Translated from the Urdu by Aatish Taseer
For some time now, the two sides had been entrenched in their positions on the front. Over the course of a day, the sound of fire could be heard, some ten or twelve times from either side, but no human cry ever accompanied its report.
The weather was extremely agreeable, the air infused with the scent of wildflowers; and, on the heights and slopes of the hills, nature, oblivious to the sound of war, went busily about her duties. The birds squalled, the flowers bloomed, and hovering drowsily over them, in their same old way, slow-moving honeybees sucked their nectar.
When the sound of fire rang through the hills, the squalling birds gave a start and took flight, their hearing hurt, as if a hand had struck some discordant note. The end of September gently embraced the beginning of October; it seemed as if heat and cold were being seamlessly reconciled to each other; and over clear blue skies, like bits of carded cotton or white budgerows, light feathery clouds scudded by.
After a while, the soldiers of both sides grew vexed that no decisive result had presented itself. When, at length, they tired of lying about, they felt the desire to make themselves heard. That no one was listening was unimportant, – just humming to themselves was enough. They would remain flat or facedown on the stony ground, and on receiving the order, fire once or twice into the air.
Both fronts were in very secure places. The bullets would come singing at full speed, collide against the rock face and be extinguished. The two hills on which the fronts stood were of similar height; between them lay a valley over whose green-clad breast a runnel ran, writhing over it like a snake.
There was no danger from airplanes; neither side possessed cannon; and so both sides would fearlessly light fires, whose smoke rose and mingled in the air. At night silence prevailed, though the soldiers of both sides could occasionally hear someone’s laughter at some little bit of fun, or else the song of another, who having caught the mood, was awakening the quiet of the night. And from behind, when a returning echo was heard, it was as if the mountains were learning a lesson by rote.
A round of tea had ended; in stone stoves, the light pieces of pine coal had practically gone cold; the skies were clear; and there was a chill in the air. It was free of the smell of flowers, as if they too had closed their perfume boxes for the night; as a result, the atmosphere was infused with the sweat of pine resin which was not unpleasant.
Everyone, wrapped in blankets, lay asleep, though all were ready at any minute to rise, fight and die.
Corporal Harnam Singh was on patrol. When the hour, in his Rascope watch, struck two, he awoke Ganda Singh and installed him in his station. He wanted very much to sleep, but on closing his eyes, found it as far from him as the stars of the night sky; lying flat on his back, he warbled softly:
Bring me a pair of star-spangled shoes
Harnam Singh, O darlin
should it cost you your buffalo.
On all sides, Harnam Singh could see star-spangled shoes, scattered over the sky and twinkling softly.
Them star-spangled shoes I’ll bring you
Harnam Kaur, O Darlin
should it cost me my buffalo.
He smiled, and knowing that sleep now would not come, he woke the others. The thought of a woman had excited his mind; he wanted to make inane conversation; conversation in which he might re-live his feeling for Harnam Kaur.
Talk did begin, but it was abrupt and disjointed. Banta Singh, who was the youngest among them, and had the best voice, sat to one side as the others chatted, yawning now and then. After a while, Banta Singh, in his mournful voice, began to sing ‘Heer:’
‘Hir said, “the yogi lied; no one pacifies an aggrieved lover/ I searched and searched, but found no one who could call back the departed. A hawk lost a crane to the crow; look, does he lament or not? Give not to those who suffer fond tales.”’
Then a moment later, he sang Ranjha’s reply to Heer’s words:
‘“That hawk that lost the crane to the crow is thankfully annihilated/He is like the fakir that gave up all his possessions, and was ruined/Be contented, feel less and God becomes your witness/Quit the world, wear the sackcloth and ashes and Sayyed Waris becomes Waris Shah.”’
As abruptly as Banta Singh had begun singing, he now fell silent. And in that instance it was as if the dust-coloured mountains were draped in sackcloth and ashes.
Some moments later, Corporal Harnam Singh, after hurling filthy abuse at an invisible object, lay down.
Suddenly, out of the melancholic air of that last phase of the night, the barking of a dog rang out, making everyone start. The noise seemed to have come from quite near. Corporal Harnam Singh sat up and said: ‘Where’s he showed up from, the yelper?’
The dog barked again. This time the sound was nearer still; a moment later, there was a rustle in the bushes.
Banta Singh rose and walked towards the sound. When he returned, he was accompanied by a stray dog, wagging its tail.
Banta Singh smiled. ‘Corporal saab, when I questioned him, he said, “I’m chapad jhunjhun.”’
Everyone laughed. Corporal Harnam caressed the dog. ‘Come here, chapad jhunjhun’.
The dog, still wagging its tail, went towards Harnam Singh, and thinking perhaps that some food had been thrown in its direction, began sniffing the ground.
Harnam Singh opened his satchel, and removing a biscuit, threw it at the dog. Sniffing the biscuit, it was just about to open its mouth when Harnam Singh leapt forward and picked it up: ‘Wait, wait … you’re not, by any chance, Pakistani?’
