A tremendous sound.
I looked on as a couple of birds took to the skies the instant the bullet exited my gun. The sky shimmered in the beautiful afternoon sunlight. Another bird fluttered down like a falling star out of sight beneath the tree where they had been roosting. I could not see the area beneath the tree because of the tall bushes in front that arose like walls before me.
My Scout raced across with canvas bag and knife in hand. I love hunting. I always take my gun along with me when I go to the countryside on government holidays. My Scout cooks our kill well. When seen this way, my life dances to a wonderful tune.
The shell popped out of the gun as I broke it; I took out a new one. My gaze began to wander from branch to branch. The sunlight was soft and yet I had to narrow my eyes against the glare. Sometimes, birds could sit concealed so well amongst the leaves that you simply had no chance of discovering them.
The Scout was taking an awfully long time. I, for my part, did not discover any new birds to set my sights on. My eyes roved from one high branch to another. I was beginning to feel irritated. The Scout must have stuffed the bird in his bag and lit a bidi for himself. I must tell him off; it was getting late. My hands were still itching to let loose another round or two. I had clearly seen the bird that had just taken my bullet and fallen; a wonderful Harial.
The Scout returned to inform me that he could not find the Harial anywhere. A fire ignited with a whump inside my head. Lazy sod, that’s what he was. If I did not penalise him more than a few times once I got back to the city, I would not be able to work with him again. My wife was right, I let these Scouts get away with murder.
I spat out an insult and said, ‘Come, I’ll have a look.’
He followed me. We could not have been thirty yards from the tree where the Harial had sat. I continued to mutter oaths under my breath as I cleared the path with the butt of my shotgun and proceeded forward. Once we arrived, we saw that the bird was not there. Not a single drop of blood or a clump of feathers caught my eye. I thought the injured bird must have strained and dragged itself somewhere further afield! I strained my ears so as to be able to hear its cry. Not a sound. My temper snapped.
A stick of cane lay on the ground and I picked it up and proceeded to beat the tall grasses and shrubs all around me. Still, the bird could not be found.
My irritation dissipated into an overwhelming sense of wonder. A clearing of at least fifty yards surrounded this tree. Forget a bird, even coins laying on the ground would not have been that hard to spot. It was as if the bird had disappeared by magic. Had my eyes deceived me when, at the sound of the gunshot, I had seen a bird fall?
The Scout confirmed that he, too, had seen the bird take the bullet and fall. I began to get very angry again. I thought that he was trying to make a fool out of me and I told him to keep quiet and left.
Returning to the place where I had fired from, I came upon a small boy by the canal holding the spent shotgun shell that I had recently thrown away. He was not wearing much – a baggy shirt that had once belonged to someone much larger than him and probably handed down after it had torn. His face was round and he glanced fearfully towards me as if he would perish that instant if I merely looked at him. I would have missed him altogether but suddenly startled to a halt upon spotting him.
My Scout made an unintelligible sound. I looked on, aghast at the sight of a splash of glistening, fresh blood on the left side of the boy’s shirt, above his breast.
For an instant, someone drew a cold knife along my spine. The bullet from my gun must have strayed and hit the boy, I thought. The blood was congealing. Dumfounded, I kept on staring at him. I could not see a thing, hear a thing, but only that splatter of blood along with a meaningless, repetitive droning in my ears mingled with the distant ‘Oh-ho-ho!’ of a country boatman in the distance.
The boy leant forward as if to run when my Scout pounced on him. My previous sense of overwhelm faded away instantly. ‘Give him a couple, get him to hand over the bird!’ I said at the top of my voice.
The bird emerged. The boy had hidden it under a clump of clay by the side of the canal. It was clear as day to me now that the bird had been too afraid to escape when it fell.
My Scout slapped the boy on the back of the head and sent him packing. I looked up to see that the sun was no longer where it had been. It was nowhere, the red glow of evening was slowly descending upon us. The boy melted away through dew-laden, indistinct fields as he wiped his eyes with the hem of his shirt.
My Scout cooked superbly that night. I had long forgotten about reprimanding him. Rather, at that moment, had he asked for money to send home, I would have gladly given it to him.
He made my bed. I lay down on the crisp, white sheets and scarcely had time to yawn before sleep overcame me.
The boy came. I began to observe him. Brown, wrought, indistinct features, with eyes that glistened like fearsome, rain-soaked marble. He wore nothing but a baggy shirt that was a size too large for him. He was no longer afraid of me; he began to edge closer and closer – until if he came any closer, he would end up on my lap.
I screamed. On his shirt, above his left breast, was a spatter of fresh, red blood. The boy neither came nearer, nor did he move away. I awoke to find my Scout, with his lantern on high, lifting my mosquito net and calling out to me but I was unable to recognise him clearly through my haze. The next day, I went to town and returned my gun license.
Translated from the original in Bengali by Ditio Syed-Haq.
Translated from the short story “Shikar”, which is part of a collection of stories titled “Anandyer Mrittu” (The Death of Happiness, 1966). This translation is part of a collection that I am currently working on titled ‘Syed Shamsul Haq, The Early Years – Short Stories from 1967-69’. A curious fact about Syed Haq’s writing during this period is that his characters displayed certain traits and behaviours that would later find their way into some of the characters in his later and more well-known novels such as Khelaram Khele Ja, the archetypal anti-hero. In light of this, the years 1967-69 could even be seen as an ongoing exercise in character formation and development by an emerging writer.
About the Translator
Ditio Syed-Haq is a bilingual English and Bengali author and translator from Dhaka, Bangladesh. His first book in Bengali ‘Megh o Baba’r Kichu Kotha’ (Clouds and Memories of my Father) won the City Ananda Alo Award in 2017 for best debut by a new author. He currently writes full-time and publishes regularly in the leading national dailies in Bangladesh in addition to fulfilling his role as Creative Director for a private television channel. He spends his time between Dhaka and London with his wife, child and family.