India in translation

How to slaughter a pig in your hut in the dead of night

The second in our new series of works of Indian literature in translation features Bhisham Sahni’s ‘Tamas’.

“This isn’t working!” Nathu said to himself, gritting his teeth, “I can’t do this. This pig is killing me.”

He thought maybe he’d try grabbing the pig’s back legs and flipping it over just one more time. Lifting the knife high in his left hand, he tiptoed cautiously to the centre of the room. The pig had reached the end of the right- hand wall, and was now trotting along the left wall. Seeing Nathu approaching, it turned and charged at him instead of running away. It grunted as though it were going to jump on him.

Nathu started to walk backwards, one step at a time. He kept his eyes focused on the pig’s snout. The pig was now directly in front of him, coming right at him. It would be impossible under the circumstances to grab its hind legs and flip it over on its back. Its tiny pink eyes were bloodshot. He had no idea what it would do. He felt bewildered. It was already past two; how would he be able to pull off the job by daybreak if he hadn’t accomplished anything yet?

The sweeper’s cart could arrive at any moment, and if he hadn’t finished the job, who knew what Murad Ali would do – turn from friend to enemy, stop bringing him hides, evict him from his hut, get him beaten up, harass him? Nathu started to feel anxious. He didn’t know if he’d be able to kill the pig if he caught its hind legs, or if it would just jump up and escape.

Suddenly Nathu felt hot with rage. “It’s either him or me,” he said to himself, and abruptly picked up a slab of stone lying on the floor below the alcove.

He carried the slab over to the middle of the room. He hesitated for a moment as he held it above his head with both hands. The pig was resting its snout on its forelegs, rooting at a piece of watermelon rind. It blinked its red eyes. It waved its tiny tail about. If the pig didn’t move at all, and if the slab of stone hit it square on its body, the stone would cut the pig somewhere and maybe one of its legs would break. If just one leg broke it would be a stroke of luck; then it would be harder for it to walk.

Balancing the stone in both his hands, Nathu brought it down hard on top of the pig. The flame in the alcove shivered and its shadow danced on the walls. The slab had definitely hit the pig, but Nathu didn’t know where it had been hit. It squealed loudly and the stone fell with a thud onto the floor. As soon as he had thrown the stone, Nathu stepped back and looked at the pig. He watched with surprise as it blinked its half-closed eyes, its snout still resting on its forelegs.

Suddenly, it grunted, got up and started walking towards the middle of the room from the back wall. Its belly swayed from side to side. Nathu slipped over to one side and stood near the door that opened into the yard. The flame of the lamp burned straight; silhouetted in its light, the pig looked like a large black mound as it moved along. It probably felt dizzy from the stone landing on its forehead, and couldn’t see properly. Nathu was afraid. It was definitely headed towards him and would surely bite him. It didn’t seem as though the stone had had any appreciable effect.

He quickly opened the door and went out of the hut.

“What have I got myself into?” he muttered, and went and stood next to the low wall in the yard. He felt a little better outside in the clean fresh air. The closeness and stink in the room had made him feel claustrophobic. The light breeze on his sweat-soaked body was immensely soothing. For a moment he felt rejuvenated. “Why do I need this job? What do I care if the vet doesn’t get the pig? Tomorrow I’ll toss the five-rupee note in front of Murad Ali and beg off: “I can’t do it, Boss, I just can’t do it.” What do I have to lose? He’ll go around acting stern for a couple of days, then I’ll go back and beg forgiveness and get him to relent.’

He stood hesitantly next to the wall. The moon had come out, and bathed in its sparkling light the whole area looked unfamiliar and mysterious. The unpaved ox-cart road lay empty. All was silent and still. All day long the road echoed with the sounds of the wheels of ox-carts from the village to the north crunching over the earth and the jingling of oxen bells.

The wheels left deep ruts on the road and ground the earth so fine that the moment you set foot on it you’d sink up to your knees. The small bushes and jujube trees and spiny spurgewort bushes on the sharp incline that went down to the field below, across the street, were caked in dust, but bathed in the moonlight they sparkled. On the other side of the field lay the cremation ground, and behind that lived the cremation workers in two huts.

