Syed Mohammad Ashraf
The conversation picked up again. The woman told Nadeem that her mother had told her that the district was infested with robbers and thieves these days. That was why she was to get home before nightfall.
Nadeem scoured his memory for all the sensational stories he had read in the English magazines. He said, "We’re often worried about our compatriots living in Canada. We hear and read about how Asians are troubled and humiliated by the arrogant folk there."
He emphasised the word ‘humiliated’ rather more than was necessary. The woman understood that Nadeem was being egregious, but she was in a delicate situation. She began to explain, slowly and patiently, "These incidents are more likely to occur in places like London. In Canada, there are other problems." She spoke of those problems at some length.
Embarrassed, Nadeem changed the subject to the damage a rogue elephant can do. To start with, normal life comes to a stop in its stamping grounds. The labourers who build these dirt roads through the forest run away. The women who come into the forest to clear the leaves keep off. No grass is carted away, for who would risk their lives to cut grass? The honey-collectors stop work. The forest officials had not caught anyone stealing wood from the forest all year. "And above all, even we have not gone poaching!" he said. "We keep wondering from behind which tree, which clump of tall grass the rogue will emerge, with piercing eyes and uplifted trunk, and trample us."
A little before they reached the range office, the headlights shone on a metal plate nailed to a wooden pole. It was inscribed in Hindi: ‘Beware. Elephants pass this way.’
Raju read it too, and drew closer to the woman. Nadeem suddenly turned off the headlights and braked sharply. Everyone looked disconcerted. With the engine switched off, the silence of the jungle became a palpable presence.
"The elephants are crossing the path in front of us," Nadeem said in a hushed voice.
They held their breath and, through the thick darkness, watched the elephants slowly treading their way across the path. There was silence everywhere — both in the jungle and in the jeep.
After a while, Nadeem started the engine and drove very fast until they reached the Nishangarh range office. He stopped the jeep and glanced at the woman and the boy. He told the boy that the rogue elephant had not been in the herd, and that herd elephants are gentle. The rogue is on his own; he keeps away from the herd.
When Raju saw the fire at the range office, with people warming themselves around it, some colour returned to his face. As he got out of the jeep, he asked, "If rogue elephants got together, would they not form a herd?"
He says such odd things, Nadeem thought as he got out and shut the door.
The range officer, in full uniform, was shaking hands with everyone.
"Your child?" he asked Nadeem.
"No, yaar. We met these people at Barauli," and he explained everything to the officer.
"Then it will take a long time. DFO-sahib left for Nepal along the Motipur road. One of our people was caught at the customs post there."
The woman’s face fell.
"I’ll send a wireless message to Lucknow. They’ll let your people know that you’re safe."
"But how do we get her back home?" Dr Waqar asked.
Nadeem said to the woman, "You could rest at the range officer’s house. His wife is a good woman. She thinks of all of us as her brothers."
The woman hesitated, but the range officer announced that his family has left for his in-laws’ home because of the terror created by the rogue elephant. His father-in-law had come and taken his daughter and the grandchildren with him.
So that was how things stood. The ranger’s office, surrounded by barbed wire, comprised the old buildings of the forest office, and was equipped with two motorcycles and a station wagon. In it were the Forest Department staffers, the hunting party, the woman and the boy. In the light of the fire in the compound, they looked like strange creatures. When the fire blazed high, their shadows grew and when it dwindled, they shrank. The jungle surrounded the range office — tall trees wrapped in mist and silence. Near and far, animals led their invisible lives. They drank at watering places, grazed or just stood in herds. Perhaps they were scratching their backs with their long horns or licking their calves and cubs. Or perhaps they were pouncing on their prey or running from one part of the jungle to another, hungry, hunting. The woman was looking at everyone in utter helplessness. She felt that she might break down any moment.
"We’re getting late," Dr Waqar broke the silence. "What is the news today?"
"Oh, yes," the range officer said, stepping forward. "Pug marks were seen today in plot 1955, near the old forest guest house in Motipur block."
"Are you speaking of a tiger hunt today?" Asif asked, smiling.
"Not really. The fact is that everyone is in a state of terror. If they were to confront their fear, they would probably die. All our families have left the range. Ever since the rogue dragged away the watchman and trampled him to death, the panic has spread. You must wipe out this terror today, before you leave."
"Allah is maalik (master)," Dr Waqar said.
"So, what have you decided?" Dr Waqar asked Nadeem and the woman.
Nadeem did not reply. He was lighting a matchstick for Raju and showing him the little flame.
The woman spoke quietly but confidently. "Please inform my family over the wireless, and please take us along with you. Don’t leave us behind at the range office."
"Are you really sure? You have this little boy with you. What if you were frightened by the rogue elephant?"
"What must happen will happen. I am not frightened of wild animals… My wedding service was in an African language… went hunting in Zimbabwe… went there for my honeymoon, actually… we took a permit… I shot a bison myself."
Nadeem was both bewildered and reassured at this.
"But Raju…" Nadeem said.
"He will sit holding on to me," the woman said.
The petrol tank of the jeep was topped up. They sat around the fire. Sandwiches were eaten, tea was drunk and cigarettes lit. The restroom was used. Rifles and guns were checked once again.
"The strategy is still the same. If we can get close enough, we shall use the rifle. Otherwise, we shall fire guns and chase it away. We mustn’t injure it and not kill. There is no saying what it could do then," Dr Waqar said to Asif, Rashid and Nadeem.
Ramesh and the range office staff were busy rubbing away at the heavy mist that had settled on the jeep’s windscreen. It was so cold that the glass quickly misted over again.
"Have you checked the searchlight?" Dr Waqar asked.
"Yes," Ramesh answered as he wrung the cloth.
"This mist will be trouble. If the glass is up, it’ll mist up inside too," Dr Waqar said.
"There’s no solution. Why did it have to be so cold and misty today?" Nadeem grumbled.
A light showed on the dirt road to the range office, and then they heard the slow grunting of a motorcycle engine. It drew up and two men scrambled off. One of them had a gun.
"Who is the ranger-sahib?" asked the unarmed man.
"I am," the range officer said in a frightened voice, and stepped forward. He had been standing by the fire and his forehead was damp with sweat. "Has the rogue struck somewhere?"
"No. There is information from Bijnor that the train compartment in which your father-in-law and family were…" The man’s voice faltered.
The range officer began to cry, shrieking out his children’s names.
Dr Waqar snapped, "Hear out the whole matter. Are there any casualties?"
"We could not get all the information on the phone. The voice was distant and broken," one of them said.
"Was it a robbers’ raid?" the woman asked Nadeem in a troubled voice.
"Don’t know. They are saying that the phone line was not clear."
"Nowadays, there is another kind of trouble as well," Asif said slowly.
"Perhaps it is the Terai issue," Rashid said after some thought.
"The Terai is far from Bijnor, yaar," Nadeem said. "But the real place is nearby."
"What is the point of speculating? You fellows talk too much." Dr Waqar was suddenly belligerent. Everyone looked at him in bewilderment.
He controlled himself and told the range officer, "You take the motorcycle, go to Bahraich, and call someone in Bijnor. Then decide whether you should travel further. Take one of the staffers with you. And don’t drive the motorcycle yourself."
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