Situated at a distance of 12 Kilometres from Falakata and 20 Kilometres away from Madarihut, Kungnagar Eco Park by the outer fringe of internationally recognised Jaldapara National Reserve Forest once boasted its exotic and lush green beauty with tigers, elephants, deers, chitahas, ghorials, and myriad birds like parrots, mynahas, peacocks, doves, herons, wood-peckers, sparrows, cuckoos, of exotic hues and cacophonies. One can see in the brilliant radiance of blazing sun set the crowd of parrots and sparrows flung over one’s head. Your hair will be flicked with a bird’s sudden swift flight almost touching your head. Somewhere in the upper sky among the tinged cloudlets a lone eagle lazily supervises his vast empire. His eyes glisten, and far flung heavy wings mellow with the reddish white rays of the setting sun. Below down the river men are catching fish still in the languid lapping slimy water. A mist begins to overlap the tree tops of the Jaldapara forest on the opposite side of the park. Dew drops begin to fall on the grass of the park. And our feet are bathed at the embrace of recalcitrant tendrils of long grass decked with dew drops.
The half naked mahout with a wet napkin somehow fastened around his loin bathes and brings his elephant back home standing on the back of the giant elephant with a small knife in her hands. It is a regular scene of evening. One day I with my wife and daughter was walking around the park. We are in the in the middle of the path looking at the parrots sitting and flitting among the tall lean trees. Just then my daughter noticed the huge a tamed elephant with the mahout standing on it with a small knife and a huut huut sound approaching us. My daughter and wife screamed and we made our way quickly to the bush, leaving the path of the elephant’s pass vacate. And the mahout while passing, however, assures us, ‘no fear, he will do no harm.’ Now the evening descended. It’s a closing bell. Most visitors already left the park. All birds took shelter on the branches. Only a lone small pitch black bird, we call it fingi raja, still perched on the crest of a sleek lean bamboo. We left the park.
The park Before colonial period the area was a deep forest and rare tribes lived on its honey and timber. Then the British came and planted tree gardens clearing and cutting the forest with the help of the coolies collected from Jharkhand. These coolies later become the tea tribals of Dooars. Rural economy was destroyed, and the forest depleted day by day.
You have to pass first Kunjnagar haat to visit Kunjnagar Eco-Park. This haat was a legacy of the British . The haat, otherwise sleepy with a few tin huts and sheds, wore a festive look especially on Sunday. The tea labourers, farmers, rickshaw paddlers, lottery sellers, milk men, vegetable and fruit sellers, meat and fish sellers, quack doctors begin to crowd the haat one by one from noon onward. More time passes, more people come. By the sunset it is abuzz with shouts and cries of the village sellers and buyers. From a mile or two in the evening the tiny bulbs with their dim flickering make its existence known. During rain or power cut the shop keepers light the lanterns and candles. The haat looks eerie with dim lights, and dark buyers. People come from nearby neighborhoods to buy domestic needs and to erase the stains of days’ drudgery. They buy vegetables, groceries, medicines, meat and fish, take a cup of tea or drink a pot of haria, chew vaaga and gossip with friends and acquaintances. The visitors range from the children of seven to the wrinkled eighty. Everybody is in his or her own pursuits. Children along with teenage crowd televaja shops of chowmin, samosas, pakoras. The middle aged and the elderly gather in tea shops. They sip tea with sipping sounds and tell the story of local politics and domestic problems—finding a suitable match for his MA (distance mode) pass daughter, the winners of lottery of the day or week, amassing wealth by village netas by pilfering Govt. fund, marriage of a school master and his elahi arrangement of foreign liquors for the guests, deaths by snake-biting and drinking excessive alcohol, flood of 12th August, 2017 when people caught fish in the yard and swam in the street, adultery of a youthful widow or elopement and arrest. Light of last rays of the sun disappear, the stars begin to bloom, and the two days moon smiles in one corner of the sky. Now the buzz of the bazaar has waned. The people thin, but still they are buying for tomorrow. The elderly with torchs and lathis make their way homes a while ago. Some sellers are packing after the day’s brisk buck. By 9 pm the shops are all closed. The haat is deserted, and stray dogs take the verandas and the sheds of the haat as sleeping bed rolls. They occasionally bark at the movement of a jackal and chase it. The rats scamper and feast on the leftovers.
