Some boys were sitting in a circle after dusk chatting, their backs to the old tamarind tree, bare-bodied and using their dirty half sleeved shirts as seats, their legs extended, chatting away. A soft groan of pain made them turn their heads. The dry branches of the tamarind tree rustled as something flew through the air, swooping over their heads. It was like a lump of blackness against the faintly dark sky. Narrowly missing the boys, it crashed in the courtyard of the abandoned house close by.
Shouting, the boys raced to the courtyard. All they could see in the faint darkness was a small mound of earth and a dead thorny bush. Their leader realised that of all the birds commonly seen in the air, only the vulture swooped down and ran along the ground till it came to a complete stop. So it was he who first noticed the bird at a distance from the spot where it had landed. It was now looking around in a perplexed manner, trying to see in the dark.
The youngest of the boys said in a terrified voice, “What is that?”
Someone else said, “I don’t know.”
“It’s a bird.” “Must be a bird or something.”
“Who knows what creatures come out after dark?” He spit on his own chest.
The lump of darkness stood motionless. One could sense it was trying to hide somewhere. Perhaps in the hollow of an ancient banyan tree, or in some deserted but smelling of faeces, or maybe behind a bush by the riverbank, or a foxhole. Anywhere.
“God knows what creatures come out after dark, you know. Perhaps it wants something. Or worse still, someone. Come, let’s go home.”
There were cowherds in the gang as well as school students, and also those who went to school and reared cows, or cut grass, or sowed seeds as and when required.
“What a sissy you are! I’m not going home without finding out what it is.”
“No, I want to go home.” “Fine, go. Get out of here.”
“Who the hell is going home? I dare you to go past the tamarind tree,” said the school-going boy.
“We need to find out what that thing is.”
Almost everyone stayed back. And then the leader stepped forward. Cautiously, one step at a time. He knew it was a large vulture. He moved in close to the bird, close enough to touch it if he wanted to.
“Who knows what creatures come out after dark? Who knows what it’s out to get?” The cowherd was still muttering under his breath.
A sudden gust of wind made dozens of dry leaves fall off t I w branches of a nearby tree. Ripples appeared on the calm water of the pond, followed by tiny waves. Someone dropped something somewhere in the distance, and a nasty metallic sound broke t-lw silence of the evening.
The boy walked all the way up to the thing and realised it was indeed a vulture. Perhaps it had not been able to return home before the sun had set. It was as good as blind now. A strong stench hit the boy’s nose. He knew this odour—it came from the waste land outside the village where the corpses of dead animals and birds were left to rot. It seemed the vulture had bathed in the rotting blood and melting flesh of a carcass minutes ago. The signs of its battle with a dog were still visible in the form of a thick rough feather that had almost been ripped out of its wing.
“It must have been fighting all afternoon. It’s still gasping for breath.”
Poltu stepped forward, with Jamu and Edai right behind him. Followed by everyone else.
Poltu said, “That’s a vulture, isn’t it?”
“Of course it’s a vulture, are you blind?”
Jamu the cowherd said, “Anyone want to take a guess on whether it’s a boy or a girl?”
The leader Rafiq said, “You know, you’ve got the same brain as that of those cows of yours.”
The vulture was still sitting quietly. Perhaps this annoying experience was making it uncomfortable. Rafiq said, “Come, let’s have some fun. Let’s make it dance.”
All the boys started shouting, even the one who had wanted to go home but hadn’t dared pass the tamarind tree all by himself. Rafiq stepped forward and grabbed the vulture by its wings. The ugly bird sprang into action immediately. It had no intention of being captured without putting up a fight. Unfurling its dirty, bloody, foul-smelling wings, it scurried along the narrow lane of the village on its claws.
This was how they took their run up before taking flight. Perhaps this bird could take off too, ridding itself of these insufferable young boys, their cruel curiosity, and fatal games. But that was not to be. The vulture could barely see where it was going. Losing its sense of direction in the dark, it rammed into a wall. The posse of vengeful little devils with cruel intentions was close behind.
