The Chameleon’s Game by Azra Abbas, Translated by Daisy Rockwell
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The unforeseen can happen to anyone.

 

Even to those that hop about amongst tree branches dense with foliage. He’d lived in the trees a long time, changing his colours all the while. And tonight, as electric bulbs suspended from new wires burned brightly in the darkness, he was lifting up his neck to stare at the ground and gaze at the bulbs. When a breeze blew, the wires swayed, the bulbs swayed, and he would hop to the next branch.

 

He was enjoying the whole thing very much. This was not the first day he had seen those bulbs. They were often illuminated; it was often dark as well. But he had never been this close when the bulbs were lit. He was usually busy on the branch of some other far off tree, eating bugs.

 

But what was this happening now? He heard noises and the voices of children laughing. He wasn’t staring at the bulbs now. Lots of children were running back and forth. A tiny round white thing rolled from hand to hand, back and forth, up and down, and sometimes it would graze his face.

 

He felt as though he was participating in the children’s game. When the children would throw the round white thing into the air, he too would leap to the branch that the white thing had touched.

 

He felt happy. Those children didn’t even know he was playing with them. The round white thing would bounce on the ground and then fly up again. Sometimes it was held in one hand, sometimes in another, and at other times it grazed his face. But all of a sudden, the round white thing soared way above him and got stuck in the dense foliage above.

 

The children began to search high and low. There was an uproar. And then a search. ‘Where is it?’ ‘It’s stuck up there!’ He was very happy. He was playing with them! And the round thing was stuck right above his head. They were trying to shake the tree to make the round thing fall down. But it was stuck there. He felt quite pleased. Now this was really something. He was getting happier and happier and his colours were changing more and more. He’d never changed so many colours in his life as he had today. He was quite delighted. He’d spent his entire life in the shade of these trees wandering about, slipping in and out, devouring bugs, or sometimes watching those swaying bulbs; it was all the same, no fun. But, oh my, what fun this was! He was just thinking this when something hard landed near his head and he wasn’t able to keep his balance. He fell below with a crash, near the feet of the children. He was startled. The children were gazing at him with surprise and delight. Now they all bent over him as one. And there was that same noise that he had liked so much. But now that noise was lots of pebbles being thrown at his head. He ran. The children had encircled him. Something suddenly fell upon him again. And noise. He was having trouble escaping. The children had already forgotten that round thing, that white thing, and made him a target. He was running. The children were running after him. He began to pant. He’d realised by now, the children were playing a game with him, a game to the death. There was no way out. This game was unforeseen. Again something hard smashed into him. Blood began to gush from his head. He felt breathless and clung to the ground. He wished he could jump up and grab at the leaves, and when he looked up, his gaze encountered the round white thing, and he felt as though now it was watching the children playing with him.

 

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Published as ‘Girgit ka Khel’ in Raastay Mujhay Bulatay Hain, Scheherazade, 2001.

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Poet and fiction writer, Azra Abbas is one of Pakistan’s foremost women poets writing in Urdu. She was born in Karachi and did her Masters degree from Karachi University. Her ‘Neend Ki Musaftain’, a long, feminist, stream-of-consciousness prose poem was published in 1981. She has five volumes of poetry. Other publications include a memoir, Mera Bachpan, Aaj ke Kitaben, 2001, a collection of short stories, Raastay Mujhay Bulatay Hain, Scheherazade, 2001 and a novel. Two of her books and some of her short stories have been translated into English. Azra Abbas currently lives in the UK.

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Daisy Rockwell is a writer, translator and painter living in the United States. Her translation of Upendranath Ashk's great 1947 Hindi novel, Falling Walls (Girti Divarein) was published in 2015, and her retranslation of Bhisham Sahni's Tamas came out in 2016, both from Penguin India. Her translations of Ashk’s Sheher men Ghumta Aina and Khadija Mastur’s Urdu novel Aangan are both forthcoming from Penguin India as well. She is also the author of a novel, Taste, Foxhead Books 2014, and The Little Book of Terror, Foxhead Books 2012, a collection of her paintings and essays on the War on Terror.