fiction

The Hyena Stories

By Sayyid Muhammad Ashraf | 1 April 2013

ABOUT THE STORY One of fiction’s great freedoms lies in the way it makes language not just more meaningful and more allusive than we normally know it to be, but also more new. Sometimes the old words, even in their thousands, are not enough: fiction must invent new words, new sounds. In these harrowing and hallucinatory stories by the Urdu writer Sayyid Muhammad Ashraf, an entire universe of violence, fear, and power is opened out by one strange sound, often repeated: chit-chit. This is the sound ascribed to the hyena who terrifies the child protagonist, Munnu Bhaiya, in the opening story. The power of Ashraf’s fiction lies in how he makes his characters (and readers) hear and fear this sound in our heads long before it actually appears in the world of the story as something real. Imagination trumps reality; the hyena haunts life at every turn.

But then it is captured, which means an end to the family’s affliction—or does it? In the second story, the nightmare world of fancy conjured up by Ashraf turns, as if by the flick of a switch, into a nightmare world of fact. It is not just the hyena, bloodied, beaten, in chains, who must be killed, but also a convict standing helplessly at the house of the Police Captain. The man is at the mercy of his ruthless captors, who want to kill him in a staged encounter revelatory of the feudal structure of the world in which the hyena has been caught. Suddenly, animal and man appear juxtaposed, breathing their last gasps or life. When the bullets ring out, who will be killed—one, both, or neither? Ashraf’s masterly use of detail and management of narrative tension (equalled in English by the translations of Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad) generate, in this pair of stories, contrasting worlds streaked with fear and foreboding: chit-chit, chit-chit.

The Hyena Laughed

THE EARLY MORNING LOOMED OUTSIDE the half-dark windows, and a cold, sharp wind blew. Inside the room felt claustrophobic, and the dull blue glow of a light bulb cast a frightening and mysterious hue over everything. Except for Munnu Bhaiya, the family lay awake beneath their blankets. They knew that Munnu Bhaiya was the only one asleep, and yet each was silenced by the conscious fear that despite being in the same room everyone felt far away.

Their hearts raced, and they felt as though something was inching up their throats.

“Do we really have to take Munnu Bhaiya to the zoo to see the hyena?” Badi Bahin asked Mataji in a strange, halting voice.

Everyone shivered. Badi Bahin’s voice echoed for a moment in the hollows of the blue-tinged darkness, and the family’s racing heartbeats could almost be heard in the few seconds of silence that followed.

Mataji turned over to look in Badi Bahin’s direction, and she felt the room constrict yet further. Outside the wind grew stronger and stronger. She looked deeply into Badi Bahin’s frightened eyes.

“Yes, of course I’m going to take Munnu to the forest to see the hyena,” she replied in a hollow voice.

“Not the forest, Ma … Ma, are you awake? Do you hear something?” Badi Bahin said, as though choking on something.

“Go back to sleep, dear. You’re half asleep. Go back to sleep. It’s late.”

Pitaji, Bhaiya, and Chhoti Bahin heard all this; they knew that Badi Bahin’s questions weren’t the jabbering of someone half asleep. Mataji too knew that these questions weren’t foolish ones, and yet no one wanted to press Mataji because they didn’t want to hear her answers. Even Badi Bahin, after asking the question, held her breath, praying that Mataji would remain silent.

Outside the wind blew against the house, and suddenly everyone remembered the terrifying noise—chit-chit … chit-chit … chit-chit.

Their hearts beat so ferociously that they feared they might explode. It seemed as though a shadow was passing through the half-dark room. Holding their breath, they waited for dawn as they lay motionless beneath their blankets. Mataji turned on her side and hugged Munnu Bhaiya to comfort herself, and yet she thought how everything was because of him.

Over the previous two weeks or so, a hyena had been spotted in the countryside on the near side of the railway tracks. Everyone was afraid. Every few days came reports of new incidents. When Munnu Bhaiya learned that hyenas loved to eat little children, his fear took hold of him. He had never seen a hyena, not even a picture of one, but had heard about them. As their every mention was linked to the death of some innocent child, he was rightfully terrified of his imaginary foe.

New reports had come that very evening that a hyena had made off with another child. Munnu’s face suddenly turned ashen white. He refused to leave the house. He paced back and forth anxiously between the courtyard and the living room. Akhtar Bhai, a friend of Bhaiya’s, came by after dark and in an effort to comfort him said that he would tell the hyena not to come around there. Munnu Bhaiya was only eleven or twelve, and yet he wasn’t courageous enough to ask whether a hyena could talk; but thinking that a hyena could talk, he became that much more scared. He thought that hyenas were indeed strange and special. He had no idea what they really looked like, but his friends had said they were as tall as walls, and nothing could stop them from snatching children.

