Paltu failed to concentrate in his evening studies. He could not find the answers of all the sums he attempted in that evening. He got fed up with those mind-boggling x2, y2, 2xy etc. He tried concentrating & learning the part ‘the slave dynasty’. He was reminded, while caressing on his handlebar moustache gently by his thumb and index finger, Sen Sir, the history teacher said, “Learn this part as your homework by Saturday evening.” He strived hard to concentrate but all attempts went in vain. Actually he was very much exited about theirs, the peer group of his, recent ‘up coming venture’. There were five boys in the said group, ‘the famous five’. People of that village used to address them as the ‘panch-pāndav’.
That day, while returning from the school they came across two boys of the Santhal tribesmen. Bāchchu the eldest member of the group knew one of the two Santhal boys. That boy had worked one year in his Pāņchu uncle’s house, looking after the cattle. Bāchchu came to know from him that peacocks and peahens are abundant in the sylvan surroundings of their hamlet. He had also informed Bāchchu that he could arrange peahen’s eggs, which could be incubated along with the eggs of domestic fowl. And then the young peafowl could be raised and domesticated. Elders used to tell the legendary-story of a peacock raised by Pāņchu uncle’s grandpa. That royal bird used to roam around the village precinct. On a cloudy day it would present the elaborate display of the divine colours & patterns and then dance. At times wild peafowl would gather in groups at the nearby paddy fields beyond the Nutantāl, a pond and Kālibāgān, a mango-orchard around it. Having found some members of its own species it would become restless and shout in joy. As and when the panch-pāndav came to know that ‘peafowl’s eggs’ could be collected from the wild and that Santhal boy named Budhnā would help them, all of them got very much excited. The mere thought of finding some peahen’s eggs and thereafter raising the magnificent bird as a pet exhilarated all the members of panch-pāndav.
Now, while studying at home, ‘that-very-thought’ was interrupting his mind on and on. Thus, Paltu, the most ardent member of the panch-pāndav, failed to concentrate in any of his subjects. Paltu’s father wasn’t there at home. He was called by the village elders to discus about the matters concerning the forthcoming ‘Durgā-pujā’. Several other seniors of the village were also present there. Thus, Paltu was a bit less tensed because mother hardly interfered ever about his studies. She was busy in the kitchen as usual. And Paltu was literally awaiting the call for the dinner. He fidgeted with discomfort for the last half-an-hour. Why his mother hadn’t called yet? After a few minutes or so, he heard his mother’s voice. In a pretty loud tone she called, “Paltu, come soon, your food is ready.”
Next morning Paltu left his bed too early. It was a Sunday. There were no worries about school like other days. On weekdays he had to finish brushing teeth, nature’s call & bath in the pond within eight thirty a.m. By the time he would complete eating, the old wall-clock hanging on the veranda would strike nine melodious ‘ding-dong’. Mother would shout, “Paltu every day you’re late, your friends must be ready by now. Hurry up and join them.” He would finish eating, washing his hands as fast as he could. Wiping his hands and picking up the school bag he would literally run towards the Shiva temple from where they start walking heading towards the school about five kilometers away from their village. And while walking they would talk about many things, all mundane topics that cover ‘every walk of life’.
Their grandparents were six brothers. All siblings lived their life very much like ‘happy-go-lucky’ princes. Almost the whole land in the vicinity, number of ponds and forested areas around the village were within their erstwhile-estate. Cattle of other villages & hamlets would graze there. All those villagers would utilize the water of the said ponds to irrigate their paddy fields. During festivals those people would gather inside their ‘ancestral temples precinct’ to present grains, fruits & vegetables, milk, cheese, ghee etc. in return of irrigation and grazing facilities were provided by their ancestors, the landlords of the then erstwhile-estate. Those villagers would wait in queue outside the arched-main-gate before the Durgā-pujā festival. Their bullock carts and the ‘beasts of burden’ would remain halted around the nearby areas.
Paltu went straight to Bāchchu’s house. Both of them called Somu, Giri and Jeetu. They found that Jeetu’s mummy was preparing sweets using grated-coconut and jaggery. On the fire there was a moderate size black cauldron. The dark red jaggery turned semi fluid and the bubbles coming out of it. She was stirring the hot contents by a blackened spatula.
