Scraps, rifles and crutches ( short story)

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Shivam cried profusely when he entered the makeshift shelter and sat in a corner when his corpulent and dark-colored wife, Shobha, dressed in a nightdress inquired of him for the reason behind his sadness.  She was rushing out of her shabby and cluttered kitchen when his naked and bruised feet drew her attention. She frantically ran towards him and volleyed a number of questions upon him, “What happened to you today? Has the war again started? Did someone chase you down that dusty road?” Shivam was choking with sadness and was unable to speak. He was unable to bring any scrap for selling today, so they and all their kids had to sleep empty stomach. She started beating her forehead and crying volubly over the tragedy that had struck their family. When Shobha left the shores of her village for Mishuna island, she was a coy 16-year old bovine, whose eyes constantly twinkled in anticipation of happiness awaiting her in her married life and countenance was painted with optimism, but her hopes got dashed when her land, where she had come after her marriage to a shy, but handsome, Shivam, got heavily ravaged by bombs.

Raging with wrath and desperation Shivam roared, “Just gulp that water in the pitcher lying unnoticed in that crowded kitchen and sleep. No one dies due to hunger; as such, we survived that dirty war and managed to live through that rat hole, where we hid with constant fear of death and arrest.” When he eventually calmed down, he narrated the incident that injured his feet, “I had almost tricked those tough military men, decorated with sophisticated guns, from arresting me and entered that restricted area, where loads of scraps were strewn uncared for, discreetly and started picking those metal rods and leftovers of bicycles and weapons with imagination of a grand feast after I sold that huge collection in the city. But how would I know that some landmines were also hidden there and I hit one of them. There was a loud noise and a giant mushroom-like explosion enveloped the area. Those military men started rushing with their guns; my heart was scared to death. With injured feet, hurting my heart and mind, I skidded towards a thicket of bushes and lay like a corpse for some five hours.” Shobha embraced him and kissed his dried lips and dust-smeared face shaking with fear. She laid her head on his folded legs and reassured him, “You are alive, breathing and talking with me. I would have died of shock to see your bullet-ridden body in a coffin. Hold me and kiss me under the shadow of this moonlight, which is so distant yet so near and so ignorant of human tragedies. Let’s go near that least-ventured pond, where mermaids and fairies descend in the silence of the night, and celebrate the music that flows in the pond, which we had failed to notice in the chaos of war.”  She also assured by taking his trembling hands, criss-crossed with elevated surfaces of nerves, that she will borrow a cup of rice and lentils from Nilima, another member of that ill-equipped camp.

When Shobha knocked on that recently painted rickety door, Nilima with disheveled hair, but with a magnetic smile that had failed to fade away despite war and scarcity, opened the door. Her kid, who was born in the camp, was dangling across her waist. She made hot coffee and poured in two steel mugs, which were twisted at some corners, said in deep breath, “My husband, Keshab, never appeared after the war, but I will survive. With this kid with a running nose around, my desire to live has strengthened. Maybe I will start doing sweeping and cleaning job to feed the kid. I don’t mind if that elderly pot-bellied Mithas proposes me. Though he is short and has scrubby hair, but he has wealth that none of us has.” Nilima detested ferreting for scraps like others in the camp and frowned upon others superciliously for indulging in such tough and dangerous living activities. Their intimate and effusive conversation ended when birds started skimming in Nilima’s courtyard. While retreating Shobha with a choked voice mentioned, “I want that Shivam should be with me till my death. This war has left us penniless and it ravaged our land. Even if I have to live my entire life in this dilapidated and over-crowded camp, where queues for everything never end, I don’t mind. But I want Shivam’s touch and love. Without his presence, I am like that dried Ivy constantly dependent on others.” Her quailed face was soaked in tears imagining that intruder called death, which is constantly knocking on her door.

It seemed fear was discreetly wandering everywhere – in the camp area and outside the camp area, and no one knew how to escape from this constant fear. After watching death and vandalism from such a close distance, being alive seemed a prayer granted. Like ghosts in search of peace, people at the camp never slept during those exhaustively long nights, rather spent their time in shedding tears over their memory, which failed to forget those gruesome incidents – Meghna was pulled out and raped, Mansoor was shot dead, Unni never returned from war – and echoes of wails were still audible. The sound of pain endured during that ten-day long war reverberated throughout the camp.

