This week, Seagull Books publishes Wolves, a collection of short stories by Bhuwaneshwar (1910–57), who is often described as the father of the modern Hindi short story. Translated and introduced by Saudamini Deo, the collection offers English-language readers access to one of the key figures of twentieth-century Hindi literature. The title story, reproduced below, follows a caravan that attempts to escape a ravenous pack of wolves.
“What’s a wolf?” Kharu gypsy said. “I’m the only one from Panethi who can kill a wolf.” I believed him. Kharu was scared of nothing, and, although he was almost seventy, and a lifetime of poverty had dimmed his appearance, you still believed him when he spoke like this. His real name was Iftikhar or something like that, but the shortened Kharu suited him. He was surrounded by just such an incomprehensible and impenetrable hardness. His eyes were cold and frozen, and under the thick white mustache, his mouth was as inhuman and pitiless as a rattrap.
He was done with life and death didn’t want him, yet still he survived, spitting in the face of time. Unconcerned about your opinion, good or bad, he never told a lie and it was as if he showed, with his own merciless bitter truth, how barren and terrifying the truth can be. Kharu told me this story and I cannot describe in words the convincing manner and complete indifference with which it was told. But I believe it to be true, every word of it. “I am not scared of anything, yes, except for wolves, I am not scared of anything,” Kharu said. “Not just one wolf, not two or four. A pack of two hundred or three hundred that emerges on winter nights, whose hunger cannot be satisfied with all the things of all the world, those wolves—no one can face that army of demons. People say a lone wolf is a coward. This is a lie. A wolf is never a coward—even alone, it is always alert. If you think foxes are cunning, it’s because you don’t know wolves. Have you ever seen a wolf hunt—a swamp deer? It doesn’t overact like a lion, or show off like a bear. Once, just once, the wolf bounds up like a ball and slashes a deep wound in the thigh—that’s it.Then it follows, from a distance, the trail of dripping blood to where the weakened deer has finally collapsed. Or, it springs on to an animal three times its size, gashes its stomach—and latches on to it. The wolf is a dangerously cunning and courageous animal. It never tires. Good-quality bulls can pull our gypsy caravans faster than horses, but when they smell a wolf, they don’t just run—they fly. But no four-footed animal can run faster than a wolf.”
“Listen, I was on my way back from Gwalior. It was unusually cold and the wolf packs were already out. Our caravan was rather heavy. Me, my father, my household, three girl acrobats—fifteen, fifteen, fifteen years old. We were taking them . . .”
“What do you think—to perform? To sell, of course! They have no other value. Girl acrobats from Gwalior are usually quite plump and sell well in Punjab. These girls were quite delicious but also quite heavy. We had one fast gypsy caravan and three bulls that could run faster than horses.
“We had left at dawn, because we wanted to meet up with our partners in daylight. And we were carrying two bows and a gun for protection. The bulls were running spiritedly, and we had already covered twenty miles when the old man turned and said, 'Kharu, wolves?'
“I said quickly, 'What? There are wolves? If there were, wouldn’t the bulls know?'
“The old man shook his head and said, 'No, there are definitely wolves. Anyway, they’re about ten miles behind us, but the bulls are tired and we still have fifty miles to go. And I know these wolves. Last year, they ate up a few prisoners—they devoured everything but the chains and police guns. Load the gun.'
“I tested the bows, snapped open the gun, everything was fine.
“'Also check the new pack of gunpowder,' my father said.
“'Pack of gunpowder?' I said. 'I only have the old one.'
“Then the old man started abusing me. 'You . . . you . . .'
“I searched the whole caravan but there was no new packet.
“My father also searched. 'You’re lying, you wolf-child, I gave you the new pack.' But that gunpowder was not there. My father elbowed me in the back and said, 'I’ll skin you alive when we reach the city, when we reach the city . . .'
“Right at that moment the bulls suddenly paused, then swished their tails and bolted. I heard a sound from miles away, faint like the sound of wind moving in ancient ruins—
“'Hwa aa aa aa aa aa aa aa aa!'
“'Wind,' I said fearfully. 'Wolves,' my father said in disgust, and took the bulls in hand. But they didn’t need the whip. They had smelled the wolves and were running as fast as they could. I could see a black stain stir at a distance. You could see anything from miles away in that flat, barren, endless desert. And I could see that black stain move toward us like a cloud. The old man said, 'As soon as they come near us, shoot. If you waste even one arrow, I’ll rip out your liver.' The three girls clung to each other and started crying. 'Shut up,' I said. 'You make a sound and I’ll toss you out.'
“It seemed that we had, indeed, left the wolves behind—but they soon returned.”
