I was out of Raipur within five months as I was asked to proceed to Jabalpur to hold the charge of the divisional headquarters there. I spent around a couple of days with my brother at Bilaspur and then caught a train. My brother had already talked to the Collector Girish Buch and I was supposed to stay with him till I made my own arrangements. Girish, a bachelor, was there at the station to take me to his house which was bungalow in the Civil Lines. As I got off the train he told me that he was under orders of transfer and that he would leave within a day or two. His replacement was AS Das whom I knew as he was my batch-mate.
Girish, bless his soul, died rather early. He was excessively fond of anything made of tomato; juices, soups, curries and things. He was a very good soul. He had certain personal peculiarities: he would bicycle down to the office even though he had a spanking new black Standard Herald parked in the garage. The car’s seats and everything were wrapped in plastic. The car would run only from the garage to the porch and back again to the garage in the evening. I never saw him driving the car during the few days I spent with him.
As soon as Das came over he told me there was no question of my moving out. He said “let’s stay like we did in Mussourie”. My accommodation problem was thus solved – at least for a few months. And we had a great time together. On Sundays we would go to the Narmada Club and play billiards while sipping beer with sausages. Prem Nath, the film actor and brother in-law of Raj Kapoor, used to be playing on the other table. He was at a loose end as for sometime during that period when he had a lean time with no films on the floor.
Jabalpur (Anglicised version was Jubbalpore) was earlier in the erstwhile British Indian province of Central Provinces & Berar. On reorganization of states in 1956 it came under the state of Madhya Pradesh. The town was more or less the geographic centre of India. Strategically well located it was at one time was a big cantonment and also had an ordnance factory. It had an engineering college, too, where some of our friends studied and built up their flourishing careers in the country and abroad. I met two of them in Washington during our visit to the US in 1998 The predominance of army officers resulted in the Narmada Club being run and managed by the army. The manager was a British Indian Army man called Dungey – a happy go lucky type but quite strict in enforcing the Club codes, whatever they were.
At Jabalpur I had to take care of postal operation of three districts: Jabapur, Mandla and Balaghat. All were spread over the Satpura Ranges. All the three were relatively backward with Balaghat and Mandla the most backward. Jabalpur was a little more prosperous, the other two were tribal districts with little trade and business or industry. And yet we had to open more and more post offices as the Department was on an expansion mode. Village post offices would be opened even if these were not able to earn their keep. We just went through the motions as there was no alternative; it was a political decision.
The most important office opened during my time was the Jabalpur City Post office. The proposal was pending for almost twenty years but as generally happens in the government for one reason or the other the proposal remained dormant. This time, however, I decided to push it through. A building was suggested and we quickly met in a rent assessment committee and recommended the rent as approved by the Financial Adviser. The proposal was sent to the headquarters at Bhopal which approved it. After some days I was asked to take all the documents relating to the jurisdiction of this office, the way it as cut out from its parent, to the PMG for him to have a look.
The PMG was the same man who was sizzling hot against me at Raipur. Before meeting him I took everything to the Director, Mohammed Umar Khan, a terribly decent man, to apprise him. In the meantime SP Gulati, an APMG and a downright “chamcha”, asked me to seek a date for opening of the office from the PMG. I was not in favour of an inauguration but since he was so insistent I agreed.
A few minutes later the Director and I trooped in to the PMG’s chamber with magnified maps and statistical and all other relevant information. The Director took upon himself, to my immense relief, to explain the details. The hot-headed old man found he had nothing to better the proposal and asked me the date on which I would inaugurate it. I was watching the proceedings quietly and progressively my temperature was rising as I saw the old man making no move to ask the Director to sit down. It was very discourteous of him to keep a senior officer standing before him. I thought I would never have this man as a guest to open the office. I forgot all that Gulati had told me and blurted out a date. In a rare gracious move he asked me to get in touch with Mr. Khan if I needed additional funds for anything. I said I would do that and collected all the material to scoot out of the room.
