Someone called out from behind: Hooeey Sudas! Where’re you goin pal? He didn’t look back. The dead body still hung from that tree branch, feet bound, head downwards. Blood poured steadily from the nose and had dripped and wet the place. He saw the wizened-old bird sitting in its cage. It tested the iron mesh with its beak. Every once in a while it fluttered its wings and screeched: Sudas! Hooeey Sudas! Where’re you goin pal?
He had stolen the dagger from his friend’s house. It belonged to an earlier age. Sheathed in a purple muslin case, the dagger’s grip was of ivory, shaped like a horse’s head. Every now and then, making sure no one was around, he felt its sharp edge. Jackals howled from the clearings between the trees and shrubs in the dark night. He heard his mother say: Why do you look so worried Sudas? Startled, he replied: Where? Not at all! He ran, with the dagger concealed in his pocket. He ran through fields, banks, woods and forests, until he finally reached Kasim Mia’s stable. He stood panting. The cage swayed with the bird’s fluttering. It cried out: Sudas! Hooeey Sudas! Where’re you goin pal?
Kasim Miya’s stable was deserted. The horse carriage trade didn’t quite exist any more. Stroking his grey-streaked beard he said: The city now wants motor cars, we’re done for, and together with us this trade will come to an end… Do you know young master, what a grand thing this double carriage used to be! It was a matter of pride for the masters. Fluttering the pleats of their dhotis, fragrant with attar, the masters and mistresses used to go out for a spin …, and now … Kasim Miya lamented, and absent-mindedly stroked his beard. Strewn all around him were the parts, relics and broken wheels of forsaken carriages. In one corner, like a lone symbol, a horse, blinkers over its eyes, chewed grass from the mouth-bag hung on its neck. Every now and then it stamped its feet on the wooden floor, every once in a while it neighed, Aayn-han-han-han!, as if to register its protest against something.
Blood dripped from the body hanging on the tree and wet the place. As kids, some people used to kill tomcats like this. They’d tie a rope round its neck and hang it from a banana tree. It would cry and mew all night as it tried to free itself. The cat would be dead the next morning. A group of them would go in the morning to see the dead cat. By mid-morning, thousands of big black ants would have trooped in and devoured its eyes. At night fireflies could be seen glowing around the dead body.
Sudas panted. Kasim Miya was saying something: What’s happened to you little master, why are you panting like this? Pressing his hand over his pocket he replied: No, nothing’s happened. He said: Do you know Kasim uncle, a wild animal’s possessed me, and it’s completely restless. Right here - and he pointed to the centre of his chest. He continued: Beyond the road, on the creek-side, I saw a dark-skinned, lanky man roaming around, creeping on all fours. He was going around sniffing the dirty places at the creek-side. Kasim Miya replied: What’s new about that little master, the people on the other side have declared war, they say, we want means to work and survive, we want to live with dignity.
The stable-bound horse, ribs protruding, eyes blinkered, stamped its hooves on the wooden floor. Every once in a while it neighed, Aayn-han-han-han! An eerie sound, as if it was protesting against something. The sound startled Sudas. He gripped the dagger concealed inside his pocket. Sudas had no desire to steal the dagger. But as he stood amidst the old knives, daggers and swords laid out inside the room, somehow something happened to him. His heart beating fast, he was about to run from there when he saw a huge buffalo head with the horns raised; and to his right, a complete tiger-skin with the head frozen in a snarl. Kasim Miya was an old man. He puffed at a bidi. Outside, the darkness thickened and in that darkness Kasim gazed vacantly.
He felt very uneasy in the semi-darkness. Absent-mindedly, haphazardly, he cleared woods and forests. He saw humans and dogs ferreting for food from the same garbage bin. The bird called out. It fluttered its wings and screeched: What’ll you do with this dagger Sudas? Return it! Return it! He didn’t know what he’d do with it. He had kept going, leaving behind all the people, settlements and trees. The weapon was held firmly in his pocket. Every once in a while he took it out and examined it. He gazed at its purple muslin case, embroidered over in red and green. He drew it out with its ivory grip.
With the horse’s eerie neigh, Aayn-han-han-han!, the silence of night was shattered. It almost fell out of his hand. He said: what will I do with this? I didn’t want things to turn out this way. He looked in all directions to see if anyone caught him unawares, and then he hurriedly concealed it inside his pocket.
