The boys were sitting there at dusk, the tamarind tree behind them. Bare-bodied, their dirty half shirts used as mattresses, they were sitting in a circle, legs stretched, gossiping. A shriek made them all look back. Shaking a dead branch of the tamarind tree, shedding leaves, something large flew over their head, howling. In the dimming light of the day, a mass of absolute, alive darkness landed on the abandoned house in front, almost touching their heads.
The boys raised a din and rushed to the house. In the near darkness, they could see only heaped soil and a shadowy bush, but the leader among them knew that among the common birds found there, only a vulture runs for some distance to keep balance once it lands. He saw it first – the lump of darkness running ahead and then stopping, confused, embarrassed.
Shaken, a relatively younger boy spoke, “What’s that?”
Another one replied, “Can’t get it at all!”
It is a bird.
Something like that.
Who can say what’s in someone’s mind at dusk? The leader spat on its chest. The lump of darkness was still, with a disposition to hide, if possible, in the hollow of a banyan, inside some horrid abode of putrid stink, in a hole dug by some jackal by the side of a river below a familiar bush.
“Asshole! Who knows what’s there in one’s heart, who wants what, who draws whose destiny! Come, let’s go home.”
In the group, there was a shepherd boy. There was also another kid who studied in school but whenever possible, tended to cattle, sowed seeds – that sort of a chap was also there.
“What a chicken! We found a thing, let’s see it till the end, wait.”
“No, I shall leave.”
“Then leave, we are not coming with you.”
“Who’ll reach home? Just cross the tamarind tree alone and see the fun!” The chap who studied in the school said. “We have to see the thing.”
Almost everyone stopped. Then the oldest boy went forward. Cautiously, on his toes.
Standing still at a place, that ugly life looked like a rebellion against everything beautiful.
The leader knew, it was an old vulture. Noiseless, unenterprising, dull.
He went straight, close. So close that he could touch it with his hand stretched.
“Bastard! Who knows what’s there in someone’s mind, who gets drawn with whose destiny,” the shepherd boy was still chanting.
A gush of wind set a bunch of dry leaves loose, and then let them settle. The water in the pond had a mild vibration at first, then slowly, there was a wave. A forbidding, uneasy noise rose as something metallic fell from someone’s hand somewhere.
The boy went ahead and stood very close – it was a vulture, for real, it couldn’t reach its nest while there was daylight. At night, it’s blind. A terrible acrid smell filled his nostrils, laced with the filthy stench of an abattoir, as if it had bathed sometime back in the rotten muck of decomposing animals. The remnants of a fight between the vulture and a stray dog were still visible at a spot that had split open on its coarse and grimy feather.
“The fucker must have had a fight in the noon. It’s yet to recover.” Poltu came forward. Jamu, Edai followed close behind. And then a lot more boys, who were there, came forward.
Poltu said, “Not a vulture?”
“Yes, can’t you see that?”
“It’s not a Mosalman, is it?”
“Maybe the Chief of that flock?”
Shepherd Jamu said, “Tell me if it’s a male or a female, then I’ll say, yes!”
Sardar Rafiq said, “You are a bull-head, so you speak like one.”
The vulture was still standing there, silent. Perhaps it was not liking this irritating, tiresome situation. Rafiq gave a call, “Come, let’s have some fun, make it dance.”
The gang of boys cheered. The boy who wished to return home but was too afraid to cross the tamarind tree, cheered as well.
Rafiq went ahead and got hold of the wings of the vulture. Alerted, refusing to be held or caught, the ugly bird spread out its two dirty wings and ran fast through the narrow village lanes on its two legs with their obnoxious claws.
They prepare to fly like that, try to make themselves weightless. Perhaps it would have flown in the end – at least would have gotten rid of these intolerable kids – from their violent curiosity and the clutches of their life-wrecking game. But it was visionless and had no definite destination to walk up to. The vulture hit its head against a wall. The little vengeful demons chasing it chuckled with cruel amusement.
