Tarachand turned over in his wobbly charpoy. The rickety bamboo bed meshed with handmade jute cord was just strong enough to support his enormous frame, however, it squeaked in protest with every twist and turn that the slumbering hulk made.
At seven-and-a-half feet of stature, the sleeping man’s arms and legs jutted well beyond the confines of the cot on which he lay. Deep in his sleep, he would occasionally place his palm flat on the floor to feel the ground rumble.
The giant had mastered the art of detecting an approaching train just by feeling the floor even in his sleep many miles before the locomotive passed by his ten-by-ten residential quarter cum office provided by the railways, the only dwelling in this wild and remote part of the Chapramari forest in the northeastern confines of India’s West Bengal state.
With the first faint vibration of the approaching locomotive still many miles away, travelling through the ground into the man’s massive palm, the gentle giant woke up to do his job in this wild and distant frontier of the East Bengal Railway.
Rubbing his eyes and looking at the gleaming steel track a few feet away from his charpoy and the simmering wood-fire outside his quarter, Tarachand wondered how thirty years had passed since he had taken the job and came to this place.
Back then he was just twenty-two years of age. The empire of Great Britain was reaching far corners of India by laying new tracks and expanding the railway system. The year was 1884 and just a few months back on the 1st of July the East Bengal Railway Company was renamed as the Eastern Bengal State Railway and amalgamated with the North Bengal State and South Eastern Railways.
Tarachand thought himself fortunate to have got the job, which he knew he mainly did due to his massive and scary appearance. The British official who recruited him had said “Tara, a man of your built and might, will do just fine and scare off any bloody beast in this wilderness. You just take care of the tracks and the bridge and the Railways shall take your care.”
From that day Tarachand had been stationed in this wild and remote railway outpost commissioned to look after the track and especially the Jaldhaka river railway bridge a critical link between Bengal and Assam in this jungle domain. Now it was 1915 and the Eastern Bengal State Railway was merged with the Bengal Dooars Railways and reverted to its old name of East Bengal Railway.
All these mergers, change of ownership and company renaming hardly made any difference to Tarachand, for whom the world around remained pretty same – a single steel track piercing through the wilderness crossing a river bridge in the heart of an enchanted forest.
The jungle had not changed a bit in the last three decades. The giant was happy with his job and ensured that the tracks were clear and safe for the single train that passed through his domain once every week travelling between the states of Bengal and Assam.
Though there was no station in the forest the train would usually stop near Tarachand’s quarter to hand over weekly supplies for the giant to survive and maintain the tracks in this uninhabited wilderness. Kerosene for the signal lamps and as cooking fuel, food rations, even clothes at times were some of the things the train delivered.
The Chapramari forest was known for its large variety of flora and fauna. Birds such as parakeets, kingfishers, and green pigeons were found here in abundance. The Indian bison, rhinoceros, deer, boars, and leopards were also common to the region. The Royal Bengal Tiger, which preferred to roam in the neighbouring Gorumara forest would occasionally find its way to Chapramari as well. And among all the beasts that roamed here, teeming herds of wild elephants ruled this jungle domain.
Tarachand was a real animal lover and unproclaimed conservationist. When not engaged in maintaining the tracks, the giant would spend much of his time in the forest helping birds and animals in whatever way possible. He would keep a track of hatchlings in surrounding nests. Tender to injured animals that might have strayed near the tracks and do many other little things to help the wildlife and nature in his simple and humble way.
Not only was Tarachand a Giant in the frame but also in Brain. The man was super intelligent. He could calculate things and come up with solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems within a split of a second. If the man had received a good education and proper career guidance, he could have easily been a brilliant doctor, scientist, or engineer doing pathbreaking discoveries and making the world a better place.
Sitting straight on his charpoy, overcoming the daze of his slumber the gentle giant interlocked his beefy fingers to twist and turn his massive arms all around his gargantuan frame, cracking his knuckles and fingers, stretching himself, and yawning loudly preparing to make the rounds to check his beloved tracks before the train came.
It was just before dawn, the shrill cries of the cicadas had finally fallen silent, the nightly predators had crawled back into their dens, and the occasional chirps and hoots of morning birds came from amidst the wet and green landscape.