Bāchchu took some puffed-rice, small onions and some soaked gram tied in a cloth bundle. Jeetu, the tallest of all, took some coconut sweets. Somu, the youngest of them, carried a chopper and some roasted gram and peanuts. And Giri carried thick & strong bamboo stick and a small bundle of fried pressed-rice. Paltu thought that he should also bring something, which would be useful in their sojourn. He ran immediately and plucked some guavas from the tree behind Pāņchu uncle’s house and tied a bundle using a red-checked-towel. They were ready to leave. At that very instant, Tina the only sister of Somu came near them. She was hardly eight years but she could presume that the panch-pāndav were about to do something. Somu had to convince her saying this and that. He cajoled her giving several promises. Bāchchu assured her that they would bring ‘peahen’s eggs’ so that someday she could play with beautiful little peacocks. Somehow Tina was sent back home. As they got rid of her immediately they started their journey through the Kālibāgān. They traversed many crop fields and finally entered the forest. Bāchchu was leading them. He was following the path, which Budhnā the Santhal boy conveyed him. He found the pond with two tamarind trees and a leaning mango tree having short but thick trunk nearby. They reached the second pond also. There was a large and very old Pipal tree and equally tall Arjuna trees on the bank. As they reached near that pond all on a sudden they heard a piercing call of a peacock. All of them were thrilled hearing the pretty loud & shrill calls.
Budhnā and his friend had apprised Bāchchu to wait under that same tree most probably. All of them sat under the said old Pipal tree. Number of crevices and cavities developed in the large trunk and several branches. The tree must be providing shelter to a number of birds and other creatures. They found some larger bats hanging upside down from a few branches of the Arjuna trees nearby. Bāchchu informed them in such a gesture as if he was an expert-of-bats. With a lot of confidence he said, “These creatures are also called ‘flying-foxes’, some people hunt these creatures fixing a kind of net across their path of flying. Those people eat the flesh and certain parts of the body are used in traditional medicines.” Somu noticed that a good number of parakeets live in some cavities of large branches of the Pipal tree. Jeetu proposed that they might get some bridling that could be kept at home as a nice pet. His mother had a bird long back in her paternal house. And sometimes she expressed her willingness to keep one. Jeetu wanted to please his mother thus he took the initiative and started climbing the tree. He was quite an expert. Moreover his tall stature was an extra advantage. He was not just taller than the other four; he was above others in courage by head and shoulders. He successfully climbed the first large branch and sat on that. Then he was looking for suitable grips to climb the branch above. He found a cavity. Holding that by one hand as he dragged his body upwards to catch the branch overhead he glimpsed a snake coiled within the cavity. No sooner he found the dreadful creature than he uttered the word ‘snake’ at full stretch and lost his balance on the branch and fell flat on the ground. Thank God, the ground below was a bit moist. However he had bruises all over and some blood oozed through his nose. They immediately brought water and cleaned him properly. Bāchchu ran helter-skelter searching a particular plant. He plucked some leaves, chewed those and applied the same on the bruises.
Bāchchu told Giri and Somu to look for any houses nearby. In about twenty minutes the duo returned and conveyed that they found three houses but those were at some distance. By that time Jeetu was feeling better. Nearly twenty more minutes passed. The Santhal boys, Budhnā & his friend, didn’t turn up. Thus, they decided to move towards those three houses Giri and Somu found. When they reached quite near the said houses they noticed that there were two more houses. It was a small tribal hamlet. At first they thought that the people might be not at home. They might have gone out to work. As they reached very near and moved around those houses they could perceive that those were abandoned ones. A few houses turned into dilapidated state. At times tribal people abandon their houses after some kinds of untoward incidents or calamities. No one was there around those houses.
Suddenly they heard a faint but very familiar sound. It was the sound of the ‘wooden-gears’ cowboys put around the neck of their restless cattle. Though not much loud but that low-pitch-sound spreads effectively within a quite large area within a forest. It could be heard from a pretty long distance. Following that sound they walked through the bushes and the under-shrubs of the forest. Quite a number of times they heard the shrilled & prompt call of peacocks. There were a good number around that area.
