Located in the Dhadhar river valley between the thickly forested hills of the Maher and Rangaini Range the zamindari listed with the District Collector of Gaya as “Manjhla Estate” was called “sarkar” (government) by the villagers in the area. It was called sarkar because that was all the governance that was. The forests stretching over almost 3000 square miles were just one of the wildernesses that connected the Magadh region to heights of the Chotanagpur plateau. The region teemed with wild life so typical to India’s wildernesses, and was home to tigers, leopards’ herds of sambhar, cheetal, barking deer, sloth bears, wild boar pea-fowl and jungle fowl.
Between the hills and valleys, in patches of land carved from the forests were tiny settlements, none of which had a population of more than a few hundred. In fact few of the villages were even listed on the Survey of India maps. There were a few dwellers in the forests too. The nomadic Nutts whose campfires could be seen in the night frequented the outskirts of the forests. Deeper inside were the roving Birhor hunter gatherers who would come down from the Chotanagpur plateau during the dryer winter months to hunt game.
The nearest railway ‘halt’ for Manjhla Estate was Gurpa which boasted a single room ticket office and no platform. From Gurpa to Manjhla meant a grueling six mile trek across the forbidding Bhupath forest and fording the Gurpayn stream. Only one train, the Asansol Passenger stopped at Gurpa for exactly five minutes a day at an undetermined time from late morning to early evening. The nearest police outpost at Fatehpur was a good fourteen mile trek via a mountain track through thick forests and across several streams. The official representative of the law was the chowkidar or watchman who as a rule was to report daily to the police station at Fatehpur.
But the dark forbidding tiger infested Bhupath and Gamri forests were such a deterrent that he could mark his attendance only twice a month and that too when the weather was good.
The remoteness of the region and the sparse population ensured that the writ of the mighty British Raj was only nominally enforced.
Though enforcing any sort of law and order or governance was no easy task the Raj still wanted its dues. It appointed therefore a sub-government for the job. It fell to Manjhla Estate sarkar to collect the land rent on behalf of the Raj and pay a portion of it as “cess” to the “King” or “badshah” in far away England. The 12 man estate police or barahils of the Manjhla Estate ensured that the 6000 odd tenants or ryots residing in the 12 villages spread out over 5000 acres of land carved from the forest paid that rent. When the Collector Sahib arrived for his annual visit to the Fatehpur Dak Bunglow the Diwan (Manager) was to be ready with the “cess” cash in hand or else the Collector would appoint another sarkar.
Barhoo Khan was a barahil. The barahils were a unique breed of men. It required a special mix of aggressive posturing, cunning, stamina and often raw courage to get a sullen poverty ridden rural population who hated the sarkar and the land tax rent to behave. The barahils knew the land, knew the people, and knew the forests as no else did. As a barahil Barhoo Khan functioned as a tax collector, policeman, forest guard, and general informer all rolled into one. Standing six and half feet tall, his sharp features, a superb physique, fair complexion, slightly slanted green eyes, and closely cropped brown hair clearly announced his Afghan lineage. Generations earlier a group of Pathans had migrated from Afghanistan and settled along the Dhadhar river establishing the village of Jhorang. The Pathans had long since forgotten their native Pashto and now spoke only Maghi the dialect of Central Bihar. The shalwars and jackets had been replaced by lungis (lower garments) and kurtas (shirts). The turbans were now worn Bihari style with the faces exposed. The beards too were gone. Though some sported “handle-bar” Rajput moustaches Barhoo Khan like most of the Jhorang Pathans was clean shaven.
Like the Krishnaut Yadavs of the area Barhoo wore a loop of silver wire in both his pierced ear-lobes, which was another instance of how closely his Afghan ancestors had integrated into rural Bihar. Only the Afghan names remained as reminders of their origins. Barhoo Khan’s real name was probably a typical Afghani one, such as Khudadad or Hakeemullah; but whatever it was no one ever knew it. He was known as “Barhoo” to everyone because as a child he grew taller or “Barho-ed” each day at a phenomenal pace having reached his full seven feet by his late teens.
Barhoo was proud of his height and his immense strength and he used these assets to good effect in enforcing the writ of the sarkar. The 5 foot polished staff (lathi) he carried with him, had whacked many a rebellious ryot (tenant) into submission. He could single handed round up stray cattle grazing illegally in the forests or confiscate a pair of bullocks from a defaulting ryot. It was said that on one occasion he was seen pulling five confiscated bullocks tethered together on a single rope. He could penetrate the deepest forests and catch the Nutt honey gatherers filching from the sarkari hives. He had once even participated in a border war where he took on the aggressive Rajput barahils of the neighboring Kumrar Estate. Barhoo claimed with much justification that he feared no one.