Two youths with serious faces emerged from somewhere and said: What’ll you do with that Sudas? Give it to us. He held it firmly in his grip. Grave–faced, they returned to the dark lake-side in the same way they had emerged from the darkness. Only the fireflies glowed dimly. Jackals howled from somewhere faraway. Blood dripped steadily from the nose of that dead body hanging upside-down on the tree. Big black ants gathered there.
The long country road snaked away past the creek in the dim moonlight. Every now and then the muffled sound of someone crying floated by. And sometimes the sound of someone laughing. As he went along the red-brick road in twilight’s darkness, passing cyclists cried out: Where’s it you’re headed in this darkness towards the desolate ruins of the fortress Sudas? Startled, Sudas said: No, nowhere at all.
Kasim Miya stroked his beard. His emaciated horse, blinkered, chewed away at the grass from its mouth-bag. He said gravely: The times are frightful young master … be careful where you go. Don’t go near the lake after dark. Why, what’s happened there? Oh nothing at all. Kasim Miya seemed to be withholding something, as if he wasn’t bold enough to say it. He saw his bird fluttering its wings in the cage. It didn’t eat the grains given it. He saw the old beggar woman sitting at the station with her hands laid out in the hope of alms. He saw the cunning jackal with the stolen hen swiftly slipping away from the homestead light into the brown darkness.
As his throat was parched, he went towards the lake’s ghat for a drink of water. The moon rose in the east over the Radha-Govind temple. He saw the reflection of the moon in the lake’s water. Gazing at this, he wondered whether he should throw the dagger away into the water … that would bring matters to a close, won’t be troubled any more. But he held on to it as if to dear life. He didn’t throw it away. That ancient engraved dagger’s blade gleamed in the moonlight. He said: How can I throw this away when I’m the one who’s brought it in the first place! But soon enough he began to wonder what he’d do with this.
At Romen Deb’s house, there were many daggers like this laid out on the walls of the drawing-room, including several much larger than this one. There were so many kinds of guns and pistols. Romen’s father, twirling his moustache explained: All these are so old, had been used in war. History, full of history!
Standing beside the lake and looking at the moonlit water, he wondered why he took it. Why? Crickets chirped. The entire lake-bank was redolent with the fragrance of mango and bel. The steps going down to the water were old and completely run-down. Tramping over dry leaves he emerged.
From its cage, his pet bird kept calling from behind: Hooeey Sudas! Where’re you goin pal? Hooeey Sudas! Mother asked: Why’re you so late Sudas? Just like that, I was sitting at the lake-side. Do you know Ma, nowadays some people come there, a band of them, to hear the blue-throated cuckoo’s cry. They have dry blood on their hands, red and blue feathers on their head. You’re full of trouble! Don’t be going there! Why Ma? After a pause, peering into his face and his eyes, she said: You appear kind of strange today Sudas. He then replied: That’s not surprising Ma, for I saw humans and dogs ferreting for food from the same garbage-bin. He then showed his mother the place wet with blood, where blood had been dripping endlessly through the nose of the dead body.
The horse neighed in Kasim Miya’s stable, Aayn-han-han-han! Kasim just sat in the darkness, swatting mosquitoes, puffing a bidi once in a while. He said: All those days are gone little master. Won’t come back! Used to gallop, clip-clop! clip-clop! with the master and mistress along the road going to the old fort, the people walking on the road would step aside. Master’s double-carriage! Stand aside! Stand aside! I’ll be gone, and with me everything’ll be over.
Sudas just couldn’t sleep at night. He heard someone whispering at the window: What’ll you do with that Sudas? Give it, give it to us! He had hidden it, buried it under the mango tree at the lakeside. He thought, now I’m at peace! No one will find it. In the middle of the night he saw a few jackals digging up the place in search of the dead body. He ran out, and screaming out he hurled stones and chased away the jackals. Their eyes like burning coals, the jackals hovered nearby, they didn’t go away.
Sudas’ heart thumped. I shouldn’t have taken it. His sleepless eyes scanned the sky and he ran his hand through his dishevelled hair as he roamed the lakeside all night like a madman. He kept seeing the sight of humans and dogs together squabbling and eating bones and remains from the same garbage bin. He heard his mother’s voice from faraway: Don’t go there Sudas, don’t go, Suuuu-daaaa-s! His pet caged bird screeched: Hooeey Sudas!