By one side of the haat there is a vast uneven playing field where the boys play football in rainy season. In summer the field becomes a sort of breathing resort for the elderly males and females, boys and girls for gossips and rumours of rustic life and scandal. The lungi and dhoti clad men sitting on their haunches smoke biris and chew vaagas (beetle leaves) and pass by chattering days’ monotonous events. The women with cheap cotton sarees and worn out kameezes sit idly on the grass fanning with hand fans made of palm leaves and whispering scandalous rumours of elopement and family quarrels. There is a huge pakur tree at the northern entrance of the haat under which some men are selling singharas, chops, chowmins, egg rolls, papads, boiled eggs, ghughni, etc. and the teenage boys and girls make a beeline before them. The tree has spread its branches in all directions. And the root of the tree is fenced with tiles with images of gods and goddesses. Idle men sit under the tree, some on haunches, some cross legged. It’s a seat of shadow in scorching summer days, and people pass the day’s toil with easy laughter and churlish banter.
There are four or five saloons specialized in Nepali hair cutting and the adivasi young boys are their regular customers. They wear patched jeans and new shoes brought from local footpaths. The haat boasts of three medicine shops where only some first aids and bottles of yellow, red, pink syrup are available. The quack doctors with dubious degrees diagnose the adivasis and the rural folks and give the patients the same tablets for different ailments of dysentery, fever, headache, pain in stomach etc. Among these doctors I like one most, Mr. Kalipada who has got his degree from Dhaka, as his board reads. At first sight you must take him as a shoe-shiner. A man of over sixty with dirty Panjabi and stitched dhuti, wrinkled face and white thin uncombed hair sits on his only old wooden chair with two legs pressed to his chest like a dog in a wintry night. No patient comes. Now he squirms, and now he etches his head and a week’s white beard and mumbles himself. He does not possess basic diagnostic apparatuses like stethoscope, scale for measuring fever, weight machine etc. His only possession is some bottles of syrup and tablets already expired or on the verge of expiry. He looks pale and fatalistic. And his four by six tin roofed hut is smelly and dark with one china bulb and a lantern for emergency during strong wind and rain. The other two quacks—one is a young man of thirty. His room is pucca and has essential medicines and the basic apparatuses. The room is furnished with cheap curtains and a bench for the patients. This doctor’s arrival is also a cause of worry for Mr Kalipada. The third doctor, a man of fifty, well-built, fife feet ten, with a rustic look is chewing paan and talking with a man of his age, both sitting on newly bought red plastic chairs with legs pressed to their chests. He has no concern for patients and is only interested in selling third rated syrups with labels or no labels to the poor peasants and labourers at maximum retail price.
There are two grocery shops, five tea shops, two clothes stores, one fruit shop in this haat. Between the rows of tin shops the vegetable sellers sit on polythene sheets with the produce. On the eastern side there are sheds for meat and dry fish sellers. Milk men with plastic bottles of milk crowd at one extreme corner, and are sitting on their haunches barefoot and smoking biris. At the opposite corner adivasi women are selling haria (local liquor made from rice and herbs). One can see the women with tumblers of haria on their heads queuing to the haat prior to sun set. Men throng there to drink and to be refreshed. One pot of haria weighing 500 ml costs Rs. 20 maximum. The poor tribals with worn out and patched clothes and plastic slippers, and often barefooted, sit and drink till it is dark. Here also beauty conquers. The woman with robust body get more customers than her emaciated and pale counterpart. And one Rukhmini Subbah is a queen for her beauty among haria drinkers. They not only drink from her, also love to surround her, her body odour and broad smile of ease, and her joy of living attract men more to her. She is a tall woman with huge breasts and bust. She wears saree in a fashion so that her mid riff with deep navel remains half-hidden. Men eye her with lust and their eyes glow with desire. Other women haria sellers are poor pallor and attract less customers.
Pigs are slaughtered at a fallow land by the side of the haat. People are watching the skinning of the pig with fixed gazes. The pot bellied butcher with snub nose and gruff voice is cutting the beast to pieces. The offal is thrown into a nearby doba (a small pond) where water is shallow and pitched yellow. He has a hectic day and the customers groan for waiting to be delivered.
