Dinesh Nokrek, in his nineties, is a Garo kamal in Dharati village of Madhupur forest in Tangail. In Garo society, kamal signifies a priest in the traditional Garo religion of Sangsarek—a vanishing tradition, as almost all Garo people have by now converted to Christianity. Nokrek, who often likes to announce that he is a hundred years old, is a kabiraj (village doctor) as well. He has a strange device, sim-ma-nia, to diagnose and treat diseases including cancer. It remains hung on the mud wall inside his living-cum-dining room, which is stuffed with everything from sacks of grain to utensils.
Nokrek has no hesitation in announcing that he is a very happy man in his conjugal life with his 70-year-old second wife Monikkha Rema, whom he married seven years ago. He spotted Rema, a widow in Sandhakura village of Sherpur district, and married her following the sangsarek ritual.
Happy in a truly remote village on the western edge of the Madhupur sal forest, which evinces no mark of the sal tree any more, Nokrek has a very interesting life story to tell, of a forest that has dramatically disappeared from Madhupur [and elsewhere].
Father to five sons and three daughters—all from his first marriage to wife Palshi Dalbot, who passed away 10 years ago—Nokrek says he was born in Gypsy Pahar (pahar meaning hills), two kilometres east of Kamalapur Railway Station in Dhaka, which he remembers was a low-lying land. “The British filled the low-lying area with mud,” recollects Nokrek “and developed Kamalapur Rail Station.”
At least 80 Garo families lived at Gypsy Pahar, recalls Nokrek. The area was then covered with sal forest and there were many tigers and bears around, reminisces Nokrek excitedly. “Jum (slash-and-burn) cultivation was the primary agricultural practice in Gypsy Pahar, under the jurisdiction of the king of Natore,” he recalls. “We also practised limited plough agriculture.”
The hunting of pigs with spears was common, “but we were not allowed to kill deer and peacocks,” says Nokrek.
In Gypsy Pahar, all Garo families were sangsarek in contrast to today's Garo society, in which Christianity is the dominant faith.
“The worst experiences in Gypsy Pahar were the encounters with tigers that were everyday events,” exclaims Nokrek. There is hardly anyone in Madhupur who knows that the Garo families came to the villages of Madhupur forest from distant locations such as today's Kamalapur in Dhaka. This carries a significant message—the Garo are a hill and forest dwelling people. The sal forest, now miserably fragmented, extended up to Comilla and the traces of the Garo people around Kamalapur—before the station came into existence—is a significant mark in the history of migration of the Garo.
Dinesh Nokrek does not recall the exact year when his father moved out of Gypsy Pahar and came to Nalia in Ghatail. Actually, all Garo families in Gypsy Pahar, according to Nokrek, moved back north over a number of years. One landmark for Nokrek's family is the big riot of 1964.
“My father, along with many other Mandis, moved to Nalia in Ghatiail 10 to 15 years before the big riot,” Dinesh explains. “I was very young then.”
Nalia was a kind of transit area before his father moved to Madhupur, then a dense forest with sparse Garo houses. “We lived hardly eight years in Nalia and some years in Mohishmari before moving to Madhupur, where we first landed in Dokhola and then went to Bagadoba,” Nokrek says.
“We left different forest areas mainly due to tigers and bears. But upon coming to Madhupur, we found the forest even more tiger-infested,” Nokrek recounts. “We used to encounter tigers every day and one year I killed two of them with a gun.”
It is from Bagadoba that Nokrek went to his wife's house. Unlike other young men, it was quite a hard deal for him to settle in his wife's family.
His marriage was quite a story! The capture of the groom was a common enough practice then, whereby the man did not have a choice in his marriage and the arrangements were made by the parents of the bride and groom, unbeknownst to the latter. Then a few strong men from the bride's side surreptitiously showed up to the house of the unsuspecting groom to take him captive. Starving the groom was also part of the scheme.
In the young Nokrek's case, his parents had delayed serving dinner to their son. Hungry, Nokrek sat to eat late in the evening and it was then that one of the captors entered the dining room and jumped him from behind.
“Manjok (captured)!” shouted the capturer to the others waiting outside. “Ribarembo (come quickly)!” The story still excites Nokrek. “Six strong men captured me. Each of them held different parts of my body and I was helpless,” says Nokrek, smiling wistfully. As they were marching with their hapless capture, they shouted “Man-ba-jok (We are coming with the son-in-law)!” From Bagadoba, Nokrek was taken to the neighbouring Dublakuri village in Jamalpur district.
Nokrek was married off soon after he was brought to the bride's house. Such quick marriages following the traditional custom are called 'murgichira bia'. A dinner of fowls was then served to the starving Nokrek.
Married at 28, Nokrek was not happy with his wife's family because they were not well off. He spent the night quietly and fled to his parents' house the next morning.
“I wanted to abandon my wife, so I stayed a year at my father's house,” recalls Nokrek. “But then the village leaders convinced me to return to my wife's house.” A large pig was slaughtered and a celebration followed.
With his wife, Nokrek moved back to Bagadoba from Dublakuri seven years into their marriage. They lived there till 1988, when they moved to Dharati—Nokrek's current village.
Today, Dharati is a mixed village with 155 Garo households and 124 Bengali households. Rubber plantations flank the village on either side and banana, pineapple, ginger, turmeric and other cash crops cover the entire village. The 8,000-acre sal forest was ruthlessly cleared to plant rubber trees. Still considered a forest, the land was transferred to the Bangladesh Forest Industry Development Corporation (BFIDC) for production of rubber.
Like other Garo villages, all but Dinesh Nokrek and a few others are Christians in Dharati. In his family, only Nokrek is Sangsarek. His sons and daughters are Christians. His second wife, always smiling, pretends to be Sangsarek to make Nokrek happy. She was Christian before coming to his family. Nokrek himself is open-minded about Christianity.
Like Dinesh, most of the elderly Garo people of the forest villages in Madhupur tell stunning stories of their migrations, the celebration of Christianity in Garo villages, the destruction of the forest and the factors that underpinned various other changes. Unlike in the past, they are now settled in their villages. Yet, some move to cities in search of jobs and income. The Garo in the capital today, approximately 15 percent of its total population of around one lakh, speaks to the transformation of the Garo community, as a result of Christianity and the spread of education.
Philip Gain is researcher and director of Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD). He has been reporting, writing and filming on Madhupur sal forest and its people since 1986.