Once again everyone laughed. Banta Singh approached, and running his hand over the dog’s back, looked up at Harnam Singh and said: ‘No, corporal saab, chapad jhunjhun is Indian.’
Corporal Harnam Singh chuckled, and addressing the dog, said, ‘Oye, give us a sign.’
The dog began to wag his tail.
Harnam Singh laughed heartily. ‘That’s no sign. All dogs wag their tails.’
Banta Singh caught hold of the dog’s trembling tail. ‘Poor fellow, he’s a refugee.’
Corporal Harnam Singh threw down the biscuit, which the dog sprang upon.
One young soldier, digging the heel of his boot into the ground, said, ‘Dogs, too, better now make up their minds as to whether they’re Indian or Pakistani.’
Harnam Singh removed another biscuit from his satchel and threw it in the direction of the dog. ‘And like the Pakistanis, their dogs, too, will be blown away.’
Another soldier shouted : ‘Long Live, India!’
The dog had been about to pick up the second biscuit, when frightened off by soldier’s cry, it retreated, tucking its tail between its legs.
Harnam Singh laughed. ‘Why are you frightened by our slogan, chapad jhunjhun? … eat … here’s another biscuit.’ And removing another from his satchel, he threw it in the dog’s direction.
As they chatted, morning broke.
The sun had seemed still only to be planning an appearance, when suddenly, on all sides, it became bright. As with a switch to light, so the sun’s rays spread over that mountainous region, whose name was ?e?v?l.
For some time now, there had been fighting here, and though dozens of lives were lost for every peak captured, the result each time had been inconclusive. Today a peak was in their control, tomorrow it was in the enemy’s; the day after, again in their hands, so the following day, in enemy hands.
Corporal Harnam Singh, looking through binoculars, surveyed the land around him. From the facing hill, smoke rose; it meant that there, too, fires were being lit, tea made, breakfast prepared—and surely, there, too, they could see the smoke rising from this side.
During breakfast, the recruits each put some little bit of food before the dog, all of which it happily devoured. They were each taking an interest in the animal as if wishing to befriend it. Its arrival had created quite a stir. Every now and then someone would caress it and call it by its name, ‘chapad jhunjhun.’
On the other side, as evening approached on the Pakistani front, Captain Himmat Khan, while twisting his large mustache, to which countless stories were linked, made a detailed study of the map of ?e?v?l. Beside him sat the wireless operator, taking down instructions for Himmat Khan from the platoon commander. Some distance away, leaning against a rock and clutching his gun, Bashir softly sang:
‘Where, darling, did you pass the night … darling, where?’
No sooner had Bashir, in jest, let his voice rise, than he heard Captain Himmat Khan thunder: ‘Oye! Where the hell have you been all night?’
Bashir gazed questioningly at Himmat Khan, but saw that he was addressing somebody else.
‘Oye, spit it out!’
Then Bashir saw.
Sitting some distance away was the stray dog, who only a few days ago had come like an uninvited guest into their midst and proceeded to remain there among them.
Bashir smiled, and addressing the dog, said: ‘Where, darling, did you pass the night … darling, where?’
The dog energetically wagged its tail, sweeping it like a broom over the stony ground.
Captain Himmat Khan picked up a small stone and threw it at the dog. ‘Bastard, can’t do anything but wag his tail.’
Bashir, suddenly focusing his gaze on the dog, said: ‘What’s that round his neck?’ Having said this, he rose, but no sooner had he done so than another soldier caught hold of the dog and removed the rope tied around his neck. It had been looped through a piece of cardboard on which there was some writing.
Bashir approached and took the piece of cardboard. ‘Chapad jhunjhun … what’s this about?’
Captain Himmat Khan gave his large fabled mustache a firm twist. ‘It must be some code word …’ Then turning to Bashir, he said, ‘Is there anything else …?’
Bashir replied: ‘Yes, sir … It says: “This is an Indian dog.”’
Captain Himmat Khan began to think. ‘What does it mean? What did you read earlier? Chapad …?’
‘Chapad jhunjhun,’ Bashir answered.
One soldier, seeming to speak from great knowledge, said: ‘Therein lies the truth of all this.’
Captain Himmat Khan concurred. ‘Yes, it seems definitely to be that way.’
Once again Bashir read aloud: ‘Chapad jhunjhun: this is an Indian dog.’
Captain Himmat Khan took the wireless set, placed the headphones on his ears, and began to speak to the platoon commander about the dog: how it had come among them, stayed with them for many days, then suddenly vanished one night; and how it had now returned with a rope tied around its neck, to which a piece of cardboard was attached, and on which—he repeated this for the commander some three or four times—these words appeared: ‘Chapad jhunjhun: this is an Indian dog.’
But no explanation was forthcoming.
Bashir sat to the side with the dog, now caressing it, now threatening and frightening it. He questioned it as to where it had been all night, and who had tied the rope and piece of board around its neck, but received no satisfactory answer. The dog, in reply to his questions, simply wagged his tail. At last he became angry and gave the dog a violent shake, causing it to whine in distress.
