Scorching summer at its height!
The sun blazing and spitting fire; the streams, the springs and the rills in the forest – all went dry; wild fires were raging on hill tops; sun-stricken birds were dropping down dead like dry leaves in the Fall.
Thirst! Thirst!! Thirst!!! Ambient Thirst!!!
Tigers, wolves, deer, birds and the sundry were constantly on the run – migrating to safer pastures, by the day, by the night with just one desire – to quench the wrenching thirst.
'If only I could kill an elk, I wouldn't ask for more. That would fetch four hundred. Luck favoring, if I stumble upon a wild boar that would be two to three hundred. If it were a deer or a buck, then it would fetch a reasonable hundred bucks. That'd be quits to Soorayya's debt. Continuous drought for the last three years compelled mortgaging the meager holding of dry land; the principal and interest together compounded to about three hundred. Should he fail to release the mortgage even this year Soorayya would surely grab the land for ever.' Byri knew how Soorayya, the money lender, ruthlessly appropriated the lands of the poor and turned a millionaire in no time. Byri was, therefore, all the more determined to retrieve the land from the clutches of Soorayya.
Byri took out his country rifle and dusted it. He pulled out a pouch of gunpowder he had concealed under the roof of his hut and poured out a little quantity and test-fired it. Like the poor man's desire, it burned instantly. Satisfied that the powder hadn't lost its power, he stuffed it in the barrel, took out a bag of old nails, screws and iron trimmings and filled them in place of buck shots. He waded the barrel with waste paper and cotton rags. Girdling up his lo! ins, Byri pulled the bamboo door shut and marched into the woods holding rifle in his hand and the bag of ammunition hanging on to his shoulder.
Byri was sixty. The wrinkles on his face gave a look of dry, parched and broken land. Emaciated by age and endless struggle for existence, his body looked a skeleton wrapped up in skin. His streaked eyes, however, were like embers. They hadn't still lost the tenacity and resolve to fight.
It was well into the noon. The sun was still blazing. Far away, the village folk were invoking the rain gods by uproarious prayers to drumbeats in a procession. The trees in the forest stood denuded shedding off every leaf spreading a carpet of dry leaves under their feet.
Byri was like a scarecrow walking with a gun. The parrots in the bamboo grove squawked and fluttered away in fright as the dry leaves rustled under his feet. A set of crows disturbed by Byri's intrusion into their domain, hovered over him in circles and followed him a long way.
In order to reach a watery sprout before sunset, Byri was walking briskly taking short cuts crossing copses, bushes, thickets hillocks and rocky mountains and puffing and fuming he reached the spot after crossing two mountain ranges by sunset.
In the midst of the dense forest, beside a dried up stream, in the shade of a thicket, the ground was still wet. There was a small puddle with water slowly oozing out. As Byri approached the puddle the mosquitoes swarming the water flew up. That was the only place in the forest where all animals could come – come here they must – to quench their thirst. Byri carefully scrutinized the surroundings of the puddle. The footprints of animals were clearly visible on the wet ground about the pool. Wild boars had dug out a large number of pits in the sand for springs of water.
The sun setting behind the trees gave a panoramic backdrop. The wind blowing down the sun-burnt rocks was still stingingly hot. Byri pulled out his knife from his bag, trimmed the bamboo bush twenty yards from the pool and made a comfortable hide out. He camouflaged the hide out with trimmings from nearby bushes and made a small room for the barrel of the gun, so as to be able to shoot from the hide out. He patted himself for the wonderful work done. He carefully crept in and took up his position keeping the gun in readiness. He started looking keenly from the crevices of his hide out for animals approaching the puddle. His ears were sensitive to every little sound. Byri was a seasoned hunter.
Cluck! Cluck!! Cluck!!!
Peacocks were cluck-clucking somewhere nearby. Various small birds were also coming down to the pool, quenching their thirst and flying away. A couple of peacocks came running over the dry leaves to the pool and looked around. Sucking in with their beaks in a hurry, they stretched out ! their necks and gulped the water. His thirst quenched, a peacock cluck-clucked jumping in joy spanning his plumage and angling for his mate. His spread out tail reflected its iridescent colors in the twilight. The couple danced for a while and flew away. As the evening spread its wings a large number of wild fowl and a variety of birds came up to the puddle and left off.
Gradually as darkness descended on the forest, chirping of birds grew thinner as they flew nest-ward. Now it's time for the animals to arrive.
Having sat still for hours, Byri felt his back aching. As darkness deepened the creaking of insects also waxed. A barking deer (Kakur or Munt Jack) bleated somewhere on the hill top. A bright star reflected through the water in the pit. Even in pitch darkness Byri was able to see the well laid out sand carpet of the dried up stream.