Mataji and Father had explained that a hyena is like a dog but wild. No one—not Bhaiya, Badi Bahin or Chhoti Bahin—got too much into details because none had seen a hyena.

When it was time for bed, Munnu Bhaiya stuck his cricket bat and a box of matches beneath his mattress because he had learned in the fourth grade that wild animals were scared of fire.

All evening he had imagined strange and fabulous things about hyenas, and so when it came time for him to go to bed these images merged and took on a very terrifying dimension.

Bhaiya got up to check that all the doors were locked. He closed all the windows, advised the neighbours to remain wary then came back to say that there was nothing to worry about. The hyena would soon be caught. That or killed. The neighbourhood was already quite worried. Everyone had made a habit of going inside in the early evening and closing their doors, and they made sure the kids were playing directly within view. Those with houses right next to the railway line were most scared, and that included Munnu Bhaiya’s.

His face contorted by fear, Munnu Bhaiya hugged Mataji. He fell asleep clinging to her. Then once more Father went around to the doors, listened for anything strange, checked to see they were locked then came to bed and lay down.

It was a cold December night, and the wind was blowing hard. Suddenly Munnu Bhaiya’s scream tore through the house. Everyone woke at once.

“What is it, Munnu Bhaiya?” Mataji asked. “What happened? Why did you scream?”

“Ma! Ma!” Munnu Bhaiya buried his head in her lap.

“What happened? Come on, there, dear, tell us what happened.”

“Mom! The hyena … it was standing next to me … it was bending down sniffing me.”

“No, Munnu Bhaiya, you were dreaming.”

Father, Bhaiya, Badi Bahin and Chhoti Bahin went to stand around Mataji’s bed. It looked as though all the blood had drained from Munnu Bhaiya’s face. His eyes were wide with fear, and his lips were completely dry.

“No, Mom, it was the hyena. It was as high as a wall. It bent its long neck down and sniffed me and pricked me with its big horns.”

Everyone’s eyes shined with excitement. Then Father said, “Munnu dear, a hyena isn’t as tall as a wall. It’s like a dog. And since when does it have horns? It was a dream. If you’d remembered to say your prayers …”

“I said all my prayers, Dad, all of them.”

Munnu Bhaiya hid his face in Mataji’s lap and started to cry.

No one could figure out how to reassure Munnu Bhaiya that was simply his imagination that was scaring him.

“Munnu, dear, I’m going to tell you what the hyena is really like so that you won’t be scared anymore,” Mataji said.

Everyone went back to bed. As Mataji told her story, they all chimed in from time to time so that Munnu Bhaiya would know they were awake. The windows and doors tapped lightly on account of the strong wind, and the noise made the night that much more frightening. Ripples of fear ran over their bodies. Munnu Bhaiya sobbed silently. Everyone was awake. In the blue gleam of the light bulb, Mataji told her story in a voice that didn’t seem entirely her own, “Munnu Bhaiya! This hyena … you’re listening, aren’t you? Hyenas, now … hyenas are like dogs but if you saw one with a bunch of dogs you’d be able to spot it. It’s a very jealous and blood-thirsty animal, son. But it’s a coward too.”

Bhaiya let out a long “hmm” to confirm this. Everyone continued to listen with rapt attention.

“It attacks only young and innocent children. It follows you. The devil’s so cunning. You look back and it’s like there’s a friendly dog following you, its head turned down, trudging on, slowly … but as soon as the opportunity arises, if you get distracted, then … then it pounces.”

Mataji felt like her voice no longer sounded right. Munnu Bhaiya could tell that everyone was listening.

“Mom, is there any way to escape it?” Munnu Bhaiya asked in a whisper.

“The best way to save yourself, son, is to be cautious. If you go out at night, don’t stay out late. If you go into the fields, carry a knife or some sort of blade. And the very most important thing is, the very most important thing is, that when it’s getting dark, never assume that a dog is really a dog.”

The listeners pulled their sheets tight.

“When it’s dusk, never assume a dog’s a dog … You think you’re going to be able to protect yourself with a cricket bat and a box of matches? … Don’t be silly! … There was a little boy like you and when the hyena came he stood stock-still. The hyena pounced, ripped open his throat and drank all his blood. The hyena ripped out his intestines. It tore him limb from limb and ate him up like nobody’s business.”

“Ma! Ma!” Munnu Bhaiya squeezed her waist harder.

“Don’t worry. I wanted to tell you about all its tricks so that it’ll never fool you,” Mataji said gravely.

Outside the windows the fog was as thick as smoke. The wind blowing through the dark seemed to be saying something. Inside the cramped room everyone listened.