Barhoo was quite happy with his wages which was a substantial Seven Rupees and 12 annas a month along with two lungis, and two kurtas a year. Food too was free as long he was on duty and he had full access to the sarkar’s toddy palms. What he wanted was more respect from all. Modesty was not one of Barhoo’s virtues and he was ambitious. He was particularly contemptuous of the head of the barahils known as the “sardar”. Barhoo’s “sardar” was a Pathan known as Rehman Sai and there were two “naib sardars” or deputies, Khanjar Singh a proud Rajput, and Keso Mahto who was an aggressive Krishnaut Yadav.
All three treated Barhoo with a healthy respect but at the same time were aware that Barhoo had long term ambitions. It was Barhoo’s complaint that with his strength and courage he should have been a sardar or at least a “naib-sardar”. But there was little any one could do to help him. The barahils reported to the Diwan and it was the Diwan who chose the sardars.
Of all the people Barhoo disliked most it was Munshi Sri Lal the Diwan. Munshi Sri Lal was a short, bald headed, round faced, sharp witted gentleman clad in a spotless kurta and dhoti with a black round cap and large thick black rimmed glasses.
Munshi Sri Lal proudly proclaimed his educational qualifications as “Matric Fail” which was quite significant in an area where few could write their names. Apart from Munshi Sri Lal only the village priest or Pundit could read and that too only the sacred text which was part memorized. Munshi Sri Lal could write Kaithi the mixture of Hindi-Urdu legal jargon written in a special modified Devnagari type script. The Kaithi script was known only to the zamindari Diwans and the District Collectorate clerks and actually was a kind of encryption to prevent the ryots from reading legal documents and getting wiser. While the barahils showed nominal respect to the Diwan in his presence addressing him as Diwan-ji, behind his back they contemptuously referred to him as Lala.. After all what respect could they have for a man who had to be lifted onto his pony, and then the pony had to be led by the halter wherever the man wanted to go. Munshi Sri Lal had little respect for the barahils either. They were ignoramuses so far he was concerned. In their presence Munshi Sri Lal addressed the barahils respectfully with a polite “ji” referring to them as barahil-ji . When the barahils were not around Munshi Sri Lal would add the derogatory ‘wa’ referring to a particular barahil as barahil-wa The “wa” could also be added to the name. Barhoo Khan therefore to him was Barhuwa,
Of course Barhoo and the other barahils knew they needed the Diwan as much as the Diwan needed them. It was an uneasy but necessary alliance. Neither Barhoo nor any of the barahils could read or write. When Barhoo beat-up a difficult tenant or confiscated a wood cutter’s pack-mule, the chowkidar’s report filed to the police station at Fatehpur the next day was written by none other than Munshi Sri Lal himself. Of course the chowkidar being illiterate needed someone to write the report and of course Munshi Sri Lal needed to keep the barahils out of jail so as to keep the rent coming and his salary going.
As long as the Diwan and his pen were handy Barhoo and the barahils cared little for the chowkidar or anyone else for that matter, Not even the pot bellied khakhi clad daroga (sub-inspector) at the police station scared Barhoo. It was said that the sarkar’s writ was enforced as much by the Lala’s pen as with the Barahil’s Lathi.
Barhoo had just returned from one of his long tours or bhanj to the villages over a 30 mile radius. The bhanj was a routine visit to all the villages in the estate that the barahils made to ensure that the presence of the zamindari was felt. The bhanj was a partly a patrol and partly an information gathering exercise. Barhoo had made the bhanjh within a week and now he was about to make his report on the general status of land, estimated crops, and mood of the tenants to his sardar Rehman Sai who in turn would report to the Diwan. Barhoo was clad in his bhanjh dress; a particular style of clothing worn by all barahils which was almost a uniform. He wore a white kurta and dhoti and on his head was a large white turban, On his feet were rawhide leather shoes. As the ultimate proof of authority he wore a broad leather belt (patti) with a large brass buckle engraved with the Manjhla Estate crest. The belt was slung over his shoulder like a bandolier with the buckle prominently displayed.
