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A forest officer’s job is never done. It is like a seamstress with her perpetual sewing job…one stitch after another. I am a forester by profession.  But, the Canadian Foresters beg to differ. For them, Forestry is a Profession..and for members of the Indian Forest Service it is just an occupation. Our forestry sector is a product of the British Colonial times. In 1826, a Treaty Of Peace was signed at a place named Yandabo in the Burmese Kingdom under the shade of a tree. Not far away from that shade flowed a river. There were representatives from the East India Company and the King of Ava and none from the decadent Ahom kingdom that ruled the Brahmaputra Valley. The Article 2 of this Treaty brought the Ahom kingdom under the British control. The article reads as follows :

“His Majesty the King of Ava renounces all the claims upon and will abstain from all future interferences with, the principality of Assam and its dependencies, also with the contiguous petty states of Cachar and Jyntia. With regards to Munnipoor it is stipulated, that should Gumbheer Sing desires to return to that country, he shall be recognized by the King of Ava as Rajah thereof.”

Those were the days when the wild growing variety of Tea named the assamicawas introduced to the commander of a gunship named T Bruce by Maniram Dutta Barma, later popular as ManiramDewan. The Colonial government in Delhi found out that the plantations in Assam would beat the monopoly of the Chinese Tea. So, about five thousand square kilometers of the pristine contiguous jungle were sacrificed for the tea bushes for producing the Cuppa that Cheers!.The colonial government introduced commercialism of forestry products by 1835. The placid surface of the swift flowing river named the Brahmaputra was chopped by the paddle steamers: the Assam and the Naga; for the first time as the export and supply lines of the Tea industry were opened up. The railway lines were laid and were over 900 kilometers long by beginning of 1900’on both the banks of the Brahmaputra. They consumed stone ballasts and lots of wooden sleepers. The combined impact of forest guzzling tea gardens and the sleepers and the plywood industry already kept our forests in Assam in a Nelson’s Grip. Beyond this, about 6,000 square kilometers of so called wasteland were opened up for agriculture in this tract.

Sometime in the early part of the 1900, in the North Athiabari Mauza of the Barpeta Subdivision, the Nawab of Rangpur opened a large Terai area for a moderate sized Tea plantation. He named the Tea Garden after his elder daughter Fatema and thus, the Tea Garden was named as the Fatemabad Tea Estate. It still stands today and produces good tea and has changed many hands since. The areas north of the Tea Estate was notified as the North Kamrup Reserved Forests in 1908 after the preliminary notification in 1905. In times to come, the area would be known as the Monas National Park and the core zone of the Project Tiger Monas long later. Before that, what was known as the game boundary separated some of the areas where forestry was permitted. Kahitama Reserved Forest was one of them where hunting was not prohibited and also the Koklabari reserved forest yielded lots of Sida timber trees till its inclusion into the National Park in 1990. If you visited the nook and corners of the Bansbari Range Complex, you might be surprised to find the remnants of a steam driven, iron wheeled tractor. The iron wheels have iron ribs for grip in the moist soil. It seems there was an attempt to go for mechanized plantation……….

That year, the season of the early autumn gave us respite from the hot and humid summer. There was a hint of cool mornings and evenings. The fragrant night jasmine flowers flowered during the night. The air around them smelled with heavenly sweet fragrance and in the morning the dew wet grasses were carpeted by the whitepetaled and red stalked flowers of the night jasmines. Many young girls and boys would collect them for rustling up some kind of good local delicacies.  The river Beki, which flowed some six kilometers away from my place, had, on its both the banks, square kilometers after square kilometers of patches of fluffy white flowering Kohunwa or Saccharum grasses, the gift of the season, which heralded a cool winter. Then the boys will be out in the field laden with ripening paddy for a merry harvesting. Then the green grassy fields of the town will have young men playing the very British game of Cricket. The magistrates of the district head quarter will sweat themselves out with strenuous games of lawn tennis.

My Bungalow was, by itself, was a carry over of the British legacy. After the great earthquake of the 1950, the lost Sadiya Forest Division was transferred and was made to reborn as the North Kamrup Forest Division and the bungalow was built for the DFO of the new Division at the cost of few thousand Rupees. The same could be said for the Office, which housed the working place for the Field Director of the Project Tiger, Monas. Part of the office housed the Sadar Beat Office too.

The day was a Tuesday. The office was experiencing a type of din. Somebody had come over to our side of the road where my office stood and irrigated the roadside with a long pee. The alert chowkidar was quick to react and with the ensuing shouts and counter shouts the beginning of the day did not look promising. I was sitting in the office when a sharp shriek from a female attendant shook up the office. She had collapsed in front of the door of the small cabin where the Burra baboo of the office or the Superintendent sat and gave forth to his gubernatorial job everyday. The next man rushing to the spot found the Burra baboo leaning to the side with a silly smile on the face and unconscious. A long python was seen hanging from the ceiling fan with its evil looking triangular head moving rapidly as its forked tongue flicked back and forth. But, the snake went back to its place back in the ceiling through a hole and a rescue operation ensued. This yielded a hidden cache of a plastic jerry can full of distilled local ‘firewater’.

One has to realize that we worked in a place where a local variant of Kamrupi dialect was spoken with elan and had a guttural ‘k’ sound. I was seated in the office room and then came a hell of loads of files that were pending due to my jaunts to the interior of the National Park for more than a week when I was working for my doctoral studies. There were three file-carrying peons of the office. One entered and two others were standing outside.

