Syed Mohammad Ashraf
They stood in silence for a long time after the range officer had left. The crackling of the fire was the only sound. "The fact is," Dr Waqar said, looking into the fire and warming his hands, "nowadays everywhere… that is, in every locality… among all people…" After a few minutes of silence, he said again, "We have to begin, in the name of God, the work we have come to do. Come, let’s get into the jeep."
Dr Waqar sat in front with Nadeem. Asif, the woman, Raju and Rashid sat in the back seat, and Ramesh took a seat at the very rear of the jeep.
Rashid noticed how the woman was looking at Ramesh and his gun and began to smile. The smile had not quite broadened when it turned into a frown. He, too, began to steal glances at Ramesh and his gun.
Asif remembered that when he heard of the attack on the range officer’s wife and children, Ramesh’s face had changed colour and hardened. Then he recalled that one of the staff at the ranger’s office had muttered to Ramesh that in the Bijnor area, there were "those kinds of clashes" as well. Had one of the ranger’s staffers said it, or was it Nadeem, or the Yadavs? The Yadavs had not said it. Only I thought so. Or maybe I said it. Asif’s mind stopped working. The jeep roared to life.
Dr Waqar loaded his magazine. Pulled the bolt back and levered a shell into the breech. Kept the rifle ready at hand and sat alert. Asif loaded his gun with cartridges and sat leaning against the window. Rashid loaded one of the rifles and sat back firmly against the window.
"None of you should make a sound. The elephant’s ears are sharp," Dr Waqar said in a low voice.
"The spot is still far way," Nadeem said.
"Even so, what’s the harm in being silent?"
Nadeem picked up a cloth from the dashboard and wiped the windshield, but the mist was on the outside of the glass. He turned on the wiper. The wiper-blade swept fast across the glass, and then it became apparent that the inside of the glass was misted over as well. Outside, everything was shrouded in mist, except where the headlights bored through it.
"If we roll down the windows, the mist inside will clear up," Nadeem said.
"No, we can’t do that. I mean, it would be dangerous," Dr Waqar said in a low voice.
"Then the glass will keep misting up on the inside. You won’t be able to look out," Rashid concluded.
"We’ll have to live with that," Dr Waqar declared.
Asif looked around and said, "You can’t see anything through the door-panes or the back-pane."
"There is no light on this side. That is, there are no headlights," Rashid said.
"There will be more mist as we go on," muttered Nadeem.
"Nadeem, keep the wiper on," Dr Waqar advised.
"If I do that, the battery will go flat," Nadeem protested.
They drove slowly. In the glow of the headlights, the mist formed smoky circles. Nothing was clearly visible in the jungle flanking the path.
"Is that a cheetal there," Nadeem asked Dr Waqar, looking hard at the path ahead.
Dr Waqar looked closely and said, "It’s a rabbit, my friend. In the mist, everything looks larger than it is."
The rabbit stopped in its tracks at the noise of the approaching jeep. When the headlights shone on its eyes, two blue bulbs lit up in its head.
"Hey, look how its eyes are shining!" Raju blurted out.
"Keep quiet… Quiet," Dr Waqar scolded him. Then he turned back and patted him.
And at that moment, Ramesh realised that apart from Raju, every person sitting in the van was looking strangely at him. He carefully looked them over, one by one.
Then everyone, apart from Raju, realised that Ramesh was looking strangely at all of them. It was dark inside the van, but his eyes seemed to pierce it effortlessly. Apart from Raju, every one of them was uneasy.
Raju looked up and asked in a low voice, "Aunty, who killed the darogaji’s wife and children?"
Nadeem hit the breaks. The jeep stopped with a jolt. He switched off the lights.
"The rogue is right in front of us." He could not utter another word.
Cold waves of fear cascaded down their bodies.
"On which side is it?" Dr Waqar asked, taking off the safety of the rifle, in such a low voice that he was not sure that Nadeem had heard him.
"Moving from the right edge of the path towards the left, maybe. Or perhaps it was coming along the right — or the left — side of the path," Nadeem said.
"Nadeem, lights… How else can we see it?" Dr Waqar asked.
Nadeem was about to turn the lights on when Ramesh said impatiently, "It’s at the back. Very close to the jeep."
Everyone turned back to look. Something stood in the dark path.
Suddenly Asif reached out and squeezed Dr Waqar’s shoulder. "It is here. Near my window. Absolutely close," he said.
Everyone looked through that window and sensed something hazy standing there. Their hearts raced.
"It has put its trunk on the window here," Rashid whispered.
Everyone sensed something hovering outside the window on Rashid’s side.
Nadeem signalled for everyone to be absolutely quiet. He whispered and pointed, "The rogue on my side is standing there, I think."
"Can you see it clearly? Can you take aim and fire?" Dr Waqar asked.
"Not very clearly. The glass is very misty. Shall I roll it down?"
"No, don’t… Absolutely not! If you do that, it will hear every breath we take."
The woman looked at the boy’s face, which had turned white with terror. He was twisting and trying to look through all the windows even as he buried his face in the woman’s clothes. She closed her eyes and wiped the cold sweat from her face.
"It is moving very slowly towards us," Ramesh said in a frightened voice. He pressed his nose to the window glass and sat still in that position. Asif and Rashid, too, looked through the window on their side, and said the same thing.
Dr Waqar said in a voice full of fear and confusion, "Just check which one has a broken tusk. The rogue is the one with the broken tusk. That one alone is dangerous."
Everyone stared hard through the darkness, and said that the elephant on their side had a broken tusk.
"Are there many rogue elephants?" Dr Waqar asked, as though musing to himself. Then he looked questioningly at the woman, who had just managed, in complete dread, to glance outside. She nodded, her eyes dilated in fear. He felt a knock on his window, or was it his heart beating, or only the butt of the rifle brushing against his shoes? He looked out into the thick darkness outside his window glass.
In the darkness, he saw the elephant’s maddened eyes, a broken tusk, a trunk raised in the air.
He said in a dying voice, "There will be no firing. We shall not be able to kill so many of them. The jeep is surrounded on all sides by rogues. Because the glass is up, they can’t hear us. Or they would have trampled us in no time."
"So what shall we do now?" Nadeem asked, his voice weak and subdued.
Everyone felt a nameless fear, mingled with shame.
"We can wait for daybreak," the woman said slowly, her voice choking.
They would have felt reassured at this, had the boy not taken something out of his pocket, clenched it in his fist and then fallen unconscious…
Nadeem didn’t look at the others. He turned around, stretched his hand out and opened the boy’s closed fist. And saw it. He thought for a moment, closed the boy’s fist again, turned away. Like all the others, he bent his head and waited in silence for daylight. tlm
Translated from the Urdu story ‘Rogue’ (1993) by Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr with TLM
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