Fiction
© Arun Venkatesan

Sacred Cow

 

AND I NEVER thought this day would come, but here I am, sitting in front of the ritual fire, repeating Sanskrit mantras I don’t understand. He’s looking at me now, and I can feel it on my skin. We are getting married. Damini is locked away somewhere in a room, Lakshmi’s at Lord Krishna’s feet in the heavens, and I’m going to be his wife.

 

We moved into the new house on the corner of the street next to the village well, and that’s when I first saw her. They made her walk around the house, to bring us good luck. She smelled like warm milk and hay, was covered in turmeric paste, and a bell was hanging around her neck. Her hock looked so bent I thought she was born deformed. When her hoof touched the mud-plastered ground, it made a noise like the click of chalk on a blackboard. She chewed and dribbled as she walked around the house with her mother, and I asked my father if I could keep her.

     I did not know then that a day like this would come.

     Father had said, ‘The calf belongs with the mother, Kayal, my dear girl. Look, she’s so puny. She needs to get strong first.’

     ‘Iyo! Appa, how long will that take?’ I had asked, not looking away from Lakshmi even once. That’s when I named her. I always knew she’d be mine.

     ‘Maybe two months or so,’ Appa had said, and started discussing something important with Udayan Maama. And Amma always told me not to interrupt men when they were talking.

     Lakshmi did look thin. Her coat of white-and-brown hair was patchy and looked soaked. She wouldn’t leave her mother, Bhagyam, and was very shy. I tried to separate her from Bhagyam every way possible, so that I could play with her. I tempted Lakshmi with grains, hay, terracotta toys, even my favourite cart. She had a glaze over her eyes, and I wondered what she thought about.

     The cow boy, Ramu, who had accompanied Bhagyam and Lakshmi, said they lived nearby, in a shack behind Kittu Maama’s house.

     Amma forced me to go inside to participate in the rest of the ceremonies, but I wanted to play with Lakshmi. The mantras the priest chanted while sitting next to the fire – I never understood a word of them, they were all in Sanskrit, but Amma and Appa always looked mesmerized. I don’t think they understood what the words meant either.

     ‘Kayal, pray properly,’ my Amma prodded me, but I could not help peeping out of the main door to see if Lakshmi were still there.

     I reminded my parents about Lakshmi every day of that first month in the new village. Even all the games I played revolved around her. That’s when I became friends with Damini, Udayan Maama’s daughter. We became close right away. She showed me around the whole village, the mango farms, the lakes, and the temples of the scary goddess, Kali. I told her about Lakshmi, and she was immediately interested, but I did not know then that this day would come.

     Damini and I used to play in the cowshed where Lakshmi lived, getting our long skirts dirty, which our mothers hated. Kittu Maama’s wife had no children but she liked me, and let me play with the cows as long as I wanted. She did not like Damini much, because Damini would always break things like water pots or ploughs in that old cowshed of grimy pillars.

     My favourite game was to hold Lakshmi’s long tail and run behind her. I made sure that Lakshmi saw me every day, so it wouldn’t be hard for her when she came to live with us.

     Appa decided to buy Lakshmi for me only after Amma convinced him: ‘It’ll improve our standing in society, to own a cow,’ she argued.

     ‘That is true, but it’s so expensive to maintain one, we’d need a shack, a cow boy . . .’

     ‘Iyo! Don’t argue so much. It’s auspicious to own a cow. All of Bhagvan’s blessings will be on us,’ Amma said, pursing her thin lips but somehow grinning at the same time, smiling the way she did when she wanted Appa to concede to something. I always wondered what secrets that smile held.

     Appa did buy Lakshmi the very next day, and I swore I’d become like Amma when I grew up. Even though I knew I was not as beautiful, I learned to smile like her. She has a delicate, parrot nose, but I have Appa’s nose, bulgy like a red pepper. She is fair, but I’m dark like Appa.

