Among the Hunters by Shrilal Shukla, Translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell

It was the end of the month of Asarh. The night of the thirteenth. We set out in our jeep at nine o’clock.


The moon was hidden in thin layers of clouds. The whole forest slept, wrapped in silence, beneath that union of moonlight and darkness. We advanced rapidly along the narrow dirt road through the woods, shattering the dream-like atmosphere of that peaceful, deserted, shadowy place with the rumbling of our jeep and the glare of our headlights.


The tops of the ancient trees began to sway in silent protest of our lights. We felt a thrill in the air as we looked about. The breeze was picking up. The moon emerged from behind the clouds. Drops of rain, trapped in the dense foliage above, began falling from the branches overspreading the road and fell into the open jeep. The drops landed on our hair, our brows, our cheeks. The trembling that pervaded the jungle settled into our bodies.


I shut off the lights and began to drive the jeep very slowly.


On each side of our path stood a dense jungle of ancient trees. With the very first signs of rain, grass had grown in the spaces between their trunks and got tangled with the undergrowth. In the midst of that dark, damp chill, only a few moonbeams filtered through the dense leaves and branches. Up above, as far as the eye could see, the moonlight played blind man’s buff through a dense umbrella of foliage, a twisted net of dark branches on which rested shining drops of rain; the trees swayed in the light breeze, and the breeze sounded like a stream flowing swiftly all around us. It felt to us as though we were entering some land from which we’d been separated, along with our infancy, and our dreams, long before coming into this world of bitterness and reality.


‘Turn on the lights,’ said Yogeshwar, sitting in the backseat. ‘We’re going to run into water and mud on the road up ahead. If we get stuck in the dark we’ll be here all night.’


The Major was on two months leave. The evening’s outing had been set up at his request. He sat next to me in the front seat. ‘The Boss is right,’ he said, referring to Yogeshwar. ‘Turn on the lights. The animals will be startled by the headlights. If it’s dark, they’ll just run away.’


I turned on the lights. The chequered pattern of light and shadow dissolved. I speeded up the car.


Besides the three of us, our fourth companion was a doctor who was sitting in the back with Yogeshwar. He was staring hard into the depths of the jungle, rifle loaded. Right next to him, Yogeshwar’s servant balanced four glasses with some difficulty as he poured rum into them.


We slipped softly into the dense jungle. At this point all four of us had already had one glass of rum each. Since we’d decided to go out with rifles on muddy roads for our vacation, and we rode in a dusty jeep wearing dirty clothes, the Major had directed that we not bring any high quality drinks on the trip. We were to bring only cheap rum. Perhaps he wanted to re-enact the saying about the seven sailors and the bottle of rum. I continued to drive the car with some difficulty, holding the full glass of rum while attempting to steer properly at the same time.


‘Your driving is amazing,’ said the Major.


‘Quiet!’ said the Doctor in the same hollow voice as before. ‘You’ll scare the animals away.’


We’d been on this road for about an hour and a half by now, but no animals had crossed our path, nor had we seen any in the jungle on either side. Dense clouds had gathered over the moon, and the jungle was suffused by a haze of thin moonlight of the type that sometimes appears at the passing of the third watch of the night during the hot season. The shadowy images created by the moonlight – the circles, triangles, and squares of its crisscrossing line – had by now disappeared amongst the shrubbery beneath the trees. It seemed as though everything had grown denser and heavier.


The Doctor, the Major, and Yogeshwar all shone their flashlights into the parts of the jungle nearest their seats. The servant continued to refill the glasses as they were emptied.


Suddenly we came to a small clearing, covered only with low underbrush and grasses in the middle of the woods. At the edge of the clearing, where the line of trees began again, we saw a herd of some twenty-five sambar.


At first it seemed as though pairs of stars, terrified by the clouds, had descended to earth with the help of the sky-kissing trees. The stars glowed dimly in the haze. But when the Doctor shot two bullets from his rifle without giving any warning, we realised they were sambar; those stars were their eyes. I stopped the car, startled; my hand hit the horn on the steering wheel. The two unsuccessful shots and the screech of the horn chased the sambar away. As we watched, they disappeared into the depths of the forest and became one with the all-encompassing shadows.


Everything happened so quickly, the Major and the Doctor didn’t get a chance to take a second shot. The sambar were all already hidden in the jungle.


The sound of the shots sank into the forest. A sound like thunder echoed from the far off hills. ‘Is that a tiger growling?’ asked Yogeshwar in English.


But neither the Major nor the Doctor heard the sound. They were too busy cursing at me fulsomely: first of all, I hadn’t seen the herd of sambar; second of all, I hadn’t stopped the jeep in the right place, instead, sounding the horn in my shock. In their opinion, I’d had so much to drink I no longer had the right to be classified in the category of human being.