At this time of night the two little huts looked desolate huddled together. No lamp flickered in either window. That night the cremator had been out drinking and carousing. His voice had carried all the way across the field to the hut where Nathu was shut up with the pig. But now it was late, and all was so silent he might as well have been dead.

Nathu thought suddenly of his own wife, who must right now be sleeping peacefully in the tanners’ colony.

If he hadn’t taken on this terrible job, he would be with her now, her drowsy soft body in his arms. The desire to hold his young wife in his arms made him feel distressed. He had left home without telling her anything. She must have waited up for him. It usually upset him to be separated from her for even one night.

The dirt road veered off to the right for some distance and then went down an incline. Right now in the moonlight it looked so clean, as if freshly washed. The wheel and line on the rough well off to one side of the road didn’t look so bad either. Just a short ways away, this deserted area ended, and the dirt road met the paved street leading into the city. All was silent. Far off to the left side was the low building of the piggery, which, in the moonlight, looked like a flat black box. Beyond that lay empty land dotted with prickly bushes and small trees that continued on for many miles. Far off, hours away, were the lines of barracks in the military cantonment.

Nathu felt weak. He wanted to lay his head down on the wall and take a nap. Coming out here from the hut he felt as though he’d entered a different world. His situation felt dismal in the fresh cool breeze and sparkling moonlight. Now that he was outside, the knife in his hand seemed absurd. He felt like running away, not even peeking into the room, just running away. Tomorrow, Purbia would definitely come from the piggery, and he would understand as soon as he saw the garbage that the pig must still be in the hut, and then he would drive it away from there.

Nathu thought of his wife again. He would only find peace from his anxiety when he could be back with her, the two of them speaking softly. When would this mess be over and when could he return to her side in the tanners’ colony?

Suddenly the clock in Sheikh’s Garden struck three and Nathu shivered. He glanced at his hand, still holding the knife. He panicked: Now what would happen? What was he doing standing here when he still hadn’t killed the pig? The sweeper would be there soon with the cart. What would he say to him? The sky was now suffused in a faint yellow glow. Dawn was about to break and he still hadn’t finished the job. He began to feel tearful about the situation in which he found himself.

He approached the hut with trepidation.

He softly opened the door and peered inside. The moment he opened the door, the stench hit him. In the lamplight he saw that the pig stood still in the middle of the room, as though worn out from wandering about. Nathu suddenly felt inspired: Maybe now it wouldn’t be so hard to knock it over. He shut the door and went and stood quietly beneath the alcove again, staring fixedly at the pig.

As he’d entered the room, the pig had lifted its snout. It seemed as though the pig’s snout had grown very red and its eyes looked smaller. The slab of stone he’d thrown lay at some distance behind it. The lamp flame leapt again, and in the shivering light it seemed to Nathu that the pig had started to move again. He stared at it very hard. It had definitely moved. In fact it was moving forward, towards Nathu, with heavy steps. After taking one or two more steps, its belly swinging from side to side, it made a strange noise. Nathu lifted the knife in the air and sat back on his heels. The pig advanced a few more steps. Its snout drooped towards its feet and, just as it reached Nathu, it lurched and fell over. Its legs trembled once, violently, but in a moment, they stuck straight up in the air. The pig was dead.

Nathu put the knife down, his eyes still on the beast. In some distant home, a rooster flapped its wings and crowed. At that same moment, he heard the sound of a cart jolting along the dirt road and heaved a sigh of relief.

Excerpted with permission from Tamas, Bhisham Sahni, translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, Penguin Books.


Bhisham Sahni (1915-2003) was an iconic writer who transformed the landscape of Hindi literature. His oeuvre encompassed novels, plays, short stories and essays. Tamas, his best known novel, won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1975 and was subsequently adapted into a National Award-winning film by Govind Nihalani. His other works include Mansion, Basanti, and Boyhood. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1998, and the Shalaka Samman, the Delhi givernment’s highest literary prize, in 1999.

Daisy Rockwell is a renowned artist, writer and translator. She paints under the alias Lapata (Urdu for "missing’" and has shown her artwork widely. She has a PhD in South Asian literature and art. Most recently, she translated Upendranath Ashk’s Falling Walls to widespread acclaim.

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