Syed Mohammad Ashraf
It seemed like the sun had gone down quite some time ago. Or perhaps it was just when the jeep had reached a bend on the steep track and turned right into the jungle. The engine was still revving on the gradient when a woman in an overcoat put out a hand to stop them. With the other, she held the hand of a little boy.
Nadeem hit the brakes and the jeep stopped with a jolt, kicking up dust that, for a while, enveloped the woman’s feet. The boy was up to his knees in a cloud of dust. In the time it took for the dust to settle and the engine to fall silent, Nadeem heard three things, all of which embarrassed him.
Dr Waqar picked up the rifle lying on the seat and said, like a man in a hurry, "Why have you stopped, my friend? DFO-sahib (district forest officer) must have wilted away, waiting all this while for us. We are already behind time."
Asif drew the window glass down, looked out at the woman and the child, looked back in, smiled and said, "We’ve set out to hunt a mad elephant, but the moment we see a woman we become heroes."
Rashid was lost in thought. Irritably, like a man facing a pointless dilemma, he said, "Get down, ask her who she is and what she wants."
Nadeem jerked the door open and stepped out into the December air. He walked up to the woman.
"The devil, he should have shut the door," Dr Waqar muttered to himself. "It’s really cold this year. Probably snowing somewhere."
Nadeem got back in, closed the door and turned to the others. He remembered something and opened the door again. The woman’s face had fallen when Nadeem shut the door, Rashid saw, but now she had recovered her composure.
"It’s like this — this woman has ten thousand rupees with her," Nadeem said. And then he fell silent, realising that in itself, this information conveyed nothing.
"What? Whose money is that? And why does this woman have so much money with her? And what’s she doing with all that money on a jungle track?"
Nadeem cut Dr Waqar short and said, more confidently, "The banker in Barauli village, Aggarwal, she got the money from him. She has come here from Canada. She is from Lucknow. She had given this money to Aggarwal in Canada; she wanted him to pay it back when she came to India. She needs to get to Lucknow right away, tonight. That child is her nephew. His name is Raju. There is a bus strike today — they didn’t know about it when they left the village. They don’t want to go back because not one house in the whole village…"
He stopped suddenly, aware of the presence of the doctor’s compounder, Ramesh, sitting silently at the back of the jeep, holding a gun. Sometimes, one understands situations instinctively.
"We’ll take them up to the range office and send them on to Bahraich with the DFO-sahib. We’ll ask him to drop them off at the bus station in Bahraich," Dr Waqar said forcefully, as though he wanted to end the uncertainty.
The tension seemed to evaporate with this expression of intent and everyone now seemed relaxed.
Dr Waqar picked up his rifle, moved to the back seat and sat down beside Asif.
Nadeem held the steering-wheel with one hand and the door-handle with the other. He called out to the woman, "Why are you standing there? Please get in. We were making room for you in the jeep." The others in the jeep were quite at ease with this lie.
He opened the other door. The woman seated the child, then put her foot on the running board and got in awkwardly. She was in high boots. Everyone watched intently as she got in and settled herself. They hadn’t been able to see her clearly when she was standing at the edge of the road. She was young, but attractive and quite prepossessing. Her cheeks so soft, you’d think she lived only on fruit, thought Nadeem. Perhaps the others thought so, too.
The woman felt in the pocket of her overcoat, as if checking for something, and then she drew the coat closer around her. Without looking back, she said softly, in English, "Thank you." And immediately, as though it was an afterthought, she added in Urdu, "I am deeply grateful to all of you."
The road was flanked by fields. In the darkness that spread around them, it was impossible to tell what crops they bore. The jeep reached the forest department check-post and slowed down. The guard stood in their way, shading his eyes from the glare of the headlights. He recognised the jeep and raised the barrier. When they were past the gate, Asif said, "Nadeem, stop for a bit."
"You’re always doing this. Is it the fragrance thing?" Dr Waqar asked.
"Yes," Asif answered in a low voice.
When the jeep stopped, Asif got out and Dr Waqar followed. The air that blew in through the open door seemed to be from another planet. They were truly in the jungle now.
Asif and Dr Waqar leaned against the jeep, puffing hurriedly on their cigarettes. Nadeem opened his door too, looked out at the jungle crouched in the darkness and breathed deeply, trying to catch the unique fragrance of its air. He thought he could smell leaves the size of elephant’s ears and various grasses, mingled with the animal smell of the countless creatures who live in the jungle.
His eyes were useless in the dark. The presence of the jungle was sensed through the nose. The deep silence that filled the darkness seemed to be utterly meaningless one moment and full of significance the next. In that dark silence, listening to the dreamy chirp of a bird or the sound of an animal grazing — or perhaps in flight — he would suddenly see a flash of light. Sometimes, sound becomes bright light.
The child was looking at all this, with indifference at first, then with a certain interest and, finally, with total concentration.
At times sound becomes light, Nadeem thought. Could light, then, become sound? He wanted to take this line of thought to its logical conclusion. Meanwhile, Dr Waqar got in and declared, "What a beautiful, tranquil jungle. And there’s this brute of a mad elephant that’s made so much trouble."