“Son, I’m telling you all this because hyenas aren’t brave like lions, which attack you from in front. They’re wily creatures. They always come at you from behind. They know that people think they’re dogs and they use this to sneak up from behind, silently waiting for the right moment. If you lose track for a second, then … then … ”

You could have heard a pin drop.

“There’s only one way to recognise one,” Mataji began. “Only one way. When it moves, it makes the noise chit-chit. But people can’t hear this sound when they’re walking. So if you see something silently following you and it looks innocent and friendly like a dog, then stop and listen very closely to see whether it makes the sound chit-chit. But, Munnu Bhaiya, you can’t hear it if you’re walking! And …”

They felt their chests constrict. They could have sworn that at that very moment they had heard the sound chit-chit coming from outside.

“Mom, will you show me a hyena?” Munnu Bhaiya asked, now half asleep.

“Yes, yes. The next time we go to Lucknow we’ll go to the zoo. Now go to sleep, dear, the night’s almost over.”

Mataji fell silent. Munnu Bhaiya was already asleep, and yet everyone could still hear the reverberations of her story.

At dusk, it looks like a dog … It acts loyal following you, but the devil’s cunning … Before you know it, it’s clipping your heels, waiting for the right moment … Then it pounces! … Jealous and crafty … Very crafty … Never attacks from in front … It acts just like a loyal dog …  It gets so close! … Just as soon as it can, it pounces!

Underneath the dim blue light, they lay awake wondering why they had forgotten to reassure Munnu. They lay suspended in thought as the horizon lightened, and suddenly it felt as though a light was shining into the room. Something flashed in Badi Bahin’s mind. Then she realised the reason for their perplexity and fear. She looked around. Only Munnu Bhaiya was asleep; everyone else was pretending. The blue light cast its strange spell over everyone, and the wind tapped against the shutters.

Then Badi Bahin asked in a halting, haunted voice, “Do we have to go to the zoo to show Munnu Bhaiya the hyena?”

Everyone had the same question in mind. And yet why?

It was inevitable that it should come to this. But then Mataji told Badi Bahin to go to sleep, and they felt as though the sound chit-chitchit-chit … was beginning to echo through their minds. It wasn’t outside at all, but inside their heads.

The night ended, and the day began in activity. Everyone got up feeling as though the sounds of the previous night remained nearby. When people set about their chores, they felt something amiss. Time and again they heard a mysterious sound … chit-chit chit-chit … emanating from somewhere, as though a hyena was on the prowl very close by. On the way to work, Father and Bhaiya heard this sound from time to time. The events of the night shone brightly in their eyes. As soon as they heard the dreaded sound, they anxiously turned around. But it would only be a friend standing there. They shook their heads, trying to banish the voices from their heads.

It follows you like a loyal dog … As soon as the moment arises … It pounces! … Never from in front. A jealous, wily creature …

Badi Bahin and Chhoti Bahin went to school. After school their friends were carrying on laughing when suddenly they heard the startling, mysterious sound chit-chit … chit-chit

Terror stricken, they looked at each other, and yet didn’t say anything. What was there to say?

In the evening after everyone got home, they felt an eerie kinship, as when a hospital patient looks around at the others and feels a connection—yes, we’re all helpless, we suffer the same.

No one said anything about what had been oppressing them all day. Everyone hung back as though concealing something. Then the chit-chit returned, searing through their minds.

Father’s friend Khwaja Sahib had come to give him an important piece of business advice and was leaving. Outside darkness had fallen, and Father thought he heard the dreaded sound coming from his friend. When Khwaja Sahib turned to remind him that if he followed his advice, good things were sure to come, it almost seemed to Father that Khwaja Sahib’s eyes had turned bright red and gave off an aura of beastliness, as though, as though …

Father flung himself onto his bed.

A little while later Akhtar Bhai came over. Munnu Bhaiya talked to him at great length about the price of daggers. Then Bhaiya sent Munnu Bhaiya inside and fell to advising his friend, and then Akhtar Bhai too was going on about something for quite a while.

When Chhoti Bahin passed by carrying water, she heard what they were talking about. She stopped. All at once Bhaiya got up and went over to Akhtar Bhai. He stood behind him and leaned down toward his friend’s ear, “If you do it, you won’t regret it. I’m with you 100% on this. After all, friends look out for friends.”

Akhtar Bhai couldn’t see his face, otherwise he would have seen that Bhaiya’s eyes had become quite wild and that his teeth were protruding from his mouth.

After Akhtar Bhai left and Bhaiya was coming in, Chhoti Bahin screamed, “Hyena! Hyena!”

“Where?” Bhaiya asked, coming through the door’s curtain and staring at Chhoti Bahin.

“I don’t know. Were you coming in from the living room? I just heard the noise—chit-chit! Was it you?”