 

The day Lakshmi came to our house there was a fight in the village. A Muslim man had slaughtered a Hindu man’s wandering cow. There was rioting, and people walked in groups holding knives and burning torches. Fights were common in the village but my street’s people did not get involved, so we weren’t usually worried by them. Also, the Muslims lived far away in other settlements in the village, and we hardly ever had to see them. People from my side of the village were all pure Hindus, and we never mingled with the Muslims, even in business. Amma often told me about how the Muslims eat God’s animals, including cows, and how any association with them would make a Hindu impure.

     Damini’s father, Udayan Maama, was one of our schoolmasters. He often told us: ‘All religions are one, and all customs should be looked upon with respect.’ Appa did not agree with him and neither did Amma. Appa liked Udayan Maama, but he and Amma often spoke about how everyone else in the street disliked him for teaching us children bad ideas.

     We always kept ourselves indoors during the fights and pretended they never happened, but on the night of the fight I was in the backyard feeding Lakshmi her grains. She mooed suddenly, and I realized that someone was screaming on the street. Amma, Appa and I rushed to the front yard, and through the openings on the huge wall bordering our yard, we saw a group of people throwing fireballs on Damini’s house.

     ‘Dei savugraki!’ someone in the group abused Udayan Maama.

     ‘All because of your bloody preaching they are killing our cows now,’ said the grocery storekeeper. I could see his gold chain gleam and sparkle in the torchlight.

     ‘Mayiru, you say that the Muslims and we are the same.’

     Udayan Maama did not come out of his house, although his roof was burning. I was worried about Damini. I cried, imagining Damini burned to ashes. She was going to teach me to tie stones to dragonflies’ tails; she was my only close friend. We loved to swim in the lake and she always pushed me into the water to help me lose my fear of diving.

     ‘Don’t cry, Kayal. They won’t hurt anyone; they are Hindus. Our people,’ Appa consoled me, stroking my hair. Then he turned to Amma. ‘They are just threatening him. But Udayan needs to think before he speaks. He’s turning his own people against him,’ he said, nodding to himself.

     ‘They know we are close to Udayan’s family. It’s the auspice of Lakshmi that those rioters did not torch our house,’ Amma whispered.

     I did not understand why we couldn’t go out and bring Damini to our house, safe from the flames, but Appa did not let me go out till the rioters had left. I thought we were only against the Muslims. I did not understand how Hindus could be against Hindus.

     But nothing happened to anyone in Damini’s house.

     The next day, khaki-uniformed officers were in the village. They asked everyone questions, even my parents, and me, about who threw fire on Udayan Maama’s house. Appa told me not to tell on the grocery storekeeper, and I didn’t; but I couldn’t forget the gleam of his gold chain, and I never went to his store again.

     What annoyed me most was that I was to go to the mango farm with Lakshmi and Damini that day, but we couldn’t because of all the interrogations.

     Eventually we did go to the farm, played with the fairy flowers that fell from the trees, took a dip in the stream, and gave Lakshmi a bath. Stole some mangoes. Damini loved to climb trees, to swing on hanging banyan roots and jump from heights; she often scraped her knees. She was more like a boy, played pranks on elders, and her mother yelled at her for it, all the time.

 

Two years and more passed and Lakshmi grew up faster than I thought she would. She got taller, was healthy and fat, and had given birth twice.

     Ramu, the cow boy, told me that Lakshmi would soon become a mother again, and she did. Amma was so excited. The more a cow gave birth to healthy calves, the more the entire family who owned her would be blessed, even the future generations. Amma made sure I fed Lakshmi well and took good care of her. We usually sold Lakshmi’s calves to good Hindu families, but this calf we were going to keep.

     On the day Lakshmi calved, I bled for the first time. Amma celebrated my puberty, and I received many gifts. She did not lose one opportunity to tell some relative, ‘All three of Lakshmi’s calves were female. Lord Krishna is blessing us. See, Kayal attained age the same day Lakshmi calved.’