Hours passed. Cool wind blew over the fluttering dry leaves. It also comforted the sweat-soaked body of Byri incidentally.
Suddenly an elk roared "faunk, faunk". The sound reverberated through the forest. The animal ran past Byri so quickly that Byri could make it out only from the sound of its hooves. The creaking insects suddenly fell silent. Silence reigned the entire forest. Byri shivered in his hideout. His body threw horripilations.
Unconsciously his hand leapt up to the gun. He was wondering what made him shiver. He was in a confused state.
Byri felt some dark figure moving in the thicket adjacent to the bed of the stream. Byri's eye tried to identify the figure, shearing through the darkness. Lifting the rifle, he took aim at the moving object. The figure trod heavily up to the water, kneeling on all four, started slurping. A sudden gush of wind filled his nostrils with wafted smell, which sent waves of fear down his spine. Byri's heart missed few beats. It was a tiger! And Byri was holding a country rifle with only one shot in it! Should it miss its aim, he would be finished. Even if his aim were perfect and hit the target, he couldn't carry the animal out of the forest, nor could he sell it off escaping the watchful eyes Forest Guards. He would then land himself in much deeper trouble. Let alone clearing the loan from Soorayya he would ! get a minimum six months jail. Byri quietly brought down his rifle and sat like another bush among the bushes, haplessly looking at the tiger.
The tiger quenched its thirst, stood up leisurely, whipped the sand-bed along the stream two, three times with his long tail and strode into the forest leisurely. A monkey atop a tree, perhaps identifying the tiger, sent “hoop, hoop" warning signals to his tribe. The forest was agog with twitter twatters of monkeys all in a sudden. They subsided gradually as the tiger proceeded into the interior. Silence reigned once again.
Byri was disappointed. Smelling the tiger no other animal would dare come near water. He heaved in despair that all his efforts would come to naught.
Whenever Soorayya flashed in his mind, the money lender appeared ruthlessly more cruel and dreadful than the tiger; he would gobble up Byri's piece of land, his lone resource of life.
Past midnight, the wind picked-up speed and occasional lightning streaked on the far off skies. Byri looked up only to find dark encircling clouds.
“Hell! It is going to rain! “thought Byri. He sat disgruntled cursing his odd luck. More clouds engulfed the sky. The moist wind blew more vigorously swaying the bamboo bushes wildly. Dry leaves rolled in whirls. The dust raked up formed a veil of mist in the darkness.
“Damn it! No bloody animal would come out in this stormy weather. Wretched fortune and wretched weather!"- rued Byri bitterly. Adding to his woes the sound of rain lashing the hills was clearly audible and soon it started drizzling. There was a creeping sound on the dry leaves. Byri thought at first it was the gale. But as the sound became louder and nearer, Byri was sure it was the sound of hooves over wet leaves of a herd of animals on the run – running for water.
There was a sudden flash of lightning. Byri saw bucks running towards the pool. Then it was darkness again.
The bucks were running pushing each other to have the first gulp. The sounds of their horns locking in the melee were also clear to him. In a flash Byri pulled out his rifle and took aim by the sound. He could only see a haze of moving figures in dark but could not single out any to take sure aim. If he thithered any longer the pack would run off in a jiffy, he was sure. Taking aim at the middle of the flock he pulled the trigger. The silent forest reverberated with the 'T.h.o.o.m' the country rifle had made.
The bucks ran helter-skelter. In the wafting smoke there was the cruel smell of the gun powder.
Byri came out of his hiding. Wading through the smoke, he was madly searching for his game here and there. About two yards from the pool, in the bush, he spotted the animal struggling for life. He ran towards that.
The buck was gasping for breath. His shot pierced thro' the abdomen baring its intestines. Fearing that it might run away even in such a condition, he wanted to hold it by its hind legs. The buck kicked him with all his might. He fell flat on his back and hurt his shoulder. Mouthing few abuses Byri got to his feet in no time and with vengeance stamped his legs wildly on its neck till he puffed out the last traces of life and resistance from it. A high horned Buck! Byri looked at it in wonder and satisfaction holding his bleeding shoulder by the other hand. ‘It’ll fetch two hundred bucks in the least and I can clear half the debt of Soorayya' he thought. Plucking out few leaves in the dark and chewing them to a paste, he hurriedly applied the salivated mixture to the wound. It burnt him there. Wriggling in pain and fanning the wound with his mouth, he sat there till the burning subsided.
