Translated from the original Bangla by Indrani Chakraborty
A parcel arrived this morning. I opened it to find a pair of slippers inside.
No, this is not the work of an enemy. And no one has tried to play a prank on me by sending me a pair of old tattered slippers. These are brand new, gorgeous, tiger-skin slippers. A feast for the eyes; I felt almost ashamed to put them on. One would feel like tucking them up in bed.
But who sent me these slippers? I can’t remember placing an order for them anywhere. And I know all my friends; to my knowledge, no one has the generosity or the deep pocket to send a pair of such slippers for free. So, what’s this affair?
I was beginning to wonder if I should be very surprised, when I spotted a green-coloured card: With best compliments of the Raja Bahadur N.R Chowdhury, Ramganga Estate.
And then it all came back to me. I remembered the eight-month-old incident in the wild—a strange hunting adventure.
The history of my acquaintance with the Raja Bahadur is rather vague, the strands loose. As far as I can remember, a classmate of mine used to work on his estate. It was because of him, I got to dedicate a laudatory poem to the Raja Bahadur on his birthday. I borrowed from Ishwar Gupta’s alliterative style to compose my eulogy; a couple of lines from it were:
Ruler of Three Realms, your Royal Highness
Glorious and gifted, of unparalleled greatness
Like Lord Rama, your deeds incomparable
Slayer of enemies, thou art truly venerable!
My poetic efforts yielded instant results. I had read that Akbar’s courtier, Abdur Rahim Khankhanan had rewarded Gang, the Hindi poet, with four lakh rupees, after listening to four lines of his poetry. To me it was evident that the tradition of such majestic temperament was still carried on by the glorious, mighty enemy-slaying Maharaja. He turned his royal gaze on someone as humble as I. He called for me, treated me to tea quite often, and then, on some pretext, gifted me with a rather expensive gold wristwatch. Since then I have nurtured a deep sense of gratitude for the Raja Bahadur. I had used those adjectives merely to ensure that my poem rhymed well; now I have started believing in them earnestly.
I respect the Maharaja. And it’s only natural to respect someone who appreciates talent. Friends call me a bootlicker. But I know they are jealous—they envy my good fortune. I don’t care. If you have to anchor your boat, it’s best to look for a big tree; it’ll at least be completely safe from the lashes of smaller cyclones.
So when, about eight months back, the Raja Bahadur invited me to accompany him on his hunting adventure, I couldn’t refuse. I left all my work in Kolkata in a hurry and was on my way. Moreover, I knew practically nothing about shikaar, apart from sometime catching a glimpse of the white army men shooting vultures with their rifles. So, that too was a very deep-seated and a closely-guarded temptation.
The train came to a halt, inside the jungle, on a small railway line at an even smaller station. The moment I got off, a neatly-dressed orderly wearing a gold badge, walked up and saluted me. He said, ‘Huzoor, let’s go.’
I could see outside the station on the muddy road, a huge car, the one that is elaborately referred to as the Rolls Royce— ‘Rose’ in brief. Of course, it’s a ‘Rose’! Did it touch the ground or did it glide in the air like a swan, I couldn’t gauge. The hard and stiff leather upholstery was absent; instead there was the red velvety cushion. One would hesitate to lean on it— what if the cheap coconut oil from the hair put stains on it? And the moment you sat on it you felt, let the whole world be crushed like the lump of earth below —I could fall asleep here —happy and without a care.
The ‘Rose’ cruised along like a swan. It rolled on the clay road, but there wasn’t a least bit of jolt. I felt like craning my neck out to check if the car was actually touching the ground or if its wheels were flying in the air, two feet above the ground.
It was a new world on both sides of the road. The spread of tea gardens, peeping through the green saal-forests; a quiet green sea of bright shiny leaves. In the distant sky was the outline of the dark mountains.
Gradually, the tea gardens came to an end; it was now just the thick saal forest —uninterrupted—on both sides of the road. An orderly pointed out, ‘Huzoor, the forest begins here.’
A forest indeed. The sunrays had shied away from the road; now it was just the shadow, quiet and solemn. The road was still moist from the overnight dew. The dry saal leaves, crushed by the silent wheels of the ‘Rose’, were making a rustling noise. The saal flowers were drifting in the wind, floating across to me, falling on the roadside like pelting rain drops. A peacock’s sharp cry floated in from somewhere, fleetingly. The dense saal forest was on both sides of the road; in places one could peek through the gaps in the foliage, some places were covered with wild bushes. There were some stray wooden blocks with the years 1935 or 1940 written on them. Men don’t just want to uproot forests— they want to increase it too. New saal saplings were planted at different times on these plots; the wooden blocks were indicators of that.