After his conversation on the wireless set, Captain Himmat Khan sat for some moments closely studying the map of ?e?v?l. Then he rose purposefully, and tearing off the lid from a cigarette box, he handed it over to Bashir. ‘Here, write on this …’
Bashir, taking the lid, asked: ‘What should I write, Captain saab?’
Captain Himmat Khan, twisting his mustache, began to think. ‘Write…just write.’ He removed a pencil from his pocket and gave it to Bashir. ‘What should you write?’
Bashir put the pencil to his lips and began thinking too. Then uncertainly, he muttered: ‘Sapad Sunsun?’
And at once he was satisfied. In a decisive voice, he said, ‘That’s alright then. The answer to chapad jhunjhun can only be sapad sunsun. And they won’t forget it in a hurry, those Sikh mothers …’ Pressing the pencil against the lid of the cigarette box, Bashir wrote: ‘sapad sunsun.’
‘You’re dead on the money!’ Captain Himmat Khan exclaimed and let out a loud laugh. ‘Write sapad sunsun. And write this too: “this is a Pakistani dog.”’
Captain Himmat Khan took the lid from Bashir, punched a hole in it with the pencil and looped the rope through it. Then advancing on the dog, he said, ‘Here, take it to your offspring.’
The soldiers all laughed uproariously.
Captain Himmat Khan tied the rope around the dog’s neck, who, all this time, had continued wagging its tail. Then he gave it something to eat, and adopting a grave counseling tone, said, ‘Look here, friend, do not betray us … keep in mind that the punishment for betrayal is death.’
The dog continued to wag its tail. When it was fully fed up, Captain Himmat Khan, leading it by the rope, pointed its snout in the direction of the single trail leading off the mountain and said: ‘Go on, deliver our letter to the enemy. But remember: come back. This is your officer’s order. Got it?’
The dog, still wagging its tail, began slowly to walk along the trail, which coiled its way down into the bosom of the mountain.
Captain Himmat Khan raised his gun and fired a shot into the air.
Though the shot and its echo were heard on the Indian side, their meaning remained elusive.
Corporal Harnam Singh, for some reason already irritable, became still more irritable when he heard it and began vigorously to brush his beard. After he had done this, he gathered up his hair haphazardly into its netting and addressed Banta Singh: ‘Oye, Banta! The dogs couldn’t stomach the ghee … Where’s chapad jhunjhun?’
Banta Singh, unfamiliar with the proverb, said: ‘But surely we never fed him anything with ghee in it?’
Corporal Harnam Singh laughed loudly. ‘Ignoramus! Talking to you is like losing at cards.’
At that moment, the soldier on watch, who till then had been scanning the land with his binoculars, yelled: ‘He’s coming.’
‘Who?’ Corporal Harnam Singh asked.
‘Chapad jhunjhun,’ the sentinel replied, ‘who else?’
‘Chapad jhunjhun?’ Corporal Harnam Singh exclaimed, sitting up. ‘He’s coming.’
‘Yes, he’s coming,’ the sentinel answered.
Corporal Harnam Singh took the binoculars from the sentinel and looked. ‘He is coming here. The rope’s still around his neck, but he’s coming from the other side, the enemy side.’ And directing a foul expletive at the dog’s mother, he took aim and fired.
The shot missed but sent some stony fragments flying before sinking into the ground. The dog froze in alarm.
On the other side, Captain Himmat Khan, peering through his binoculars, saw the dog standing still on the trail. When another shot came, it put its tail between its legs, and turning on its heels, began running in the opposite direction, towards Captain Himmat Khan’s camp.
Himmat Khan yelled loudly: ‘The brave are not afraid. Turn back!’ And to send it in the other direction, he fired another shot.
Once more the dog froze in its tracks.
From the other side, Harnam Singh discharged his gun. The bullet sang past the dog’s ears.
It leapt up and began vigorously to shake its head.
On this side, Captain Himmat Khan fired again. The bullet sank into the stony earth just near the dog’s foreleg.
Panicking, it ran now in this direction, now in that.
Its panic was, for both Himmat Khan and Harnam Singh, each in their respective positions, a source of great amusement, and they began to chuckle.
When the dog began running in the direction of Corporal Harnam Singh’s camp, he lost his temper, and uttering a gross obscenity, took careful aim and fired.
The bullet hit the dog’s leg and a sky-rending shriek was heard.
The dog swiftly changed directions, and limping along, made for Captain Himmat Khan’s camp.
Now fire came from this side, and accompanying it, Himmat Khan yelled: ‘The brave do not care for wounds. Gamble your life. Go thither.’
The dog, alarmed by the fire, turned in the other direction; its one leg was now useless. With the help of its remaining three it had dragged itself a few paces in the other direction, when Corporal Harnam Singh took aim again and fired.
It collapsed then and there in a heap.
Captain Himmat Khan said with sadness: ‘Tch-tch, poor fellow. Martyred.’
Corpral Harnam Singh, running his hands over the still warm barrel of his gun, said: ‘He died that death that is a dog’s alone.’