A fat male Buck! Very heavy! Byri's worry now was how to carry it home. It was next to impossible to lug it and scale up and down two hills. There was of course a short cut but it was ridden with thorny bushes, thickets and dried up streams. He would have to pass thro' narrow paths and at times crawl under the creepers. But he had no better alternative.
He tried to lift the buck. No. He couldn't. Holding his breath and summoning all the strength at his command, he pulled it with a swing and managed to lug it over his shoulder. He was staggering under its weight. Taking the rifle he left at the hiding for support, Byri started homeward taking the shorter route. He was up against the blowing wind. It had also started drizzling. In the hope of clearing Soorayya's loan, he forgot all his pain. In the dead of night, through the forest, he was walking through thorny and rocky footpaths. Blood and spittle oozing from the animal's mouth mixed to a sort of glue and rolled down his body. The bamboo and the hispid made umpteen scratches on his body. Whenever he had to bend low to pass through narrow openings, he squeaked in pain and felt his back would break. He pondered if he should rest a while putting down his ! weight but decided against it for fear of not being able to lift it back onto his shoulder. He thus trudged along.
Byri heard some whistle-like sounds from a distance. Gradually they increased from all sides. A howl followed another as if they were orchestrating. Though he mistook it for chattering of birds in the first place, he soon recognized – as a seasoned gamester that he was, having been born and brought up in the woods – that they were bays of wild dogs. Smelling their prey, they would siege their victim from all sides and attack; they eat their prey alive.
Byri's heart began thumping faster. The bays and the clattering of feet were drawing nearer and nearer. They might have smelt the buck's blood, the hounds were on the run towards it, he thought. Although he was sure that they would not harm a man normally, he wasn't sure for the buck's sake. They might attack finding him all alone in the pitch darkness amidst a dense forest. That thought unnerved him a bit. Soon he collected himself. He thought of concealing the animal under a bush initially but realised the futility of such an exercise. He knew the wild dogs can smell the animal from a long distance and once they get it they would leave nothing but the bones. He looked around for a secure place. There was a banyan tree near by. He hurried up to it, reached out for a branch at proper height and safely lodged the animal taking enough care that it did not slip down. Bucking his loin cloth, he climbed up the tree just in time before the wild dogs encircled the tree. They found the buck on the branch and out of their reach. They were howling at it moving impatiently. In their attempt to climb up the tree some of them were scratching the trunk peeling of the bark here and there. “Hoot, Hoot,” Byri tried to scare the wild dogs away with his hooting. They did not care a hoot. Instead, they were waiting for the buck to drop down vying with one another for licking the drops of blood seeping from the buck's body.
Byri was exhausted trying to hoot them away.! He despaired that they might not leave him. Firing a shot at them came to his mind but the realization of forgetting the ammunition bag at the hiding made him curse himself. To his great good fortune at that very moment he heard the 'Barr ... Barr' sound, as if coming out of a bronze pipe, of a roebuck. Instantly the wild dogs were on their feet sticking out their ears erect. The hair on their back stood erect. Wagging their tails they contemplated in silence for a while and in a flash, as if they were unchained, they ran in the direction of the sound in search of a new prey.
Byri thanked his Elements for the turn of events. But, before he could even climb down and resume his journey, what was until then a drizzle suddenly intensified into a heavy rain and soon into a storm as wind picked up speed. Thunder and lightning were splitting the skies. Branches were felled by the gales. As if it were the dooms-day it started raining cats and dogs. Byri was drenched to the bones. As the winds shook the tree the buck dropped down with a thud. Raining thus for about two hours, the rain relented.
Byri got down and with great effort pulled the animal on to his back. The butt of the rifle was no longer giving him the required support as it was sinking into the rain-soaked ground. The rain washed buck was slipping from his shoulder. Yet he persevered through dirt, slime and slush and through thorny paths and uneven terrain summoning all his reserves with just one resolve: he should repay Soorayya.
It might be about two in the morning. The rain-cleansed sky was looking clear. There was a liberal splash of luminescent moonlight too. Rain drops suspending to the edges of leaves were sparkling pearl-like. The forest was filled with the croaking of frogs and creaking of other insects. Determined Byri covered quite a distance. A stream and a mile separated him from his hut.
As he drew near the stream the croaking of frogs was high. A greater surprise greeted him. The stream which was totally dry with sand heaped up until few hours back was now in spate stretching to its banks. It was curling and swirling and whirling.
