Kansbahal was in the tribal heartland of Sundergarh district in Orissa and was about twenty five kilometers towards
Bombay from the steel city called Rourkela.
Our factory was sandwiched between the Calcutta-Bombay main railway lines on one side and the
Calcutta-Bombay National Highway (NH 6) on the other.
During the probation period (first six months after joining) I was sharing a quarter (apartment) with another engineer from Kerala at Workers’ colony, called South colony which was near the railway lines. Our quarter was on the last row beyond which there was only a flat land improvised as a foot ball field followed by the railway lines acting as the boundary between our colony and the vast mountainous forest land.
Most of the carnivores, except jackals and wolves left the area when the factory was being set up, due to the destruction of the habitat. However, snakes and scorpions were in plenty. The whole set up was very picturesque with distant blue mountains. But danger lurked after sunset. During the full moon period, the tribals in the nearby villages used to dance till late night and we could hear the faint melody of tribal folk songs accompanied by the haunting beats of madal (tribal drums). There were occasional reports of human sacrifice during the sowing season which, however, could never be confirmed.
I used to get up at 5 AM to be ready for the morning shift starting at 6 AM. But that day I had to set my alarm at 4 AM. At about 5 AM when I was ready and sipping my first cup of tea, I heard the distant sound of a Jeep and came out to see a Jeep approaching our apartment.
“Are you Mr. Sengupta?” asked the driver stopping the Jeep but without switching off the engine.
On my affirmation, the driver switched off the engine and came out to greet me.
“Selam sab (sir), I am Lawrence, Lawrence Minch, your driver” said the man with a broad smile.
I closed the door of my apartment, gave him a friendly nod and got into the front seat of the Jeep.
The Jeep had a fresh coat of paint... jaundice yellow colour (typical colour of our company’s vehicles) and also new upholstery and a new canvas covering but I was sure that it had seen better days.
We took the unpaved perimeter road, skirting our factory and came to North Colony on the other side of the factory and took the concrete lined “Mahatab road” cutting across North Colony. After about a kilometer drive on the excellently maintained Mahatab road we hit the
Calcutta-Bombay National Highway (NH 6) and took right turn towards Rourkela (in the direction of ). Calcutta
In those days NH 6 was only an apology for a national highway.... a two-lane narrow road, full of unevenness and potholes with unpaved shoulders becoming treacherous during monsoon! A few kilometers down the road was a small habitat called Kalunga known for its Catholic Church and a first aid centre. The surroundings were mostly barren with jagged rocks on both the sides of the highway -remnants of hillocks which were blasted while making the highway. At a distance, say about half a kilometer, ran
parallel to the highway on the left hand side. Low level hills or hillocks could be seen on both the side of the highway with the distant mountains on the right-hand side always covered with a misty bluish haze. A few kilometers away from Kalunga, on the left flank of the highway, at a distance, there was a hill with twin peaks acting as a beckon while returning to Kansbahal. All my friends with profound knowledge in human anatomy used to find feminine resemblance but I would rather prefer calling it as the “Hill with twin peaks” only. The highway more or less followed the undulation of the terrain and took a stiff gradient downward parallel to the hill with the twin peaks. Just before the gradient, on the right-hand side, about two furlongs away, there was a cluster of mud houses. These were bordered with low level hedges which merely demarcated the area but did not provide any protection against any trace passers. Occasionally we could see tribals tilling on very small patches of land with rickety bullocks and goat-kids jumping on cluster of rocks like “Kopjes” in Sankha River Africa.
About eighteen kilometers away from Kansbahal, the Sankha river running parallel to the highway all along met river Koel as well as a hidden river Saraswati at a holy confluence called Vedavyas near a small settlement called Panposh to form river Brahmani and then ran perpendicular to the highway. At Panposh, the highway is bifurcated.... straight segment going towards the Rourkela railway station, old city as well as the steel township and the perpendicular segment going towards the Rourkela Steel Plant and the Barsua mines.
On reaching Panposh, we took straight road ahead since I was supposed to pick up some of my colleagues from
. Our sister-concern ECC, expert in erection and commissioning work, had just completed a major work at Barsua and deputed some of their supervisors and workers to our site for helping us. The leader of the group was one Mr. Ghosh. He along with three of his colleagues ...all Bengalis....was housed in a 3BHK bungalow in the steel township. One room in that bungalow was converted into a transit house for officials from Kansbahal or elsewhere in case of emergency. Steel Township
After picking my colleagues we headed for our site office inside the
Rourkela steel plant. By the time we reached the site office, Mr. Roy was already there, trying to organize the site office and take control of about hundred workers!
Amongst the various people I met that day I was quite impressed by one Mr. Harbans Singh, a sardarji who was the leader of a group called “Riggers” who were specialized in erection and transportation of heavy machineries. Harbans was very handsome and talkative and gave the impression of self confidence. Most of the time, however, he was with his group of fellow riggers...all sardarjis.. and was not mixing with others except very casual “Hi”. He was supposed to be with us only for two short spells... once during the beginning to lower the heavy girders and other heavy equipment from the high crane bays and then again during the end, to lift all those heavy girders and other equipment, repair and modification, back to the crane bays.
That day we did not do much work except setting up the office and having a short meeting with the steel plant authority regarding schedule of completion and the facilities we require from them to accomplish the job. My boss Mr. Avatar Singh also joined us during the discussion with our client.
“Biplab, you better advice Harbans about the procedure to be followed to lower those girders” was his first remarks as soon as we came out from the meeting.
“ My God, I did not even lift or lower anything weighing more than five kilos in my whole life, how could I advice Harbans who is supposed to be an expert riggers!” I thought but did not want to dishearten him by translating my thoughts into words! Mr. Singh had fantasy about IITans!
That day we were let off by about 4 PM. After dropping my colleagues at their bungalow I headed for Kansbahal. It was just twilight when we reached the steep up hill gradient near the “Hill with twin peaks” and I was thinking of taking a shower and go to my favorite Bengali club “Milani” for an evening “Adda” (gossip) when I was startled by the cacophony of drum beats, hammering of tin cans, shouting, and baying of goats! Looking left towards the cluster of mud houses I saw all the children from the cluster, womenfolk and their goats huddled together and creating the cacophony. On the right, just on the other side of the highway were two animals which looked like grown up Alsatian dogs from a distance.
, stop the car near those dogs! Let me see what the reason for this commotion is all about ?” I commanded my driver. Lawrence
Literally following my command,
stopped the car after climbing the slope, nearly running over the dog nearest to the highway which instinctively jumped away a little to avoid a collision and bared its fangs. To my horror I then noticed that they were not dogs but mountain wolves and my right foot which was resting on the footboard just outside the jeep was less than a foot away from the bare fangs of the nearest wolf! [To be continued] Lawrence