He imagined he was chasing a plump deer. In the last two days he failed twice. He could not afford to fail anymore. He gathered speed. The distance between the running deer and himself was rapidly decreasing, and at the precisely timed moment he leapt and caught the deer by the throat. Only a few seconds, and then unable to breathe at all, the deer died. And effortlessly he carried the robust deer, which ten men could barely lift, into a thicket a kilometer away. It took him two days to eat up the deer. Ah, what a satiety!
He opened his eyes and the hunger that he had been trying to ignore for so long gnawed at him. When he killed that deer—how long ago- how many weeks, how many fortnights or how many months ago-- he could not recollect.
Something moved in the water and he stood alert. A big snake just quickly slithered past the mound on which he was standing.
Water was everywhere-murky, cold, smelly water, as cold as melting ice. The sky was cloudy. It could rain again. If water rose further, it would be impossible to stay there. Was it yesterday or day before yesterday—ah, hunger made him forgetful--that day he swam and swam till he reached this mound on the other side of the bamboo grove near the deserted village. There was a small jungle on his right. Once he waited there for a number of days for some hunt. Now not a single tree could be found there. Men have felled all the trees. There wasn’t even a thicket to hide. He couldn’t go towards the hills. Who knows where his mortal enemy waits patiently for him. How could he have tolerated his enemy’s trespassing into his territory? He had to fight for his existence and for his rights. The battle was inconclusive. But now he knew he had reached the border of the enemy territory. He could have felt secure if he could just cross the road that was as smooth as a snake’s skin, and then disappear into the hills. But to do so would mean inviting his enemy to a mortal combat for which he was not ready. So he had to take the opposite direction. But where would he go through this sea? He listened to the roar of water, got tired, and fell asleep. But hunger woke him up again. A few crows cawed and flew over his head. They were lucky. They were never in want of food.
He fell asleep once more. He woke as a shower of light rain wetted his body and he felt cold. Strange-water had risen so much during this brief period. Was it really a little time, or hours and days have already passed without his knowing about it?
Water rose so imperceptibly to touch the roots of the tree under which he was resting. The ground surrounding the tree began to erode and the tree began to tilt towards the rushing water. He couldn’t stay there any longer. He strode towards the muddy, cool water and began to swim.
He could not see a boat quietly moving through water behind the rows and rows of submerged houses of the abandoned village. His ever-alert, probing vision was clouded. He could easily pick up a little rustle of fallen leaves from a distance. But the constant roar of the water subdued the little sounds made by the row-boat. Wind was blowing away from him. So the three men on the boat did not have to worry much. Hiding behind the submerged houses and groves of bamboos they followed him at a convenient distance. They had to be very careful. They were aware of his sharp vision and hearing.
Suddenly it grew very dark. Yet he could locate the sandbank that looked like a lonely island on a vast sea. It was here a long time ago that he had to kill a she-goat because of hunger. Hunger! The men were sitting around a fire, talking, and he snatched the opportunity. He had no regrets. Those men would stealthily enter his forest, fell trees, catch fish, and kill deer….ah, deer.
But water was rising fast, submerging the plants and thickets of the sandbank. He could not find shelter there. He kept on swimming. There was a little cove near the hill on the other bank. There was a little forest of tall teak and other varieties of trees. And there was a patch of grassland too. Who knew he could find a young rhino or a few deer there. He went on swimming steadily.
The sandbank was familiar to the three of them. Last year they spent a night there before crossing the river to enter the game sanctuary. They allowed the boat to drift past the sandbank. They half-expected him to take shelter amidst the thickets there. They had already come a long way. What would they do now, go back, or make a last attempt?
The wide river got widened to about double its normal width. During winter it did not take him much time to cross to the other side. He had been swimming for quite sometime now, yet the other bank appeared to be so far off. Had he made a mistake? He turned towards left and swam leisurely. It was not so dark now. He realized that morning was approaching.