As the date for the opening of the office approached, I think it was 20th March 1967, I was inundated by phone calls from the lower functionaries of the PMG’s office. All of them by turn told me that the boss had not received an invitation to inaugurate it. I told them I didn’t believe in inaugurations and that the office would just start functioning which, in any case, was the priority. He, it seems, was waiting for a gilded invitation card. I realized how publicity crazy he was. On the 19th he sent the Director to look up the arrangements. He was more than welcome. But then, one must point out such were some of the officials at high level who missed their profession in politics where they could have had inaugurations of smallest thing to their heart’s content.
While Mandla was only 60 miles away Balaghat was fairly long way off. I had to travel overnight by the narrow gauge Satpura Express. It used to take around 11 hours of swaying and bouncing on the tracks. The more it would try to pick up speed the more it would sway and bounce. Once it almost threw me off the narrow berth as it bounced past a rather bad portion of the tracks. The train has since been upgraded and runs on broad gauge after track conversion.
Soon after I joined at Jabalpur my brother was transferred from Bilaspur. My friend Das wanted to receive him at Katni and bring him to Jabalpur in his huge Buick that he had bought a few weeks earlier. I thought it was needless as my brother would have to pass through Jabalpur on his way to Bhopal in any case. The car was a gas guzzler as it would go only15-odd kilometers in a gallon. Yes Petrol was cheap in those days yet, I thought, it would be extravagance which we couldn’t afford. But despite my protestations Das drove the car to Katni station and felt mighty happy with the drive in this huge limousine over roads that were of indifferent quality.
During my brother’s visit we went on a trip to Kanha National Park. Wildlife Tourism had not taken off till then and hence not many tourists would be seen. We stayed in the government-owned rest house the front verandah of which would offer a spectacular view of the jungle or rather the grassland in front. Sitting there with our morning cups of tea we witnessed spotted deer and massive bisons grazing. We even saw a suckling bison that was supposed to be a rare sight.
More than fifty years ago tourism in the wildlife parks was yet to be properly organized. The kind of facilities of accommodation and viewing game available now were just not there. In Kanha they used to use baits to enable visitors to see tigers. This was apart from the tiger sightings one would get while taking rounds in the park. The system of baits was generally used long ago in the Gwalior zoo. This would satisfy the children’s craving for viewing a tiger killing the bait and also probably satiate its hunger. At Kanha we joined for viewing the tigers in a machaan type of construction of grass that was full of white ants. A rather weak-looking buffalo was tied to a peg in front. As the buffalo started wailing frantically we could hear the distant call of a tiger. The calls became louder as the tiger approached closer making the buffalo restless and nervous. Soon two sub-adult tigers appeared. They would make passes at the buffalo but eventually they got it by one of its hind legs and tore off a huge chunk of meat from it. Unable to stand anymore that blood and gore and the unearthly hopeless cry of the buffalo I came away and out of that claustrophobic enclosure.
Another time in Kanha, when we went in Das’s huge Buick, we saw tigers lounging under trees at high noon. I remember a tiger giving the vehicle a cold, hard look. Its olive green body of mammoth proportions probably appeared curious to it. But doing Kanha in a big car had its own advantage – especially of appreciating the beauty of the jungle, and Kanha had such beautiful jungles. Every turn would open up a new vista that would be a massive feast for one’s eyes.
That memory has stuck with me as I could never go to Kanha again. Half a century ago we had only Mahindra Jeeps that would run on diesel and make a racket when they ran. Now, of course, the National Parks have specially made vehicles that are open at the top to seat around 8 visitors and are much quieter.
An Assistant Conservator of Forests who was a regular visitor at our house came one evening and suggested a drive in the neighbouring Bargi forests. I do not know whether the forest has survived after the Bargi dam was erected. At that time it was, however, a dense jungle and tigers used to be known to be wandering around unprotected. This forest was out of the Kanha National Park. Das, as usual, was game for a safari. A 10 year old child of a Sikh neighbour too joined us. Das wielded the spot light and had his American Carbine standing next to him.
As we drove through for miles there was no game and it was already past eight. Das wanted to turn back condemning the jungle that, he said, was bare of wildlife. It was I, remembering Jim Corbett’s experience,, suggested that maybe some big game was around. Jim Corbett had experienced that whenever jungles were bereft of small animals some predators were found to be around. As we went further up Das spotted some bovines but as we went closer we realized these were not bovines but tigers right on the middle of the road. There were three of them – one tigress and two full grown cubs. They all sat and looked at the approaching lights. Soon they leaped into the jungles as the vehicle approached closer to them. We turned back as we were not equipped to deal with three tigers with two of them full grown. The neighbour’s child sitting next to me had a severe spell of trembling out of raw fear.