Byri had no choice but to cross it. If he were to avoid it, he would have to walk four times the distance he had already covered besides having to trek a few hills on his way. Byri knew though the stream was in full flow, it wasn't that deep. At best it would come up to his chest. It's hardly ten yards wide at the widest point. For an ace swimmer like him it was not a matter to reckon with. With that confidence he decided to cross it. He knew it was not that easy to cross the racing stream with buck on his shoulder and rifle in his hand. He put down the buck on the bank. Rubbed his aching feet and neck with both hands. Taking rifle in his hand and swinging it round and round he threw it on to the other bank. It fell in the slime abetting the shore. He complimented himself for his strength and skill even at that age.
He slowly stepped into the water. Frogs leaped into the water in one go. The soil was slimy and slippery. Taking firm foothold he pulled the buck onto his shoulder. Taking the whole weight on his neck, he held the four suspending feet of the buck in his hands. The soil beneath his feet was giving way under the weight. He was putting one step after another measuring each one carefully. The stream resembled a sneaking snake under the moonlight. By the time water came knee-high, the under currents were pulling him by his legs. Felled branches and logs were floating down-stream at full speed. Earth on the banks was caving in. Water had come up to his loins. He cleared half the way. The speeding column of water was exerting greater thrust on his knees and legs. Balancing himself with the load on his shoulder he was putting each step. But suddenly his foot landed in a ditch on the bed and he tumbled. That's all. He fell flat into the water and the buck was thrown some distance away. The moment he fell into the water he was being swept away! . He was sinking and with effort surfacing. Though his feet touched the ground, the strong currents did not allow him to get a firm foothold. Even while being washed away, he watched his buck floating ahead of him. At that hour of crisis his loan to Soorayya still flashed in his memory. Sinking and floating with the current, Byri caught hold of the buck by its legs at the most opportune moment.
At that place the stream was speeding faster as it was narrow over there. Rolling along with his catch he tried to swim up-stream. Logs, branches and reptiles had brushed past him. Carried away by the stream for about two furlongs, he found the stream wide and shallow. He caught hold of a tree branch swinging down into the water. Without leaving the buck and with the help of the branch, he pulled himself up to the bank. Fortunately for him, it was the bank he wanted to reach. Resting for full one hour and yet unable to summon enough strength to carry the buck on his back, he dragged it by its legs along the bank up to where he threw his rifle. He recovered the rifle. The twilight in the east indicated that the day-break was not far away. The forest was already awake with the calls of birds. A wild hen was clucking. He was shivering under the bite of cold breeze his soaked body was exposed to. Determined as he was to reach his hut fore day-break, he pulled the buck over his shoulder once more. Puffing and heaving, he reached his hut long after the day-break. Bovines in the village were already mooing and lowing.
Putting the buck down and leaning the rifle against the door, he squatted gasping for breath in front of his hut. Every inch of his body was aching. There were scratches all over his body and some wounds were fresh with bleeding. A hard lump formed on his neck where the load grated him through out. The hoof-indented shoulder inflamed and was all needles and pricks. Capping it all was the wolf raging in his stomach. Fully sapped, he leaned on to the wall. “Well. It is worth the trouble," he tried to console himself, “Soorayya’s loan will be cleared and I can retrieve my land."
Just then, he saw a figure move in front. He slowly opened his eyes. With a jerk he was on his feet trembling like a frog seeing a snake suddenly in front.
Spilling venomous looks at him,” Is this all or, there are some more?" enquired the Forest Guard." You son of a bitch, you must have hidden them somewhere in the forest."
Taken aback, Byri stood folding his arms. He was dumbfounded.
“Have you licence for this rifle?" Forest Guard shot another question. Byri fell at the Guard's feet.
“Speak up, you bastard!" roared the Forest Guard.
“Sir, please sir, I am a poor man. I shall never do it again." he prostrated before the guard.
The Guard pulled him up by his hair.
"Do you think the forest is your grand father's property that you bastards can poach at will? Last night itself I heard the shot of your gun and was looking around. Now I got you, bastard!"
“Please sir, I won't do it again. Promise. This was only first time. If you see me another time, slap me with your chappal." Byri's voice went hoarse.
“Come on. Take this game on your back and follow me to town.! I shall book you. Six months for poaching and another six for unlicensed gun. Your itch will be cured serving that sentence. Son of a...! Unless you people are put behind bars, you don't relent. Come on. Proceed. Why? What are you staring at me for? I will kick you on your chest."
People going to forest for gathering firewood flocked before Byri's hut overhearing the shouts of Forest Guard.
Byri was pleading the Forest Guard for mercy.
God knows when he sneaked into the crowd. Soorayya surfaced from the crowd pushing his way to the front. He asked, “what is the matter, Sir?"
“Look at these sons of bitch. They are poaching every single animal in the forest. They treat it as their heirdom. He had neither licence to enter the forest nor for his gun. They take themselves for lords of government!" said the Guard pointing to the buck and the gun.