“I don’t know,” Bhaiya said, distracted. “I don’t know. God knows why but today, I swear, I heard that noise coming from my friends’ legs. And just now after Akhtar left, I don’t know if it was my imagination or … or maybe …”

“Bhaiya! Did you? … Do you? …” Chhoti Bahin couldn’t go on.

“Be quiet. Be quiet. Don’t talk about that.”

Munnu Bhaiya insisted on checking all the doors several times with Father and Bhaiya, and then everyone except Munnu Bhaiya started thinking—thinking about their little world, thinking about their friends, thinking about the thousands of people in the surrounding countryside, and thinking about themselves.

Outside the strong winter wind was howling. Beneath the howling wind, everyone was thinking about what had happened—each remembered their own private thoughts hidden like snakes in the fissures of ruins; they felt as though something were crawling over their throats. In this state of self-doubt, they saw that beyond the windows and through the fog there was a forest stretching into the distance in which many dog-like beasts roamed this way and that. Munnu Bhaiya turned quickly in his sleep, screaming, and hearing this, everyone came in. Their hearts beat heavily. It seemed as though the wall clock had suddenly begun to beat out loud—thik-thikthik-thik

The clock’s ticking, the gusts of the wind outside, the sounds of the surrounding forest, and the thumping in their chests all dissolved into one horrifying sound.

Chit-chit … chit-chit

They felt the wilderness outside and the wilderness within. In the room’s wilderness, they thought back to the previous night as they lay in their beds.

“It follows you silently like a dog,” Mataji had said. “As soon as the opportunity presents itself, it pounces, it tears out your guts with its claws, it latches onto your throat and sucks all your blood, it rips you open …”

They kept thinking about their lives; they knew that everyone was awake.

In the distance the watchman’s whistling echoed, and the inauspicious night sighed against the windows.

In the morning Father woke first, and something strange happened: he felt as though the sound chit-chit was coming from his very own legs! He couldn’t believe it. He got up and walked, and yet it was that sound! He looked at Mataji. She was now up and looking at her own feet. “Did you too …?” he asked. “Yes,” Mataji said, as though about to cry. Father looked at her very carefully, and they stood staring at each other for a while.

Then Badi Bahin came timidly up to them. She said that she had heard chit-chit coming from her legs. Mataji looked helplessly at Father and then tried to comfort Badi Bahin, “Dear, it’s your imagination. The truth is that since Munnu Bhaiya brought it up yesterday, the hyena’s been haunting us. It’s nothing more than that.”

Chhoti Bahin remained motionless.

“Nothing more than that?” she asked, staring incredulously at Mataji.

It was Father who answered, looking away, “Yes, nothing more than that, dear. Nothing more than that.”

Chhoti Bahin was about to say something when Bhaiya got up from his bed, took two steps and stopped. He looked at his feet as though listening for something. Then he strode ahead then stopped to listen. Everyone looked at him and then at one another. Silently, he joined the others.

Suddenly a servant came running. Gasping for air, he announced that overnight the hyena had been captured in a neighbouring village and was being taken in shackles to the city. The escort group would be coming through the village at any moment.

Seeing no sign of surprise or pleasure on their faces, the servant looked confused, then turned and left.

They stood silently waiting. Fearfully, they waited. When Munnu Bhaiya awoke, the wait was over. Munnu Bhaiya rushed toward them and asked in a sleep-addled voice, “Why’re you standing around like this? Have you seen the hyena?”

“No, son, they’ve caught the hyena. There’s no reason to be afraid,” Father said.

Then he took Munnu Bhaiya into one of the inner rooms where he plied him with candy.

“Munnu Bhaiya, when you walk, does the sound chit-chit come from your legs?” he asked in a fearful voice.

Surprised, Munnu Bhaiya stood motionless.

“Quick, tell me. Can you hear chit-chit or not? Quickly … ” Father asked full of fear.

“No, Dad. Why’re you asking? Do you think I’m a hyena?”

They heard noise outside. Everyone ran to the windows. The hyena was walking in the middle of a crowd of a couple hundred villagers. A bit was clamped over its muzzle, and shackles dragged from its feet. Its eyes were completely red, and its teeth were trying to sever the leather straps of the bit. Its body was covered in thick welts and blood matted the fur of its front paws.

Who knows why they stole glances at their own hands? They stood with bowed heads. The hyena was passing by. They could clearly hear the sound chit-chit coming from its legs. Villagers trailed, carrying clubs and spears, and the crowd’s passage churned up dust. Then, just as the hyena passed by the window, it stopped. The chit-chit stopped. The crowd flinched in surprise. The dust slowly fell back to the earth. Inside their house, they held their breath. Munnu Bhaiya clung tightly to Mataji’s legs. The crowd outside was dead quiet. The hyena looked in their direction, stared for a moment then let out a tremendous laugh. People thought the animal was trying to gnaw itself out of the bit. A villager lashed out from behind, scoring its back with his club. Full of hatred, he said, “Son-of-a-bitch pretends he’s a dog and then as soon as he can, he pounces!”

