From Aesop’s Fables to Animal Farm, animal fiction (like all other fiction) is often an attempt to offer readers insight and commentary on human behaviour – and understandably so, for stories are written for their readers. Animal fiction, of course, has the (dis)advantage of its very non-human characters: glimpsing the “human” within new territories and unfamiliar protagonists can be strikingly impactful.

However, much like the elaborate lies the crocodile concocts to trap the monkey, the allegory and symbolism in these stories can run the risk of being too embellished. In straining to ensure that we see what is hidden beneath the story, every aspect of the narrative can turn into nothing but a thin veil covering a “message”. Predictability mires the text, the story becomes painfully narrow, nuance and complexity are lost – as is a perceptive reader’s interest (or the monkey’s heart, if I may?).

Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s collection of stories, The Silence of the Hyena, walks a clever tightrope over this pitfall: even as it drives attention to the stakes of the story through varied means of emphasis and amplification, it successfully leaves room for the narrative to breathe beyond it.

Interactions, not fables

This is partly because most of his stories very cleverly focus on the interactions between humans and animals. The lives of the two intertwine to draw direct attention to human behaviour, allowing him to be less heavy-handed with his allusions and symbols. This is particularly true of “The Beast”, the novella which interweaves the story of a human and a bull: Neela, the spoiled bull of the village despot, Mr Thakur, rampages around ruining houses and goring people; Mr Thakur’s unbridled control of the village thwarts any censures of Neela, only for Neela to eventually gore his own owner to death.

Ashraf’s critique of tyranny is well-fleshed out by the similarities between the bull and the master, which clearly emerge with every scene that Neela runs wild. This direct enmeshment of the human and the animal frees Ashraf from the necessity of accentuating how the animal’s behaviour is connected to the human, leaving him to focus on crafting the complexities of their interactions. Where Ashraf instead aims for animals to signal towards human traits, he prevents the stories from stagnating by another means: he inserts a thread of detail that is not directly connected to the allegory, imbuing the story with some intrigue.

Admittedly, a few of the stories still threaten to drop into a mosh pit of intense signposting. Take “Death of an Antelope” or “The Last Turn”, for instance. In the former, we encounter an animal re-framing of “the king is dead, long live the king”: even as we open on the sardar of the herd recounting his glorious takeover of the herd, we know he will soon be challenged and his end is near. Things change, but they always stay the same: the concept is poignant, but it’s tiresome when the narrative style embodies it too. Even as new events occur, the idea they convey never changes: the past repeats itself down to every detail, there are blatant declarations of how the young move on, and even the ending reiterates that “the sun would rise again the next day”.

How to contemplate

A similarly aggressive narrative setup ensues in “The Last Turn”, where after telling many stories about how animals grieve their dead, people proceed to ignore a man dying before their very eyes. In both these stories, most elements of the tale serve only to reiterate (read: not expand or complicate) a single idea. At some point, this reduces the impact of the story by appearing too deliberately constructed. It also leaves the tale (and us) imbued with a sense of tediousness: we grow tired of being limited to these redundant points, and how little else lies outside it.

It is precisely this little else, however, that stops us from losing our interest completely: for instance, we are tantalised by Kalu finding Sunehri’s golden fur attractive in “Death of an Antelope”. In “The Last Turn”, this effect is achieved by the odd details we receive about the characters on the train. These almost-trivial details serve to evoke our imagination, tempting us to wonder.

How does attraction work in a herd of antelopes? How is that share-broker so ceaseless in turning every conversation into a discussion of finances? In these moments, we are invited to step beyond the narrow frame of the narrative and contemplate rather than passively comprehend crafted messages. Ashraf’s talent lies in these instances when he arouses our curiosity, compelling us to attend to the story rather than simply absorb its message.

This magic springs to life more strongly in the three continuous stories that conclude in the name of the collection: “And Then Laughed the Hyena”, “The Hyena Cries” and “The Silence of the Hyena”. Even as Ashraf picks a rather unique animal to compare people with, his allegory of human cunning and deception is excessively underscored.

A family talks about how to identify the deceptive hyena that pretends to be a dog – the “chat-chat” of its feet; the very next day, the feet of these people begin to echo the same sound. After drawing this parallel, however, he leaves us to our imagination – we are never told if these sounds are products of their delusion, or if the story itself has suddenly taken a fantastical bent. This unspoken question drifts all over the tale, creating an eerie horror that echoes the terror of the characters – who themselves know not whether it is only their imagination.

Incomplete answers

The fantastical takes on a more vivid stroke in the stories to come, particularly “The Vulture” – the strange theories of a mutual worm-vulture alliance (to devastate the world) make for an odd interlude in the middle of a metaphor about the vulture-like nature of humans, but confuses us just enough to keep asking questions about the story.

“Rogue” tempts us to be inquisitive not by avenue of strange details, but by means of seemingly random ones – like identifiably Hindu names or the location in Uttar Pradesh. We wonder if Ashraf missed a round of editing (and certainly, some of the threads of story seem to disappear abruptly) – but uncertainty keeps us with the story, even as the details provoke us to hint at the communal violence underlying the setting.

This seems to be where, and how, Ashraf’s collection breaks free of the treadmill-trudging tendencies of animal fiction. We have a tendency of always asking a text what it intends to convey – and with stories about non-humans, this turns into “what does this symbolise?” The answer is too apparent in most cases: the process of investigation turns into an open-and-closed case, requiring little effort and time and energy.

Ashraf too seems keen to leave readers very clear about the allegories and symbols and “human relevance” of this text. However, even though he emphasises the answers to these core questions, he ensures that not every little part of the story circles back into a perfect and apparent conclusion. Instead, he scatters little disjointed avenues for us to investigate freely. We are left a few clues and set loose to imagine the little tidbits he offers us, to try to piece them into their places.

As our narrator in “Separated from the Flock” puts it: even though he is aware of every answer, he also knows “that every answer is incomplete”. This lingering intrigue lets the narrator ask more questions, still trying to find the answers. Much like that, The Silence of the Hyena impels us to continue with it, to stay with it, to understand what bits of it a first reading will not unravel – we are left looking for answers, our interest provoked, curiosity awakened.

The Silence of the Hyena: Stories and a Novella

The Silence of the Hyena: Stories and a Novella, Syed Muhammad Ashraf, stories translated from the Urdu by M Asaddudin, novella translated from the Urdu by Musharraf Ali Farooqi.