The bird could cross the dark lane because it was not a dead-end. On either side of the lane, the snakes that stick out their necks from the holes every summer would have recoiled, had they been in their usual position that day.
Past the tree bearing jujubes, through two more abandoned huts, ignoring the parched cries of the land parcel that had accumulated bones, it tried to spread its wings and fly. It ran faster, it spent more energy, it tried to recognize the pathway with more clarity. It wished to run away. But it was dull, devoid of options. It did not know how to attack. Stuck in the middle of this boisterous crowd, it could not even vent its anger with its sharp beaks and stop all the nonsense! It was feeling, however, the other things alive that were chasing it.
Someone shrieked aloud. A fine, hard bone had pierced his foot.
“Ok, let him sit down. We must catch that vulture.” Rafiq gave out a piercing cry.
“Yes, you sit down. We shall catch it for sure.”
“You sit down! Or, go home!”
“Eh, it is bleeding!”
“Let it,” said the boy who was hurt, and having said that, he continued to limp for a while, then ran again. There was a marshy pit in front. Turning the bend, the vulture left the ground. It flew. But it was quite hesitant, embarrassed, quite uncertain with its footsteps. Perhaps it ran out of breath, perhaps it was tired. Perhaps it failed to determine the direction. It fell in the pit, splashing the dirty water, creating ripples in the thick waterbody glittering in the dark, stirring the muck; then it hit the banks on the other side in near silence.
As if by coincidence, some more soil splashed in the water.
A horrid, exhausted creature pulled itself up on the other side.
Transformed, wet, mud-ridden.
The boys rushed to the other side.
The dense population of the village thinned out there. Darkness rose as mounds here and there. Driven by its innate senses, the creature entered the field. An expansive, open field.
It ran to the last limits of its energy, to its heart’s content.
The boys could not see each other’s faces. They were gasping as well.
“Bastard, run as much as you wish, take us wherever you wish!”
“Not any more, dearie, not anymore.”
“It’s getting over for you.”
“We will catch it tonight!”
“Yes, we must catch it!”
Then, jumping over the barriers on the uneven, un-ploughed fields, running far, over the baby-crops, their shirts getting torn by the thorns in the bushes, the boy gang filled more and more with rage, with a deadly promise.
Edai asked Rafiq, “What will you do after you catch it?”
“Nothing, will just catch it.”
“What hmmm? What will you do then?”
“First we shall catch, then think something else.”
No one spoke after that. They couldn’t. In that eerie darkness, they ran like shifting, restless nightmares.
The southerly did not touch them. Far away, beside the acacia bush, they could not hear the crushing crumpling sound of the mango leaves.
Or, the jackals howling, or the crickets buzzing non-stop like a stone grinding a cemented floor, or with every step the paddy stubbles below their feet getting crushed – the darkness was getting denser, nothing mattered.
Finally, they caught hold of it. Grabbed, hugged, twisted the vulture. All of them. On their chest, they felt the wheezing, hollow sound that came out of the frame of that animal like that from the bellows. Like sighs – vacuous, empty, captured, of tiredness, of distress.
The curiosity of the boys, the cruel satiation of their excesses, their gratified fatigue, of the anticipated excitement of torturous heartbeats – did the bird feel all that?
“Same, the same one, right?”
“The one we followed, it’s the same vulture, right?”
“Why? Are you unable to believe it?”
“Don’t know, this one feels odd.”
The one that was running, that was escaping, that had stopped, that stood at one place, as if it had depleted.
“See, what filthy spunk is coming out of it?
“What spunk? It stinks.”
“Does that lessen the spunk?”
Soaked, the vulture smelled like dampness. Its dense stench fluidized, the molten stench that chokes breath.
Rafiq said, “Come, now get a hold on it – don’t hold the beak – it will choke.”
The shepherd came forward, “I will hold the bastard. Let me show you some love, freak!”
Jamu on one side and Rafiq on the other held the huge, powerless wings of the vulture.
“What a size, fuck! Must be eight to nine arm lengths.”