     I named the new calf Padmini. She was so puny when she was born and had the blackest of noses. It was about this time, when all the aunties of the village came to see Padmini and the newly matured me, that I found a picture of Lord Krishna with the cows in an old trunk. Lord Krishna, the cow boy, herder of divine cows and prankster who plays tricks on maidens, and an ideal lover. All women want to fall in love with someone attractive and heroic like Lord Krishna.

     Many nights I sat on stacks of soggy hay in the murky cowshed, my bare feet feeling the mush on the ground, or touching Lakshmi’s wet nose – she always snorted when I did that – telling her about the man of my dreams, and how I wanted him to be.

     Damini refused to let her mother celebrate her puberty; she said it was shameful to do so. ‘It’s disgusting. Publicizing to the world that you are ready for marriage. To sell you off to someone, like a cow,’ she said, throwing stones into a puddle by the paddy fields where we sat.

     ‘What did your mother say?’ I asked her, watching her flip back her short black hair.

     ‘That nobody would marry me if I roamed around like a boy; that I am fourteen and old enough to be married, that I should learn to be like you.’ She smiled her twitchy smile and from her satchel pulled out a small, wrapped parcel. ‘I have something for you,’ she said.

     ‘What is it?’

     ‘Open and see.’

     My heart started to beat very fast, and I tore off the paper enthusiastically.

     Damini shook her head. ‘Slowly,’ she admonished. The way she always did, as though I was a little girl.

     The parcel contained glass bangles. Of blue and pink and red and green – all my favourite colours. I smiled into her eyes and said, ‘I like them.’ She sat quietly and didn’t reply. ‘Why did you get me a gift?’

     Still, she said nothing.

     ‘Damini, I asked you something.’

     ‘I thought of you when I saw the bangles. Your dark hands.’

     ‘So?’

     ‘You like gifts, Kayal.’

     I put the bangles on both wrists and shook them to make them clank together.

     ‘I knew you would do that.’

     We sat hushed for some time but there was something unsaid which tortured me.

     I showed her the picture of Krishna. She looked away, smirking, and suddenly seemed very distant, as if she did not care. I looked at Lakshmi grazing further ahead; she never ate the paddy. She was a good cow.

     ‘Don’t you want to marry someone like him?’ I asked her, in a very nonchalant tone.

     She stretched her dusky arm towards me, took my head in her hands and shook it, saying, ‘I want to study.’

     But I knew she was thinking something else. I did not want to ask her then what it was. Instead, we sat silently watching Lakshmi. Damini’s tall frame looked relaxed but her dusky forehead creased, her thick, boyish eyelashes drooped and her voice . . . but I did not know then that this day would come.

 

Our street once again found itself the centre of a fight, this time because a Muslim family wanted to move in. All the rest of us were Hindus, and such things had never happened before, not in any Hindu village.

     ‘They eat cows!’ Amma hollered.

     Appa did not like it much either, I could tell, but he kept his views to himself. Only Udayan Maama seemed to support the proposal. I could not understand how anyone could eat a cow. A cow is not like other animals. It’s not a hen or a goat; it is a cow, with feelings. The thought of eating Lakshmi made me feel sick. How could people eat cows? They are God’s animals. Wouldn’t Lord Krishna, the protector of cows, the Gopala, punish those who eat his animals?

     The Muslim family did move into our street, as the authorities said something about the country being secular, and laws. Almost everyone protested. Our people paraded with sticks, threatened to exterminate the family. We called them parasites; we called them all sorts of names. We performed many rituals and poojas to cleanse us from the impurity of having to live so close to them. Some of us used black magic to place a curse on them. But nothing happened to the Muslims; they seemed to be just fine.

     And once again, we were visited by the khaki-uniformed men. Two this time, who patrolled our street for a whole week to make sure nobody threw fireballs on the Muslims’ house. Damini echoed her father’s thoughts, and she and her father even invited the Muslim family home for lunch. I did not understand why she’d chosen their side. I was angry with her and did not speak to her for a day or two. She was going against her own people: Hindu versus Hindu.

     ‘You are an ignorant village girl, Kayal,’ she said, beaming, the usual way, with her lips twitching on one side.