Even during winter when Barhoo carried his grey blanket (Afghan style) wrapped around his head and shoulders the belt was prominently displayed looped over his right shoulder.
Like all barahils the only weapon Barhoo carried was his trusty polished bamboo staff or lathi. Usually that was all that he needed. Some times a spate of mauling incidents by sloth bears, or the presence of a particularly difficult band of Nutts or Birhor hunter-gatherers would make it necessary to carry a spear. But that was more of an exception than the rule. Barhoo and his lathi did the job. If a particularly troublesome defaulting tenant or a poacher might have to be arrested and brought before the sardar the lathi and possibly a length of rope was enough.
Barhoo like other barahils too had his weaknesses which a shrewd tenant knew how to exploit. There was the system of salamis or offerings. A salami of toddy, and chicken curry to the barahils often helped. The beatings the tenants got were a little milder (perhaps with a shoe instead of a lathi).
Barhoo had left his last village at dawn to get to Manjhla to make his report on the bhanj. It was late morning when he approached the Diwan Khana or the Diwan’s house that also functioned as the Diwan’s office. It was a large brick building with a sloping tiled roof with a spacious front yard. A high plinth verandah with arched supports and protected with split bamboo (chik) curtains was located in the front which was accessible by a flight of steps. He saw Khanjar Singh and Keso Mahto standing in the yard just outside the verandah by the steps enjoying the winter sunshine. The brass buckles of their pattis flashed in the bright sunlight. Khanjar slapped his right palm on to his left as if to clap. He was not clapping however; That was how Khanjar concluded crushing powdered lime and raw tobacco (Khaini) in his palms. He gathered a pinch of the crushed tobacco from his palm with his thumb and forefingers and offered it to Keso Mahto. The rest of the tobacco he put into his mouth. Both Keso and Khanjar looked at Barhoo and waited for a while till the tobacco settled in their mouths before speaking:
Keso spat out the excess tobacco. His dark pock-marked face broke into a grin.
“What news Barhoo Khan” said Keso. “Rahman Sai is waiting for you inside”.
“All is well “ said Barhoo Khan. “A son of a pig at Ragwachak village got what was long overdue” he said looking at his lathi.
“You never give that lathi a rest do you?” said Khanjar Singh twirling his handlebar moustache for effect
“No, I don’t” said Barhoo contemptuously as he made his way up the steps into the Diwan’s office. His feet were sore from the 20 mile trek and he was longing for a hot cup of tea and a place to sit down.
Rahman Sai was sprawled on a string cot in the verandah puffing at a beedi (a crude raw tobacco cigarette). He was a wiry Pathan much like Barhoo himself but a lot older,and not so tall. Unusually he wore a trimmed beard which was streaked with grey. His face was lined through many years of bhanjs and fights. A deep scar, a reminder of a violent past ran from the centre of his forehead to his right eyebrow. Musafira the tea boy was massaging his feet.
Rehman did not get up from his string cot to make room for Barhoo to sit down. It was the order of the times that a sardar never offered his junior a seat. Everyone squatted on the floor looking up to him. Barhoo badly wanted to sit down, but he would never squat on the floor looking up to Rehman.
He remained standing, backing,and leaning into one of the verandah pillars for support. Rehman motioned Musafira to leave and Rehman looked up at Barhoo taking care not to show too much interest.
“Salam Barhoo” he said. “The Lala is waiting for your report.”
Though unable to write down notes to refer to, like all barahils Barhoo had a tremendous memory. He reported the week long trip in detail naming each village in turn. Ragwachak would have a good harvest this year if those lazy dogs of the villagers would guard their crops from wild pigs; the rumor that the Tangeni fields were afflicted with pests was correct, those lazy beggars did not sprinkle ash on the ground while seeding. Barhoo covered each village on his banjh reporting on the water situation, the return of the nomadic Birhor tribes from their Chotanagpur refuge; where the Nutts were camped at this time and their activities in general.
The last part of Barhoo’s report was on the “trouble makers” to whom he had dealt out instant punishment. He named each trouble maker as so-and –so from such-and-such village. After the names he added the derogatory “wa” and his own below the belt abuse. So Bhukkhan Manjhi of village Goli was addressed as “That XXXXXXX Bhukkhan-wa of Goli.” As he made his report Rehman Sai would join in: “Is that so..? Why that son-of-a-xxxxx… So did you give the xxxxx the lathi then…?” Actually Rehman Sai had already received the news of Barhoo’s latest victims through his own informers and the village grapevine where news travels faster than the telegraph.