Next day, despondent Shivam was walking through the deserted road when he was accosted by a soldier in an unimaginably dilapidated state. Simmering with anger, he had just thrown away his weapons and was smoking profusely to whisk away those gruesome images of war. A thick funnel of smoke circulated around his stressed-out face. He jumped in the middle of the road and halted Shivam from proceeding ahead. With droplets of sweat trickling down his face and some patched on his forehead, he looked sternly at him. He started beating his boots on a patch of grass and questioned him curiously. Shivam pushed himself away from the soldier’s grip and roared loudly, “ I am going to forage for scraps, so that I sell them in the scrap market and manage food for my kids. Don’t show me your fist and those hawk-like eyes; I no more fear you and your fraternity.”  The soldier in scuffed dirty green trouser barked at him, “On this unsurfaced road and with those obsessive ideas, which were ingrained in my mind by the system, I was forced to spend my entire youth and just kiss and swallow the granules of the dust and watch those lifeless expanses bereft of beauty.” He casted his eyes towards his boots and said, “They announced that we were undeterred by fear and were men of grit.  But I was as shaken as those leaves on that almost ruined tree caught in a whirlpool of storm. That night when I fired unblinkingly at that crowd, huddled in a corner like a pack of sheep, I lost my soul; but as remorse I finished that unused wine bottle and vomited the next day. It was my mind that had stopped living and was inebriated with lust that compelled me to rape that woman of that poor farmer, who wailed profusely when I walked towards her pet like a dog hungry since ages. Did I rape her? Why did I rape her? Such questions keep surging in my mind and my restless mind is exhaustively looking for peace and sleep. My mind slipped into that stagnant stage of ‘unconsciousness’ and I tried slapping my face and splashing water on my face to recover from this stage, but I failed like the way I failed in the battle field.”

Shivam kicked him in his stomach and wanted an explanation for the war. He was raging with anger and wanted back his land and all lost near ones, whom he endeared and still yearned for. As he calmed down, he nostalgically remembered his tall and broad-shouldered uncle, who loved food and was over-affectionate towards that widow living next door. He stared questioningly towards the soldier, “He was always full of life and never harmed anyone. But when war started and bombs rained at our place, he tried desperately to save his heart lusting for life by taking shelter in a grocery shop that sold dried fish and curry leaves. He had touched my hands and had assured me about our union. After that incident I never found him, but I am still looking for him, or maybe I am looking for life that disappeared along with him that day.”

By the time they had finished their conversation, it was getting dark and birds, which were also scared to venture out in the air, were seen flapping their wings in joy after a long time. They watched those birds, the sun and those trees waltzing on the music of the air. It seemed after ages they were observing the changes of the nature that had remained like ever punctual and full of life. They smiled and at each other and rested their exhausted heads against that tree, which had new leaves and a nest with four tender eggs resting against each other. While whispering to each other they soon slipped into a deep slumber because of that mellifluous sound of air and rustling leaves floating around them.

And, when they woke up they were taken aback to see a man with wooden elbow crutches between his both arm pits grinning at their faces. The short, but sound, siesta had rejuvenated their vanquished souls, but they looked in a confused manner at the crippled man, who after a short struggle sat along with them and introduced himself, “I am Shrikant and I am a debt-ridden poet, who lives on the other side of Nakshatra river, where women used to often huddle around and whisper their personal secrets in each other’s ears, but after the war they merely peep from their small windows and wonder where other women are. I, too, had a diligent father and an overprotective mother, who were gunned down in front of my eyes. Though I escaped, but while running frantically for my life, I had hit a landmine hidden in a steel pot and lost my robust legs. For days I writhed in pain and tried to commit suicide, but those spirits of the people, who had wished to live, haunted me and halted me from killing myself. Since then I am a poet and a writer, and I observe life and smile at the number of tragedies that will never stop from haunting us.” He then nudged them with his elbows to remind them that he won’t harm a single hair on their heads. This spontaneous congregation of three strangers, but still related to each other due to war, was slowly transforming into an overwhelming moment. They looked into each other’s eyes and saw the similar streaks of apathy for war; tears welled up in their eyes and they clamped their hands on their eyes to veil the flow of tears. Those metal scraps, rifle and crutches were lying on that unsurfaced road like memorabilia decorated in a museum.