     ‘So are you.’

     Her lips twitched still. We were by the temple pillar, and the moon was up. It was one of those secluded places Damini found. I wanted to forgive her, because I wanted to speak to her, and tell her many, many other things. So I smiled like my mother and said: ‘Say you take my side, and I’ll talk to you.’

     She came towards me and rested her heavy head on my breast. ‘Saree, I take your side,’ she said, and I felt a warmth gurgle in my heart.

 

Amma caught me looking at Krishna’s picture. ‘I always wanted to marry someone like Lord Rama,’ she said, ‘but I ended up marrying your father.’ It embarrassed me that she knew what I was thinking. ‘I have many boys in mind for you, Kayal,’ she added, ‘and some of them even look like Krishna.’

     I did not reply, but felt excited about the future, about finding my Krishna. I did not know where he would come from, but I always knew I would find him.

 

After school one day, Damini and I took Padmini to the mango farm. We stayed there till late evening, talking and watching the sun set. She was not the kind of person who spoke much. She liked to listen to me gossip.

     Padmini had wandered off into the dark. I only noticed when I realized I could not hear her bell anymore, only the distant prayer call of the mosque. I got up from under the tree where we were sitting, and ran off in the darkness in search of her. I stumbled upon a piece of rock and fell, hitting my knee on the hard muddy ground.

     Damini came running to me. My skirt had torn. I sat holding my bleeding knee and crying in pain.

     ‘Where does it hurt?’ Damini asked me over and over again. When she tensed up, her face looked like a little cat, eyes wide open.

     I kept crying, but noticed her eyelashes as she blinked worriedly.  She pulled me close to her and kissed my teary cheeks. A cold wave washed over me, from my thighs to my forehead. I looked into her eyes for a flicker of a second, and she moved her lips to mine.

     We lay there kissing a while. Padmini had wandered back to us; I could hear her mooing, and the bell. I could not move, Damini’s arms were wrapped around me. I broke into a smile, and she just sat there holding me, swaying me slowly, softly.

     That night I sat by Lakshmi in the cowshed, looked into her glazed eyes and wondered if she understood anything I said to her. She mooed, and I reassured myself that she did understand. I thought then that maybe she was the only one who would understand. Until Damini kissed me I did not know, but when her lips touched mine I knew she was my destiny, that the Gods had sent her to me, that she was my Krishna.

     We started hiding from everyone, wandering into the farms and fields and away from prying eyes. Amma chided me when I came home late. She said we girls should be indoors by the time the sun set. But the sun was not our friend. We waited for the darkness, and in those sultry summer nights just before it rained, we lay coiled within the roots of banyan trees, her heart beating against mine.

     We would sneak out on rainy nights and take shelter in the dilapidated mansion on the village outskirts. We would fling off our wet, clinging clothes and warm each other with embraces. Her wet body always smelled of turmeric, and sometimes of bay leaves.

     ‘Will you ever leave me?’ she murmured, curled up in my arms on one of those nights.

     ‘Never,’ I said, lightly touching the bruise on her arm. ‘Does it hurt?’

     Her mother had hit her when Udayan Maama wasn’t home. Damini had been adamant about studying higher but her mother wanted her to get married. They quarrelled and, as always, Damini’s mother imposed her view with force.

     ‘Not anymore.’

     I held her head in my hands. ‘Udayan Maama didn’t scold your Amma for this?’

     ‘I didn’t tell him.’

     ‘Why not?’ I softly kissed her bruise, admiring her courage. She always stood by what she said, even if her Appa was against it. She never cried, not even when she was young, not even to me. She kept all her pain inside.

     ‘My Appa and I don’t think alike in everything.’ She looked me in the eye saying, ‘Their opinion does not matter to me.’

     ‘Whose does then?’

     I ran my fingers through her thick hair. I knew what she was thinking, but I wanted to know for sure.

     ‘Yours.’

     We listened to the rain outside for some time, safe in each other’s warmth. Damini suddenly stirred and asked, ‘What if they separate us?’