Rehman was merely checking Barhoo’s version. The two men also exchanged stories of how they had dealt with rascals in the past. The conversation was spiced with more profanity and abuses about the unfortunates who had dared to test the will of the sarkar. This was the most informal part of the reporting process and it was a brief period when both men appeared to share a common bond rather than one of a chain of command. Of course this was more than just swapping yarns. Knowledge of previous incidents and how the police were kept happy was important knowledge which was put to good use on the current situations.
Based on Barhoo’s bhanj report and Rehman Sai’s summary, Munshi Sri Lal would be preparing the report. The next day Rehman Sai would escort the chowkidar to the police station to ensure that the report would be delivered to the police inspector’s desk the next afternoon. Actually the chowkidar liked the company on the grueling lonely 14 mile trek and Rehman Sai as a ‘sardar’ was not one to be trifled with. Besides each year on festival of Diwali the Diwanji himself gave the chowkidar the festive gift or parbi which was a handsome sum of 100 rupees.
Barhoo finished his report. Musafira the tea boy came out with two brass tumblers of tea laced with goat’s milk and sweetened with gur (jaggery). In deference to the sardar Musafira offered the tea first to Rehman Sai and then to Barhoo. Now of course Barhoo had to sit down. It was un-traditional to drink tea standing up. Rehman sat up from his cot and watched with satisfaction as Barhoo slowly positioned himself into a sitting position on the floor still leaning on the verandah pillar. He held the hot brass tumbler in his hand wrapping his scarf around the tumbler for insulation. He noisily sipped his tea waiting for Rehman to give him further orders. He already knew what Rehman was going to tell him.
Both men remained silent for a while drinking their tea slowly. Rehman finished his tea, and then wiped his beard with the back of his hand.
“Tilka leaves at dawn on his bhanjh. You must get to the Rehra kutchehri before then”
The kutchehris were outposts in the remoter areas of the estate where the barahils could rest, eat, and stay on for the night while on a bhanjh. The word kutchehri means magistrate’s court (or lower court) and though outposts the kutchehris also served this purpose. Twice a year when the Diwan and the zamindar toured the estate an impromptu court was set up to resolve disputes between the villagers and the sarkar as well disputes of all types amongst the villagers. It was the kutchehri where the village head man or Mahto made his appeal to the zamindar.
The zamindar served as judge, jury and abdicator on all matters ranging from waiver or reduction of the land rent to punishing the local drunkard with instant justice delivered by the barahils and their lathis.
The kutchehri was usually a single roomed cottage with a small kitchen, a fairly wide verandah on three sides and a drinking water well. A small outhouse served as a lavatory. The courts were held on the verandah or out in the open if the weather was good. Each kutchehri was manned by a single barahil on duty. The barahils were rotated with their tours and kutchehri duty alternating over given periods. Usually a local “Bhuiyan” or peasant worked part time at the kutchehri to provide the barahil with his meals and do other odd jobs at his bidding. The bhuiyans also served as couriers or messengers carrying instructions (all verbal) from the sardar to the kutchehris. Though the kutchehri. offered a respite from the long treks to the outlying villages of the estate the spells of duty were lonely, and often boring. Barhoo Khan knew it was now his turn to do his spell of duty at the Rehra Kutchehri.
The kutchehris were never in the villages but rather some distance away usually on the outskirts, on a hill or some high ground. Rehra Kutchehri was different. It was the remotest kutchehri of all. It was not near any village or even any cultivated field. It was deep in the forest in a little clearing near the banks of the Dhadhar River over looking Rehra Hill as it rose up sharply in a bluff on the opposite bank. At this point the Dhadhar river changed course in a sharp bend southwards. The river not only changed course but became a very different river. From a lazy shallow slow meandering course flowing over a wide sandy river bed the course was now narrow and rocky. The slow current now picked up speed and foamed over the rocks and boulders in the river bed forming cascades, rapids and eddies. The river current as it flowed over the rocks, now produced a sound from which the river got its name. As the river flowed over the rocks it produced a sound like rolling thunder or “Dha-Dha-Dhar”.