Its eyes teared up at the intensity of the blow, but the hyena took the insult and stared at this man.

Then, with its teary eyes, it looked through the window at each member of the family. And then again it unleashed its frightening laugh before it began moving ahead with the crowd—chit-chit … chit-chit ….

Soon after the crowd disappeared, Father came to the front window to see how the dust still lingered, and then beyond the dust Munnu Bhaiya and his friends going off to school, chattering away loudly.

Father had the sensation that Munnu Bhaiya had just stopped to check if there was any noise coming from his legs. Father closed his eyes and prayed that Munnu Bhaiya and his friends never heard chit-chit coming from their legs.

Munnu Bhaiya and his friends disappeared from view, and Father grabbed the iron bars of the windows to look out at the world as it spread beyond the railway tracks. He was lost in thought. When he turned back, the family sat with bowed heads. They looked disappointed with their lives, disappointed and hopeless, almost as though they had heard news that a plague had broken out. They looked at one another in guilty, passing glances. Mataji sighed heavily. Then they got up, their legs echoing chit-chit … chit-chit … as they started their day’s work.

The Hyena Cried

The Police Captain was offering a handsome reward for anyone who brought the hyena in alive. Lost in its greedy stupor, the crowd became so senseless that no one considered that his bungalow was on the forest road far from the villages, and that the hyena might turn wild when it saw the forest. And that’s exactly what happened.

The crowd was just then leading the hyena toward the Police Captain’s, and the walls marking his land could almost be seen when, who knows from where it got the energy, but the hyena stopped. The chains around its neck snapped taut. It began to growl madly through its bit. The man holding the chains put all his strength into dragging the hyena forward. The hyena’s front legs jerked off the ground, but it dug in with its back legs. Its body slid forward several feet, leaving skid marks that looked as though someone had dug into the earth with billy clubs.

Digging in again, the hyena managed to stop. It lifted its front legs, and concentrating all its strength into its back and hips, it leapt. The man lost his tight grip on the chains, which they ripped through the skin of his palms. The crowd screamed. The hyena ran forward, and the chains rattled, sliding over the ground. On the road ahead a police jeep was advancing with its sirens blaring, and behind the hyena stood the clamouring crowd. The hyena stopped dazed for a moment next to the Captain’s gate. Then it lunged at the uniformed policeman standing there, ran through the rose bed, entered the wheat field with its neck raised high and disappeared.

The Captain’s office was connected to his living room, and he sat there looking out the door onto the verandah where an unshaven man wearing kurta pajamas was standing. The man’s face showed the fresh wounds of police batons, and his lips bore many scabs. Two police officers, with rifles slung over their shoulders, stood holding his arms.

The sun had already set, but it wasn’t so dark that the Captain couldn’t see the angst written on the man’s face. He adjusted his posture in his chair. His throat felt suddenly irritated, and he coughed. The Kanchangarhi Station Chief stood on the near side of the man, and the Captain secretly looked him up and down. Then, infusing in his voice the commanding style of an officer, he asked, “How late is head constable Ram Avtar going to be?”

The Station Chief clapped his heels together and stood at attention, holding his fists tightly against his sides. A knowing smile stole across his lips.

“Sir, I told the driver, Drive like the wind and return just as fast. If Divanji isn’t at the station, go to his house. If he’s not in uniform, don’t waste time there—make him put it on in the car. They should be just about here, sir.”

“Humph,” the Captain grunted. He looked beyond the man into the darkness that lay over the fields. When he focused his vision again on the half-dark verandah, he saw that the man was slowly shaking and that tears were streaming down his face. He felt something stick in his throat.

“Are you really sure he’s one of Nayak’s men?” he asked incredulously.

As was his habit, the Station Chief snapped to attention. Now he answered with more confidence, “Don’t worry, sir. We got the right man.” Then he paused to consider. This time he spoke in a whisper, “If he was released, he’d post bail tomorrow. The next day you’d get a telegram about a robbery and how three people were killed in such-n-such village, and then you’d hear it from the Inspector General up above. So, sir, please take it under advisement.”