The folded, densely feathered wings spread out, the texture felt thinner to the fingers. Feathers, stacked in steps, were supposed to have spread out laterally, like an embroidered carpet, but the vulture was wet, smeared with muck, its feathers curled up through the gaps, a lot of gaps, scattered, laid side by side. Its wings helpless, defenseless, the vulture surrendered.
Then the second round of running started. Not after some expectation this time, but with a trophy. With senseless cruelty. Self-gratifying cruelty.
“Run, run, raise your tail and run.”
Vulture’s legs could not keep pace. It did not matter. Its feet were, perhaps, not even touching the ground. The boys pulled it along, dragged it along.
“Yuck, its face got rammed! See what you are dragging, see if it is already dead.”
“Who is dying to see? We will drag the dead.”
Those who dragged the bird were running with a terrible hubbub behind them, shouting all the way, mighty amused at the bizarre game. What was the gain?
Gain was to see it defeated – you are a vulture, you stink, you eat dead cows on the roadside, you scavenge with the dogs – why do we feel rage looking at you?
The boys said they felt enraged looking at the vulture, as if what it ate was edible; their dresses, as if, like its stinky feathers. Looking at it, they were reminded of the greedy merchants in the village. Or else, why do people call those traders vultures? And a little while ago, the sighs that the vulture breathed out, why did those sound like the sighs of their parents? Why did it seem to them that the vulture had indigestion? Grey, that demoralized them so much, why did its skin match that color? Almost alive, the fallout of heinous crimes, the abandoned children that the boys were used to find in watery graves, at the feet of the tamarind tree, when their heart mellowed with unexplained pain, as if those children were their own brothers and sisters – why did this creature relish their tender flesh?
Someone said, “Feeling hungry.”
“Didn’t you eat anything?”
“Just that lunch of rice with beef.”
“Me too, I am hungry as well.”
“The color of your shirt irritates me.”
“It’s coarse and thick.”
“Just like that bastard vulture.”
“All of ours are…” Rafiq said.
“Hambu’s father will die in a day or two. Do you know what he did the whole afternoon?”
“I know – he was just panting – like this bastard.”
Jamu said, “All these bastards have asthma. Oi bastard, you want to run away, fucker vulture, fucker loan shark Aghor Babaji.
They all laughed out loud recalling the features of Aghori Babaji.
Their revelry went on, jumping over the barriers on the un-ploughed, uneven fields, with injured hearts and patchy wounds, amidst the thorns of acacia and cactuses, through long, dried grasses, earthen roads, through humid wind from the hot, scarred earth like exhalations of snakes, through the attacks and screams of the spear like stubbles left after harvesting sugarcanes and pulses. Like a mound of dried earth, at the end of its energy, past any sense of pain, comatose, overwhelmed, drowsy, the vulture kept being dragged. When the boys took rest, talking among themselves, wiping blood from their wounds on their short pants, the vulture stood still. It was not even trying the impossible act of breathing deep and getting over its exhaustion.
“See how many stars are twinkling.”
“There is no other light around.”
“There is no moon, no?”
“There is wind blowing, no?”
“It is, but it is fucking hot.”
“I am feeling feverish.”
“You are feeling afraid.”
“How far have we come?”
“Disaster! We are in the middle of the Meadow, the killing fields. That there must be the banks of the canal.”
“Let’s go to the banks of the canal, once more let’s drown the vulture in water.” The road was not visible. The village around was a blur. One felt directionless – such a huge sky, such darkness.
Jamu said, “I have heard that deep in the night a lot of things happen.”
“Oi, I touch your feet, don’t start that now!”
Wherever tamarind trees are found, near them, the women and men in sleep opened their door latches and came to the middle of the field. Look around, just tamarind trees and jet black bilui all over. Wherever you look, it is just bilui and bilui. Who knows who comes on whose call… the vulture suddenly seemed like a black cat.
The boys were left with no courage to touch it anymore. They touched their own chest and felt it.
“It may be this way, say everyone is a ghost, disguised as humans.”