Two of them had to row with all their might to cross the main current of the river. They had to steer the boat carefully amidst the logs of wood floating in the water. They increased the speed. They could guess that he must be aiming for that cove. But any move to turn towards the cove would land him in trouble. The strong undercurrent would just push him away. They could surmise where he might land up but could never be sure. They steered the boat towards their left and then aimed straight at the opposite bank. The darkness on the other bank was getting lighter. They would have to hurry.
The contours of the plants and trees emerged through darkness. So he had finally reached the bank. His heavy body almost sank into the silt. He had to use all his strength and skill to maneuver his body out of the silt and jump onto a dry spot. It was not morning yet. He was disheartened to find that he had moved towards west, away from that familiar cove.
This might be the last chance. If he managed to climb the high bank it would be impossible to follow him. They tied their boat to a strong creeper, and he raised his gun. He was an experienced hunter, his hands did not shake.
Something fell near his leg with a thud. Some mud got scattered. Then something whistled past his right ear. He knew he could not delay even for a moment. With a long stride he landed on what appeared to be a smooth road and walked on. He went straight. Some familiar stink attacked his nose. He was a little confused.
Out of the dim light suddenly something appeared before his eyes. He stopped for a while. Then he heard a strange sound, then another, and then he saw a few men standing in a semi-circle with long pole-like things in their hands. He took a step forward, looked up at the sky and roared. That primitive roar shook the houses, the earth, and pierced the morning sky.
The three of them heard that angry roar. They knew it was time to leave. He was beyond their reach. It was impossible to stalk him without endangering themselves. The man with the gun hurried back to the boat.
There were rows of houses on both sides of the road. The houses were surrounded by concrete walls. A few trees stood here and there. There was no thicket nor was there any semblance of a jungle nearby. He looked around. He saw a little grove and an unprotected, abandoned house, a hut rather. He leapt into the house. He sat down on the cool floor amidst darkness.
Some human sounds which he didn’t understand came from a distance. He didn’t know whether those were sounds of distress or terror. Gradually all those became blurred, they could not penetrate his consciousness any longer. Fatigue weighed him down and his eyelids snapped shut.
He started. As he prepared to leap through the air something hit him. He heard some strange sound, and once more something hit him. He roared with all his strength, and instantly tumbled down on the ground.
He did not know how they cut through the thin bamboo wall and pulled his beautiful body like a carcass, how a dozen men pushed and pulled and lifted him on to a truck, pushed him into a huge cage. Carrying him like a plump, sleeping child, the truck moved on through the crowded roads, through thickly populated villages and towns, skirting silent forests, climbing squatting hills, moved on towards the jungle of men.
He opened his eyes and a familiar smell wafted across to him—food! Food! He hungrily gulped it down. It took him a long time to douse the fire in his stomach and quench his thirst. He stood up and moved round. There was no green grass, no thorny plants, no shady trees around him—only cool and unyielding iron bars. He pulled and pushed. Only some metallic sounds struck his ears. A little away stood groups of men, staring at him-beyond them, beyond everything the greenery, the rows of trees, and more men. He roared in anger-once, twice, and many more times. The faces disappeared. Helpless, he sat down, wondering where were those familiar forests, where was that tiny river and that mighty river, where were the grasses, tall and green and waving ever so slowly in the breeze.
The day was over, night descended, and then there was morning. He roared, sat down exhausted, he gulped down whatever was given. He knew he had to gather strength quietly, make himself bigger and stronger, he had to smash through these iron bars—some day.
Translated from Assamese by the author. The original story “Bondi” (captive) was published in the author’s collection of short stories “Xapon xapon Khela” (Play dream a dream), Guwahati:Bani Mandir, 2011,69-73. ISBN :978-93-81064-15-3.
About the author-translator:
(A leading short story writer, novelist, critic and translator of Assamese, Madan Sarma (who writes in English as Madan M.Sarma) has published five collections of short stories. Dr. Madan Sarma is Professor, Dept of English and Foreign Languages, Tezpur University. He can be reached at - firstname.lastname@example.org)