The Captain thought the Station Chief was telling the truth, and if it were all a lie, he would still be able to come up with something to make it seem true. If the informant’s information was also true that the Station Chief wanted to kill Sham Sundar, the accused man, only because Kanchangarhi’s Village Chief had already given him five thousand rupees to do just that, then what was he supposed to do? The Captain thought … If I release Sham Sundar, there’s no doubt he’ll make bail in a day and the next day the Station Chief will order the murders of the three men in the nearby village of Lalpur for which MLA Mr Ram Dhardas has already promised to pay him ten thousand rupees and to make him the chief of Thakht Station. And then a telegram will come at 3 a.m., and the wireless officer will come into my room, take off his shoes and read the message: “In the village of Lalpur at 2:45 a.m. there was a robbery. Police arrived just in time. Robbers were not able to remove property. In the encounter, robbers killed three villagers. Robbers absconded leaving homemade pistol, and scene littered with empty shells.” And when this message reaches headquarters, the Inspector General will again make a note of my name and during the June transfer period he may send me to some worthless place. There I won’t get such a nice house with land for growing grain, and there won’t be such a big and showy contingent of police there. How am I going to stand the whispered insults and snide glances of my peers?

“What I meant was this,” the Captain said, turning around the chair to sit with his belly against its back. “Does head constable Ram Avtar know how to do it?”

“Sir!” the Station Chief’s voice’s was brimming with confidence because he sensed his superior’s defeat. “Sir, back in the time of the last Police Captain Mr Verma, Divanji Ram Avtar did this five times by himself. He knows how to do things.”

“But is it right to kill the accused, I mean, the bandit, right here on police property?”       “Sir, it’s better to do it here. The case will be made like this: The accused and his gang came to the Police Captain’s at night just when the Station Chief was discussing the murders and robberies going on in his district. The group wanted to find out what the Captain’s orders were going to be, and when they heard the Captain ordering the area cleared, they sprang out from hiding and violently attacked him. Accused members fled. Station Chief and Divan Ram Avtar pursued. Some members got away (guns, spent shells and shoes left in their wake) but the man who tried to kill the Captain, Sham Sundar, alias Shamu, was killed by Divan Ram Avtar in the confrontation.”

The Captain saw that his teeth were sparkling in the dark, as though…

“It’s possible the Inspector General will give a five-hundred-rupee reward to head constable Ram Avtar for his bravery,” the Station Chief said.

The Captain looked at his sparkling teeth, the gloom on the accused man’s face and the darkness that covered the wheat field.

“Have the canvas shoes and homemade revolver been arranged for?”

“Yes, sir. Officer Buldeo has everything.”

Suddenly a jeep rounded the corner. It stopped near the verandah and extinguished its lights.

Divan Ram Avtar, dressed in uniform, stepped out. He walked noisily, looking in the direction of the accused Sham Sundar. Then he stood right in front of the police Captain, clacked his heels and saluted.

“At ease,” the Police Captain said casually.

Ram Avtar relaxed. “There’s a huge crowd outside. The villagers had the hyena, but it escaped and now it’s on your property,” he said.

“Did it jump over the wall?” the Captain asked with surprise.

“No, sir. The watchman said it came in through the main gate.”

“See how courageous it is, sir. It came through the main gate,” the Station Chief said with a wolfish grin.

The Police Captain stopped for a second as he rose from his chair. Then he stood up and said, “I’ll take a look. The crowd can’t get inside.”

“Please, sit, sir,” the Station Chief said. “I’ll take care of the crowd personally.”

“No,” the Captain scolded, as officers do. His position of experience and responsibility had taught him that subordinates don’t mind rough talk, just so long as you don’t take away their money. Even if they do mind, they won’t do anything about it. And being able to speak harshly from time to time does help calm an officer’s ego.

“Get this over with,” the Captain said, looking at the accused.

Hearing this, the accused quaked in fear. The Captain was trying hard to see into his eyes, but his face was hidden in the dim light.

Suddenly he left the room and went outside. At the gate, the watchman had pushed back the crowd. He stood guard, shouting, “Don’t worry. The walls are very high. It won’t get out.”

“Tie his hands and lead him back around the house, Divanji! Load your rifle, officer! Take him to the fields and get him running. Don’t worry. The walls are very high. He won’t get away,” the Station Chief said.

“I’m very happy you all had the courage to capture alive this bloodthirsty hyena,” the Police Captain said, before throwing a glance at the crowd gathered at the gate. He was very pleased they fell silent so quickly; it was as though a curtain of silence had fallen. “Stay quiet. Pick up sticks and line the wall. If the hyena tries to escape, don’t let it. There’s no way the devil can get out now. Spread out a little. Stand a metre away from the wall.”

The crowd came forward to stand in a line outside the wall.

“And look, Ram Avtar Divanji!” the Station Chief said, taking the cork from a bottle of country liquor and handing it to Ram Avtar. “When he’s run ten meters away, fire.” Then he turned. “Officer, take out the canvas shoes. Put them here. And the empty shells and homemade revolver too.”