I was traveling and admiring the beauty of the forest. It wasn’t that I wasn’t feeling nervous at times. What if the car broke down inside the jungle, and a wild animal grabbed its chance and took a leap… what then—
Then, there wasn’t any other weapon for self defense, apart from the fountain pen in my pocket. At last, I couldn’t help myself and asked, ‘Hey, is there a tiger here?’
They smiled sympathetically —‘Yes huzoor.’
Royal etiquette, so when a question is brief, the answer is equally brief. They said –
The enthusiasm to ask further questions evaporated there. The way they were coming up with their prompts replies, it didn’t seem likely that they would answer a question with a ‘no’ to assure me. It seemed the gorilla, the hippopotamus, the vampire—they were all here. Was there a Zulu or a Philippine, armed with a poisonous boomerang, and ‘who’ might catch a human and relish it like a fried-brinjal? Such creepy thoughts were popping up in my head. But I checked myself.
The car rolled on for a while and then suddenly ground to a halt. I nearly screamed, ‘Oh no! Is that a tiger?’
The orderlies smiled a little. ‘No sir, we have reached’.
I looked out properly— oh yes. We had arrived no doubt. On the left of the road, inside the saal forest, was a small empty piece of land. A two-storied bungalow-like house stood there. It was all so sudden and unexpected too, in this deep forest.
Hearing the car, some servants came out hurriedly. It hadn’t caught my attention previously but now I saw that there was a deep moat dug right in front of the house. The men got together to pick up a large wooden plank which they placed across the moat like a bridge. The car drove over it and stopped in front of N.R Chowdhury’s hunting bungalow.
And oh my, what luck! The Raja Bahadur himself was waiting on the balcony for me. With a big smile he said, ‘Do come in— I haven’t had my tea yet as I was waiting for you.
I was all respect and modesty. I didn’t know what to say, and like a fool, grinned with gratitude from ear to ear.
The Raja Bahadur said – ‘I can’t believe you would take such great pains to come. It gives me great pleasure. Come, come— let’s go upstairs’.
One can only be a king when one has such great manners. This was royal modesty at its best.
The Raja Bahadur said – ‘First you have a bath and freshen up. Tea is getting ready. Boy, take the sahib to the bathroom.’
The 40-year-old bearded ‘boy’ was undoubtedly a Bengali. But the Raja Bahadur gave his orders in Hindi—- because that too was the royal etiquette. The ‘boy’ escorted me to the bathroom.
Amazing, such impeccable facilities, even in this jungle! I’d never had a bath in a similar bathroom ever in my life. The towel-brackets had three to four new and neatly folded towels, there were three types of fresh soap in three different and expensive soap cases, the shelf lined up with expensive oils, limejuice. There was a sprawling bathtub with a shower on top. The water from the tubewell downstairs was pumped up to facilitate a showerbath. A grand affair— no different from the Grand Hotel in Kolkata!
I had my bath. The bracket had a neatly washed and ironed Pharashdanga dhoti, a silk lungi, and a pair of light cotton pyjamas. The pyjamas looked the least expensive of the lot, so I decided to put them on.
The ‘boy’ was waiting outside; he took me to the dressing room. There was a life-size mirror and all kinds of toiletries one could possibly think of.
As I came out of the dressing room, I was summoned to the Raja Bahadur’s lounge. The Raja Bahadur was reclining on his chair and taking a puff on his Manila cigar. He said, ‘Join me. The tea is ready.’
It’s best not to describe the tea. Tea, coffee, cocoa, Ovaltine, bread, butter, cottage cheese, fat-rich frozen meat. There were ten different varieties of fruit, from the banana to the peach.
From this colossal heap I started gorging on whatever I could manage. The Raja Bahadur took a bite of bread, and nibbled on a fruit. To put it simply, he hardly ate anything except three cups of tea which he gulped down in quick succession. He then lit another cigar and said – ‘Do look out of the window.’