Shrikant reflected for some time and then said poetically, “This war has created new landmarks – vandalised buses, almost ruined houses, houses perforated with bullets, but one landmark continues to be the most-frequented, but almost invisible, space. It’s a haven for people like us running short of luck and heals the invisible wounds of all passersby. Commoners being chased by the police, policemen being chased by the politicians and politicians chasing money all come to this place, where they unmask their real faces, hidden till now from the people. Interestingly, this place is also one of the most egalitarian places, where one and all indulge in just drinking to forget, to remember, to dream and to sleep.”  

When they entered the toddy shop, it was swarming with people, who had come from all over the places to tranquilise the madness of their restless memories. There were farmers, plumbers, shopkeepers, soldiers, students and whores all around. Tumblers of toddy were being circulated, and the place seemed absolutely different from the outside world. Those women with revealing cleavages and twinkling eyes kissed those exhausted soldiers, who buried their unclean faces in their long hair. One of the drunken farmer, who became penniless after losing his crops in the war, looked at Shrikant and announces, “Better to die in the arms of a whore than due to those bombs.” Shrikant nodded back in agreement and smiled at his wisdom.

Meanwhile, a soldier with a wry smile yanked Shivam, who along with others stood in a corner with an overhead light, away from the group and ordered in his drunken state to accompany him in finishing that bottle of wine. War had rendered him despondent and it seemed he drank to expunge those haunting memories stalking his present. He smiled at Shivam and revealed,” They hanged those youngsters in front of my naked eyes. Some of them didn’t even have the traces of those whiskers. They repeatedly said that they were innocent, but those policemen with unbuttoned shirts and smell of alcohol dancing on their lips ruled out their contention. Since then I am being chased by their spirits, trying to shake my soul and seek remorse or implore for forgiveness. Almost innumerable times they woke me up in the middle of those unimaginably longer nights and sought answers for those almost impossibly unanswerable questions. Initially I got scared of their almost ruined faces, but now I believe I can’t survive with those stalking spirits. It’s my fate and fate of all people around here, who have come here to feel the transitory phase of happiness, which has eluded all of us.”

Shivam can related himself with the soldier overwhelmed with guilt and remorse. He immediately took one of the tumblers of wine and gulped the entire content in one go and announced, “To all those spirits who squat invisibly along with us in this room, and who were forced to kiss death when they had almost wedded life.”  People around tried to hide their tears, but none succeeded; almost everybody was seen wiping their face, clouded with the memories of their loved ones, whom they lost in the din of war.

That intoxicating no one  slept; they kept singing, dancing and celebrating this new lease of life that they all were awarded with and then slept to forget those unforgettable memories.

 

hither kusum.

Unlike her Steps ( A short story)

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There was loud and heart-rending siren, which reverberated throughout, and a huge crowd of workers, with whom he had tea the very last night, rushed frantically away from those mines destined to collapse. He too rushed outside his makeshift camp and the sight and sound filled him with fear, which he had never felt in his nerves ever before. Some youths in their twenties gathered around him in their scuffed trousers and dust-smeared faces and informed him of that around fifteen young workers are shut inside the mines, who while talking wailed and some burned in wrath against that pot-bellied owner who always denied the problems at the mines. Raynold, one of the workers, claded in red worn-out boots and an over-used green shirt and dark blue trouser with a face that had toughened while suffering in those inhospitable cave-like, with low roofs, mines where even a toddler needs to crawl, ran towards an axe resting against a pillar and tried to strike him in anger. Only few days back he was asked to go to these mines as a site supervisor, located in the far-flung areas of the north-eastern state of Meghalaya; but within few days he had realized problems at the mines. The first sight of that mine, which seemed so distant from his life in hometown, had frightened him to death; workers in their coal-smeared slippers and cloths appeared like walking zombies. The entire stretch of the barren land, with no single tree visible, always presented the gravity of living. Those diligent men and women, whose limbs glistened due to sweat and sun, passed him a very friendly smile whenever he passed past them. Everything around him was far from beautiful. Though he reached at the place reluctantly, since he detested that misty cloud of dust, which always envelops a mine area and wanted to be away from the din; but very soon he had developed a strange, but fascinating, camaraderie with young workers, trapped and untrapped, with whom he had amusing conversations about women and life. These workers, who were heading towards that stage of eternal disappointment, still ardently believed in making it big in life – something like rags-to-riches – and fairytales. He remembered asking during one of those jaunts to a local beer shop to James, “What kind of woman you want?” James, a shy but passionate worker, blushed and replied, “She should be beautiful and my soul-mate, who will cook and pack my tiffinbox, and whom I will kiss before I leave for work. We will make lots of love, especially along that lake surrounded with huge walls of small mountains.” Day in and day out he had shared their dreams and trapping of those unforgettable faces, who were never rescued, left him sick and tragedy-stricken forever. He had cried in dreams and nightmares, and has also rushed like a madman towards that lake located next to the mines to weep copiously.  He was no longer interested in the place; so he wrapped up everything, except his memories, to leave for another place, where he wanted to forget those faces at least for a second. Chased by those faces, he decided to take a temporary transfer to China, and lose his complicated soul and unblock the blocked mind.

