The express bus from Hyderabad to Dantewada takes fifteen hours on a good day. As the suburbs of the software hub are left behind, and then the wrought-iron gates of Ramoji Film City, the smooth pavement falls apart. But the sweep of paddy fields and palms—a facsimile of the INCREDIBLE INDIA! billboard hanging at the Delhi airport when I first arrived—grew more hypnotic with each mile, making up for the rough going. Hills loomed in the hazy distance. Cowherds shunted their stock out of harm’s way, and women carried grain in clay pots on their heads. Passing into virgin forest so dense that hardly a ray of light broke through, I finally dozed off, rustled by the occasional thwack of a tree branch as we hurtled into dusk.
Dantewada, the main town of Chhattisgarh state’s remote Bastar Division, seemed bucolic enough. The smell of freshly fried samosas wafted from the corner dhaba, where lanky men took cover from a sun that beat down like a fist. Long-distance coaches to Andhra Pradesh and Orissa came and went in a fit of honking. At either end of town, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) barricades, reading WE NEED YOUR COOPERATION, were the only signals that something might be wrong.