But the bird had managed to cross the lane, for it wasn’t entirely blind. The snakes that usually poked their hoods out of their holes in the walls on both sides of the lane on sweltering summer evenings had now retreated into the safe confines of their homes on sensing the approach of the vulture.
Running past a shrub of jujubes, through the ruins of a dilapidated hut, ignoring the dirty tract of wasteland, the creature continued trying to lift off into the sky, running faster and faster, squinting to see in the dark, trying to escape with its life. But it was helpless and weak. It had no strength left to hit back at its pursuers. Its beak was hooked, its claws were sharp—but it simply didn’t have the strength or the eyesight needed to use them.
One of the boys yelled in the dark. He had stepped on the sharp edge of a bone.
“Let him wait here,” Rafiq growled. “We’re going to catch that damned bird tonight.”
“You! Wait here. We’re going to catch that damned bird tonight.”
“Or you could go home too.”
“He can’t! He’s bleeding. There’s blood all over his feet.”
The injured boy said, “Let it bleed, I’m not going home. We’re going to catch that damned bird tonight.” He limped on trying to break into a run.
A rotten swamp lay ahead. The bird banked left and took off, trying to fly. But it was flapping its wings far too tentatively. Perhaps it was out of breath, too tired to fly. It came crashing down into the foul water, raising tiny waves that broke against the shore without making any sound whatsoever.
It was a grim, ugly creature that clambered out on the other side of the swamp.
Changed. Soaked. Covered in mud.
The boys had run up to this end of the swamp.
The habitation of the village had thinned out in these parts, rising its dark head once in a while. The bird staggered through two huts and entered an open field.
The boys could barely see one other’s faces. They were gasping for breath.
“Run all you like. You can’t get away tonight.”
“No more, Manik, no more ..
“This bugger’s done.”
“I’m going to catch it tonight.”
“Yes, me too.”
They pushed on, over the dykes and through the field, up and down the mounds, trampling the grass, being pricked and stung by a thousand thorns that only succeeded in strengthening their determination.
Edai asked Rafiq, “What are you going to do when you’ve caught it?”
“Nothing. I just want to catch it.”
“What do you mean hmmm? What will you do after that?”
“First let me catch it. I’ll think about what to do afterwards.”
No one was talking anymore. No one could talk anymore. They ran through the darkness like spectres.
The wind blowing from the south had stopped scraping their skin. The sound of leaves falling in the mango grove had ceased. The foxes were no longer yelping. The crickets weren’t chirping. The darkness was not thickening.
They caught up with the bird in the end. They grabbed it, held it, attacked its wings. They could feel the bird breathing heavily, the hollow of its chest moving up and down like the bellows of a blacksmith—they felt it with their own chests—as the bird struggled to set itself free.
Had the vulture felt the boys’ excited heartbeats on its own breast too?
“Is this the one? Are you sure this is the same one?”
“This is the one we have been chasing, right?”
“Why, you don’t believe this is the one?”
“I don’t know, it looks different somehow.”
“Do you smell that? That strong smell?”
“What smell? It’s a wretched odour!”
The vulture was indeed emitting the foulest of stenches, which seemed to be borne by an oozing fluid of some kind.
Rafiq said, “Come on now, grab it tight. No, don’t hold it by its beak, it’ll choke to death.”
The cowherd stepped forward and said, “I’ll hold the bastard” Let me shower some love on my little birdie!”
Jamu on one side and Rafiq on the other forcefully unfurled the vulture’s strong and massive wings.
“Look at those wings! Must be eight or nine arm-lengths at least.”
The curled down on the wings tried to puff. The intricately arranged feathers were meant to expand one layer at a time and roll out like a carpet. But the bird was drenched in the muddy waters, and its feathers were wet and heavy. So there were gaping holes between the rows of feathers, which looked miserable. The bird threw both its wings up in the air and surrendered itself to its fate.
And then the second round of running began.
“Run now, run. Put your tails between your legs and run!”
The vulture’s weakened legs could hardly keep up with the spirited pace set by the boys. But how did that matter? Its legs gradually gave up. The boys were now dragging it through the field.
