Deerskin Sashikanta Mishra

Biraj Patnaik, the Forester, was a worried man! The information about his new boss gave him as much comfort as the tiny summer boil on his back – imperceptible but throbbing with pain! Nicknamed 'Tiger' by the rank and file of the State's Forest Department, the new Divisional Forest Officer, Satyabrat Das was both dreaded and revered for his absolute honesty and hard discipline. They said he did not tolerate even minor misdemeanours of errant subordinates. He was the tiger who relished raw flesh of the corrupt and the dishonest and the inefficient!


For Biraj, to whom, corruption, dishonesty, inefficiency and an insatiable greed to make a fast buck were as natural as the act of breathing, the Tiger’s impending arrival was wrought with ominous forebodings. Aranyak forest, with its multifarious minor and major forest produce, provided ample scope for the flowering of Biraj Patnaik's uncanny abilities. The upshot was creation of extensive properties not only in Aranyak but across the state. And the previous DFOs, so long as they were themselves cared for, simply hadn't bothered – falling in line like obedient children with lollies in hand.


The sound of screeching tyres brought everyone to the portico and they lined up according to their respective ranks to welcome the boss. Biraj was in the lead. He held a bouquet and sported a smile as phoney as a barber-shop poster of Amitabh Bachhan smoking a local made beedi.


Satyabrat Das alias Tiger, alighted from the jeep, dressed in all-whites. Early fiftyish, Biraj guessed at the sight of the neat crop of back-brushed hair Brylcreemed to a gloss that added considerable sheen to the handsome face. The shoes shone with a vengeance, completing the image.


The bouquet was accepted and acknowledged with a small ‘thank you’, revealing a baritone voice. But the pleasantries had to be abandoned midway for the boss wanted to be at work immediately. ‘Please bring the pending files.’ The statement was curt. The head clerk, Suresh Murmu ran to get them.


The files, that had been gathering dust on Suresh Babu’s desk, were disposed of in less than an hour. But the Tiger was not done. He called for each and every file of the division and by the end of the day, as per Biraj’s crude estimate, the Tiger had surveyed the entire forest through the hundred-odd files and had even managed to call for explanations from at least five of his subordinates for what, according to him, was dereliction in their duties.


At the end of six months, the office wore an entirely new look in style as well as substance. The staff made sure to reach office well ahead of the boss. And Biraj, long committed to the tradition of coming late to office, now puffed and panted to reach at least within quarter past ten. There was no other option, for the attendance register was kept on the Tiger’s desk.


If sticking to the rules was a burden, the abrupt stopping of the illicit felling of trees and poaching of ivory was something that hurt Biraj like a malignant tumour. The traders and the poachers, long time cronies of Biraj, now stayed at least a mile away from the forest, where the ferocious Tiger stalked alone, gun in hand, ready to shoot first and question later.


‘Sir! What has befallen us?’ Suresh Babu lamented in a whisper. With the Tiger in his chambers, the staff could talk only in whispers. Biraj gazed at the ceiling vacantly, searching for the elusive answer. The call bell buzzed breaking his reverie. The orderly conveyed that he was required by the Tiger. The Tiger was lost in a file and Biraj coughed mildly to announce his arrival. A motion of the index finger told him to sit down.


‘Biraj Babu,’ the Tiger looked at him, ‘I was going through the past records and what I find is, it is a complete mess.’


Biraj could manage a mild shrug.


‘It appears some of our staff have been hand in glove with the illegal traders. Otherwise, how could pilferage of such magnitude have occurred?’


Biraj smiled weakly. ‘Sir, actually, it is because of inadequate security that some thefts had occurred in the past but ever since your good self has joined, not a single case of theft has been reported.’


If the Tiger saw the concealed attempt at praise, he ignored it. ‘I am thinking of ordering an inquiry to trace the culprits. It’s time the perpetrators are brought to book.’


Biraj’s heart sank.


‘I want you to submit within two months a note on all cases of theft detected in the past five years and the loss in monetary terms sustained by the entire division on such count. And don’t forget to mention what action was taken in each of the cases. Right?’




The tiny rest shed, deep in the forest, was a two-roomed affair meant to provide shelter to the forest officials while on field visit. That Sunday afternoon several motorbikes were parked in its portico. The Tiger was out of headquarters to visit his family in the capital city.


The motley group in the shed was comprised of those persons who had thrived on the illicit timber and ivory trade in the Aranyak Reserve Forest, but who, since the advent of the Tiger, had gone underground. Their grievance was simple – the new DFO’s honesty and efficiency had ruined lucrative trade. To top it, his insistence on raking up past cases was sure to expose them and lead them behind bars. If something drastic was not done soon, they were doomed!


Biraj stroked his chin thoughtfully and waited for the buzz to die down.


‘Friends! I am not in the least unaware of your problems. In fact, I am myself an aggrieved party. But the question is, how does one deal with a person who apparently has no known weaknesses? No snares to trap him in. I tipped his orderly generously to learn precisely that. Satyabrat Das's life-style is absolutely spartan and most of his time in the bungalow is spent in reading the scriptures or in meditation.’


The crowd found it hard to believe that a man could live thus, bereft of wine or women! They broke up just as it was getting dark, cursing the Tiger and wishing him ill.


A month and half had raced by since the Tiger had asked Biraj to prepare a note on the theft cases. But the file had barely been opened. Instead, a copy of the Bhagwad Gita now adorned his desk and seemed to take up most of his duty time. Suresh Murmu, the head clerk, warned Biraj of the rapidly approaching deadline. It was as if Biraj Patnaik didn’t care anymore. The head clerk couldn’t comprehend the sudden conversion to faith! He shuddered as he envisioned the punitive measures likely to be unleashed by the Tiger on the errant employee!


