Despite the winter in Orissa being on the retreat, the hills dotting the vast landscapes of the picturesque Koraput district make one feel the winter chill. The district’s headquarter town is itself blessed with the look of any hill station in the country, minus the publicity it deserves. Many hills, offering the niche to the sparsely dotted houses, run down abruptly to converge into a cluster of paddy fields readying for the next crop.
We had lodged ourselves at the town’s Specila Circuit House. Built way back in 1930, the circuit house is still intact and boasts of the Victorian touches, and the red cement flooring without a speck of crack even after 81 years. It also speaks of a timeless honesty we have of late thrown into the dustbins of time.
Each suite is crowned with a huge fire-place and the ceiling of the rooms measuring 20 ft plus reminds of a time when feudal taste was often judged by the height and size of rooms.
A walk to the backyard of this B
ritish era structure, built at a height of 2500 ft above sea level, leads to a view that oversees the sleepy town below perched on the niches of slopes. It is like a head-on dash with a beauty that sports smiles through the balloons of solitude in the nights. The cascading paddy fields in moonlit nights create the mirage of a silvery domain. The nursery in the backyard has a lovely stock of herbal plants and herbs those can cure many minor ailments.
After having tea prepared with herbal lemon leaves, we left for yet another destination. Driving through the hilly tracks leading up to the Kakriguma hill range, many things were on offer - both good and bad. As we drove, we could not miss the range of hills crowning the hazy horizon, the slatey mask of the morning fog slowly dissolving to expose the baldness of the hills suffered due to the shifting cultivation. But, amidst the remnant foliage, the razed slopes on the hills offered a view which collaged tribal tradition and urban invasion.
The thinning forest patches here and there were a pain to watch. Those hills of Koraput, once described to be the picture-post card beauty of the state, appear uncared by the people who live in them and the ones who rule here. Perhaps, gone are the days when a stroll into the valleys at early dawns presented a nature that sports a mystic smile under the slow drizzle when the paddy fields don the breathtaking scene. The tribal men and women wearing the leaf caps head towards the fields. The women in coloured clothes offer the fantastic contrast amidst the verdant expanse of the paddy.
Time has changed rapidly in last two decades. The mesmerising face of Koraput has given way to the intransigence of neglect. We could imagine the scene ahead when in the infernal heat of June, the grief of this nature shall explode into a rage. Born of an occasional alliance of the truant nature and human ignorance, the valleys struggle through the septic of depletions.
As we moved ahead aiming at the foothills, we stumbled upon a marked elevation on the left preceded by a very thick cluster of mango trees, like a huge canopy. We stopped for the much needed respite under the majestic canopy. On our left we noticed a small cottage like structure, making it hard to believe that in that beleaguered landscape we could find such a respite. The place made us curios to find out what was there.
As we trudged ahead we noticed a septuagenarian man in a white sweater. The elderly man was fairly tall and too taller for his wife, and his white hairs were whiter than his sweater. He had a very childlike smile written on his face each time we talked to him. It is a kind of typical post-retirement complex many people suffer from. Both were doing something at a kind of small farm-yard fortified by wire-mace. The lady had something in her face and her eyes from behind the spectacle had a distinct radiance of affection which encouraged us to go nearer. The greeting was warm and endearing. We were asked to take our seats when a stalkily built young man came out of the cottage followed by a young lady, clad in a traditional saree of orange shade. She was looking more like a typical Bengali woman with her crisp mongolite facial feature. They were the son and daughter-in-law of the elderly couple, Uma and Biswanath Pradhan.
The elderly man exuded a magisterial delight when we introduced ourselves. Easing our problem they offered us breakfast in that sylvan enclosure we were looking for the last one hour. Then we were led to the backyard of the cottage to discover that the family has a hidden treasure in the shape of a garden that stood like a silver line in the gloom. We were told that it was the brainchild of the elderly lady, Uma Pradhan, who had knitted a dream of a green opulence in this festering sore about 17 years back.
Her unconquerable passion for farming bore the fruit and today the place has become an enviable hub of coffee and black pepper. Now known as the Brown Valley, the mission goes on with the active participation of Uma's daughter-in-law Pritidhara who has preferred the green hub to other occupations. But their son Sujoy, the stalkily built man, overgrown for his age, had given up a lucrative job in Delhi and came to help his mother at the Brown Valley, taking the entire load of production and marketing of the produce.
The tale of the Pradhans deserved the mention here for obvious reasons. At a time when the invading human greed is playing the role of a burning nail in the flesh in the forests like in Koraput, Uma Pradhan had taken on her detractors, weathering the crosswinds from within the nature, and proved her point with disarming sincerity and unbounded tenacity.
Uma Pradhan's attachment with the Brown Valley appeared to be so tempestuous a love-affair that survived many odds and her achievement as a farmer has become an infectious ideal in the area.
"I have no profound contempt for urbanisation but I have an endemic repulsion for the ones who dream to usher in development on the ruins of green," rued the old lady in her own way. The 40 to 45 feet silver-oak trees harbouring the black pepper creepers and dwarfing the innumerable coffee plants below, seem shorter than Uma's dream. The fact that a lady with a very minimal educational background can turnaround a festering patch to a green paradise, has become an inspiration for many.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)