I looked. I hadn’t seen such natural beauty ever before. The land descended in a steep gorge about three to four hundred feet deep just below the window; the house seemed to hang in the air, in that monstrous emptiness. One could see at the bottom the dense forest, with the thin dark blue line of the mountain stream running through it. As far as the eyes could see, the vast forest stretched endlessly; on its edge was the blue mountain keeping watch.
I blurted out – ‘Beautiful’
The Raja Bahadur said – ‘Right. You are a poet— your kind will definitely appreciate it. Even I sometimes have this urge to write poetry, sir. But do you see the forest below? That’s not a very safe place. It is one of the fiercest forests of the Terai. It is the abode of the most pre-historic kind of violence.’
I looked at the forest with apprehension. One of the fiercest! But I couldn’t see anything that was remotely scary. The gigantic forest, 400-feet below, looked like a never-ending grove; the line of the stream appeared like a leaf. A wondrous green, strangely beautiful. The bounteous nature resplendent in the abundant sunshine—the hill seemed to be painted in dark blue. It looked like if you leaped from the top, that silent and somber forest would lovingly pull you into its warm embrace— on its bed made of thousands of leaves. But then…
I asked – ‘So, Would you be hunting from there?’
‘Are you crazy? How will I get down there? You can see the 400-foot steep mountain at the back. Till now, no hunting rifle has reached that place. But yes, I don’t exactly hunt there, but I sometimes do some fishing…’
‘Fishing?’ I was amazed. ‘What do you mean? From that river, is it?’
‘Well, that will be revealed gradually. You might get to see it if required.’ The Raja Bahadur smiled mysteriously. ‘Right now, let’s make the preparations for the shikaar; in case we don’t get anything, we’ll try to go for the fish. But I don’t want do go without good bait; that again, can prove to be troublesome.
‘I don’t follow.’
The Raja Bahadur didn’t answer—he just smiled. He blew some fragrant smoke from his Manila cigar and asked – ‘Can you shoot from a rifle?’
I knew he was being evasive. I, immediately, curbed my curiosity. It wouldn’t be discreet, or even polite, to probe further. That would be against the manners of the court.
The Raja Bahadur asked again – ‘Can you shoot from a rifle?’
I said – ‘As a child I had shot from an air gun.’
The Raja Bahadur burst out laughing – ‘Of course. You are the poetic kind, playing with arms doesn’t quite suit your type. But I picked up a rifle when I was only twelve. Why don’t you try? It’s not that tough.’
The Raja Bahadur stood up. He moved to one corner of the room. I followed him and saw – this was not just a lounge, but a veritable natural museum and an armoury.
I was too engrossed with the dining table to notice this – otherwise one couldn’t miss it.
The place was teeming with firearms of various kinds. There were about four rifles, of various shapes and sizes. A pair of revolvers hung from a hook in a holster. Next to it was a long Sheffield sword; the blade gleamed like the unalloyed rays of the sun. Thick leather belts held the sparkling brass cartridges – for the rifles, for the revolvers. There were about three Nepalese daggers in gold-embroidered sheaths. The wall was adorned with deer’s head, a bear’s head, different kinds of skins – of tiger, deer, and iguana. There was a mammoth elephant head on a table – with the two tusks jutting out in front. I gathered that these were specimens of the Raja Bahadur’s gallant deeds.
He picked up a small rifle, and said – ‘This one is light. But it is a good repeater. It can deal with any large animal with ease.’
It didn’t make a difference to me. A light repeater or a Howitzer canon were all the same to me. But for the sake of being polite, I had to say – ‘Really! Then this must be wonderful.’
The Raja Bahadur gave me the rifle and said – ‘Then why don’t you give it a shot? It’s loaded. Fire through that window.’
I stepped back in fear. I had made a fool of myself many times in my life but I was definitely not ready to do that again. A friend returning from the war had narrated his experience of his first time with a rifle—he had fallen down, broken his leg and was confined to bed for a month. I knew myself and it didn’t seem likely that I would be lucky enough to be let off with just a fractured leg.
I said – ‘Keep it away for the time being. We’ll do it some other time.’
The Raja Bahadur smiled with mild derision. He said – ‘You are frightened now, but once you learn how to handle it, you’ll not feel like letting it go. With this in your hand, you’ll feel so powerful. You can easily face all the rascals of – of …’
Suddenly, his eyes started to shine. The smile disappeared, the muscles of face grew stiff—‘and a rival…’
Blood froze in my veins instantly. His eyes had the look of a primal vengeance; the way he held the gun in a tight fist, it seemed he was getting ready to shoot someone right in front of him. What if he shot me in a fit of excitement!