“The wolves were advancing, we were flying across the brown stony earth—but the wolves! The old man gave up the reins and sat cradling the gun. I held the bow: I could hunt flying drakes in the dark and as for my father—once he took aim at something, even Allah had to forget about it. From a distance of about four hundred yards, my father felled the first wolf. Bang! It somersaulted once like an acrobat and then again a second time. The bulls were running like mad, the froth from their mouths showering our faces like rain. And they were bellowing like gypsy women do when they imitate cattle in heat. And they kept coming closer. The pack swallowed the dead wolves without a pause, then swept over them. My father rested the gun barrel on my shoulder. Bang! Bang! (My shoulder still bears the scar of the burn.) I killed sixteen wolves with sixteen arrows, the old man killed ten, but the circle kept coming closer and closer.
“'Here, hold the gun,' he said. 'I’ll handle the bulls.'
“He believed the bulls could run even faster, but he was wrong. No bull in the world could run faster than that.
“I was quite good with guns too but this was a local, rusted one. Anyway, the girl Baandi could refill it within five minutes. She was a good girl, she would fill the gun and I would shoot—perfectly. I felled ten more—bang—bang—bang! By the time the gunpowder was finished, the wolves had started to look a little defeated.
“I said, 'Now they’ve fallen behind.'
“The old man laughed, 'They won’t fall behind so easily. But, I will now swear with my dying breath that Kharu is the best marksman among all the gypsies of the seven continents.'
“My father had become quite the jester in his old age.
“So, the wolves had fallen a little behind. They had found something to eat. The whip was moving swish-swish-snap on the bulls when, within five minutes, the wolves returned. They were only about two hundred yards away and getting closer. My father said, 'Throw away the things, lighten the caravan.'
“The caravan stumbled once, then sped up. Our caravan was the best in the gypsy colony, and now, without its load, it was as light as a flower, and for some time it seemed that we had, indeed, left the wolves behind—but they soon returned.
“The old man said, 'Now, let one of the bulls loose.'
“'What?' I asked. 'Can only two bulls pull the caravan?'
“He said, 'OK, then throw out a girl.' I picked up the fat one and swung her outside. Ha. An acrobat from Gwalior! She can fight even the wolves if provoked. First she ran but then realizing it was futile, she turned to face them and gripped the first wolf by its legs. But that was equally futile. She suddenly disappeared. As if she had fallen into a well. The caravan, lighter now, moved forward, but the wolves returned again.
“Will you jump or should I push you?”
“'Toss out another one,' the old man said. I protested, “We don’t really travel for pleasure, do we? Why not just untie a bull.'
“I untied another bull. It bellowed and ran, its tail across its back.The circle turned toward it.
“My father got all teary. 'A noble bull, a noble bull . . .' he kept murmuring.
“‘At least we’re safe,' I said. But just then: Hwa aa aa aa aa aa! The circle had returned. 'It’s Judgement day,' I said and made the bulls gallop so fast that my hands started dripping blood.
“But the wolves were flowing toward us like water, and our bulls were about to collapse. 'Throw out the second girl!' my father screamed.
“Baandi was the heavier of the two and, thinking something or the other, she began to remove her silver nose ring with trembling hands. And maybe I didn’t tell you but I used to quite like her.
“That’s why I said to the other girl, 'You, get out!' But it was as if she was paralyzed. I threw her out and she remained lying the way she fell. The caravan was now even lighter and started moving faster. But the wolves came back after five miles. The old man took a deep breath and lamented, 'What can we do, it’s our destiny as gypsies to be beggars but we wanted to be rich . . .'
“I looked at Baandi. She looked at me. I said, 'Will you jump or should I push you?' She removed the silver nose ring, handed it to me, covered her eyes with her arms and jumped. The caravan now flew like the wind. It was the best gypsy caravan.
“But our bulls were exhausted and the colony was still thirty miles away. I kept shooting them dead but the wolves kept coming back.
“Sweat was streaming from my father’s face. 'Let’s untie the second bull.'
“I said, 'It will be like jumping into the jaws of death. We’ll both die. At least one of us should survive.'
“'You’re right,' he said. 'I’m an old man. My life has ended. I will jump.'
“I said, 'Don’t be sad. If I stay alive, I’ll butcher each and every wolf.'
“'My noble son!' My father said and kissed me on both cheeks. Then he took two big knives in both hands and wrapped a piece of cloth tightly around his throat.
“'Wait,' he said. 'I’m wearing new shoes. They would have lasted me another ten years. But look, don’t wear these. Dead men’s shoes should never be worn. Just sell them.'
“He pulled off his shoes, flung them into the caravan and jumped into the middle of wolves. I didn’t look back but for some time I could hear him scream, 'Here you go! Here! You wolf-child! You wolf-child!' and then—slurp-slurp, slurp-slurp. Only I was somehow saved.”
Kharu looked at my frightened face, laughed loudly, hawked and spat copiously on the ground.
“The next year, I killed sixty of those wolves,” he then said, laughing. But an ominous hardness flashed in his eyes and, hungry and naked, he rose straight to his feet.
From Wolves by Bhuwaneshwar, translated by Saudamini Deo. Published May 2021 by Seagull Books. By arrangement with the publisher.