In another fringe of the haat some hawkers with fatalistic expressions and unshaven faces and bald and thin-hair heads sit on cross-legged on polythene sacks with worn out, faded sarees, pants, coats, shirts, t-shirts, petticoats, panties, bras, barmudas, blouses, bought once cheap from the relatively rich houses from the Bengali babus of Siliguri, Jalpaiguri, Coochbehar, Alipurduar. Some clothes are hung from the rusted hangers stuck to bamboo poles and fences, and some are spread on the sack with immaculate horizontal and vertical rows, as if shy to be touched. And when the sudden gust of wind from nowhere blows, the clothes flutter in the fashion of proud flags of important days. The customers are generally poor tribal men and women of adjacent neighborhood. Their eyes are black and hair thick. The bodies are pitch-dark. The mothers with their seven months or a year childs fastened with a napkin to their backs, throng before old clothes sellers and diagnose the beauty of their desired articles. The child has a snoring nose and the flies feast on it, and when the child flings out his small juicy tongue out of his mouth to taste the puss the flies make a temporary flight with a buzz. They choose their favourites with wistful eyes, but leave the articles often where they were, hearing the exorbitant cost with an expression of emotional turpitude and sadness, as if they have just encroached into an illegal territory. A sudden spasm comes to nerves and they restore again to their lot of poverty, and pain of daily living. Some buy, however, with a month’s earning all an elegant and costly saree now faded, that once was wrapped to an elite lady’s all fat body and attracted flood of accolades from her known and unknown friends, ‘wow, how beautiful you look, awesome, woo’ and the lady seemed to have been exasperated with their queries for its wherewithal. The desired saree is bought at its one-third cost after much hair-splitting and unbearable bargain that makes the seller mad and he succumbs to the buyer’s insistent pestering at last. That rich faded saree now is draped to a poor and slack, dry tiny breasted tribal mother with sunken eyes and emaciated limbs. She wears it and it hangs like a heap of clothes stuck to her. And when she wears it in the evening after day’s labour, and parries her relatives’ huts with a gait of glow and now she with her new look becomes a topic of hush-hush gossip of the evening among the haria drinker males who eye her with a lust in their black darkening eyes and a twitch on their moustaches , as if they have never come across her before and beat their heads for fail to praise her beauty before.
The haat boasts of its dried fishes and live chickens. It also harbours fresh fishes from nearby many streams and rivulets. It sells dried tobacco leaves and vagga paans and rotten beetle nuts. The farmers sit on their haunches with their field’s produce—potatoes, cabbages, cauliflowers, onions, garlics, brinjals , parbols , skoash, pumpkins, bananas, spinach. Here and there you can see an elderly poor woman sit with fern leaves and tender juicy tendrils of pumpkins. In some corners a lottery seller sizing his tickets. He has a tarpaulin hut with broken plastic chair and a wooden rotten table. He is short and bald, and has a 3 days beard with sunken cheeks and his eyelids are constantly flipping up and down. People gossip of Amrul’s winning a lottery of Rs. 2 lakh yesterday, and with that hope the van pullers and paan sellers check the serials of the tickets with a big dream in their eyes. Zameer plans to buy a ticket and he thinks if he wins a lottery his poverty will go forever. He will reamake his home and live with her wife Abida happy for life. But Kallo intervens, ‘ O, Bhai. Don’t waste hard earned money. Bhavi at home will berate you.’ Zameer after the days labour at a refugee house at Falakata as a mason has not gone home. He will take a cup of tea, a vaaga paan, and buy some vegetables and a syrup for his 3 year child Lebu’s ill health. Zameer leaves the tickets and becomes furious at Kallo, and silent he goes home and thrashes his wife and shouts at her at the top of his voice bringing entire neighbourhood to his home, ‘Kallo, tor vatar ache na ki’, Mui ke na koiya tui Kallo re kos ghorer kotha, magi. Tore ami talak devar naage’.
The haat is heavily crowdwd. You cannot walk without touching somebody. The tribal and peasant school girls with their Sunday dress parry for puchka, chowmin, pakoras and rolls. The young boys working at Jaiga, Phuntschilling (Bhutan) grill or cloth factories, gathered a little far from the girls, smoke cigarettes and chew shekhar and gutkha, and eye the girls for picking a talk with them. A boy and a girl come out of their respective circle and make a deal to pass the coming Sunday at Kunjnagar Park together, sitting by the side of the meandering river running between Jaldapara Forest and Kunjnagr Park and shutting their ears to the songs of the birds and murmurings of the rivulet but drinking beverages and alcohol and munching chips mechanically.