Terrified, I stood with my back pressed against the wall. By then the danger seemed to have passed— moods of the majesty! The Raja Bahadur smiled.
‘Well, I’ll train you later. It’s all here—you can try any one you like. Come, let’s sit in the balcony now. Let’s have some energy.’
I had devoured a mountain for breakfast; what else would be needed to conserve more energy, it was difficult to imagine. But the Raja Bahadur had already started walking towards the balcony. I, too, had to follow him.
The balcony had a cane table with cane chairs. I was finding myself in such strange surroundings since the time I came in – I was beginning to feel rather nervous. But the cane chair somewhat had that feel of relaxed intimacy. This, at least, looked familiar.
The moment I sat down, I realized what was meant by ‘energy’. The steward was all set; he brought in a tray with a frothy glass. A strong smell of alcohol filled the air.
The Raja Bahadur smiled pleasantly – ‘One for you?’
I declined politely – ‘No.’
‘So do you want some beer? A ladies’ drink! You won’t be tipsy.’
‘No…nothing. I am not used to it.’
‘So, you are the boy who had won the prize for good conduct!’ The Raja Bahadur’s voice had that note of contempt: ‘I had my first drink when I was only 14!’
The ways of royalty – quite extraordinary. A young cobra right from birth. Therefore, any remark was unnecessary. The tray kept moving in and out. The Raja Bahadur’s sharp, bright eyes gradually became clouded, his fair face turned pink. He suddenly looked at me with sickly eyes.
‘Well, why aren’t you a king, can you tell me?’
One could only grin foolishly in response to such a question. I did just that.
‘Don’t you know?’
‘Can you kill a man?’
What kind of a question was that! I was afraid.
‘Then you will not be able to say. You are absolutely hopeless.’
He stood up and turned in the direction of his room. And before he left he said, ‘I pity you.’
I could see that he was drunk. I didn’t say anything but kept sitting there quietly. In a while, I could hear loud snores from the room. I saw that the Raja Bahadur was sleeping on that lounge chair with his mouth open, some flies hovered noisily near his face.
That night I had my first taste of shikaar. We were sitting inside the car in the jungle. The powerful headlights lit up the narrow path in front and the saal forest on both sides. The rest of the jungle beyond that light was enveloped in the dense darkness, like that of a haunted house. A primal fear had come alive around me— I could feel it with every one of my senses.
Here, somewhere there was a herd of elephants roaming the forest—trampling boulders from a distant hill under their feet, a python hiding in the bush waiting for his careless prey, a herd of deer—alert and waiting for an impending danger, a tiger’s hungry eyes burning at the bottom of a gorge. A primeval, savage world of a dark forest, awake on a dark night.
Excited and scared I was quietly waiting inside the car. But the violent world of the saal forest was plunged in a peculiar kind of silence. Apart from the droning of the tireless mosquitoes, there was no other sound. At times, there was a slight breeze and a soft rustling of the saal leaves. Sometimes there was a cry of a wild fowl, a peacock fluttering its wings in its sleep. It felt as if the creatures of this deep and dangerous forest were holding their breath and waiting for a defining moment.
We too were waiting. Waiting in the car, absolutely still—there was no way we could speak. With his rifle on the bonnet, the Raja Bahadur himself looked like a tiger on the prowl. His eyes, sharp and piercing, stared at the powerful beam of light from the headlights. The rifle was all ready to go off the moment an animal dared to cross the path of that light.
But the jungle was strangely quiet. It seemed as if the forest was resting; for one night all the animals had gone to bed tired, in the gorge, or behind the bush. Time passed slowly. The radium dial of the Raja Bahadur’s wristwatch glowed like a pair of green eyes; it was past 1.30 in the morning. The alert Raja Bahadur gradually became fidgety – ‘No, hopeless! We won’t get anything tonight.’
From far away there was a sharp, solemn howl, an elephant’s trumpet. We could hear the peacock’s flapping of its wings on and off; an owl hooted, the foxes barked, declaring the night. But where was a tiger or even a bear? In that dark forest, there was a flitting sound of hooves—a herd of deer on the run.