Finally they came near a little stretch of open area amidst the forest. There were swamps, grasses and a small pond. They found a few cattle. One tribal boy was playing his big bamboo stick with two small sticks. It was a pretty fast beat but nice to hear around the beautiful pristine surroundings. There was another small boy happily sitting on the back of a bullock. Bāchchu and his four companions were quite unexpected for the duo. Any way after the formal introduction is over the elder one talked with Bāchchu. His name was Arjun. And the other boy was his brother. Bāchchu came to know from Arjun that Budhnā’s village was quite far from that place. Arjun took them to his village. Amidst the sylvan surroundings there were just seven houses. Earthen walls thatched roofs but the courtyards were literally ‘spic and span’.
There was an old man sitting in front of one house. He was preparing some kinds of rope. There were some wild seeds and roots spread on the ground for sun drying. It was small but neat courtyard. Their womenfolk prepare a mixture of clay and cow-dung and spread that by hand. When the said layer dries it forms an elegant soft-and-dust-free-surface. Walking barefoot one feels very good and remains in close contact of mother earth. Hardly have they used shoes or slippers in and around their houses. In another house there was a lady who was pregnant. She was preparing puffed rice. There was earthenware kept on the Chula. The flames from the burning firewood were coming out on all sides. The upper part of the earthenware was carefully broken so that it turned into quite a wide-open one. The lower surface of that ware had turned black owing to the soot of burning firewood. There was hot sand within the said ware. The sands too had turned black. That lady was using a bundle of very thin sticks, which were made out of bamboo. She would twist the bundle of sticks skillfully to move and take out the puffed rice. The lower ends of those sticks, which touch the hot sand, had turned dark black owing to burning.
There were three small kids playing nearby with some flat pebbles and Tamarind seeds. An old lady came out of one of the houses. Years of exposure to the Sun had turned her brown skin complexion totally dark. All her graying hairs were completely white by then. Most of her teeth were missing. Due to ageing her backbone had turned a typical bow-shaped. Drooping forward she walked with a very unusual gait. Gazing at them she smiled. All the wrinkles flashed promptly all over her aged face. Her eyes were though quite small but the expression was celestial.
The old man asked them, “Where do you live?” He also enquired the purpose of their visit. Slowly each one of them, the Bāchchu and his party found one or the other suitable place to sit and relax. They were quite tired owing to the long walking at a stretch. Some of them were literally engrossed in watching the old man’s rope-making modus operandi. After a while Arjun’s brother called them. The lady, who was preparing puffed-rice, offered them some eatables.
There were no plates. Broad leaves of shaal trees were stitched by tiny pieces of sticks. The eatables were puffed rice, jaggery, small onions and green chilies. There was a single glass and an urn made of bell metal. Bāchchu proposed, “We should share the items, which we have carried along with us with these children.” Finally they had some refreshments. And it was for the first time they shared food with some tribal boys and particularly sitting together at the same place. They were quite far from their village. There was no one of theirs clan to witness the incident. Those tribal people would eat sitting at a separate place during the festivals in theirs village. However they enjoyed the togetherness. After some time they noticed that the ‘Sun-god’ had almost tilted towards the western horizon. They requested Arjun to show them the path that led to a road nearby. They knew that they were not capable of going back home through any jungle path. Arjun offered them a bottle of honey and some wild fruits and he accompanied them up to the unmetalled main road. That was the sole road, which led to a nearby town. And there was a branch of that same road for theirs village.
Meanwhile in the village panch-pāndav’s parents started searching their children in and around the village. It was Paltu’s mother who first doubted. She went out of her house in search of Paltu. She came in the next-door neighbour Bāchchu’s house looking for her son. Slowly the words reached to almost every nook and corner of the village and almost every soul came to know that the famous panch-pāndav was found missing. People went all those places which were theirs favourite joint. Somu’s mother Chhāyā emotionally the weakest of all the concerned-parents started weeping near the Shiva temple. She was exceptionally calm and quiet lady. Moreover she was too scared of her husband. Thus, she could not even express her feelings loudly. Paltu’s father, Āshutosh always takes hasty decisions. Before consulting with others he sent someone to call some fishermen. There were six families who lived nearby about one and a half kilometers away towards west. Immediately they came along with their nets, floaters and other paraphernalia. They were told to net the deep waters of Nutantāl. As they started arranging their gears right on the bank of the Nutantāl, Tina, the sister of Somu informed them that her brother and the other boys went to the forest. She also informed that they would bring ‘peahen’s-eggs’. Hearing that one of the fishermen the senior most one who knew Āshutosh since his younger days dropped the net and said, “Āshutosh thākur I’ve no net, which could be moved through the jungles. But don’t you worry thākur? Send some people with bicycles to the nearby villages around ours. By God’s grace, we’ll find them before long.” Since it was the only village of Brahmins, the lower cast peoples of nearby villages and hamlets would address them as ‘thākur’.
