Translated from Urdu by Faruq Hassan and Muhammad Umar Memon
The sun had already set, and the evening grey was darkening everywhere when the bus stopped at a clump of trees. He got down, his cotton shalwar stiff with laundry starch and rustling. The conductor of the bus shouted to the driver, “O.K. Go!” and the creaking bus moved on. The light spilling out from the open door moved along beside the bus. He stared at the receding rear end of the bus where a black, cast-iron stepladder extended up to the roof. Through the rear window he could see the backs of his erstwhile bus-mates’ heads wrapped in grimy, worn-out turbans and drab kheses (shawls) of faded colors. They were all looking straight ahead and bouncing up and down. He was standing alone on the side of the road. The bus had disappeared from view leaving behind traces of dust and smoke in the air. In front of him, ripening crops rolled out as far as he could see, and beyond them stood the forest with its arms spread out from one end of the horizon to the other. In the misty darkness of the evening, the forest seemed like a huge black wall that reached all the way to the sky. Except for the birds hurrying off towards the forest, the entire scene looked like a still picture. He urinated on the roots of a tree and lifted the bundle containing gifts—or, rather, the material expression of his feelings—for his mother, father, brothers and wife-to-be onto his shoulder. Going down the slope of the road he alighted on the narrow dirt-path. In an hour he would be at the forest’s mouth, and after crossing through it, which would take a good two hours, he would see his village straight ahead.
His feet stopped and he turned around. The same man stood facing him some ten feet away.
“You talking to me?”
“Yes. Where are you heading?”
“The far side of the forest.”
“Someone unfamiliar with it can hardly find his way through it even in the daytime. You want to go through it at night?”
“I’m no stranger to the forest. I have known its every leaf since childhood.”
“Listen. This is the last village before the forest. There isn’t any other where you may be able to find rest. Stay here for the night. You can go wherever you’re headed in the morning.”
“No, don’t worry. The moon will be out soon. I’ll have no trouble finding my way.”
“The place is treacherous.”
“Not for me. I know it well,” he said and moved on.
“Don’t be so stubborn. Do as I say.”
He ignored the man’s words and continued down the dirt-path that meandered through the fields. The other man watched him move further and further away, struggling with the impulse to make one final attempt to dissuade him before he had disappeared from sight altogether, but couldn’t find the courage to do so.
He was now standing before that endless wall. The trail was rushing headfirst into the forest like a snake into its pit. He paused at the mouth. The wall had shrunk down to the space of a few yards on either side of him because of its nearness. Dark silent trees, their branches hopelessly tangled above their huge trunks, stood immediately in front, and a massive dark cloud of leaves hung poised above his head. He wondered about the changes that might have occurred in the forest in the last three years. “Perhaps it would be better if I return to the village I just left.” He felt the firm surface of the trail with his toes and found in his feet the impatient energy of a headstrong horse. The old sensations of the path came flooding back to him: “Why, it’s the same old trail. I know it very well. Even in the old days it entered the forest at exactly the same point, went straight through and came out. To that extent at least there had been no change. Anyway, whether there has been any change or not, what could be gained by taking an unnecessary risk? What used to guide me through the forest at night was my ‘sixth sense.’ I won’t venture too far, just far enough to see whether it’s still working.”