“It is for this reason you don't get even a square meal. Even God turns a Nelson's eye towards you. You are an old hag. Your kith and kin are dead and all alone you are about to kick the bucket any time. What is the need for you to poach at all? Why do you hanker after money?" Soorayya railed at Byri endlessly.
“Come ! on! Move! Do you hear me?" the Forest Guard commanded Byri with all the pride of his position.
Soorayya intervened..... “Look here, Sir! Forgive my interference. What will become of him if you don't show mercy? He is a poor fellow. Who else can save him but you?"
“What do you mean then? Want me to leave him off? What a suggestion?"
“Please Sir, please wait a minute." And turning to Byri he said, 'Look here Byri, pick up that buck and walk up to my house. Let us talk it out.' Turning towards the crowd he shouted them away saying, “What are you looking here for? Useless folks! Haven't you any work? Is there any bioscope or a group dance going on here?"
Byri was walking in front with the buck on his back.
Walking behind, Soorayya was negotiating terms with the Forest Guard all through. They reached Soorayya's house.
Soorayya took them inside and shutting the door ajar, he turned to Byri and said, “Listen Byri! Tell me if it is lawful to poach in government forest without any licence? Look at God almighty and answer me. Speak up. Don't you agree it is unlawful? Then is it not fair that you should be punished for that? Isn't it? The Guard is young and considerate. Upon my word he agreed to let you go. Pay him a hundred. Don't say another word. Agreed?"
“Leave it off, Soorayya. I had better booked him." said the Guard.
“No. No. No. Sir. Don't be harsh upon! him. He would die." and turning to Byri,” you fellow, what are you waiting for? Pay him. Quick!"
"Where is the money with me? I shall leave the buck, if you want."
“What? What did you say? You will leave the buck, isn't it? Bastard! Who are you to leave it for him? It is his anyway. Did you rear it that you now want to leave it for him? It is government property and rightfully belongs to the government man. What do you say? If you dilly dally, the Guard will change his mind. If he books a case against you, you get six months on each count and you never see the village again. You die in the jail itself. Understand?"
Byri felt they were digging a grave to bury him alive.
“You know it. Where is the money with me?"
Soorayya pretended contemplating a while and casting a look at Byri smacking of mercy, annoyance and concern he said, “Well! Everything is my headache!" He went inside and quickly returned with a blank paper.
“It is for me to mediate every silly row! Put your thumb impression on this paper. Okay? Now, you'd better go. We will meet later. If the Guard finds you here, he might change his mind. Get out fast," Soorayya pushed Byri off after getting his thumb on the paper. Relieved of whatever fascination had remained for his small holding, Byri left the place with downcast eyes.
Offering prayers to Laxmi, the Goddess of wealth, Soorayya secured the paper in the chest and locked it.
“Hear me, Soorayya! Send the animal to Forest Ranger's house. Tomorrow is his daughter's marriage. He needs it. Give him however much, he is not satisfied and always pecks for more." The Forest Guard shook hands with Soorayya and feeling the hundred rupee note in his pocket, he left.
Sitting alone in his hut, Byri wept his heart out. Without his knowledge he dropped into a slumber – a deep one at that.
In his sleep....
Scorching summer at its height!
The sun blazing and spitting fire; the streams, the springs and the rills in the forest – all went dry; wild fires were raging on hill tops; sun-stricken birds were dropping dead like dry leaves in the Fall.
Thirst! Thirst!! Thirst!!! Ambient Thirst!!!
Tigers, wolves, deer, birds and the sundry were constantly on the run – migrating to safer pastures, by the day, by the night with just one desire – to quench the wrenching thirst.
Among them he found Soorayya, the Forest ! Guard and himself. Running... racing.... thirst... thirst...
Byri woke up from his dream with a start. It was night fall. He was stuttering. His scratches-filled and inflamed body was aching and fever was running high. He came out. It was dark all around. The forest was also gloomy like his own life. He was spitting fire from his eyes and through his mouth. He was boiling with – fever, spite and vengeance.
He took out his rifle. This time it was not for game.
He was walking like a blazing sun in that darkness.
Tigers were roaring. Wolves were chasing. Like a fine-edged arrow that cuts them to pieces, with single-minded pursuit, he was walking into deeper woods.
Through heath, shrubs, bushes, and rivulets he marched.
Byri who walked that way into the forest with his gun, never returned.
Telugu Original: Late Allam Seshagiri Rao
Translated by: Late RS Krishna Moorthy & NS Murty
(This translation won the Katha-British Council South Asian Translation Award for 2000