the past. Jharkhand is only part of the region symbolised by Dhalbhumgarh in Aranyer Din Raatri. The dense shaal forests have disappeared, thanks to the timber mafia, and the rude intrusion of ‘urbanisation’ has changed the lives of forest dwellers the Santhals, the Mundas, the Bhumij, the Lodhas and the Sabars forever. You won’t find Dulis dancing to the throbbing beat of madol or tribals happily high on mahua singing Tusu songs.

When we were growing up in Jamshedpur, we would often go for school picnics to nearby jungles beyond Subarnarekha or Domohoni where Subarnarekha meets Karkai, redolent with the smell of shaal, mahua and tendu. Those forests have been plundered by dikus with the help of tribal collaborators. The animals are gone, too. All this happened many years ago; the loot is being talked of now. In the name of ‘development’ and ‘empowerment’, we have destroyed the culture of the forest, the days and nights of carefree existence of an entire people now belong to the distant past.

The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta

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