ABOUT THE STORY One of fiction’s great freedoms lies in the way it makes language not just more meaningful and more allusive than we normally know it to be, but also more new. Sometimes the old words, even in their thousands, are not enough: fiction must invent new words, new sounds. In these harrowing and hallucinatory stories by the Urdu writer Sayyid Muhammad Ashraf, an entire universe of violence, fear, and power is opened out by one strange sound, often repeated: chit-chit. This is the sound ascribed to the hyena who terrifies the child protagonist, Munnu Bhaiya, in the opening story. The power of Ashraf’s fiction lies in how he makes his characters (and readers) hear and fear this sound in our heads long before it actually appears in the world of the story as something real. Imagination trumps reality; the hyena haunts life at every turn.
But then it is captured, which means an end to the family’s affliction—or does it? In the second story, the nightmare world of fancy conjured up by Ashraf turns, as if by the flick of a switch, into a nightmare world of fact. It is not just the hyena, bloodied, beaten, in chains, who must be killed, but also a convict standing helplessly at the house of the Police Captain. The man is at the mercy of his ruthless captors, who want to kill him in a staged encounter revelatory of the feudal structure of the world in which the hyena has been caught. Suddenly, animal and man appear juxtaposed, breathing their last gasps or life. When the bullets ring out, who will be killed—one, both, or neither? Ashraf’s masterly use of detail and management of narrative tension (equalled in English by the translations of Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad) generate, in this pair of stories, contrasting worlds streaked with fear and foreboding: chit-chit, chit-chit.
The Hyena Laughed