“No, no, I am not a ghost, I am the only human!”
“Then touch me, if I am not human, I will vanish into thin air. Touch me.”
“I can’t touch you.”
Each was suddenly cautious of the other. They sat down on the banks of the canal, but at a distance from one another. They glanced at each other with sharp eyes. Then, they pinched themselves. They had let the vulture go. It was lying twisted on the ground, its wings pressed, legs buckled.
“It’s past midnight, no?”
“It may be late evening or deep in the night.”
Perhaps so. They had lost count of time. The time they were in was not the right time. It was as if the game they finished playing had happened beyond their times.
Still, someone said, “The jackals howled thrice.”
“Then it must be the end of the night.”
“Let’s go brother, let’s get into the water.”
They ran deranged through the mud and got into the water.
A whiff of wind touched their faces, sliding through the surface of shallow water. Something came back to them.
The vulture took a bath again.
“Will the fucker not eat anything?”
“What will it eat – is there any corpse here to eat?”
Jamu said, “Tear some hay from the earth, let the fucker eat that.”
That’s what someone brought. Rafiq said, “It’s not a cow that will eat hay. But the fucker must swallow this all.”
“Yes, force it to swallow.”
“Hey, give your stick to me.”
“Yes, yes, pull its beaks apart, keep it open.”
The vulture coughed. They bent its neck, parted its beaks, and with the utmost caution, kept feeding it the specks of hay.
“Go fucker, die fucker.”
“I will take a feather, and make a pen of it.”
“I will take one too, and make a crown.”
Rafiq plucked the largest feather. The feather came out silently from the innards of the flesh. The vulture shivered. Then everyone plucked, one by one.
The vulture looked like an ugly, big hen.
They were all returning, wobbling like drunks. Sitting, waiting for some time. Stumbling. Watching their torn shirts. Thinking about tomorrow. Just at the entrance of the village, a palm tree on one side, a leafless bel tree on the other, near that tiny portal, a silhouette of something blurry.
Jamu said, “Don’t go to that side.”
“Your home is that way, let’s go and see what those are?”
“My home is close, that’s why I know what those are.”
“What are those, oi?”
“How does that matter to you?”
“Those shadows are Jamiruddi and the widowed sister of Kadu Sheikh.”
“What are they doing there?”
“Counting plums! Idiot! Move, let’s go home!”
Just before the east got its hue, in the deep darkness that preceded, the boys laid down on their torn mats on the moist grounds, letting go of all sense in sleep, their exhaustion wiped out; amid their difficulties, in between their quarrels, with empty stomachs, the boys slept, almost unconscious. The sun rose, illuminated everything, the leaves on the trees looked lustrous. The sun rose higher, the air became warmer, cattle left their homes to sniff the earth for grass. The sun went down, the cattle came back. The boys were still asleep.
A little away from the leafless bel tree, in front of everyone’s eyes, the vulture lay dead. It had thrown up pieces of rotten flesh before it died. How big it seemed in daylight! How hollow, how vacuous – specks of hay peeping out through its beak. It lay biting at its own wing, on its back, folding its legs towards the sky. Flocks of vultures were descending beside it. But one vulture doesn’t eat another. Just beside the dead vulture, lay a near-born human child. The vultures were flocking, greedy for that. Shrieking like wild lunatics. The first hit on the tender belly of the child perhaps was from the dead vulture lying by its side.
The dead child drew the attention of people in the houses nearby.
“Who did this act, eh?”
Women and men gathered around. But Kadu Sheikh’s sister did not turn up. She was unwell. In the daylight, she was looking as pale as the dead vulture.
Tapan Mozumdar is an Indian writer and storyteller. Born in 1966 at Patna, Bihar, he completed his Electrical Engineering in 1988 from IIT Kanpur. A late bloomer in literature, his short stories are well published in several on-line magazines of repute. He was selected for Star TV Writers Program and in the new book category at Jaipur Litfest and Bengaluru Litfest.
He lives in Bengaluru, India.