 

On arriving at ‘Grand Ivy Hotel’, he threw his unpacked bags on the bed, and dashed towards the window with a glass pane located behind a sea, which was roaring with high waves beating against the protruding rocks. Standing behind this sea, his mind, till now racing against time, was transported to a timeless zone and droplets of tears trickled down on his cheeks. This silent conversation with a restless sea, along with flames of anger in the form of waves, was a moment witnessed by him after a long time.  For a long time of his growing phase, he had been a natural rebel. Often termed as a taciturn, his face was a portrait of struggle, wrath, reconciliation, maturity attained before the destined age and time. Once again, in absence of older acquaintances, and in presence of newer faces with newer stories to script, he was waiting for something new, which will drive him away from roots and give fresh lease of life.

 

It was a three-bedroom apartment, where he was supposed to stay till the work ended, and suprisingingly he never felt the pangs of loneliness in this giant apartment. The silence that prevailed in the apartment reminded him of his existence; away from the clock-like life and animated conversation with lifeless faces, he was slowly and steadily experiencing his existence, the sensation of which he had almost lost in the rigors of life. It was pitch-dark night outside, with streaks of lightening, so he decided to go to the factory in the evening, when the sun was returning to his secret resting place. When peace was restored and the beautiful rainbow was visible in the sky, he drove towards that city-like factory on a cycle lended by the factory people. While cycling through the slithering pathways of the factory, he met innumerable women workers, who passed him a smile as a welcoming gesture. He blushed; he had always liked forthcoming women, and liked conversing with them. He remembered talking to that lady taxi driver while coming to the hotel. That fair, short, tender, yet brave, woman at the driver seat had articulately expressed her desire to wed a loyal man, than a filthy rich man. Following this experience, he was falling in love with women of this new place.

 

He raced towards the supermarket to purchase food. He loitered around for a while and bought few edibles, packed in glistening and translucent plastic, and headed towards his cosy apartment. Warming his hands inside the side pockets of his newly-bought jacket, with eyes discreetly watching those slender women in polka-dotted gowns, he walked silently on that cobbled roads and secretly wished the day to never end. He lighted the cigarette – his traditional yet adorable sister would have admonished him for smoking – and rested his back against an aging tree at the side of that pavement and then rested his feet too. For long he was translating the alien language of his chaotic thoughts, then he reminded himself of his true location; but where was his location, he had always led a refugee-like life and that imaginary residence furnished with all necessities had just remained a figment of his imagination. He immediately scooted towards the apartment, before the dark clouds of despondency had overwhelmed him. While in the apartment, he got a call from Leon, talking in his ever-spirited tone, inviting few laughs. He flopped on the bed and talked with a smile on his face, then switched the television to distract his mind through the uninterrupted and incomprehensible visuals, which didn’t demand enough intelligence to infer. While he was almost losing track of both – Leon and the television, suddenly sprang up to his feet at the mention of  a welcome being party arranged for him.