It required a nimble and sure foot to cross the river at this point. The only way was to go hop-skip-and jump over the rocks which were often slippery with moss. The Dhadhar was also an un-predictable river. Heavy rains in the Chotanagpur plateau or the Rajauli hills would feed the hundreds of tributaries and nullahs which as they poured into the Dhadhar would turn it into a raging torrent that was un-fordable at any point for upto a week. The flash floods would cut the Manjhla Estate into two. Rehra kutchehri because of its location would become in-accessible.
The Rehra kutchehri served as a contact point for the settlements of Rangeni, Dundu, Parsa-Tari and Bagai. All together the population of these settlements barely numbered a thousand ryots.. Behind the clearing where Rehra kutchehri was located was the Jettni nullah whose rock strewn bed would have pools that attracted thirsty wildlife. The Jettni nullah pool was a favorite stalking ground of sportsmen and hunters sitting over the pool seldom went back empty handed. The officer in charge of the Fatehpur Police station would request the Diwan for use of the Rehra Kutchehri for his annual hunt. It was for this reason that despite its remote location the Rehra Kutchehri was far more elaborate than the others. There were two rooms adequately furnished with beds and a dressing table and there was a central room with a dining table and chairs. There were wicker chairs in the verandah. A few cots in the verandah served the barahils. The kutchehri even boasted a water-closet inside though there still was a lavatory outside for staff.
It was almost evening when Barhoo reached the Rehra kutchehri. The sun had just begun to set behind the twin peaks of Jettni and Sarne. The twilight had allowed enough light for Barhoo to pick his way amongst the rocks and ford the Dhadhar. As Barhoo approached the kutchehri he saw Tilka sitting on a cot in the verandah. Tilak Mahto or “Tilka” as he was known was the youngest of the barahils still only eighteen, and with only a few months of experience. Tilka was Keso Mahto’s brother and like Keso was a proud Krishnaut. But for Tilka instead of his brother it was Barhoo who was the example to be followed.. Tilka had been on duty at the Rehra Kutchehri for almost three weeks.. Seeing Barhoo approach he stood up reverently with both is hands folded
“Pranam Barhooji” he said respectfully. “I have been waiting for you. Lalji Manjhi had told me that the sardar would be sending you here by this evening”
Barhoo raised his hand acknowledging the salute.
“Where is the Nutt?” he said referring to Aleem Nutt who had been working part time at the kutchehri since his band had set-up camp at Rangeni about four miles away.
“He has gone to check his partridge nets. He should be back soon”
Barhoo grunted approval, and made his way to an earthen pitcher of water placed on a stand in the verandah. He poured the water into a brass bowl and sat down on the cot drinking the water quickly. He wiped his mouth with his scarf, and turned to Tilka.
“So you leave at dawn.”
“Yes” said Tilka; “I have to get to Jettni before noon”
There was little more conversation. Tilka knew what he had to do and Barhoo knew his duties for the next two weeks. Tired out Barhoo sprawled himself on his cot. He was soon asleep until he was woken by Lalji Manjhi the villager who worked part time at the kutchehri.
Lalji Manjhi turned up with the evening meal. The meal consisted of boiled rice, a vegetable curry, rahar lentils, and some fried green chilies. Aleem’s partridge nets were empty today so there was no meat. The men ate their meals sitting on cots some distance apart. Even though colleagues, the men were of different religions, and the taboo of touch and contamination of the food had to be maintained. Lalji took care to serve the food in designated pewter platters which were marked so as to identify them.
This practice of “touch and contamination” was not offensive to either man. It was an accepted practice and custom which was thousands of years old.
The verandah was illuminated by a single oil lantern or “hurricane lamp”. Lalji turned up the wick on the lantern so that the men could see their plates more easily.
It was then that the men heard the sambhar deer bellowing. The sound was loud, and seemed to be a mixture of the sound from a car bulb horn and a bell.
“Whee-Onk” went the sambhar. The sound seemed to come from across the river.
Both men stared into the darkness. Aleem Nutt,and Lalji emerged from inside looking in the direction of the river.
“It is the mischievous one afoot“ said Aleem
The four men knew that a sambhar bellowing in that particular tone could only mean that a tiger or a leopard was nearby. It was not unusual to hear a sambhar bellowing thus. Rehra hill and the Bhupath forest were known to be home to several leopards. There were no tigers on the other side of the river. Tigers were known to frequent the denser forests of Rangeni further south. But the men had never heard a sambhar bellowing in this manner so close. The men waited for the sambhar to bellow again but there was silence. If it was a tiger or leopard it had gone.
