Lake Bagakain slowly wakes up among the hills covered in a blanket of clouds and early morning mist. An old man emerges from the thicket. A white piece of cloth, handmade like the Lungi around his waist, covers his upper body. He follows the dirt road to the edge of the water like countless others of his tribe and those foreigners who frequent these hills these days. A boat is tied to a bamboo post. He takes tourists to the lake in this. The old man unties the boat and after some time he disappears in the fog in it. When he gets back after an hour, a young man from the village is waiting for him by the water.
“Zamthang, what’s the matter? What are you doing here so early?” the old man inquires as he ties his boat.
“Mother said you wanted to meet me before I go.”
“Oh, today is the day. I forgot,” he looks at the lake and watches as first rays of light touches its smoky water. During the initial days of summer the lake water gets opaque. ”The dragon is breathing,” he murmurs to himself.
Zamthang shifts on his feet impatiently.
“Listen, I got to be off soon. The major will be waiting for me.”
“Come sit with me for a bit. You have something for me, don’t you?”
Zamthang hand him a packet made of banana leaf which he knows contains rice cakes. They sit on a fallen tree, the old man eating his rice cakes and the young one watching the lake, as mist veil retreats slowly.
When he was young Zamthang was told stories about the lake by his mother. In old days there lived a tribe of hunters here. One day some tribesmen found a beautiful black swan in a clearing in the jungle. They killed it. The swan was actually a deity of the forest. It turned into a dragon and entered the land below turning it into a lake and in the process destroying the tribe. In time other more peaceful tribes gathered around the lake. Bawms, Khukis, they began clearing the hills and cultivating Jhum.
“Pinaki was always good at cooking. Even when she was a little girl she was good at cooking and also intelligent. She is the most intelligent Bawm woman I have ever seen. Who could have come up with the idea of making a cottage for the tourists to stay back in those days. And now see how well she is doing. Who will take care of your mother when you are away?” The old man says.
Zamthang seems uncomfortable with the question. He answers reluctantly,” Father Gomez said he will help her with the work at the cottage and there are other people here too.”
Hmf. The old man exhales a long breath.
“I really need to go,” Zamthang stands up. “Give me your blessing.”
He is going to prostrate in front of the old man but before he can do that his arms were held by a pair of old rough hands.
“If you must, then bow your head before Lake Boga. It is the deity that protected us Bawms for all these days.”
“It’s not doing a good job these days, is it?” he looks at the old eyes and sees that they were hurt. Zamthang frees himself and turn away from the old man, “They are saying that we have to shut down the cottages. It’s destroying the ecological balance, they say. If we do not comply, the army will come and demolish it.”
“I didn’t want to go away. But there’s no way left. First they stop us from Jhum cultivation. They say it’s harmful to the nature. Now they are saying WE are harmful to nature, WE!”
They become silent for some time. Around them nature slowly wakes up from its slumber. The sun on its northern journey has reached an end; beginning a new year. People from the village have already waked up to ceremoniously wash away their sins today. Report of a riffle is heard from the direction of the army camp.
The old man breaks silence, “I was there when the first missionaries came to the village. Helped them set up church and saw them convert my tribesmen. A young boy was among them and when the missionaries left he went with them. He was the first of us who went to the outside world. He returned many years later with the people of plains. Villagers from all three villages came to see them. Our joys knew no bounds. The people of the plain saw the lake of Dragon God and after sometime they left. The boy stayed and got married and settled. Then the army came with settlers from plains in tow. They set up camp. Some of our lands were taken. Now if we want to clear a forest we have to take their permission, if we want to leave the village we have to take their permission. Life wasn’t like it was any more. Those who lost their land didn’t like it. They blamed the boy who returned. One night one of them took his life. A good girl was widowed and a little boy was orphaned.”
Zamthang watches the old man silently.
“So that’s how my father died?”
The old man remains silent.
“Who were they?” his voice remains calm but a storm raged underneath.
“Doesn’t matter. None of them are here now. They are forgotten and therefore lost to us. But your father remains alive in our memories. It was first time such a crime happened here. First time someone killed another of his tribesmen. We sing of him in our songs. You know the song but may be till now you didn’t know it had been sung for him.”
The old ferry man and Zamthang walk toward the village together. In their way to his home many of the tribesmen and women splash water on Zamthang as it is tradition of the Sankran. Later that day Zamthang will be taking his day long walk towards civilization. As he will descend through the mountain tracks leaving the peaks surrounding the Dragon Lake behind a voice whispers in his ear,” Remember us. Remember our stories.”
Lake Bagakain will slowly descend in a slumber at the end of the day. Life around it will start a new cycle, as it has been for thousands of years since rain water and a small tributary of Sangu River had given birth to it on the mouth of a dead volcano.
(Photo from the Daily Star Archives…http://archive.thedailystar.net/news2014/in-pixel/beautiful-bangladesh-gallery-6-11 )