“Edo, watch out you bastard! You hit its face on the rock. See if it’s dead.”
“Who the hell cares? Let’s drag the carcass if it’s dead.”
The rest of the boys screamed in delight as they ran after the dying bird. Shouting and singing. Enjoying themselves. What a beautiful game this was! What was the purpose of this game?
“We’re going to skin you alive, you hear? You miserable vulture! You smell like corpses. You sit on the carcass of cows and eat their flesh all day. You fight and claw with dogs and foxes. Why do you think we hate you so much?”
Indeed, the boys hated the very sight of the vulture. It seemed to them that their food was the same as the vulture’s food, that their dirty clothes were like the dirty feathers on its body, it reminded them of the bloodsucking money-lender back in the village. No wonder they called him a vulture! Nasty, nasty bird. It always seemed to them that a vulture couldn’t digest what it ate. The one grey colour in the whole wide world that saddened them the most was the colour of its feathers. When their own hearts wept on seeing the bodies of tiny babies in ditches or under the tamarind tree, almost but not quite alive, why would this filthy bird choose to swoop down on them and tear apart their soft flesh?
Someone said, “I’m hungry.”
“Why, haven’t you eaten?”
“I had rice and mutton for lunch.”
“Yes, me too. I’m hungry too.”
“I hate that shirt of yours.”
“Yes, it’s thick and rough.”
“Yes, just like that vulture!”
“Hamid’s father is going to kick the bucket in a day or two. Do you know what he did all afternoon today?”
“I know, he’s been gasping for breath for several days now—just like this bitch.”
Jamu said “Everyone seems to have that breathing sickness these days, every bastard around. No, no, no…. you think you can get away from me, eh, Aghor Pandit? You damned money-lender, you?”
Everyone laughed at the mention of Aghor Pandit’s name.
The boys jumped around in glee and dashed through the field, over the dyke, through the undulating ground and the tall blades of grass, past the berry bushes and the thorn shrubs, through the jagged remnants of sugarcane stalks on the now-empty fields. Like a ball of dirt, devoid of any feelings of pain or joy whatsoever, dazed and dying, the vulture moved on with them. When the boys halted to catch their breath, it paused, showing no sign of protest, making no attempt to escape.
“Look at all those stars!” “How come there’s no light then?”
“There’s no moon, see?”
“There’s a breeze though.”
“Yes, but it’s more like a hot wind.”
“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling cold.”
“That’s because you’re frightened, stupid.”
“How far do you think we’ve come?”
“I think we’re in the middle of the field right now! They call this the slaughter field! And that over there must be the canal.”
“Let’s go to the canal, we’ll dip this bastard in the water.”
They could barely see where they were going. The village had disappeared from the horizon. The sky was too large, the darkness too black.
Jamu said, “Have you heard of the things that take place here at night?”
“Please, I beg of you. Let’s not talk about those things.”
“Late in the night, when everyone’s asleep, tamarind trees pop out of the ground, waving their branches to call the villagers. The doors of the huts open on their own, and, be it man or woman, everyone starts walking in their sleep till they wake up suddenly to find themselves in the middle of this field, surrounded by black tamarind trees. They find these trees wherever they look. Who knows what creatures come out after dark?”
The vulture suddenly resembled a black cat. None of the boys dared touch it anymore. “Isn’t it possible that all of us are actually ghosts, and we’ve simply taken on human form?”
“No, no, Edai, I’m not a ghost, I’m human!”
“Well then touch me and find out for yourself. If I’m not human I’ll vanish into thin air as soon as you touch me. Come on, touch me and check for yourself.”
“No . . . I can’t.”
All of them sat down by the side of the canal, maintaining a cautious distance from one another, looking at each other with keen suspicion, pinching themselves. They had let the vulture go. It was lying in a heap.
“Must be past midnight, no?”
“Who knows? It could be just after dusk, or it could be well past midnight.”
The boys had lost all sense of time playing the little game of theirs. Someone said, “I heard the fox cry out thrice a short while ago.
“Then it’s way past midnight. Dawn will break soon.”
“Let’s get into the water.”