Lalji and Aleem collected the platters and washed them from a pail of water. They then prepared to depart. Wishing the barahils good bye they lit a hurricane lamp and walked up the path leading towards the forest track behind the kutchehri. The track led to Rangeni. In an hour and half the men would be home. Aleem’s encampment was just outside Rangeni and Lalji lived in Rangeni. A three mile trek through the dense forests at night would normally be a daunting prospect, but both men were jungle trained. Lalji was the official “ghoraith” or tracker and could locate or track down any kind of game for the zamindar on his hunting trips. Aleem of course was a Nutt who lived on the forest outskirts.
It was shortly after Lalji and Aleem left that the thunderstorm broke. It was a thunderstorm the likes of which Barhoo had never seen before. Its fury threatened to rip the very heavens asunder. Lightening flashed illuminating the Rehra hill ahead freezing its image in the sky for instant. The deafening thunder that followed echoed from the hill multiple times. The rain came down in torrents and the wind swept the rain through the verandah flinging the wicker chairs off into yard and soaking the bedding on the cots. The hurricane lamp was twisted off its suspension hook and hurled to the ground smashing its glass housing and spilling the oil.
Tilka and Barhoo retreated from the verandah into the rooms inside. The windows had double shutters. The outer shutters were tough inch thick wood and opened outwards. The inner shutters opened inwards and were half glass and half louvered. The windows also had bars. Tilka locked the inner shutter keeping the louvers open. Tilka found an old oil lamp which he lit taking care to keep it away from the wind.
All night the thunderstorm raged. The men watched as the jamun tree in the front yard came crashing down. It was still dark when the wind began to slow down though the rain beat down as incessantly as before. In the distance the Dhadhar began to roar. The river was flooded. The kutchehri was now cut off from the rest of the estate. Through the louvers the men watched as dawn broke with continuing heavy rain. The faint light now showed the devastation of the night. The jamun tree had crashed into the outhouse with its branches stuck in the tiled roof.
The two men had slept little through out the night. They were grateful that none of the trees nearby had fallen on the kutchehri. The men moved from the room to the rear of the kutchehri where the kitchen was located to the front sitting room.
The kutchehri had survived the force of the storm but there was some minor damage. A shutter from the kitchen window had been ripped off by the wind and the rain had soaked the clay stove,and all the firewood. Tilka started to light a fire to make some tea but with the damp firewood it took him a full hour before he managed a steady blaze. Barhoo sat on a cot staring into the fire his eyes heavy with lack of sleep. The wind slowed further, and now the rain was down to a heavy constant drizzle. Behind the kutchehri a rushing sound indicated that nullah was in full flood.
With the nullah and the Dhadhar both flooded, and likely to remain so for at least a few days the men knew that they were effectively cut-off. The only way out was via the jungle to the east which consisted of dense babool undergrowth whose razor sharp thorns could shred flesh. This forest was impenetrable unless some one painfully hacked his way through. Neither Lalji nor Aleem though jungle bred, were likely to risk going through the jungle in the rain and in poor light.
Tilka poured the hot tea into the brass tumblers and sweetened them with lumps of jaggery. He offered a tumbler to Barhoo.
“I must leave” he said.”The ryots in Jettni will be waiting”
“The nullah will be in spate” said Barhoo.
“Further upstream the nullah narrows to a gorge just where the big mahua tree was located. The big mahua tree had finally died, and with its rotted stump fell across the gorge. It is a bridge of sorts. If the sky clears, then with enough light I can crawl across.”
“I know that tree” said Barhoo “If you slip on that moss covered tree trunk it’s a long drop down”
“If I leave I can bring some help and have someone here with you. If you cannot stay alone…”
“Of course I can stay alone. Now go..” said Barhoo tersely.