We advanced. I began to drive the jeep very slowly to make up for my inadequacy; this time with the intention of really getting something done. I also looked around as much as possible.


The jungle ahead was relatively younger. There was quite a bit of space between the trees here, but the grass was a bit longer.


It seemed to me as though there were some animals in the grass about a hundred yards away. I stopped the jeep completely and signalled to the Doctor, who’d been the first to curse at me.


Quietly, he got out of the jeep. The Major followed his lead. The Doctor stumbled a bit. Then he stopped, aiming his rifle at the target. He switched on the flashlight affixed to his forehead, and its sharp light spread out before us; there was something hidden in the tall grasses. The Doctor fired. The Major fired right after him. The two of them then ran toward the prey together.


The echo of the shots hadn’t yet died when we heard the sound of muffled sobbing. It seemed we might all have fallen prey to some terrible tragedy.


The Major and the Doctor were the first to arrive at the scene. Yogeshwar took a small flashlight from his pocket and the two of us walked forward following the path in its light.


A girl, about seventeen, lay unconscious in the grass, her eyes closed. In the light of the torch, her face, surrounded by grasses, looked totally astonishing, utterly incongruous. She had a dark complexion and wore a fancy new blouse and expensive ghaghra. Her body was draped in a red chunari. She had a gold nose ring and wore heavy silver jewellery with lac bangles on her wrists. The chunari had fallen from her head. Her arms lay limp and helpless at her sides.


But we noticed all these things later. The first thing that attracted our attention was her left leg. The bullet had gone below her joint, scraped the flesh from near her calf and then re-emerged. Blood flowed profusely from the wound.


The Doctor turned off his flashlight. He was no longer stumbling. He ran back to the jeep. When he returned, he had the bottle of rum in his hand.


He quickly bound the wound with a handkerchief. Then he opened the girl’s mouth and poured a drop of rum in. A short while later, the girl’s arms began to move and she moaned.


Suddenly a person who until now had been standing and quietly watching all this leapt over to the Doctor. He grabbed the Doctor by the hair and shrieked, ‘You’ve killed her!’


The Doctor tried to shove him away but he stood his ground. Then the Major went and placed a hand on his shoulder, and he started, and began looking at the Major. He let go of the Doctor’s hair. ‘Don’t worry,’ said the Major softly. ‘It’s just an ordinary wound to the leg.’


‘You’ve ruined us,’ he cried, shaking the Major like a lunatic. ‘It doesn’t matter what kind of wound it is. We’re ruined.’


The Major tried to calm him down, saying, ‘We’ll give her medicine. She’ll be fine. Don’t worry.’ In the midst of this, we began to hear all different sounds coming from some distance away in the jungle. The girl moaned. The young man leapt toward me as he had before. Grabbing my hand, he said, ‘Sahib, you have a car. Move, quickly! Otherwise, they’ll come.’ In his anxiety he’d grabbed my hand and begun to drag me toward the jeep.


I took the flashlight from Yogeshwar and shone it on the young man. He was around twenty-five and wore a thick kurta. He had on a dhoti too, but he’d hiked it up to his knees. His hair was dishevelled, he was unshaven, his eyes looked sunken due to the prominence of his cheekbones, but he appeared to be hale and hearty.


‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘We’re taking the girl to a hospital.’


There was a gust of wind. Clusters of raindrops, until now trapped in the branches, fell on our heads. The girl moaned and tried to stand up. The young man tried to help her but she shrieked and then fell silently on road.


By that point, we could make out the voices of several men nearby. Dots of light from lanterns and flashlights shone through the network of trees. Someone was shouting, ‘They’re not here. I can hear talking from over there.’


‘The bleeding hasn’t stopped yet,’ said the Major. ‘Come on, let’s get to a hospital quickly.’ Looking toward Yogeshwar, he asked, ‘What do you say, Boss?’


‘No, let them come,’ responded Yogeshwar harshly. ‘Don’t you see, there’s something going on here.’


The young man continued to hold onto my hand, saying, ‘You’ve ruined us. You’ve ruined us.’


Now lights began to appear all around us. People were raising a commotion as they ran toward us from all sides, getting snarled in the grasses and bushes as they came. ‘What’s going on, who is this girl to you?’ Yogeshwar asked the young man.


He placed his hand on the girl’s brow and said, his voice choked with emotion, ‘It doesn’t matter who she is; you’re the ones who stopped us. If anything happens to her, I’ll make you pay for it.’


He sounded angry, but he turned again and again to gaze with worried eyes first at the girl and then at the people running toward us from all directions. Getting a sense of the situation, the Doctor and the Major went and stood near him.


In just a moment we were surrounded by about twenty-five men. A skinny old man rushed up and taking the girl in his arms, he lay in the grass with her began to scream, ‘Oh, oh, my daughter! Oh, oh, my daughter!’


