Deep in the jungles of Ajodhya Hill and Forest Reserve Area in the Purulia district of the state of West Bengal in India, blossomed the sacred Dhak tree or the Butea monosperma. Locally known as the Palash, it was nicknamed Bastard Teak by the Britishers. Much of its ancient forest tracts lying in the historic Doab area, between the rivers Ganga and Yamuna, was cleared by the East India Company for agriculture in the early eighteen hundreds. For its flaming-red beak-shaped Papilionaceous flower, the mystical tree was also called the Flame-Of-The-Forest.
Eighty-year-old Guruchoron Mahapatra along with his orphan teenage granddaughter ‘Palash’ named after the same beautiful tree, lived in a small wooden hut in the middle of a Dhak jungle on the outskirts of the sleepy little village of Baghmundi in the same forest regions of Purulia. Like the Butea tree, the girl’s beauty too was unparalleled, and for that, she was also lovingly called the Flame-Of-The-Forest by her overprotective grandfather.
Though not unique to the subcontinent of India, the Flame-Of-The-Forest tree was also found in the Southeast Asian countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and western Indonesia. Unlike the tree, however, no other like the Flame-Of-The-Forest girl was found anywhere else in the world apart from that very Jungle in Purulia.
Guruchoron’s forefathers were simple forest people who had originally migrated from the state of Odisha many generations ago for reasons lost in time. The old man had lost much in life. His wife died many decades ago while giving birth to their only son Gonesh. Then many years later, both Gonesh and his wife died due to a mysterious sickness. They left behind their baby daughter Palash, who was then raised by Guruchoron all by himself in the forest.
The leathery leaves of the Dhak tree have been used to serve and eat food long before the advent of paper or plastic plates. From its wood, very good quality charcoal could be obtained. The gum of the tree known as the Bengal Kino was valued by druggists for its astringent qualities and by leather workers because of its Tannins. Another kind of gum from the tree known as Kamarkas in Hindi was used in certain culinary dishes. Like the tree, Guruchoron’s granddaughter, too, was blessed with many qualities.
The Palash tree was known for its timber, resin, fodder, medicine, and dye. Its wood was white and soft, very durable underwater, hence often used for well-curbs and water scoops. For centuries Hindus have made spoons and ladles from it to pour Ghee or clarified butter on the sacred sacrificial fires of a Yagya.
The old man knew all about the qualities and uses of this magnificent tree. Over the years, he had taught his granddaughter all about them, the techniques, and ways to extract the various gifts of the Flame-Of-The-Forest tree to sustain themselves.
Of all the gifts of the Butea monosperma, its timber was most important for Guruchoron. In his youth, he had discovered that the white and soft, wood of the Dhak could also be crafted into beautiful toys. The forest dweller had mastered making a unique variety of wooden toys with homemade carpentry tools, which no one else could make.
Guruchoron drew his inspiration from nature. Most of his toys were animals – some found in the Ajodhya Hill and Reserve Forest, some that he had seen in a picture somewhere, and some crafted, completely out of his imagination. Though he did not like it so much, he also made human figures at times.
His creations were not only breathtaking and extremely alive to look at, but they also had moving parts and the figurines’ head, tail, limbs, and even eyes would move with the wind, making them one-of-a-kind.
For many decades now, the oldtimer would craft these wooden marvels in his forest home throughout the year. Then he would visit two famous fairs – one in June in the town of Purulia and the other in December in the city of Bankura to sell his fascinating toys.
He would usually take his granddaughter along with him, but as she grew older and her beauty became strikingly breathtaking, he stopped taking her to the town and the city. The old carpenter was scared that someone would take her away from him.
After Guruchoron stopped taking Palash to the fairs, she grew more restless and curious about the outside world. She tried her best to always appear happy in front of her grandfather. After all, he had sacrificed so much to raise her. Deep in her teenage heart, however, she yearned for the outside world.
Then one year, Guruchoron health started to deteriorate. Not knowing what to do with his sudden illness, the old man tried his best to hide his ailing symptoms from his granddaughter and live his routine life to the best. That year in June, he could not go to the fair in Purulia, and by the year’s end, they were running out of essential supplies that could only be acquired from the towns and the cities.
Guruchoron knew he had to make it to the fair in Bankura in December if they wanted to survive. With great difficulty, the old man loaded and prepared his cart and did a final check before going to sleep on the night before his journey to the winter fair. That night he felt more sick than usual and did not know whether he could make the trip in the morning.
The next day he was annoyed to wake us late. He hated it when Palash would keep an open umbrella beside his head to shield his eye from the morning rays. The girl had done this again, which meant he had overslept and would be late. As he tried to wake up, he realised he was too sick to move, a burning fever ran through his body, and he fell out of breath.
With great difficulty, Guruchoron stepped out of the cottage and froze speechless looking at the tracks of his cart stretching across the forest floor trailing away from his hut into the horizon. It was clear to him; his granddaughter had taken the bold move to drive the cart to the fair in Bankura and sell the toys herself.
Weakened by his chronic sickness suddenly heightened the night before and engulfed by the unexpected grief and realisation of perhaps never seeing his beloved Flame-Of-The-Forest again, the old carpenter collapsed on the soft grassy floor in front of his forest cottage.
Many years later, a nine-year-old beautiful little girl with fiery red cheeks came to the same forest along with her adventurous doctor father as part of a tourist group for a camping trip. The group was on their way to a well-known forest resort in the area, but the father-daughter mixed the trails and got separated.
While trying to find their way back to the group, the two of them spotted the silhouette of a swaying woman amidst a burning red blossomed Palash grove. As they approached the lady to get help and directions, the father froze.
“Daddy, daddy, this is no woman, it is a wooden statue that moves with the wind. She is so beautiful, who do you think she is daddy,” asked the curious little girl with great enthusiasm and excitement.
Unshaken by her daughter’s words, the doctor kept on staring at the face of the wooded lady gently moving with the wind. Even her eyelashes batted as the passing air between the trees caressed her lifelike timber frame.
Gaining back his composure after a long spell of freezing silence, the father shifted his gaze towards his daughter’s eyes and spoke to say – “child, you know that I met your mother many years ago, much before your birth in a hospital where she was brought in with a severe head injury from a road accident. After she recovered, she could not remember where she came from or anything about her past. We fell in love and got married a year later.”
“Yes daddy, you have told me about this many times,” interrupted the anxious girl. “You also know that she went to heaven right after you were born. I so much regret not having taken a single photo of her to show you. Well, you see, I do not know how this is possible, but the moving wooden statue you see in front of you is that of your mother,” said the father to his daughter with tears streaming down his face.
Going closer to the statue and taking its moving fingers in his hands, the loving husband missing his long-departed wife continued, “I think this is where your mother grew up. It seems like someone who loved her deeply made this statue in memory of her. She never could remember much after the accident, apart from recollecting flashes of an old carpenter, who seemed to love her very much and called her the Flame-Of-The-Forest.”
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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