The accused was dragged along by the policemen. They reached the wheat field’s edge.

“Ram Avtar, don’t let him get into the fields near the house. Be careful,” the Station Chief said.

“Don’t worry, sir. Ram Avtar isn’t dumb. Where’s he going to go?” Ram Avtar said, emptying the bottle, which he stuffed into the nearest policeman’s bag. Then he removed the canvas shoes, empty shells and homemade gun. He threw these over the ground. Divanji Ram Avtar loaded his rifle.

“Now go stand along the property wall, and stay alert,” the Captain shouted to the crowd. Then he whispered to the watchman, “Don’t let the hyena come this way. Make sure. Load your rifle.”

Suddenly a cold breeze sprang up, chilling the Captain’s back, before it disappeared into the wheat field where the hyena was hiding.

The hyena appeared—chit-chit—in a sparse patch of wheat that swayed in the gusts of wind. It had already managed to dislodge its bit by scraping it against a rosebush’s thorns. It stopped and raised its ears, bringing their tips together and then revolving them toward the property walls from where it could hear human voices. Suddenly a rustling sound came from behind. Without changing the position of its body, the hyena swiveled its head. There were two shadows standing nearby, and they were looking for something in the field. They were saying something.

The accused heard the Station Chief speak in a strange, wild manner, “Kick him in the midriff and set him moving, Ram Avtar.”

Ram Avtar pointed his rifle, cursed and stepped toward the man. The accused wasn’t facing them, and so he strained to hear what was happening. He heard animal-like noises coming from the Station Chief and Ram Avtar’s mouths.

He was hit in the waist. He stumbled forward, and then caught himself before he fell. Then, in a desperate burst, he ran, thinking that perhaps he would be able to leap over the property walls.

The hyena turned in the shadows’ direction. The Captain signaled with his revolver. The officer aimed his rifle. The hyena turned his head and ran for its life through the wheat’s maze—chit-chit—before it arrived at the walls.

“Fire!” the Captain yelled at the top of his lungs.

The word “fire” echoed through the winter’s hazy night. Birds took flight, leaving their night’s roosts, chattering in shock. They flew around purposelessly amidst the trees for quite some time.

Ram Avtar blew away the rifle’s smoke and looked at the accused throbbing on the ground.

The watchman again loaded his rifle and fired at the escaping hyena. He missed again. The hyena reached the walls, paused for a second to gather its strength and leapt.

Quickly the Captain turned, opened the gate and looked outside. The villagers were thrashing the hyena, beating it with sticks, and it lay on its back writhing. The Captain caught a glimpse of the hyena. Then he daubed at his forehead’s sweat, briskly turned and went back inside where he instructed the watchman, “Go see if the hyena’s dead or not. But no one’s allowed inside, no one!”

He thrust his revolver into his pocket and raced into his office. He collapsed onto his chair and closed his eyes. He thought that when he ordered his officer to fire upon the hyena, he had heard a gun’s report from the other side of the house. He felt his breath tighten in his throat. He opened his eyes: the Station Chief, Divanji Ram Avtar and the two officers stood at attention before him.

“Ram Avtar,” he began in a very tired voice. “When he was dying, did he cry?”

“Yes, sir,” the watchman said abruptly as he entered the office. His face looked terrified and his breathing came quick and heavy. “Yes, sir, he was crying. As he was dying, he cried. The villagers said they’d never seen a wild animal cry. But I saw it with my own eyes, sir, he was dying. His chest was heaving, and tears were streaming silently from his eyes.”

The Captain stood then climbed onto the table. With his hands and feet on the table, he turned his face to the ceiling and cried loudly.

ABOUT THE STORY One of fiction’s great freedoms lies in the way it makes language not just more meaningful and more allusive than we normally know it to be, but also more new. Sometimes the old words, even in their thousands, are not enough: fiction must invent new words, new sounds. In these harrowing and hallucinatory stories by the Urdu writer Sayyid Muhammad Ashraf, an entire universe of violence, fear, and power is opened out by one strange sound, often repeated: chit-chit. This is the sound ascribed to the hyena who terrifies the child protagonist, Munnu Bhaiya, in the opening story. The power of Ashraf’s fiction lies in how he makes his characters (and readers) hear and fear this sound in our heads long before it actually appears in the world of the story as something real. Imagination trumps reality; the hyena haunts life at every turn.