At the mention of the mad elephant, the woman and the child shifted in their seats. "What pleasure it was, Waqar-bhai, when you people used to come and stay in the jungle for days. Go any which way, there was no danger. Just last season, we walked from the range office to Gerwandi on a moonlit night, lay there on the sands and watched the antelopes. What fun it was," Rashid mused.
"After Monday, the very sun cannot enter the jungle," Ramesh broke in from the back.
Nadeem shut the door and switched on the engine. He noticed that the child was clinging tightly to the woman. He was very silent, but seemed to be crying. "What’s the matter," he asked the child, though he looked at the woman.
"He is frightened by talk about the elephant," she said, drawing the child to herself and holding him more tightly. "Has an elephant turned rogue here?"
"Yes, one of them has turned rogue over the last few years. We are hunting him."
The child clung to the waist of the woman and turned his face towards Nadeem, listening intently.
By the time they reached the ranger’s office, Nadeem had told the woman that the rogue elephant had claimed innocent lives, that it had a broken tusk and a gory mark on its back, inflicted by a villager’s bullet. The district forest officer had reported the matter to the chief wildlife officer and had the elephant declared a rogue, he said, and Dr Waqar and Asif now had a permit to kill him. Earlier, there had only been stray incidents, but then the rogue had run amok. Then the people asked for help and the matter moved from the village assembly to the block level. The issue was raised in the provincial assembly. But matters relating to the forest and wildlife involve the central government as well, and the issue was energetically debated several times in Parliament.
The woman didn’t understand why the elephant hadn’t been killed yet. Nadeem explained that when the trouble began, it had been difficult to identify the rogue elephant in the herd. And then there was the usual delay in the working of the government and the bureaucracy. And in such a large territory…
The range office was quite far away, there was time to kill and the woman was attractive, so Nadeem explained the situation in much detail. There were many limitations in the working of government, he said. Therefore, at times, for the sake of convenience, they delegate responsibility to private organisations or individuals. For example, in the present instance, the permit to kill the rogue elephant was in the name of the DFO-sahib, but the fact that he was a government official did not make him uniquely suitable for the job. All the big noises in government were aware that the permit was, in fact, intended for Dr Waqar and Asif-bhai, though it was formally in the DFO-sahib’s name.
In the course of the conversation, the woman told Nadeem — and this was evidently meant for the others as well — that she has been living in Canada for ten years; her husband was a doctor there. Every other year, she came to Lucknow to see her mother. Raju had been just a year old when she moved to Canada, and now he was in the sixth class. She could have gone to Barauli village in Bahraich district on her own, she said, but her mother did not think it right for her to travel so far alone. So her mother had sent the ‘man’ along for her protection. She looked at her nephew lovingly and smiled. Raju smiled too, despite his fear of the mad elephant. He was, perhaps, even a little bashful. The woman also said that her mother had insisted that they return home by evening, because of the way things were in the area these days…
The woman was forced to fall silent at this point, because Dr Waqar had begun talking loudly to Ramesh on some irrelevant issue. Ramesh, however, agreed that ever since the disturbance in the Terai region, he has also been avoiding the highway at night. Just last Sunday in Pilibhit, near Puranpur, a bus was stopped and…
The woman tried to keep the child occupied, constantly talking to him. To make it easier for her, Nadeem tried to win Raju’s confidence. As he gained Raju’s trust, the woman seemed to relax. This evidently enthused him, and he kept talking to the child.
"One needs many rifles to kill the dangerous elephant."
"Do you have a rifle?"
"I do, and I have two guns as well. But the cartridges of guns don’t make much impression on an elephant. We need rifles of bigger bore."
"Are there different kinds of rifles?" the boy asked.
"Yes. Rifles are differentiated on the basis of the weight of the bullet and the speed at which it travels — like 30 Springfield, 315 carbine…"
Rashid, sitting at the back of the jeep, realised that although Nadeem was carrying on a conversation with the boy, he was really talking to the woman, perhaps trying to impress her. Nadeem was saying, "The rifle we are carrying to kill the elephant is a 375 Maxim. The proportion of the weight of its bullet to its speed has no match in the world."
"What is proportion?" the boy asked.
"Proportion? Proportion… that’s ratio."
"But ratio is in arithmetic," the boy said.
"That same thing is to be found in other things as well, my dear chap." Nadeem, unable to explain the matter satisfactorily, was getting shaky.
"What if the rifle jams when you’re shooting the elephant, what then?" the boy asked.
"Speak of good omens, my friend," Asif intervened.
"In that situation, we’d fire at the elephant with our guns and drive it away," Nadeem said.
"What if it doesn’t run away?"
"Then we can light several fires and make it pack off."
"Is it afraid of fire?" the boy asked.
"It is afraid of lights in the night," Rashid said, before Nadeem could answer.
"Do you have something to light a fire with?" the boy asked.
"Yes sir, we have this," Dr Waqar smiled. He waved his matchbox at the boy, took out a cigarette and lit it.
For a long time, Raju stared at that matchbox.
Syed Mohammad Ashraf is one of India’s most promising Urdu short story writers. This story, written in the aftermath of the sectarian violence following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, has received wide acclaim. Ashraf is income tax commissioner at Aligarh