I was halfway through the files when my eyes caught a movement outside the door through the rough cotton printed and discoloured long drapery. The first peon said that somebody is at the door. I motioned him to let the visitor in. The second peon held the curtain up and there was a lady visitor personified by none other than the words ‘dainty and a beauty’.  She entered quite noiselessly into my room. Her medium heeled shoes did not make click-clack sounds that audibly, maybe. She exuded the perfume that was not out of sync with the season: Night Jasmine! A shoulder length auburn hair framed her oval face with aquiline nose and dark brown eyes, and the dress she wore had floral prints and the hem hid her legs very cleverly. The peon number one scurried out; so that he did not have to explain things to my wife…….

“Mister Conservator’, the young lady almost whispered, “ I think you should clean up your work and need an efficient office assistant. I see that you are writing the draft of the official correspondences yourself! Why do not you hire a good stenographer? I offer myself for the post which has remained vacant for so long. My name is Rosemary and stay not far away from here.”

I scratched my head. Well, how does this Anglo-Indian beauty out of nowhere seem to know the innards of my office establishment?

“Well, young lady; what you said is commendable, maybe I would like to talk about it and negotiate.” I motioned her to the empty chair opposite to me across the old Teak table. But she turned to go, must have been in hurry. The peon number two held up the dusty curtains once again..she gracefully exited without any ruffle in her floral dress….The peon number one made his re-entry with the remainder of the files and I was in the signing spree once again. There came the self imposed lunch break and I went back to my bungalow and the family comprising of my Jaintia wife and two dainty daughters. The bearer was quick to bring in my inevitable peg of a large Scotch and soda and a Chinese dish, cooked by my better half quickly followed. Then I dozed off for hours as usual.

I woke up when my daughters gently shook the sleep off me. There were two foreigners waiting for me in the Library cum Bungalow office. I went down the stairs to meet the visitors.

Both of the visitors had looks that were contradictions. One was a fat pumpkin and the other was a desiccated old prune. They got up quickly and we shook hands. They introduced themselves, one after another in precise manner that reminded me of the British visitors to my National Park off and on.

“Mr Henry Andrews?” I seem to have heard that name. You must have been the one from the UN mission to India for wild quails sometime in mid nineties?” I told the desiccated old prune. He nodded and flashed me a plastic smile. The fat pumpkin was looking at my cat I had in those days, which I called “Minky”. In a flas, he tried to lift my cat, which owed half his feline genes from a wild mother and a domestic tomcat lashed out with a speed that must shamed Bruce Lee or his kinships in the Kung Fu or JeetKune Do business. And, there were four parallel deep scratch marks, on the right arm of the fat pumpkin; each of them about a foot long, which were wet with fresh blood and blood dripped from them profusely.

The atmosphere of the room flooded with unabated fury of profane words from the pain the cat caused and the emergency dabs of Dettol antiseptic. But, in few minutes, we were back to our business.

“Mr Conservator, we are from the estates of the late Timothy Wiz!

I grew puzzled.

I was wondering about the purpose of the sudden visit of the duo.

“The Wiz family were the pioneers of mechanized plantation in India, particularly in Assam..where they tried to grow timbers of commercial importance.

“And the place they choose was the Kahitama Reserved Forest presently under your control,” he old desiccated prune continued. “Some of the Simul trees harvested till 1985 for WIMCO or Western India Match Company from  Kahitama were indeed were planted by the company owned by Late Timothy Wiz.”

“He had a daughter named Rosemary. Rosemary Regina Wiz..who disappeared one day on the banks of an oxbow lake created by the Beki River. Because of a legal tangle over it, which we cannot disclose, the law firms engaged by the estate could not proceed to the necessary steps.”

“ Now , mister Conservator, somewhere in your office, there is a possibility of finding a report by the Conservator of Forests of Assam of those days. He had conducted a detailed inquiry into the incident. The document is an inviolable evidence of the cause of the mysterious disappearance of Miss Rosemary; Rosemary Regina Wiz, to be precise.”

The next day dawned. The gentlemen from the old blighty had an uneasy night in my Forest Inspection Bungalow.

All my office and casual staff plus six more labourers were pressed into the service of sifting all the files in the old nook and corners of the office, on the top of the ceiling, inside the forgotten almirahs and so on. Besides, six costly vacuum cleaners were doing overtime to remove the last vestiges of dust particles off the records. The slightest presence of the dust sent the Englishmen into a tizzy of sound sneezing bouts.

After hours and hours of going through the files that were cleaned up, suddenly we found we are already into the middle of the night. My cell phone trilled. My wife was on the line, “Darling, what are you doing  at this hour? Didn’t I tell you that grandma used to tell us that the hour is good for the ghosts, goblins, pixies, gnomes and their company to come out and play?” I told her that I would be home in few minutes.

Suddenly, an odd shaped folder caught my attention.

I gave it to the fat pumpkin. He was careful enough to use a sharp Swiss Army knife to open the envelope which must have remained sealed from the year as indicated on the top of it: 1908.

He looked at the content of the envelope and smirked.

There it was ! A brief report from the Conservator of Forests, Assam, wrote that Rosemary Regina Wiz was gored to death by a wild buffalo and scavenging animals left no leftover of the body and the elements of the weather was quick to make her body traceless!

The there was an old photograph, which had turned into a sepia toned one. I flipped it over and the face in the photograph looked very familiar… ummmm..she resembled very much like the lady who came looking for the Stenographer’s job. Back of the photographed had only one word.. “Rosemary”!

I felt as if something swarmed inside my head. Old prune straightened me up. “Must have been the awful hours of sifting through the documents.” He said.

“To Rosemary With Love. Good night gentlemen!” I said to the puzzled men and uneasily walked back home through the darkness under a star spangled sky.

Abhijit Rabha

Abhijit Rabha is a serving member of the Indian Forest Service of the Assam Meghalaya Joint Cadre and is presently PCCF, Karbi Anglong.

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