Biraj and the Tiger bumped into each other that evening in the Bhagwad Gita discourse organised by the local Marwari Yuva Manch of Aranyak. A venerable saint from Rishikesh was the speaker.


‘Arrey, Biraj Babu! How come you are here? Never knew you were spiritually minded,’ the Tiger was smiling for a change. Biraj offered a blush for reply. ‘It’s good that you care for such things, or else, who does, nowadays?’ the Tiger remarked approvingly.


Both sat on the carpet side by side on the front row. When the final words had been spoken, Biraj, tears streaming down his face, kissed the ground. When he eventually rose, wiping his eyes with a handkerchief, the Tiger patted his back.


The next day was a Sunday and the Tiger, as was his wont, sat on an armchair with the Bhagwad Gita. Biraj appeared at the gate. ‘Sir! May I have the liberty of soliciting a few moments of your precious time?’


‘Sure, what is it? Have a seat,’ the Tiger pointed at the vacant chair in front. Biraj hesitated for a moment before speaking as if choosing his words with care. ‘Sir, if I may ask, did you agree with the interpretation of certain verses by the saint yesterday?’


‘Why do you say so, I mean, which particular verse are you referring to?’


‘Sir, as you must have heard, according to the saint, the word ‘Nashikagra’ as used in the thirteenth verse of the sixth chapter, means tip of the nose. But applying plain common sense, it cannot be so, for, a person who meditates with his gaze fixed on the tip of his nose, is sure to end up being cross-eyed.’


The remark caused Tiger to laugh heartily. And Biraj was emboldened. ‘Sir, what I mean is, the word ‘Nashikagra’ as used in the verse can only refer to the point between the two eyebrows, the 'agra' or origin of the nose and not its tip. Even otherwise, it is said to be the seat of the soul on which one's consciousness must be fixed during meditation. All traditional yogic disciplines say so.’


The Tiger called for tea. ‘Go on, I find your analysis quite rational.’


When the orderly came to inform them that lunch was ready, Biraj rose with a start, a three-inch tongue protruding out.


‘Please forgive me Sir! It is actually one of my faults, a discussion on the scriptures makes me entirely lost to the mundane world.’


‘Don’t be sorry,’ smiled the Tiger as he too rose, ‘The discussion was meaningful.’


Biraj appeared to be a changed man and his appearance exuded the feeling of someone who was inwardly attuned to divine bliss. He became more punctual and disposed off files at an enviable speed. No command by the boss remained unaccomplished for long. Regular meditation was the key to the newfound efficiency, Biraj explained to the staff.


It was a Sunday again and the Tiger, morning meditation over, was on his armchair, flipping through the pages of the Prasna Upanishad. The sound of the gate opening caused him to look up. It was Biraj, holding something in his hand.


‘Do sit down Biraj Babu, and what is it that you are holding?’


The Tiger had never seen a fully grown man overcome with coyness. He looked at Biraj, somewhat puzzled.


‘Sir,’ Biraj uttered, ‘I have a gift for you.’


‘Gift?’ The word was anathema!


‘Only if your good self would condone this humble being’s impudence for a moment.’ Biraj opened the packet. From underneath the multiple paper wrappers, he removed a neatly folded deerskin. ‘Sir, it belonged to my great-great-grandfather, who had renounced family life at the age of sixty and died a realised being, in a holy shrine in the Himalayas.’


‘Sir! Don’t you remember the eleventh verse of the sixth chapter in the Gita. ‘Having firmly fixed in a clean place, his seat, neither too high nor too low, and having spread over it the kusa-grass, a deer skin and a cloth, one over the other....’.’


The Tiger protested, and after much discussion, Biraj said, ‘Alright, sir! Please use this for your daily meditation for a month and if you do not find it any different from your ordinary mat, I shall be glad to take it away.’


By the end of a fortnight, Biraj said, ‘Sir! If you do not care for my words, please ask others if your face doesn’t glow with a new radiance.’


The Tiger never asked anyone about it, but the words made him gaze at his own reflection in the mirror for that extra minute every day while shaving, as though to check on the luminosity of the irradiating spirituality.


He could also feel the peace of meditation lingering on long after he rose from his deerskin mat. He found himself divinely detached now. The rigours of duty no longer bothered him nor did the earlier zeal to don the role of defender of government’s interest appeal any more. It was more alluring to surrender to the grand cosmic design where things moved by themselves as per a hidden and mysterious plan! Let things go on – on their own! Why the false sense of authority?


Exactly, a month later, Biraj was at the Tiger’s bungalow.


‘Sir! May I have the deerskin back?’


‘Biraj Babu! Er ... I mean ... can I keep it for some more time?’ the voice was unusually pleading.


‘Sir! It would be the greatest gift from this humble servant, if your good self, the most appropriate person, would agree to own it forever.’


‘I am grateful beyond words, Biraj Babu, your gift is truly marvellous!’


The note regarding the past misdeeds was forgotten for good while Biraj Patnaik was personally entrusted by the Tiger with the job of minding the forest produce as also to prevent any pilferage, so that the spiritually hungry soul could march ahead in his eternal quest for the light!


When the traders and poachers again met at the rest shed in the forest sometime later, it was only to offer their deepest gratitude – over unlimited bottles of beer – to Biraj Patnaik, their guardian angel and saviour!




Sashikanta Mishra has a postgraduate degree in Economics from Ravenshaw College at Cuttack as well as a degree in Law. He practised for thirteen years in the Orissa High Court before being recruited as a District Judge in the Orissa Superior Judicial Service. Presently he is serving as Special Judge (Vigilance) at Jeypore in Koraput, Odisha.