Ankush Saikia’s new novel, The Forest Beneath the Mountains, is set mainly in the remnants of the once vast Chariduar reserve forest in Sonitpur district of Assam. This piece is not an excerpt from his book, but as the title suggests, notes from the field, from the extensive research he had done for his eighth book. The piece is a quiet contemplation on the complex processes through which Assam has lost most of its forest cover.
In the North Bank region of Assam (the area above the Brahmaputra river), there used to be thick evergreen and deciduous forest cover along the Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh foothills, most of which has now disappeared due to a combination of population pressures and commercial exploitation of the forests. The Chariduar RF or reserve forest along the northern border of Sonitpur district in Assam, with an area of some 460 square kilometres, was one of the largest patches of forest in Asia, but today only about 90 square kilometres of it survives as the Sonai Rupai Sanctuary, which is officially 220 square kilometres in area. The archive view function on Google Earth which shows satellite images reveals clearly that most of this forest disappeared during the years 1997–2001.
This forest I had seen as a child, during the late 1980s, and have a memory of a narrow road passing through tall trees and dense creeper-strewn undergrowth, a dampness and chill to the place even in the daytime. Hornbills would flap up from tree tops, wild buffaloes cross the road and elephant herds call out from inside the forest. A river which came down from the Arunachal hills flowed through the forest (the river was called the Belsiri in the plains), and down those hills also came the old bridle path from Dirang dzong (a town in Arunachal Pradesh), along which the fleeing Dalai Lama had made the last leg of his journey in 1959 from Lhasa to Tezpur. Where the river came out to the plains — one of the duars  referred to in the name Chariduar — there was a migratory village of Sherdukpens who would come down during the winters from Rupa up above in Arunachal.
I returned here after almost quarter-of-a-century. Most of the forest had disappeared by then. I saw people ploughing the dark rich soil and planting rice seedlings — it was like an illustration of how man had spread over the earth. The settlers got their electricity from solar panels, and these also powered their makeshift fences switched on at night to keep out wild elephants. The direct current meant anyone who touched the fence accidentally would get electrocuted, and there had been several such cases.
Soon I wanted to write about it all, the forest as it had been and what I saw 25 years later. It would make for an interesting backdrop I thought. But I needed a story, and I needed to find out how most of the forest had vanished in less than a decade. The research, as well as getting a story that felt right, took a few years as I could only do my research when I came down to Tezpur from Shillong (the reserve forest lay to the northwest of Tezpur, ahead of the Missamari army base). I met people from the old days, elephant catchers and ex-rebels and forest officers, as well as newer players, insurgents and contractors and police commandos. I visited places in and around the now altered Chariduar RF, Kamengbari on the Assam–Arunachal border above the Belsiri river, to the east of the RF and Laodangi in the middle of the RF, where the NDFB (S)  had ambushed and killed a young DSP of the Assam Police in 2014. On government maps, and Google Maps (not the satellite view though) the area still showed as a vast patch of green.
In 2018, I got a chance to visit the western edge of what had been Chariduar RF, from Hugrajuli going up to Khaobla. A former bodyguard of a student leader, and who was himself now dabbling in politics, told me one day that he was coming to Hugrajuli by train from Tangla along with a friend who had started a rubber plantation up near the border with Arunachal. I was keen to see a plantation in the former reserve forest and I was in Tezpur then. So, on a warm day at the end of winter I set out along with a conservation worker, crossing Dhekiajuli and then taking a right from the highway at Sirajuli.
We went past neat villages and paddy fields on a narrow but smooth road, noticing at first Nepali and Assamese and then Adivasi villagers, and as we neared Hugrajuli train station, we saw Bodo villagers. The road turned into a bumpy kutcha track ahead of the station, and we passed fallow fields, rattling over wood plank and bamboo bridges, then a school, an Assam Police outpost (tin sheets around a school building), the local office of a Bodo student body, and then Khaobla Centre, which consisted of a couple of shops scattered around a tiniali (a crossroads of three tracks). From here we took a right, past patches of kosu or taro cultivation, till we climbed up into a village called Udangsri. People were digging a ditch by the path through the village to divert water coming down from the hills. There were clusters of huts set in large, open plots, solar panels on straw or tin roofs, pigs and chickens, small children running about, clumps of bamboo, patches of tamul and tea shrubs, women weaving on the loom or hisansali in the verandas of the huts. Then the rubber plantation, and in the distance, the misty mountains. We entered through an iron gate with bougainvillea flowers above it, and after we reached, two tractor trailers (with Adivasi drivers and labour) came with sand and stones from the nearby Pachnoi river.
There was a long hut with a kitchen, a covered shed, and a building under construction. The ex-bodyguard’s friend, let us call him Manoj, took us to show us his plantation behind his house – a 100 bighas  of land with about 6000 trees which would be ready for tapping later that year. After six or seven years the rubber trees develop a girth of around eighteen centimetres. A few trees had come down in a recent thunderstorm, a loss of one lakh or one hundred thousand rupees per tree. Elephants sometimes entered and tried to cross through the plantation but were stopped by the razor-blade fencing and went back bleeding. Manoj had bought the land at one lakh rupees per seet (where one seet is equivalent to twelve bighas) from older settlers, with another 20,000 rupees per seet paid to the insurgents, and he had more than 100 bighas, about eight to ten seet in all.