Tarachand had to check the tracks fast as the approaching train that day would not stop to deliver him supplies. It would dart through the jungle and cross the river bridge without slowing down. The engineer last week had brought him double supplies and had informed him that next week the train would not stop in the jungle as some high-ranking British officials and their family members would be travelling from Bengal to Assam, and they simply would not tolerate any stops or delays.
Putting down his lantern beside the track, Tarachand placed his massive palms on the steel track to gauge the speed and distance of the approaching locomotive. Rising up and calculating in his genius mind for a moment he estimated that it would take another twenty minutes for the train to come his way.
There was a concern though – the train was travelling faster than it usually did. Tarachand was certain it was the high-ranking officials who were insisting on speeding through the terrain. The giant knew, that how stubborn and arrogant some British officials could be, and they must be right on the engineer’s neck to keep on speeding in this unnecessary way.
Tarachand walked on the tracks carrying on with his routine inspection till he reached the blind bend, half a kilometre from which the Jaldhaka river bridge started. To his surprise, he saw the wooden post on which one of his kerosene lamps hung to signal the train about the track and the bridge beyond the bend being clear and safe to travel, was knocked down and the lamp crushed to pieces. It looked as if a massive animal had caused this nuisance.
The lantern he carried was made of clear glass and did not have the green or red shades required to provide the correct signal to the train. Sensing something bad Tarachand ran to check on the track beyond the blind bend.
As the hulk plunged into the bend, he suddenly braked his darting pace and froze on the spot at the sight of something that shook his very existence. The giant became still and dead silent. Without making any sudden movement he slowly moved his right feet and placed it on the track to gauge the speed and distance of the approaching train. His massive and unique brain within a fraction of a second calculated, the locomotive now travelling at around eighty kilometres per hour was just ten minutes away.
Very cautiously pacing one backward step at a time Tara slowly made his way back to the blind of the bend. As soon as he was out of sight of the stretch of the tracks that had taken his daylights away, he turned around and ran frantically towards his railway quarter, storehouse, and office cum residence. Within moments he had made up a plan and decided what to do, something many of us would perhaps take days to comprehend.
Kicking open the door with his massive feet the man dashed to pick up a kerosene jerrycan. Twisting the cap open, the giant frantically splashed the fuel all over the place. Throwing down the can and taking a moment of deep breadth Tara calmed his nerves before picking up his lantern and throwing it onto the kerosene doused walls lighting up the place.
Dashing out of the burning quarter the giant placed his hands on the railway track once again and calculated that the train was just about three minutes away. Within a minute his quarter burst into flames and a mile-high column of fire and smoke rose above the forest canopy that no one or no train could miss to spot on any given day.
With flying golden sparks from braked steel wheels grazing against steel tracks the gargantuan locomotive screeched and came to a halt just as it entered the bend. Within few feet of where the train stopped, stood a high and mighty tusker a dominant bull and behind him up to the Jaldhaka bridge, a herd of around forty elephants, male, female, and many calves. They all stood, sat, and loitered on the tracks unaware of the speeding steel train that could have decimated them.
The engineer had applied the brakes as soon as he caught sight of and passed by Tarachand’s blazing railway-quarter inferno. The mighty giant’s massive brain had made a million calculation and came up with an appropriate plan to stop the train, within a very short span of time right when he spotted the herd on the track.
He had realised that no simmering signal could stop the speeding locomotive whipped by arrogant British officials hellbent on speeding through the jungle domain. They would only stop to spot something very alarming and totally unexpected. Burning up the quarter was the only way to stop a massive collision between the speeding train and a herd of forty innocent elephants.
Though Tarachand the gentle giant with a mighty brain was able to stop the mishap that day, as time passed and train services in the region increased, many elephants would die in railway accidents. Nearly a century later in 2007 around twenty and in 2013 around seventeen elephants lost their lives colliding with speeding locomotives in the domain.
It is an irony that the East Bengal Railway depicted an elephant on its logo back in Tarachand’s days and the Indian Railways uses an elephant calf as its mascot to this very day. Still today the trembling tracks of the Chapramari forest continue to be a killer of one of Indian’s national heritage animals, the majestic elephant, a stark example of humans harming nature in the name of development.
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
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