But there was no shadow in that circle of light. The mosquito bites were fast becoming unbearable.
‘This night has been a complete waste’ – the Raja Bahadur said, with all the vexation of the world in his voice. ‘Devil’s luck!’ He picked up a flask from near his seat and poured the contents down his throat. The acrid smell of whiskey filled the air.
‘Thank heavens!’ - the Raja Bahadur was suddenly alert. In a flash, his fingers caught the trigger of his rifle. The prey was here. I saw it too. At a distance, in that light’s path was some animal, standing still. It was petrified by the blinding light and was looking in our direction. Its eyes were glinting like two glowworms.
‘Damn!’ The Raja Bahadur took his hands away from the rifle, but the very next minute he gave out an excited yell – ‘A rat it shall be tonight!’
The rifle roared loudly. It was deafening. The whiff of gunpowder filled my nostrils.
The Raja Bahadur had a perfect aim – the animal was hit.
The driver said – ‘Huzoor, shall I get it?’
The Raja Bahadur grimaced, ‘What’s the point! Let’s go back.’
The green light from the radium dial declared that it was three in the morning. The car took us back to the hunting bungalow. The Raja Bahadur lit a Manila cigar and repeated – ‘Damn!’
Very strange— the jungle seemed to be playing a game with us. During the day, in spite of all our efforts, all we managed were a few fowls, not even a deer. It was the same fate with night-shooting. For three consecutive nights, we stopped the car in the middle of the forest at different points and tried. But it only resulted in those fiendish mosquito bites. There was no encounter with the wild beasts of the jungle, but the mosquitoes became all too familiar. I had no idea that such beastly mosquitoes could possibly exist on this earth!
But there was the grand feast, to compensate for all the mosquito stings. To be honest, I had no complaints about our failure with the shikaar. Such royal paraphernalia inside a jungle was beyond my imagination. I hadn’t tasted such exquisite food in all my life, I hadn’t showered in such an exotic bathroom. I was so uncomfortable lying on that incredibly soft mattress the first night that I almost didn’t get any sleep.
In this dense forest, I had the experience of enjoying the comforts of the Grand Hotel. The fact that there wasn’t a shikaar didn’t make a difference to me. The thick forest at the foot of that 400-feet gorge was visible every time we came to the lounge for our tea. The verdant beauty illuminated in the morning light stretched till the horizons joyously. It was hard to believe that this was one of the fiercest of forests. I stared and saw the formless, shapeless leafy cover swaying like a green ocean, birds circling in the sky. From above, they looked like bees; just beneath the window was that blue line of the mountain creek – glistening like a blade of steel – a few scattered pebbles dazzled like gemstones. I quite liked it.
Then I woke up from my reverie. I saw the Raja Bahadur pacing his room restlessly, with the Manila cigar burning in the corner of his mouth. His face betrayed a suppressed anger, there was a cruel hardness on his lips. At times he lifted a rifle and put it back irritatedly; at times he picked up a dagger and ran his hands over the sharpness of its blade, and sometimes he stood near the window for a while to look with a steady gaze at the forest down below. For three days in a row, he had failed to get any significant shikaar; he gritted his teeth in anger.
A moment later, he went in search of his ‘energy’. He walked over to the verandah and called out – ‘Peg!’
But for me it was no longer possible to enjoy and feast on such royal meals and royal luxury. Well, it was a great thing to be bestowed with such kindness by the Raja Bahadur, but I too had my family in Kolkata and my responsibilities. Therefore, I had to broach the subject on the morning of the fourth day.
I said, ‘I have to take your leave now.’
The Raja Bahadur had just started on his fourth drink. He looked at me with those sickly bloodshot eyes. ‘You want to leave?’ he asked.
‘Yes, I have my work.’
‘But I couldn’t show you my shikaar.’
‘May be some other time.’
‘Hmm.’ He made growling sound, with his lips pursed. ‘You must be thinking, these guns here, all these specimens of hunting on the wall – they are all a farce!’
Flustered, I said, ‘Why, no! Why will I think that? Shikaar to an extent is a matter of destiny.’
‘Hmm, destiny too can be changed.’ The Raja Bahadur stood up. ‘Come with me.’
Both of us stepped out. The Raja Bahadur brought me to the rear of the hunting bungalow At the exact place, from where, just 400-feet below this point, stretched one of the fiercest forests of the Terai.