Later we went to the Arunachal border in the midday heat through Khaobla, along with a local member of the student body. We saw more kosu plantations, along with tea plantations as well. The trees were missing from the lower hills, and secondary growth of bamboo and wild banana had come up. The student body member said three members of a family had been killed nearby by a lone elephant recently, and two more earlier that week. It was a strange cut-off place. The member said the people there were still trying to get land pattas (or land grants) so that they could have roads, electricity and other amenities.
On our way back, schoolchildren in faded uniforms came streaming out of the school. The ex-bodyguard mentioned something I had become aware of, the split in Bodo society between the settled lot and those still moving about looking for new land. He also said the Bodos were the most contented people, having wrapped up their harvest and filled their granary, they were free to relax the rest of the year, meat and vegetables from their own yards, while from time to time they would sell a tin or two of rice to pay for salt and oil. Travelling those inner roads made by the people themselves out of the forest, it once more felt like going back to a more primal state of affairs.
Back at the plantation we sat in the shed and drank rice beer as Manoj’s helper’s wife cooked pork for us. The helper, also from Tangla, seemed to have a Nepali touch to him, in looks and speech. He was forty years old, a dark, stocky man, and said he had come there eighteen years ago in the year 2000 as a 22-year-old to clear the jungle. There were three committees — in Belsiri, Batasipur, and Hugrajuli — which had given people land at 750 rupees per seet he said, and so they had come and cleared the land. The trees were cut and sold (or burnt for charcoal), fetching about 100 rupees for a cft or cubic feet of timber. They had seen elephants and deer but not tigers. Then his wife had come, leaving their son behind with a relative in Rangiya. Malaria had been present though, the helper said. Nowadays, depending on the land, a seet would go for two to five lakh rupees. People grew kosu, chilly, til, matimah, and mustard on the land. They got about 500 to 700 rupees per year from one tamul gos or betel nut tree. The land was a bit sandy for tea though.
After a heavy lunch of rice and dal and pork, Manoj told us about his life. It was a strange tale, starting from when he had gone to Bombay to become an actor and taken acting lessons. From lifting weights alongside a now famous actor at a Bandra health club, to running a catering business, and about that one time when he catered for a New Year’s party of about a thousand gay men on Madh Island, he told us about the travails of strugglers like him in Bombay who didn’t make it (he had appeared in a few ads though). He returned to Assam, and set up a tea garden in Tangla, after which he started the rubber plantation. He was threatened over the phone from Myanmar and by the local commander of an insurgent group. The insurgents had demanded 25 lakh rupees, and the Officer-in-Charge (OC) of the Mazbat thana had called Manoj after they had done a phone trace of the threatening phone-call. The insurgent leader from Myanmar had said, people like you should die, we’ll blow you away, and Manoj had told him, then come to my house. He said, “They have guns and want people to follow what they say, but I’m not afraid of them.” He was in his mid-50s, and had returned from Bombay about a decade back, and had even stood for elections with the help of the student body. He had a loud voice, possibly a remnant of his acting classes, and he ridiculed the videos the insurgents had shared showing themselves with bikes and guns.
“Who do they think they are, the Taliban?” he asked. “How many mountains are there in Assam to hide?”
Manoj said the surrounding people initially thought he was a fool, but now that tapping was approaching and the money would start coming in, they had already started changing their ideas. Listening to his Bombay stories and an account of a tour to Europe, I thought I could understand where he got his adventurousness and resolve from. At the same time, his views on money, society and cities were somewhat confused. He was in his element where he was.
“There’s so much cleared forest land lying waste around here,” he told the ex-bodyguard, “we should bring the miyas (Bengali Muslims) to grow boro (winter crop) rice.”
We left as the sun set beyond the craggy, misty magnificent mountains in the near distance. Manoj told us he used to come by train and ask his worker to bring a cycle to the station which he used to ride to the plantation and then stay for a few days. His children hadn’t seen the plantation yet.
Manoj told us his wife had passed away a few months ago from kidney failure, even after dialysis and a transplant. He seemed to have arrived at a vision of life as an illusion after that – “life tu nu ki aru, life tu ekuei nai” (what is life, life is nothing). His one regret was that his parents had sent him to an Assamese-medium school; if he had learned English at an early age, he felt he might have achieved more, so now he wanted to provide well for his children.
He would start tapping later that year, and by the next year he would stay there, in peace, sending out his rubber to buyers. Rubber was going for 200 rupees a kilogram at one time, but had then come down to 120, but the production cost was only 20 to 25 per cent, so he wasn’t worried. We dropped them at the Hugrajuli train station and drove back through the evening traffic to Tezpur.
- Duars are the traditional passes in the foothills which were used by people to move from the plains to the hills and vice versa.
- NDFB (S) was a faction of the armed separatist outfit known as the National Democratic Front of Bodoland whose objective was a sovereign Bodoland for the Bodo people.
- In Assam, a bigha is 14400 square feet. The size of a bigha can vary across regions in India.
The Forest Beneath the Mountains
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Page extent: 328 pages
Price: Rs 499
Available on speakingtigerbooks.com and on Amazon.in
Ankush Saikia was born in 1975 in Tezpur, Assam and grew up in Madison, Wisconsin; Assam, and Shillong, Meghalaya. He has worked in journalism and publishing in Delhi, and is the author of seven previous books, including The Girl from Nongrim Hills. He is currently based in Shillong and Tezpur. Saikia was shortlisted for the Outlook/Picador-India non-fiction writing competition in 2005, and his articles and long-form stories on North-East India have appeared in FountainInk magazine, Scroll.in, The Indian Express, The Hindu, Hindustan Times, and Eclectic NorthEast magazine, among others.