“One more thing” said Tilka “The sardar was here last week and because we anticipated trouble from the Nutts the Lala allowed him to bring the estate gujgoon here. He left it behind because he hoped to return in a few days. It is locked in the closet in the main room and keys are underneath the mattress”
The gujgoon was a combination of the words “guz” or yard stick and “gun” or firearm. How precisely the word got coined no one knew, but any smooth bore muzzle loading musket was generally known as a “gujgoon” because of the “guz” or ramrod used for loading. The British Raj allowed a limited number (usually a maximum of three) gujgoons to the zamindari estates to be used under extreme circumstances. The weapons were long obsolete, even for that era, and were actually ex-East India Company Tower muskets converted to percussion cap locks. These gujgoons were licensed to the Diwan, but could be used by a sardar or the selected barahil with his express permission. The local chowkidar and the police station were kept informed about which barahil had been selected to fire the gujgoons. Usually the sardar, and two other selected barahils could fire the gujgoons. The gujgoons were more of a psychological weapon than any actual threat. With percussion caps, black powder and bird shot the gujgoon could be loaded and fired only once a minute, and the effective range was only forty yards. Accuracy of any sort was out of the question. Even a Birhor archer would do better. But gujgoons were still fire-arms. At close range they could kill, and when fired and there was the report was like a thunderclap and the muzzle would belch a tongue of flame and cloud of smoke. The gujgoons were usually fired into the air. If an event happened where a gujgoon was fired then the District Superintendent of Police was informed by the police station via the Railway telegraph.
Barhoo was contemptuous of the gujgoons. He was not one of the selected few chosen to fire these weapons. In his mind these weapons were more of a nuisance than a help. The gujgoons had to be protected, and secured and the corresponding protection afforded by the gujgoons themselves was minimal. One bang meant a long explanation to that idiot of a police officer in the police station. Barhoo had heard of several instances on other estates where the gujgoons had exploded due to overcharging killing the barahils using it.
Barhoo grimaced at the news of the gujgoon in the kutchehri.
He waived his hand dismissing the information as nothing important.
Tilka stood up tying his turban tightly on his head.
The standard waterproof rainwear in the region was the wicker bonnet which was a cross between a rain-coat and an umbrella. The bonnet was a woven wicker basket shaped like a long narrow boat but with one end open. The closed end was positioned on the head over the turban and the bottom of the “boat” covered the back. Tilka picked up his wicker bonnet positioning it carefully on his turban.
With the wicker bonnet he looked oddly like a turtle with its head retracted, walking on two legs Holding his shoes in one hand and his staff in the other Tilka opened the back kitchen door strode out into the rain.
Barhoo watched him disappear into the woods.
It was then that Barhoo heard a loud scratching sound on the front door of the kutchehri from the front verandah. At first he thought that the branches torn from the jamun tree had been blown into the verandah and the wind was moving them against the shutters. He ignored the sound. But the loud scratching sound was repeated followed by loud thud as if from an impact or blow. Barhoo moved to the window in the front room and opened the shutters and peered outside. What he saw was a large tiger, a young male, with its nose against the door as if peering inside. The tiger stood up on its hind legs and began scratching the door with its front paws. The door was sturdy made of khair wooden planks an inch thick and held.
Barhoo, was horrified. His mind went at once to the gujgoon in the closet. He went to the closet and removed the gujgoon and attempted to load it. In the dim interior he fumbled trying to load the powder and shot into the barrel, and searched the closet for the tin box containing the percussion caps. Barhoo, finally loaded the gujgoon and went to the window again to look.
This time he found the tiger looking straight at him. The tiger curled back its lips baring its fangs and snarled. Barhoo retreated from the window closing the shutters. He heard a growl and a thud as the tiger leapt at the window. Then there was another blow on the door as the tiger attempted to break the door down. Terrified and clutching the gujgoon Barhoo retreated to the rear where the kitchen was located.
The tiger then went round the kutcheri to the rear door of the kitchen from where the firewood was brought in. The tiger leapt at the broken window growling and putting a paw inside. Barhoo retreated again to the front room. The tiger bounded around the house, and was on the front veranda again. This time the tiger began roaring. Its full throated roars echoed against the Rehra hill.
Barhoo didn’t know what to do. The gujgoon was loaded with bird shot, hardly sufficient to bring down a full grown tiger, unless fired from almost point blank range. It was difficult to poke the gun through the window at an angle to get a shot. Approaching the window seemed to infuriate the tiger which tried to lunge through the opening with its powerful paws.
The best option was to open the front door, and get a shot. But it was risky. There was only time for ONE shot. What if he missed? What if the tiger jumped on him the moment the door was opened? What if the tiger was only injured, infuriating him even more? Yet, it was a chance. If he opened the door quickly, and brought the gujgoon barrel close to the tiger, and fired, it was likely to kill the tiger. But then what if… this plan didn’t work. The tiger would tear him to shreds.