When we arrived we saw something new. There was a wooden plank with a railing that extended for about 15 or 16 feet over that bottomless pit like a bridge. Next to it, there were two large wooden wheels, each with a thick rope wound on its groove. I didn’t quite follow what was this all about.
‘Come.’ The Raja Bahadur walked up and stood on that hanging bridge. I too followed him. A peculiar kind of arrangement. Just beneath the plank was that stretch of the mountain creek, its narrow banks strewn with pebbles and there was the endless forest. My head reeled when I looked down. The Raja Bahadur asked – ‘Do you know what’s all this about?’
‘My preparations for fishing. This has to be done in secret— it could be a big bother. But this is infallible.’
‘I don’t quite follow.’
‘You’ll see tonight. I invited you to show you some shikaar. I’ll show you a new kind of shikaar. But you will not reveal this to anyone.’
I nodded without comprehending, ‘Yes.’
‘Then stay back tonight. I’ll arrange for a car first thing tomorrow morning.’ The Raja Bahadur strolled towards the front of the bungalow. ‘In any case, you will not be allowed to stay here after tomorrow morning.’
One wooden plank, two pulleys or something. Preparations for fishing. Couldn’t talk about it with anyone and had to leave first thing next morning—the whole affair seemed shrouded in a mansion-like mystery. I felt completely disoriented. But I couldn’t pry any more, and I felt that it would be rather inappropriate to ask the Raja Bahadur too many questions. I felt I would be crossing my limits.
There were a few small and dirty children who played in front of the bungalow – the heirless property of the Hindustani caretaker. The Raja Bahadur had sent the caretaker to the town that morning to get some provisions; he was to return the next day. A trustworthy and devoted fellow. The motherless kids pranced around merrily the whole day in front of the bungalow.
The Raja Bahadur would look upon them with patronizing eyes. From the first floor window, he would chuck some coins, a bread or a biscuit — the children below would scamper around to get them. The Raja Bahadur would look at them with amusement.
On that day too, the children flocked around him excitedly. They said, ‘Salute, master!’ The Raja Bahadur took out some coins from his pocket and threw those at them. There was a mad rush to collect the booty. Nice children. Two to eight years of age. I was rather fond of them. Like the saal saplings of this forest, they seemed to be nourished by all that was vibrant and alive in the nature that surrounded them.
At dinner, in the evening, I said – ‘You are supposed to go fishing tonight.’
The Raja Bahadur looked at me from the corner of his eye. I had noticed that he had been drinking too much throughout the day and smoking too, without a break. He didn’t even speak to me properly. Something was going on inside him.
The Raja Bahadur answered in brief – ‘Hmm’. I hesitantly queried –‘When will it happen?’
Blowing a mouthful of smoke from his Manila cigar, he replied – ‘I’ll call for you when it’s time. Go to bed now. You can comfortably catch a couple of hours of sleep.’
Those last words sounded more like an order. I deduced that he didn’t want to continue this conversation with me any further. Asking me to go to bed early was not the hospitable host’s request; it was the royal commandment. And it was better not to delay in complying with that order.
But sleep was far away, even on that incredibly soft mattress. So many incoherent thoughts were buzzing in my mind. Fishing, the wooden bridge, the pulley, a big secret! An unfathomable mystery!
I tossed and turned for a while and didn’t even realize when I dozed off.
A blazing torchlight fell on my face and I woke up with a start. I had no idea what time it was. There was complete silence in that wild world. Outside there was only the piercing buzz of the crickets.
An ice-cold hand touched me. And that touch sent shivers down my spine. The Raja Bahadur said – ‘It’s time now, let’s go.’
I tried to mutter something; he silenced me with a finger on his lips. ‘Don’t say a word. Come.’
On a dark night such a surreptitious call. The entire thing seemed to be building up like the background of a suspense thriller. There was unease— I felt nervous as an uncertain fear gripped me. Spellbound, I followed the Raja Bahadur outside.
