‘The Elephant Girl’: A tale of Assam’s forests, folklore

Guwahati, Feb 16 (PTI) Assam’s forests and its wildlife have always carried an aura of awe and mystery which author Chitta Ranjan Pathak explores against a backdrop of erstwhile royalty as a theme for his debut novel “The Elephant Girl”.
A mystery novel set in the Raj era, the plot of “The Elephant Girl” is a treacherous maze with the players shuttling between the opulent royal palace in North Bengal and the deep dark, mysterious forests of Assam.
Pathak points out that these forests were once the hunting ground of the princely state of Cooch Behar and the zamindars of Assam’s erstwhile undivided Goalpara district.
“My love for the jungles, coupled with my interest in the history of the princely states under British India, culminated in this novel,” he told PTI.
Elephant catching by ‘mahaldars’ (forest contractors) was a big industry which gave rise to a subculture of folklore and songs involving the mahouts and their beloveds whom they leave behind when they go to catch the pachyderms.
“In these forests, there have been many claims including some from the foresters, of a maiden in white sari leading a herd of elephants, called the ‘hastir kanya’ (elephant girl),” he said.
According to folk tales, the herd of elephant in the region led by this girl was called the Pagli Sahan (herd led by the mad girl), Pathak, a chemical engineer based at Perth in Australia, pointed out.
These forests also had a unique heritage property of the Assam forest department – the Goalpara forest tramway and it is these elements of heritage, folk culture and mystery within the forests that inspired Pathak to write this novel set against the backdrop of his native Assam.
The author said he wanted to highlight the lost heritage of the Goalpara forest tramway and so he started the story with the protagonist’s trip in the tram.
“I spent my formative years in Bongaigaon and various scenic spots like Jamduar, Laopani, Ultapani, Saralpara, Geylenphu and others in the wildlife rich foothill forests of Ripu and Chirang were our weekend destinations,” he said.
Massive destruction of the forests took place when ethnic disturbances, breakdown of law and order happened in the region with the turmoil in the area wiping out the entire tramway infrastructure.
“Memories of the incredible richness of those forests, stories of sighting of a mysterious elephant girl (Pagli Sahan) stayed with me even after I moved out of India but it was the gradual destruction of forest cover that made me immensely sad,” the author said.
The book has been brought out by Leadstart Publications.