After selling the sacks of paddy in a ‘rice-mill’ of the nearest town three bullock-carts were returning to Moynapur, the panch-pāndav’s village. Bāchchu’s uncle, Sudhāmoy and three cart-men accompanied the convoy of carts. The western horizon had turned red. The sun was set some time earlier. All around the sky above, there were varied hues of red. The unpaved road with its bright red dust amidst the jungle appeared very conspicuous. In the background of dark bluish-green broad-leaved trees the road was like a prominent red strip that ran through the forest. In the early evening itself it turned quite dark. In the silence of the forest one of the cart-men started singing a folk song in a low voice. A fox crossed the road almost silently. It was only the first cart-man who noticed the moving nocturnal creature. People’s movement on the road was too limited. During daytime in the sun and the wind dusts would spread. But in the evening when movements steadily decline and temperature drops hardly a soul could be found. The first cart-man started preparing an indigenous cigar, ‘tobacco wrapped in dry tendu leaves’. Before he could light and enjoy the smoke he found silhouettes of some small figures walking ahead about a few hundred feet away. After a while the cart-man found that one of those walking ahead turned back and noticed the approaching carts. And then they stopped walking and stood there. The five boys did not expect that the approaching carts belonged to their village at the first blush. The carts, which used to remain at the back, unfailingly follow the cart in front. The second cart-man was dozing. The unpaved road with its bright red dust amidst the jungle appeared very conspicuous. Sudhāmoy had a pretty good amount of money with him. Thus, he was quite apprehensive of petty robbers who mostly attack from backward. He was looking vigilantly both sides of the jungle while the third cart-man was absorbed in his folk tune.
“Hey, ho ho”, the first cart-man slowly but boldly commanded the animals to stop. Sudhāmoy immediately enquired, “What’s the matter?” the cart-man replied, “Thākur, there are some children.” Upon hearing his uncle’s voice, Bāchchu shouted, “Chhotkā we are here, all five together.” The famous five were immediately recognized. All of them climbed on the carts. Three sat on the second cart with Sudhāmoy and other two climbed on the first one. Bāchchu informed his uncle every details of the fateful day. They started talking all and sundry matters.
As they approached near the branch, which led to theirs village, they found two persons standing right on the corner of the branch road. One of them was holding quite a big bamboo stick. No sooner they found the two figures in the darkness than they stopped their conversation abruptly. The first cart slowly turned left to move on the branch road. The wheels creaked in the silence of the woods. One of the two persons came closer and asked, “Are you going to Moynapur village?” The first cart-man curtly replied with another question, “yes, but why do you ask that?” He said with worries in his voice, “Thākurs’ children were about to come and meet my son Budhnā but they didn’t turn up. And while going towards Moynapur we came to know from a cyclist that the five children are found missing. We are waiting here since long for knowing their whereabouts.” The children kept quite. By then, Sudhāmoy could recall Budhnā’s father, the man, who was narrating. Now he jovially commented, “We are going to the village, how do we know about all these? Sit at the back of the last cart and let’s go to the village.” Slowly they moved towards the third cart with small and uneasy steps while his companion followed him at his heels. At that very instant the first cart-man informed him that they have found the children on the way and they are now on the carts. Two of the children said, “We were waiting but Budhnā didn’t turn up. We reached the same pond.” Bāchchu said, “Budhnā simply coaxed us that he would help us to find peahen’s eggs. We could not find any. You must give us someday.”
The man came very close to the second cart and lifted a bundle by his two hands, forwarded to Sudhāmoy and said, “Thākur, here are two.” The frazzled cloth bundle contained two ‘divinely-decorative-eggs’,. Bāchchu shouted, ‘Peahen’s eggs’ and then the four other members of the panch-pāndav chorused with joy. That desolate road corner amidst the jungle was wrongly resounded.