The hunting bungalow was dark. It was shrouded in the coldness of death. The crickets cried non-stop, the leaves rustled – it felt as if the forest too was crying. I had been afraid of waiting in the car, in the middle of the forest at that time of the night. I was scared on that day too. But this was a different kind of fear; there was something else in it that escaped me. At the same time I was completely immobilized. The beam of torchlight on my face, the ice-cold touch of the Raja Bahadur’s hands, his deceitful, incomprehensible gesture to keep silence…
Showing the way with the help of the torchlight, the Raja Bahadur brought me to that hanging bridge. It was all set for the shikaar. There were two chairs, two loaded rifles. Two bearers wheeled down one of the pulleys with something in it. For a moment the Raja Bahadur flashed his nine-cell hunting torch towards the bottom. Tied to that rope of the pulley there was something like a white bundle that was being hurled 250 feet below.
I asked – ‘What’s that, Raja Bahadur?’
‘A bait for the fish.’
‘I am still in the dark.’
‘You’ll get it a little later, now be quiet.’
This time he snubbed me quite firmly. His mouth reeked of the strong smell of whiskey. The Raja Bahadur was not stable. Everything was muddled up inside my head—I didn’t understand anything. Like a silent spectator of some obscure drama, I seated myself next to the Raja Bahadur.
A broken moon appeared on the edge of the thick dark forest. Some dim light from that moon fell on the water 400-feet below on the pebbles which lay scattered like gemstones. I could faintly see some movement on that sand from the white baggage that dangled from the rope of the pulley. The Raja Bahadur held the rifle with one hand, and with the other he aimed the torch at the bundle below. In that flitting light, it seemed there was some life in that baggage, but I didn’t know what it was. This was supposed to be the bait for the fish. But what kind of fish was it, what was the bait?
There was once again that wait for silence. Seconds, minutes, hours passed. Light from the Raja Bahadur’s torch was directed at the bottom repeatedly. The vast stretch of the savage forest looked like a heaving ocean in that fleeting moonlight. The river at the bottom glowed like an unsheathed sword. I sat there, wonderstruck. Minutes, the hour ticked away. The Raja Bahadur sat there fishing with a bait.
But it was all very mystifying for me. From far away, I could hear the crickets’ cries, the elephants’ trumpet, the murmuring of the saal leaves. But the logic behind this wait eluded me. I could only smell the whiskey and the Manila cigar. The minutes passed, the hours passed. The radium-dial watch kept ticking away. Slowly I fell into a trance, slowly my eyes drooped. And then, all of a sudden, the rifle roared, close to my ears – with a resounding bang. From 400-feet below there was a loud roar of a tiger. The chair and I were both shaken by the tremors.
The light from the torch fell straight on that pebble-strewn sand bank. I could clearly see an enormous, striped animal sprawled on that white bundle with one of its big paws over it—thrashing its tail like a snake in fatal agony. Like the thunder from Indra’s vajra, the shell had hit its head, unmistakably. Little did it know that invincible death would strike it thus from that height.
The Raja Bahadur shouted excitedly – ‘Done!’
By then I knew what the fishing business was all about. I yelled in excitement, ‘Well, you’ve got your fish. How will you get it up here?’
‘With those pulleys. That’s what they are there for.’
The whole affair was intriguing, and entertaining at the same time. I was about to congratulate the Raja Bahadur— it was then—just then that I could clearly hear a child’s muffled groans. Faint, but unmistakable—what was that noise?
That noise was coming from 400-feet below. Yes, there was no mistake. The gag choking the mouth had come off, but it was already too late. Blood froze in my veins, my hair stood on its end. I screamed in a frenzy, ‘Raja Bahadur, what was that bait? With what did you catch your fish?’
‘Quiet!’ The Raja Bahadur aimed the rifle at my chest. It was just then the whole world spun around me and faded away like an airy bubble. If the Raja Bahadur hadn’t caught hold of me, I would have perhaps tumbled down 400-feet below.
It is not an unnatural occurrence if a caretaker loses an heirless offspring in the jungle. It doesn’t spell a loss for anybody. But the Raja Bahadur had killed a king-sized Royal Bengal tiger, something he could boldly parade.
That is why this beautiful pair of slippers has reached me as a present after eight months. I would rather that night, eight-months-old, faded away like a dream. But these slippers—they are a very pleasant reality. I put them on and took a few steps. They are incredibly soft, and comfortable as well.
Published in Parabaas, February 7, 2007
The original story "Tope" by Narayan Gangopadhyay
is included in the collection Galpo-Samagro.
Indrani Chakraborty. Indrani holds an MA in English literature from the Jadavpur University. She ....
Illustrations by Nilanjana Basu. Nilanjana has been regularly illustrating for Parabaas. She lives in California.
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