But then it is captured, which means an end to the family’s affliction—or does it? In the second story, the nightmare world of fancy conjured up by Ashraf turns, as if by the flick of a switch, into a nightmare world of fact. It is not just the hyena, bloodied, beaten, in chains, who must be killed, but also a convict standing helplessly at the house of the Police Captain. The man is at the mercy of his ruthless captors, who want to kill him in a staged encounter revelatory of the feudal structure of the world in which the hyena has been caught. Suddenly, animal and man appear juxtaposed, breathing their last gasps or life. When the bullets ring out, who will be killed—one, both, or neither? Ashraf’s masterly use of detail and management of narrative tension (equalled in English by the translations of Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad) generate, in this pair of stories, contrasting worlds streaked with fear and foreboding: chit-chit, chit-chit.

The Hyena Laughed

THE EARLY MORNING LOOMED OUTSIDE the half-dark windows, and a cold, sharp wind blew. Inside the room felt claustrophobic, and the dull blue glow of a light bulb cast a frightening and mysterious hue over everything. Except for Munnu Bhaiya, the family lay awake beneath their blankets. They knew that Munnu Bhaiya was the only one asleep, and yet each was silenced by the conscious fear that despite being in the same room everyone felt far away.

Their hearts raced, and they felt as though something was inching up their throats.

“Do we really have to take Munnu Bhaiya to the zoo to see the hyena?” Badi Bahin asked Mataji in a strange, halting voice.

Everyone shivered. Badi Bahin’s voice echoed for a moment in the hollows of the blue-tinged darkness, and the family’s racing heartbeats could almost be heard in the few seconds of silence that followed.

Mataji turned over to look in Badi Bahin’s direction, and she felt the room constrict yet further. Outside the wind grew stronger and stronger. She looked deeply into Badi Bahin’s frightened eyes.

“Yes, of course I’m going to take Munnu to the forest to see the hyena,” she replied in a hollow voice.

“Not the forest, Ma … Ma, are you awake? Do you hear something?” Badi Bahin said, as though choking on something.

“Go back to sleep, dear. You’re half asleep. Go back to sleep. It’s late.”

Pitaji, Bhaiya, and Chhoti Bahin heard all this; they knew that Badi Bahin’s questions weren’t the jabbering of someone half asleep. Mataji too knew that these questions weren’t foolish ones, and yet no one wanted to press Mataji because they didn’t want to hear her answers. Even Badi Bahin, after asking the question, held her breath, praying that Mataji would remain silent.

Outside the wind blew against the house, and suddenly everyone remembered the terrifying noise—chit-chit … chit-chit … chit-chit.

Their hearts beat so ferociously that they feared they might explode. It seemed as though a shadow was passing through the half-dark room. Holding their breath, they waited for dawn as they lay motionless beneath their blankets. Mataji turned on her side and hugged Munnu Bhaiya to comfort herself, and yet she thought how everything was because of him.

Over the previous two weeks or so, a hyena had been spotted in the countryside on the near side of the railway tracks. Everyone was afraid. Every few days came reports of new incidents. When Munnu Bhaiya learned that hyenas loved to eat little children, his fear took hold of him. He had never seen a hyena, not even a picture of one, but had heard about them. As their every mention was linked to the death of some innocent child, he was rightfully terrified of his imaginary foe.

New reports had come that very evening that a hyena had made off with another child. Munnu’s face suddenly turned ashen white. He refused to leave the house. He paced back and forth anxiously between the courtyard and the living room. Akhtar Bhai, a friend of Bhaiya’s, came by after dark and in an effort to comfort him said that he would tell the hyena not to come around there. Munnu Bhaiya was only eleven or twelve, and yet he wasn’t courageous enough to ask whether a hyena could talk; but thinking that a hyena could talk, he became that much more scared. He thought that hyenas were indeed strange and special. He had no idea what they really looked like, but his friends had said they were as tall as walls, and nothing could stop them from snatching children.

Mataji and Father had explained that a hyena is like a dog but wild. No one—not Bhaiya, Badi Bahin or Chhoti Bahin—got too much into details because none had seen a hyena.

When it was time for bed, Munnu Bhaiya stuck his cricket bat and a box of matches beneath his mattress because he had learned in the fourth grade that wild animals were scared of fire.

All evening he had imagined strange and fabulous things about hyenas, and so when it came time for him to go to bed these images merged and took on a very terrifying dimension.

Bhaiya got up to check that all the doors were locked. He closed all the windows, advised the neighbours to remain wary then came back to say that there was nothing to worry about. The hyena would soon be caught. That or killed. The neighbourhood was already quite worried. Everyone had made a habit of going inside in the early evening and closing their doors, and they made sure the kids were playing directly within view. Those with houses right next to the railway line were most scared, and that included Munnu Bhaiya’s.

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Sayyid Muhammad Ashraf has written two collections of short stories, a novella and two novels. His awards include India’s Sahitya Akademi Award in 2006 for his collection Waiting for the Morning Breeze.

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