Far away from the din and bustle of the big Indian cities, perched on the edge of a dense forest called Betla, was a tiny little village called, Bhatai. Here lived an even tinier boy, called Paban. Bhatai wasn’t an ordinary village and Paban wasn’t an ordinary boy either. For he was born into the Santhal tribe, one of the oldest inhabitants of India and Bhatai, was one of the oldest villages in an area, regarded as one of the oldest parts of the world!
Bhatai was a very small village with just a handful of red mud huts with yellow thatched roofs, looking a bit like overturned teacups with straw hats on their heads, sitting round a village green, shaped like a saucer. Purple brinjals, pale green lauki or bottle gourds and striped orange, pumpkins sprouted in front of the houses and cows were tethered to thick posts, driven into the ground. The cows gave thick, creamy milk but all of it was sold, because, Santhals never drink milk or even have anything made of it. Ringing the village were small stretches of green fields where the people grew rice, millets, roots and tubers, which was what they ate everyday. There were no shops selling noodles or chips, no phone booths, not even a cinema hall but the people were quite content and didn’t mind walking a little way out, to buy things they needed.
Everyday, Paban would trek, with his pet mongrel dog, Kunu, trotting behind him, through the dusty, red path that wound through the tall, sal trees, to reach his school, where he learnt to read and write, do arithmetic and play football. Paban loved school but as soon as it gave over and the sun’s rays grew less fierce and the afternoon became cooler, he would run back home, tearing off his shirts and shorts even before he entered his hut. Jumping into a pair of faded red shorts, he would pelt out again, Kunu at his heels, curly tail waving madly, yelling ‘Ma, I’m going!” to his mother. His mother wasn’t worried—she knew that Singhbonga, God of the Santhals, would look after her son ; Pavan knew every inch of the surrounding forests, anyway.
Curly haired, snub nosed, brown as a nut and as skinny as an wood insect, a bow and a quiver filled with little arrows slung on his back, Paban sped away through the dense, dry forests of sal, mahua, bael and khair trees. His father had made the bow and arrow for him, a smaller one than those used by the elders, with the arrows sharpened to give a fine point but without the deadly, iron tip that the grownups had on their huge arrows.
As he and Kunu ran along, a flock of brilliant, green parrots flew off in a startled burst , a herd of spotted chital deers shied away and a gaur, the wild ox, lifted his horned head but it was only Paban, so they nodded their heads and settled down again.
Paban burst into a clearing Here, waiting patiently for him were his best friends: Belu, the wild elephant and Pinku the monkey.‘Welcome Paban,’ gruffed Belu, lifting his trunk in a salaam.
Pinku, who did everything very quickly, leapt from tree to tree, chattering in excitement, while Kunu, not wanting to be left out, let out a few barks of welcome.
Sitting down on a dead tree stump, Paban laid out a red checked cloth on the ground, filled with gifts. Belu got a garland and of red and white Madhabilata flowers (which he wore around his fat neck right away). Pinku a cone shaped cap made out of a sal leaf and some twigs which refused to stay on his slippery head) and Kunu, some of the crisp, white muri or rice crispies, that filled Paban’s short’s pockets. mongst the mahua trees.
By and by, they made for the river that flowed to one side of the forest.
The river gurgled and chuckled, ‘whiish, whoosh’, as it danced over the sharp, black rocks and fell over the flat, green moss covered stones. Now that it was summer, it wasn’t very deep, so Belu plunged right in to the deepest side but even then the water came only up to his knees. Pinku , preferred to roll around in the sandy banks, digging holes and playing games with Kunu, while Paban swam like a little fish in and out of the waters, chasing tiny minnows and tadpoles that slipped past him in the current.The sun smiled down , making the cool waters sparkle and ripple, as they lazed around.
Suddenly, Pinku’s sharp beady eyes spotted something. There, some way up stream, were three men crossing the river, in a single file.
‘Look!’ he hissed to the others, jumping onto a nearby branch to see better
‘Who’re they?’ asked Paban, disinterestedly, trying to catch a darting fish.
‘Not from around here’, said Belu gravely. Like all elephants, his memory too, was rather good.
As they watched, they saw the men dressed in checked lungis and vests, carrying axes and chains, wade through the water and disappear into the forest.
The four of them looked at each other.
‘Who are they, what do they want, where are they going?’ they asked in unison. In these remote areas, strangers hardly came and certainly not unannounced, through the river!
So, without any ado, they set off to see, three animal noses leading them on perfectly.
Pinku, jumping ahead from tree to tree, his long tail swishing from side to side, saw them first.
‘Stop! There they are!” he said urgently.
And so they were.
They were twisting lengths of heavy iron chains around the trunk of a giant tree, with thick green, shiny leaves.
Paban knew that it was a mahogony tree, rare around these parts and prized for its beautiful wood.
As they watched, the men picked up their axes and started lopping off the lower branches of the tree.
Pavan’s eyes became round like saucers. Cutting trees was forbidden by law around here but for a Santhal, a tree was a friend, a protector, they even worshipped the spirit of the sal trees during the Sarhul festival in spring. Holy spirits dwelt in the trees which protected the villagers and gave them a good harvest. Trees cleaned the air and their roots held the rich top layers of the soil together so that it didn’t wash away. And here were strangers cutting down their beloved trees!