“I am a Pathan” said Barhoo to himself. “I should kill the tiger, and my name will be famous in the area“. But then he remembered the fate of his second cousin Nabees who had been a barahil like him working for the Amama Estate. Nabees had tried to tackle a leopard with a gujgoon when he stumbled on a one in the forest. The injured leopard leapt on him. Before dying the injured leopard had ripped his abdomen, and Nabees had died a painful lingering death. If a leopard could do that then this was a tiger. His courage faltered.
The next best option appeared to wait it out. Barhoo, sat in the room very quietly gripping the gujgoon. After an hour he went to the window, and gently opened the shutter slightly and looked. The sky had cleared, and the sun was out. The tiger was clearly visible, asleep on the verandah, lying on its side. Perhaps he could get a shot through the window. He opened the shutter wider. Hearing the sound of the window shutter the tiger snapped awake and rolled over facing the window and growled. Barhoo shut the window and retreated.
Two hours later Barhoo opened the window again. The tiger was there. He waited again.
Two hours later Barhoo went to the window. The tiger was gone. It was noon now. Barhoo had been nervously drinking water. The earthen pitcher was empty, and he was thirsty. The only way Barhoo could get water was by going outside to the well; daunting prospect given the presence of the tiger. With the tiger gone, Barhoo gathered the bucket and rope and went to the rear of the kutchehri to draw water from the well. He heard a growl from above. Looking up he saw the tiger was on the roof of the kutchehri. The tiger sprang down landing just 10 feet way. Dropping the bucket Barhoo ran quickly into the kutchehri, shutting the door; just in time as the tiger leapt at the door hitting it with a thud.
Barhoo, didn’t know what to do. He was thirsty and hungry. Aleem hadn’t come with food. He waited all afternoon. With the rain now stopped would Tilka return? What about Aleem and Lalji? Would they make it back across the gorge? Would the tiger remain in the night?
It was an hour before sunset that Barhoo heard the drums. He ran to the rear window near the kitchen and looked out. There were a group of people banging drums approaching the building. He counted eight men carrying sticks, spears and axes. These were Nutts. He could make out Tilka, Aleem, and Lalji. Barhoo ran to the front window to see if the tiger was there. The tiger heard the drums too. The tiger was wide awake, looking at him. With a bound the tiger whipped round to the rear of the kutchehri.
Barhoo went back to the kitchen window. He watched as the tiger let off loud roar, and charge the crowd. But the Nutts held firm. They stayed bunched together banging their drums, shouting loudly, waving their spears and axes. He could see Tilka standing straight, his axe raised, coolly waiting for the tiger as it came closer. Aleem was crouched with his spear cocked at an angle. Lalji was waiving his staff shouting.
“Har Har Mahadev“ yelled Tilka. “Ya Ali“, screamed the Nutts.
The tiger was barely ten feet away when it abruptly stopped and crouched on the ground, its tail swishing and snarling. It stayed motionless staring at the crowd, and the suddenly got up and bounded into the forest and disappeared.
With the tiger gone Barhoo uttered his war cry “Ya Ali Maddad and came rushing out carrying the gujgoon.
Tilka looked at him. “Why didn’t you come out and shoot him?” he said dispensing with the usual salute. “What type of Pathan are you?”
Barhoo said. “I couldn’t..how did you know the tiger was there?”
“I had returned at noon and I could hear the tiger’s roars. I couldn’t make it to Jettni, the Nullah was over flowing. I went to the Nutt camp. Aleem and I returned here and saw the tiger chase you back into the kutchehri. We went back to get more people and returned.
Barhoo, mopped his face with his scarf. “Good you came back…” was all he said.
Tilka looked at him. “If the sardar gets to know there will be trouble you know. As a Pathan you should have shown more courage. The Nutts are not impressed, and word will get to the Birhors. If they know we are afraid, it will be difficult to control them. Also you have to now fire off the gujgoon to unload it, and the chowkidaar will be asking questions.”
“You can say what you want” said Barhoo, “It is not worth getting ripped to shreds by a tiger”
“You will never be a naib-sardar Barhooji” said Tilka respectfully but curtly.
The story of Barhoo and the Tiger became legendary,and retold around the campfires of the Nutt and Birhor tribals. Tilka was rewarded by Sardar Rehman Sai
In 1929, the tiger was later designated as a man-eater as it killed a Birhor tribal in the Bhalwa forest south of the Jettni mountain. The Behar Forest Department Magadh Range allowed for the tiger to be shot. A year later the tiger was shot by Major Arthur Burke of the Royal Indian Army, Gaya Cantt.