Everyone ran down the slope and waded into the water. A strong breeze blew over the shallow water of the canal, in which the vulture was dipped, drenching it once again.
“Aren’t we going to give this bugger anything to eat?”
“What do you think it’s going to eat? Do you see any corpses around?”
Jamu said, “Get some straw, let it eat that. Bastard!”
Someone ran out to the field and came back with some long strands of straw.
Rafiq said, “It’s not a cow, how can it . . . well, all right .. . it’ll have to swallow this for now.”
“Yes, yes, make it eat.”
“Give me that stick of yours.”
“Very good! Yes, pry its beak open like that, yes . . . now hold it this way.”
The vulture let out a horrible cackling sound. Two of the boys wrung its neck, one of them pried its beaks open with the stick and the rest started shoving bits and pieces of straw down its throat.
“Swallow it, you bastard. Die, die, you filthy bitch!”
“Hey, hey . . . .watch this . . . see what I do.”
Rafiq grabbed a feather on the vulture’s body and pulled at it with all his might. Silently, the feather came loose. The vulture shuddered. And then everyone started plucking out its feathers. It looked like a large ugly hen after sometime.
The boys were walking back to the village. Swaying and staggering, limping and tripping, exhausted and famished. They examined their tattered shirts. They talked about the next day’s plans. As soon as they entered the village they saw something white under the palm tree.
Jamu said, “No, don’t. Let’s take the other route.”
“But your house is that way, no? Let’s go and find out what that is.”
“Since my house is that way, I know who those two are.”
“Why the hell do you want to know?”
“The man on the left is Zamiruddi, and that’s Kadu Sheikh’s whore of a sister.”
“What the hell are they doing over there?”
“I don’t care. Come on, let’s go.”
Just before the crack of dawn, when the night is at its darkest, the boys collapsed on their torn mats in their respective homes and fell asleep at once. Spent and starving, the boys let go of all their worries and anxieties and fell asleep. They didn’t wake up even after the sun rose and began to shine brightly above the villagers’ heads. The vulture lay dead a yard or so from the palm tree, in full sight of everyone. It had brought up lumps of rotting flesh dying. How big it looked! Pieces of straw were still sticking out of its open mouth. It had turned its naked wings inside out, dropping dead on the dusty ground. One by one, dozens of other vultures began to swoop down and gather around it. But a vulture doesn’t eat another vulture’s flesh. Right next to the dead vulture was the tiny body of a newborn baby. It was this baby that had attracted the flock. They alighted, screeching in insane, drunken delight.
The dead baby had also succeeded in pulling the residents out of their huts.
“Who did this?”
Men and women watched the vultures closing in on the baby’s corpse. Everyone was there. Except Kadu Sheikh’s widowed sister. She was sick. In the bright light of the day, she looked as pale as death itself.
Republished, courtesy of translator Bhaskar Chattopadhyay.
Hasan Azizul Haq (b. 1939)One of the noted literateurs of Bangladesh, Hasan Azizul Haq was born in 1939 at the district of Burdwan (Bardhaman) of what is now the state of West Bengal in India. Currently he is a professor of philosophy at the Rajshahi University. Hasan Azizul Haq is well known for his experimentations with the language and for introducing certain modern idioms particularly in the genre of short stories. First published volume is Samudrer Swapna, Shiter Aranya (1964). Among other notable volumes are: Atmaja o Ekti Karabi Gaachh (1967), Jeeban Ghase Agun (1973), Naamheen, Gotraheen (1975), Pataale, Haaspaataale (1981), Ma Meyer Sansar (1997), Raarbanger Galpa (1999). Two well known volumes of essays: Kathakataa (1981), and Aprakasher Bhaar (1988). He has received most of the major literary awards of his country including the Bangla Academy Award in 1970.
Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author, translator, film critic and scriptwriter. He has written more than a dozen books, some of which include the mystery thrillers Here Falls the Shadow and The Disappearance of Sally Sequeira. His translations include the anthology 14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray. Bhaskar has also written Nayak – a novelization of Satyajit Ray’s 1966 film of the same name.