 

Next day, when the party was scheduled, he never thought he will experience the heat of love with a stranger woman dressed in red, with high heel stilettos and a pitch-dark bag clinging on her shoulder, but pressed under her arm pit. She dashed into that dark, yet alive, bar with her bouncing hair. He wondered, “She looks ravishing in her glittering red gown and floating hair playing with her bare hands…” She had already drawn attention of men around the bar, where the chandeliers illuminated the ambience with its light, which was enough to see the silhouette of a person from far. Later she started searching frantically for something in her bag, which had scores of floating streams of black laces, and picked up her cell phone to call.  Meanwhile, Leon too got involved in a phone call; but he saw her heading towards their lounge, which was located against the red floating curtains. To his surprise, this woman in red, whom he was till now discreetly admiring, in fact desiring for, was Sussane, one of their client with whom they had to make a deal. She flopped her bag on the sofa and sat next to him; it’s then that he intricately observed her face. Her countenance was unlike her steps: serenity defined her face; shyness peered through her small, yet reflective, and despondent eyes;   and heaviness of life too had left few traces on her face.

 

While they dined and conversed about business, he secretly desired for her. He remained almost reticent during the entire conversation, which annoyed Leon, and indulged in only saying a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  Suddenly the music, which was felt but was not noticed, being played by a band of exuberant youths, with gelled hair and a sparkling stud in ear, rose to a crescendo, thereby making the conversation inaudible. He wanted to inch towards her and wrap her tender arms under his arms, but he ran short of words to even talk about mundane things.  Through the corners of her eyes, she looked at him and smiled, as if to assure that she can read his thoughts and dreams. As if she had already walked through the narrow lanes of his dreams and has mended broken paths and dreams. Meanwhile, she kept tugging her hair at the back of her ears and caressing her hands.

 

That night they made love under the lavender-like shade of that room, with velvety bed-sheet. She had slipped into his over-sized purple colored shirt to escape the coldness of the night and rested her feet around his waist.  While she looked lovingly at him, she also talked loquaciously, “Why don’t we kick everything away and settled in my village nestled in-between hills. Maybe we have to farm to survive, but I will be always around you and make love. What do you say?” He stroked her cheeks and said, “Yes!” In morning, she looked so strikingly different in her long black gown with floral prints and black straps. She had tied her hair carelessly at back and a portion of hair stroked her shoulder. She rushed around and frantically collected her things strewn near the bed, on the table and at other several places. She reminded, “Think about what I said last night. This city has driven me crazy and I need a moment of silence…I need to converse with those grave-looking mountains and those sea which have depth. Also, smile like a bloomed wild flower at the back of my old house, where men in big hats made in bamboo carry stuffs cheerfully and night is spent under the star-lit nights.”  When she lit a cigarette to control her restlessness, it’s then he noticed her blue-colored danglers swinging along with her head. He nodded his head in agreement and decided to bring the little lost bird to her nest. He looked outside the balcony and the sea surface simmered like diamond under the sun. Even the boughs resting near its bank reminded the lost tranquility, which he had rediscovered and never wanted to let it go away. Chaos, which had sauntered in his mind for a long time, and the undisciplined growth of stress had transformed him into a recluse, who constantly conversed in his mind. His life had peaked to the detestable stage of stasis and he was trying hard to rescue and unshackle his mind from the brutal grip of this monster. This sojourn infused new hopes and desires and he never wanted to end this jaunt.  The sultry afternoon had no affect on him and he never wanted to come out of that unforgettable feelings and fragrance, which were forever etched in his mind. When the sky was colored in auburn and only silhouettes of lonely boats and lonely people were visible, he decided to go to the night market and celebrate this feeling in-between the joyous noise and chaos of people, who were busy purchasing and selecting items from those rows of fascinating items. While his mind was randomly following random people, he got hooked to those flowers in different shades lying in a heap at one corner, which were being sold by an old lady with an extremely crumbled face and stooped back.  He asked her to pack those purple-colored Chinese asters to gift Sussane. With a bouquet of asters wrapped in a multi-colored bouquet sleeve, with beetle-shaped forms dotted on it, he paced towards the hotel.

