The Ballad of Kaziranga, written by Dileep Chandan and translated by Parbina Rashid, is a story of four men in the grand landscape of the Kaziranga forest, famous for its large population of one-horned rhinos, rare migratory birds, tigers, elephants, and massive floods. It is the story of Hridayananda Saikia, the forest officer who is married to this harsh forest and protects it with his life, alternating between treacherous rides deep into the forest to capture poachers, and enjoying paan and chai with his friends.

It is also the story of Rishi, who is popular in the village of Pamua, where the novel is set. He plays the violin and has started a music school to teach the locals, and with his charm and keen familiarity with the village, is the object of admiration of all the women. It is the story of Amal da, who is lonely and short-tempered and wants to open a resort in the forest to help the economic growth in Kaziranga and find meaning in his own life that has been spent largely separated from his wife and children.

And in snatches, it is also the story of Amal da’s cousin Arunabh who works for a South Indian bi-monthly magazine as a correspondent for the North East. Arunabh, who has little space in the book, is perhaps modelled after the author himself, who was a senior journalist in Assam for thirty years and won several accolades for his work.

The facts in the fiction

One can see Chandan’s years of working in Assam as a reporter seep into the book seamlessly as the characters spew facts about Kaziranga that remain unknown to the lay reader. Because he is trained in the art of news writing, this book often sounds more like a report than a novel. However, instead of breaking the flow, this style of writing only adds to the appeal. The reader is introduced to an alien atmosphere in which the villagers fast and burn effigies of forest department and government officials when a rhino is killed. The forest department officials are paid so little for their operations against poachers that they sometimes have to pay for fuel themselves. Malaria is one of the biggest causes of death in Kaziranga and has gone largely untreated by the government.

The book is full of sparse sentences and there is barely any dialogue. Often, it falls into the trap of a literal translation, using clichéd proverbs and repetition. Yet, it captures the intimacy of the landscape and engages the reader: “This was the life of the forest guard in Kaziranga. Away from their families, this is how they lived, braving hunger pangs and tiredness, cold and heat, sometimes even taking a bullet from the poachers and dying while protecting the wild animals. This was the condition of a forest guard. They were not even provided with adequate clothes and shoes. They were not even equipped with sophisticated arms and ammunitions. They were not even given provisions of necessary food supply at the posts.”

Despite this simplicity, the weight of the words does not go unnoticed. This is a very different story from what we may have heard from Kaziranga. It is a personal story and therefore a more brazen one, jarring to the senses and a brave one to tell for the writer. A sense of longing is tucked into the words. It transports the reader to the forest.

A magical forest

The book, quiet but pulsating, could be read as the story of these middle-class childhood friends finding their way into a strange forest and falling in love with it: three men rectifying themselves, contemplating life and trying to find love. It could be read as a warning about the preservation of an endangered species under a corrupt government and inhuman poachers. It could be read as a love story spurred by the loneliness in Rishi’s life and the alienation in Lakhimi’s, who gave up her education to take care of her family after her mother’s death. Whatever you choose to read it as, this book is an excavation into the life of an unknown village and its warm residents.

The Ballad of Kaziranga isn’t far away from our daily metropolitan life – the characters have the same concerns as we do. They sing, drink, stress over their careers and families, and savour their cup of tea. Reading this book is like taking a safari ride through the forest; the journey is tough and relentless, but breathtaking and unforgettable. For me, this book is a biography of a magical forest, in a way no one has ever written before. It’s the kind of book you could read in one go, but can’t digest fast or discard. It is not a “light read”. It’s a ballad; you hum it over and over again.

The Ballad of Kaziranga, Dileep Chandan, translated by Parbina Rashid, Niyogi Books.