Das had worked up a good friendship with the politicians of the district. An MP from Katni was one such politician. He asked us over for lunch on a Sunday. While the food was fine what was more interesting was the way his younger son handled an American Willys Jeep. It was smaller than its Indian counterpart and was petrol driven. He asked us to join him for a ride. First he took us outside the town where he came across a herd of spotted deer (chital). He cornered one against a wall in a manner that the animal had no way to escape. Using his carbine Das fired three shots but none hit the deer which, like cats, seemed to have nine lives.
From Katni towards Shahdol a few miles up the road we came across a herd of black bucks. Some of them were in a playful mood and some other were prancing around. As soon as they saw the vehicle they took a sharp right turn and ran hard on the barren earth. Not to give up, the MP’s son gave them a chase; and what a chase it was – like the one we had seen in the film Hatari. Bouncing on the rough and bare ground we went at full speed after the black bucks which gave a show of their prowess of running hard and leaping high up in the air covering several yards in the process. It was a sight to see against the setting sun. We watched them till their coiled dark horns faded in dust raised by their hooves as they sprinted away from us – a sight I am unlikely to forget until I die.
That road – Katni to Damoh – used to host fifty years ago such incredible wildlife. When our batch mates posted in Damoh and/or Sagar would come to Jabalpur for meetings they would often report sighting of a tiger or a leopard. All that seems to have gone with our watchword “vikas”! We haven’t been able to carry our natural world along with us even with our Hindu Rate of growth of 3%.
Jabalpur had that incredible sight Marble Rocks on the River Narmada. The River flows through gorge cutting the marble rocks on two sides On moonlit nights it is an unearthly sight. There are boats available on hire with expert boatmen who can steer their boats safely through the deeper parts of the River. Close by is a fall that becomes aggressive as the monsoon progresses.
In around seven month’s time Das was posted out to Sagar. But before that I had moved out to the Narmada Club into a single room tenement where Dungee would often drop in during early evenings. Das’s replacement was Vinod Pandit who became a friend in no time. Our common factor was that his wife happened to be from Gwalior which was my birth place and we would go in our childhood to the same Hukkus where she and her family would often drop in.
The All India Congress Committee meets every year at some place chosen by its big wigs. Since it was the only political party worth the name and since it was in power at the centre and numerous states its annual meet used to be a very big affair. Those were the hey days of the Congress; now it is a pale shadow of itself and the AICC meet gets scant coverage even in newspapers. We would receive directions from the headquarters in Delhi to provide all kinds of facilities to the delegates. In 1967 the AICC decided to meet at Jabalpur. The state government allocated a rather small building for a Posts & Telegraph Office. The divisional Engineer Telegraph was one Mr Tripathi and a good friend. He offered to do up the building and the surrounding patch of land. And what a job did he do! Freshly whitewashed and immaculately painted building he even turned the front patch into a garden with potted plants.
He asked me to do up the inside. I asked our furniture maker to provide the best he could and he did so. Our boys went on a spree to decorate the building with whatever departmental posters they could lay their hands on. A few photographs of Bheda Ghat were the toppings for the cake and the place was ready for business.
Mr. Khan, our Director was asked by the PMG to check whether we had done our bit. I went to receive him at the station on a borrowed scooter. On my way back I had a fall that broke my shoulder. The boss went and saw the place we had created and came back very satisfied. He informed the PMG accordingly from my residential telephone.
Much later when I had been transferred and was in Bhopal I got a letter of appreciation from the Member of the P&T Board. It seems, the minister of communications visited the office during the AICC session and wrote in the Visitors’ Book that he had been attending AICC sessions for thirty years but he never came across such a handsome looking Posts & Telegraph Office. I was sorry that this did not come earlier so as to enable me to share it with my junior colleagues who had toiled hard to make it what it became. Anyway, it was good recompense for the effort put in.