 

But recovery of an unrecognizable skeleton, most probably of a woman, in faded jeans along with a pen tucked in the pocket of the tattered shirt from the remote forest area had spread panic throughout the city. As per the rumours circulating among the locals, body was found near the bank of Mesaz, where leaveless boughs of trees and glistening rocks with a thick layer of moses meditating on its body lined the bank.  As we sat down to have our breakfast on that table next day with a jug of orange juice, few loafs of bread resting on each other and a pack of yellow-colored butter and that maroon-colored fruit jam, his eyes got diverted to her droopy eyes. Last night, images of that skeleton had kept haunting her, and she moved like a breathless fish lying on a barren land under scorching sun. In-between she got up and walked around and peeked out of her window to watch the stars and fireflies waltzing with the music of the cricket, which were hiding beneath those large leaves with pearls of dew droplets playing on them. Fading with the green leaves, those constantly humming crickets were enjoying anonymity in the cover of darkness. Meanwhile, he searched for her and scuttled throughout the house, but found her silently conversing with that magical moment.  It seemed she was under the effect of any hallucinogenic drug, from which she never wanted to be awakened. He hugged her from the back and played with her hair shining under the effect of moonlight, when she looked into his eyes, they were twinkling with joy, which she had witnessed while watching those fireflies.

 

That night Sussane never slept and they made love as passionate as fire. When they woke up with the rising sun, he felt this urge to ask her about her past, which he desperately wanted to know and comprehend. A number of questions surged in his mind. He started reminding himself, “Today, I shall grab her, make her sit on that creamy-colored couch and ask everything about her past.” He had this grave urge to know his woman and rescue her from everything.  When she rushed from the washroom, leaving a trail of droplets of water and footmarks behind her, he grabbed her. She blushed and her eyes twinkled in anticipation of a kiss, but he stared into her eyes and whispered in her ears to say something about her past. She jerked him away and dropped herself on the floor and started crying.  After half-an-hour she recovered and started narrating what he always wanted to know.  She rested her head, which was heavily burdened with morbid memories, on her folded knees and said, “I still remember that dark, dingy house with steins of alcohol rotating and funnel of smoke emanating from those half-burnt cigarettes, dangling in between the fingers of those pot-bellied men, who eyed each and every women in the house with lust. I tried like a restless bird trapped by a hunter to hide myself in one of the corners of that not so big room, but that man claded in an oversize shirt in silk and clumsy trouser raced towards me with a wad of money. He was in an inebriated condition and forced himself on me. An empty alcohol bottle caught the attention of my terror-filled eyes, and I picked it up banged it on his head.” While recalling those sordid memories, her entire body started trembling, and it seemed she was compelling herself to remember events, which she desperately wanted to forget. As if the floodgate of a dam has been reopened, and memories in the form of water flooded her mindscape.

 

Sussane recounted, “I still remember that night when wind, which till now had always tenderly caressed my cheeks, like a murderer on a spree attacked and then ravaged our village. Its devilish form and constant yelling and howling had demolished innumerable homes constructed in mud, including my little house and small family. Left with almost nothing, but with ever-hungry stomachs, we started entreating almighty for a miracle. It’s then that friendly-looking neighbor, who worked in Mumbai, descended unannounced and offered his assistance by taking me to that busy city. I was 15 then and despite penury that had suddenly and uninvitedly struck my family was enjoying my life in-between the steep slopes of Mustang Valley in Nepal.”

 

While taking about her home, where she had spent her initial beautiful 15 years, tears started tumbling down her smooth-surfaced cheeks. She grips one of his arms tightly, reclines against the wall and looks straight into his eyes as if to say that she loved him for reopening the haunted house of her memories, which she had locked up forever following her encounter with demons with dazzling ornaments and vicious smile.  She reverted back to her memories in that small room, “Standing in a corner with my blood-stained hands, those men entered in an inebriated condition and chased me like a hen being chased by its owner. I flapped my mind, flapped my arms, only to be pinned down by one of them.  In that small room with a scuffed curtain, I also tried to hide like a rat in a hole, where only it and no one else can enter.”

 

“Thereafter, men routinely ravaged my body and plundered my rich soul. Later, a journalist rescued me from this abyss. But I never found my family back in the valley. So, I came to China to earn my bread.” Remembering and exhuming the buried memories was like venturing into a landscape with an epitaph warning ‘DO NOT VENTURE HERE’ for her, which was comparable to death, in fact, death is far easier to be accepted than those inhuman experiences, which were obdurate and insoluble. That night was one of the longest nights for him; a series of strange images started rushing in his dreams that night – deer-like women being chased by men of strange combination – lion-like hair, wolf-like expressions and hyena-like movements, with a constantly drooling mouth. Those deer were fleeing away and galloping at a great speed to escape from the grip of those men, only to be hunted down by poachers.

 

 hither kusum.