Streams of tears flowed from the girl’s eyes. ‘What has happened to my daughter?’ wept the old man, again and again.


I tried to calm him down by telling him the whole story. Just then another man stepped out from the crowd. He was older, about fifty-five, and short and fat. He was dressed like a bridegroom, and wore a yellow turban on his head, kajal about his eyes, a garland around his neck, and a yellow vest. ‘Grab this scoundrel!’ he thundered. ‘He was running away with my wife!’


The crowd started raising a ruckus and advanced towards the youth, but the Doctor and the Major stopped them. The girl had regained consciousness. Moaning in a faint voice and covering her head with her chunari, she sat up, holding onto the youth as though she too wished to suffer any blows meted out to him.


Now the girl’s father began to weep inconsolably. ‘Her father is also in cahoots with this guy!’ thundered the fifty-five-year-old bridegroom ‘Don’t let him get away. Grab these two scoundrels! The girl will go with me.’


The young man snatched the rifle from the Doctor’s hand. He held it up and shouted, ‘Get out of my way! I’m marrying her! Nobody dare touch her!’ In that same tone, he said to the Doctor, ‘You take her. You’re the one who injured her. You take her to the hospital.’


The crowd erupted. Some said the two of them had been meeting in secret; this was bound to happen one day. Everyone had known from the beginning. Others cursed the times – imagine, someone can elope with someone else’s bride on the wedding night and no one stops him!


The elderly bridegroom shook the bride’s father. ‘What are you looking at!’ he cried. ‘Are you just going to let yourself be disgraced? Stop your daughter. She can’t leave if you stop her!’


But the father’s legs seemed suddenly paralysed. He sat down right there in the grass with a thud and took his head in his hands.


The young man grabbed the girl’s father’s feet. ‘Father, forgive us,’ he entreated. ‘We gave this a lot of thought. Just tell us you don’t accept her alliance with this old goat. Just say it once.’


But her father just sat there, his head in his hands. The Doctor and two other men lifted the girl and took her to the jeep.


The bridegroom again shook the shoulders of the father of the girl and cried victoriously, ‘You’re not saying anything. I knew from the start you’d cheat me. You went ahead and took money from me and then let the girl take off with her lover. Hand over my three hundred rupees if you have any shame at all! I don’t accept this alliance myself. Hand over the money. What’s that? Why aren’t you saying anything? Cat got your tongue?’


He continued to rain countless curses on the head of the girl’s father but the old man continued to sit on the grass silently, his head resting in his hands as he listened to it all. On the other side, the young man was saying, ‘Don’t worry, Father, I’ll pay off every rupee to the old goat. If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll pay him off. She was very upset about running off with me. I won’t let any harm come to her. For better or worse, we belong to you.’ He said all this in his tired voice, whilst on the other side, the aged groom spoke harsh words in a gloating tone.


The girl’s father wouldn’t hear of standing up; he’d become rooted to the spot, like those ancient trees that surrounded us on all sides, blocking out the moonlight that shone down from above. The old goat freely shared the history of the sum he’d given for the bride. People spoke of the girl’s depravity, of the no-account boy, of what a low sort of man the girl’s father was, and they spoke also of our rifles.


I touched the girl’s father and said, ‘Come on. The girl’s made it to the car. Don’t worry, it’s not a serious injury.’


That may have been, but it wasn’t easy to guess at the enormity of his own wound.


He got up. He looked at me as though I was trying to shoot him. Gazing about with the frightened glance of a terrified deer surrounded by hunters, he slowly set out for the jeep, resting against the arm of the young man.


The many men who yet remained among the dark tree trunks and dense grasses continued to shriek and carry on like wraiths.


I didn’t get a good look at the faces of the young man or the girl then, but I knew their eyes must also be suffused with the panic of hunted deer.



Originally published as Shikariyon Ke Beech this story is available in the anthology entitled Shrilal Shukla Sanchayita, Rajkamal Prakashan, 2008. The translation is published with permission from the author's estate.


Shrilal Shukla (1925 - 2011) was among the most celebrated Hindi authors of the post-Independence era. Shukla was known for his satire and unstinting critiques of Indian life after Independence. He worked as a Provincial Civil Services (PCS) officer for the state government of Uttar Pradesh, and later became a member of the IAS. He wrote over 25 books, including the famous Raag Darbari, a satirical novel of village India with an epic sweep.

Daisy Rockwell is a translator, painter, and writer who lives in Vermont, USA. She has a PhD in South Asian literature and has written widely on Hindi and Urdu literature, including her book Upendranath Ashk: A Critical Biography, Katha, 2004. Rockwell has translated a collection of Ashk's short stories, Hats and Doctors, Penguin, 2013, and her translation of Ashk's novel Falling Walls is forthcoming from Penguin India in 2015. She is also the author of a novel, Taste, Foxhead Books, 2014.