A former District Collector’s reminiscence of the time he spent posted in Bastar, of formative memories, experiences and relationships that he recently rediscovered
I was thrilled, some time back, that I was going to my beloved Bastar, after long-long years. This was the district I had served as Collector between 1997-2001. I was apprehensive as well, wondering as to whether I could find a few friends and a few people who would recognise me still! I was wrong.
At the newly laid airport, there was a whole range of friends, from officials to my 'Maal Jamadar', Piloo, the sash wearing lifeline, my interpreter during all my village tours, my cook Bitla who had once steamed up ice cream as he was asked to heat everything before serving. Then there was Manoj, my hard-working PA who made copies and copies of corrected drafts on his Remington typewriter, Karim, Ashis, the list was endless. It was a nostalgic homecoming beyond my wildest dreams!
We went to the circuit house and then to the Collectorate, in what became a mini procession, now as a guest. Memories came flooding back in. Here, I had played host to dignitaries which included the then PM of India, governors, CMs, Secretaries of GOI & GOMP, World Bank officials, ambassadors and foreign delegations, parliamentary teams to name a few. Bastar has always been a popular destination.
I remembered fondly how my Chief Secretary had fired me once for erring on protocol and I have never erred since.
A talkathon followed. Friends reminded me of hours and hours of work deep inside forest villages where we worked for the 'Imli Andolan', 'Hamara Bastar', 'Green Bastar', 'Sachar Bastar', 'Swasth Bastar' campaigns and many more.
Bastar then had 32 development blocks, 11 subdivisions, 18 'Tahsils' in the revenue division, 8 DFO territories, 3 police districts, 12 PWD divisions, 8 irrigation divisions and 21 ITDP blocks in an area which was 435 km from one end to the other! A regular meeting to review all the programmes lasted for 12 hours each over two days in my favourite Prerna Meeting Hall which could accommodate 250 people. We had an Astha Meeting hall for smaller weekly meetings of 100 or so officials!
We were far from mobile connectivity and all my officers had specially-made walkie-talkies which worked on a different frequency on the police net. This also helped us to manage almost 2,400 SHGs which ran the 'Imli Andolan'.
I met and dined with Santosh Bhai, Pulok, Himanshu, Bothra Sb, Bhanwar, Saini Sb, Parashar Jee, Himanshu and hundreds of other friends. And don't forget this was all over a spate of lavish dinners and breakfasts! I dare not refuse any friend and the opportunity to meet them and their families like it was old times.
The collector's bungalow with its sprawling gardens hemmed by the Indravati river, the life-sized doll's house in the garden, the giant vampire bats hanging like umbrellas on the imli trees, the wide variety of birds, snakes, jackals that made their presence felt regularly and the tall salfi trees combined to connect me to nature and its exuberance. The knocking of the crow on the 'jhoola' near the bedroom veranda every evening demanding food is a cherished memory. The legendary headless demon stalking the house never crossed our paths, not even on the stormiest of nights when the rafters on the 25 ft high ceilings made
eerie sounds as the winds ran havoc through them. Was delighted to dine with the present incumbent at our old dining place in the lovely bungalow.
I was very sad to learn that my very hard-working driver, Sundar, who took me to Raipur from Jagdalpur in 3 hours flat, with the red beacon going berserk and siren blaring at times, had passed away. It used to be a dream road even then.
Tears welled up when we got to the Priyadarshini Sports stadium built in the PPP mode at a cost of Rs 27 lakh in 1998. It remains just as grand it was then. We had set up a Stadium Management Committee which still runs it. It took Shramdaan and many fights with local land sharks to create this facility in what was a municipal garbage dump then.
And how I missed my dear friends, Mrs Uma Ram and Mr KS Ram. Ram Sb, as I fondly addressed him, was also my friend and philosopher, always giving me his very comforting shoulder and brilliant legal and administrative advice during and after numerous crises and legal battles. And, I would bounce back, all cylinders firing again. He has now shifted to Bengaluru. The dosas we had at his place were the best. His three lovely daughters were mentors to the two of mine.
At Gedam Rest House we had 'chapda' chutney, a delectable treat made from red ants, jaggery, mint and 'aamchoor'. We also had 'laal' bhaji, 'munga' bhaji, 'suksi' ie., the finest of dried fish curry, roti, 'chila' and bhat, our Bastar staple diet during village visits.
The talking mynah of Bastar, the simplicity of the native Bastariya, the red mineral and gem rich soil and the hardworking womenfolk all add to the charisma of a land that is large-hearted and strikingly beautiful — my years in Bastar gave me a wide canvas to explore life in all its magnificent variety. Even today, I am filled with a well of unexplored memories of a very special phase of my life.
Rounded off with a 'darshan' of Danteshwari Mai and I am sure her blessings have kept me going and will continue to do so. I could see a smile on her face and could sense some tears moistening my eyes.
I thank the land and people of Bastar for giving me the privilege and honour of living in this peerless place.
The writer is the Managing Director of TRIFED, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India. Views expressed are personal