Ill at ease, Sudas said: Do you know Kasim uncle, I’ve stolen a dagger. And do you know, I don’t know what I’ll do with that! Then, absent-mindedly running his fingers through his hair, he said: I didn’t really want to steal it you know. Don’t know what happened all of a sudden … Do you know, in Romen Deb’s house there are fabulous daggers, swords, guns, tiger skins, buffalo horns, just like in a museum … He felt an ache inside his chest. He turned blue in the face in agony. His muttered words were muffled by the sound of the horse’s neighing, Aayn-han-han-han!, that emanated from Kasim Miya’s stable. Just that one skinny horse in Kasim Miya’s stable, it silently champed on the grass from the mouth-bag. Every now and then it swished its tail, every once in a while it stamped its hooves, thok! thok!, on the wooden floor, every now and then it neighed, Aayn-han-han-han!, as if it wished to convey something. Kasim Miya said: Its time, I’ll go, my horse’ll go too. He threw away the bidi, rose and stroked the protruding ribs on the horse’s flank. He said: Be very careful little master, terrible times now, don’t stray from the road and go to the lakeside!
When he felt the ache in his chest becoming more acute, Sudas stepped out to the road and walked distractedly. A cool breeze blew in the night’s darkness, bringing with it the gentle fragrance of mango and bel. Their eyes glowing like torches, a few jackals hovered around him constantly. They had soaked in the blood dripping from that dead body and returned blood-crazed. He felt awful. And occasionally he felt pleased. Every once in a while he thought he hadn’t wanted all this to happen. Every now and then he remembered those people who had come to hear the cuckoo’s cry. Stale blood staining their hands, they had come to hear a beautiful birdsong.
The whole place was desolate. The moonlight lit up the ruins of the crumbling ancient fort and the undulating, once-royal, red-earth road. He was not at all afraid. He walked along, the dagger pressed in his pocket.
Agitated, absent-minded, he trudged on. Every once in a while he heard the faint cry of his mother, O Sudas! He then tried to bring to mind the following sight: beside the same garbage bin, humans and dogs were fighting over food. Every now and then his pet bird fluttered its wings inside the cage, Hooeey Sudas! Where’re you goin pal? Hooeey Sudas! He wondered where he’d go to ease the pain inside him, where could he go? Every once in a while he remembered Romen’s father’s words: Do you know Sudas, all these knives and daggers, guns and pistols that you see displayed on the wall here had made history at one time. History, full of history!
In Kasim Miya’s stable that solitary symbol-like, emaciated horse, eyes blinkered, occasionally stamped its hooves on the wooden floor and occasionally swished its tail to drive away flies. But nowadays it neighed frequently, Aayn-han-han-han!, as if to declare its protest against something. Puffing on his bidi, Kasim Miya said: Along with you all, our times are also coming to an end little master! Be very careful! Don’t you be going to the lakeside after dark!
After walking for a long time Sudas eventually began to tire. He saw himself walking through an unending confinement of moonlight. Ahead of him lay the ruins of the old fort. He advanced mechanically in that direction. He then remembered the corpse. He felt a constant unbearable pain inside his chest. He decided he would get rid of the troublesome weapon in this desolate moonlight, in the ghostly precincts of this old fort, and leave. After I leave I shall join that band of people, those with dry blood staining their hands, who had come to hear the cuckoo’s call …
Tired, he sat down in the majestic environs of that ancient fort. He recalled Romen’s father saying: History, full of history! He recalled Kasim Miya’s lament: It’ll all end with me, I’ll be dead, and this old horse of mine will be dead too! Tears streamed down from the blinkered eyes of the horse. Kasim stroked its bony side and comforted it.
All the tears and blood came together and became one. Clouds shrouded the moon briefly. Darkness enveloped the stone walls of that ancient fort. Tearing his hair out with his two hands, Sudas screamed out like a madman: I didn’t want this! I didn’t want this! He feebly took out the dagger. As he was about to hurl it into the darkness of the fort, he saw countless hands on the stone walls of that ancient fort. Countless agitated hands had left their individual palm imprints, in syllables of blood.
This is a translation of the original Bengali short story “chhuri” by Subimal Misra, a Bengali writer of India. The story is anthologised in Subimal Misra’s chottrish bochorer rograragri (36 years’ scuffle), published by the author, Calcutta, 2004.
Photo: By Mariano - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=265811