     ‘I can’t be without you,’ I whispered, holding her tight and kissing her forehead.

     She did not say anything else. Her silence was loud enough. I have on me now all the scars from our time together.

 

Pongal was when Amma started to suspect something.

     The village celebrated the festival elaborately as usual, and my family was expecting a big harvest from our small lands, so we had to celebrate in a grander manner to entice the gods to grant our wishes. Lakshmi and Padmini were decorated with powders of deep-yellow turmeric and intensely red kumkum. We hung garlands of jasmine, rose and chemburathi around their necks. In the evening, Amma made Lakshmi and Padmini stand in front of our house so that everyone could see that we owned two healthy cows. Amma swirled a coconut and incense sticks around them, chanted a few Sanskrit verses, performed some other minor rituals and prayed to them.

     ‘They are God’s animals,’ Amma said loudly when the Muslim woman from that impure house passed by us. We all thought they were sacrilegious, not just because they ate cows but also because they owned a butcher shop.

     After the ceremonies, Amma asked me to take Lakshmi and Padmini to the temple for a dip in the holy pond. At that moment, I was lost in thought. Of Damini. She had told me the night before, the night of Boghi, when the whole village burnt everything old or of no value to bring in a fresh year of success, that she had burnt her childhood skirts. She wanted to marry me and be my man, my Krishna. But she already was my Krishna.

     ‘Can I go later?’ I asked Amma, ‘Damini is not home yet.’

     ‘See, you are both big girls now. You should learn to do things separately,’ Amma said with raised eyebrows and a stern face, her lips thin and tight in a straight line.

     I did not know then this day would come. I thought Amma just said that as a passing statement. But, thinking back now, I should have known Amma suspected something, for she never means what she says. She is full of secret smiles and words.

 

Time passed quickly; it felt as if my whole life had happened in the moments it took for a cloud to pass over a hill.

     It was the last day of school. Damini was to continue her studies in town; Udayan Maama had convinced her Amma. But, as for me, my parents had already started searching for a bridegroom.

     It killed me inside to think of parting with Damini; I did not know what to do about it. I had convinced myself to accept life as it happened. I knew my parents would marry me to some man, and that everything would change, but when I thought of Damini quietly holding me, all I wanted was to be with her. But how could we change God’s creations, and the way things were meant to be? How could I go against my parents’ wishes?

     Why wasn’t she born a man? Life could have been so simple. I could have married her, and we could have had babies. But she’s not a man. What did she expect me to do?

     ‘We need to run away from everyone, Kayal, to the town,’ Damini declared.

     ‘We can’t do that.’

     ‘Look at me. You love me, don’t you?’ she asked in that voice of hers that always melted everything inside me.

     I touched her cheek softly and nodded.

    I did  not let myself think of the future. I only thought of caresses and kisses. Damini worried for us all by herself, alone. When she wanted me to be by her side, I was, and I reassured her that I would stay, even though deep down I knew I couldn’t.

     ‘Then come with me.’ Damini looked earnest.

     ‘But, what will we do, where will we go? Who’ll give us money?’

     ‘I have a plan, but you will not approve.’

     ‘What plan?’

     ‘I was talking to Abdul from the butcher shop the other day, and he said that a marriage was coming. They need meat. They need cows. They . . .’ she looked away from me.

     ‘Damini!’ I started to cry. How could my Damini even think of such a thing, to give Lakshmi away to that Muslim family? They’ll butcher her, leaving no trace of her existence behind.

     ‘We have no other way.’

     I turned away from her. ‘If you really loved me, you wouldn’t even think of such a thing!’

     She came close to me, wrapped her arms around me from behind and rested her head on my shoulder. I could feel her breath on my neck, and smell the fragrance of bay leaves. ‘There’s no other way. We can’t take any money or jewels, they are all locked away. This plan will leave no trail behind,’ she said, mouthing each word slowly.

     The next day, many guests came to our house, including all my relatives and even the grocery storekeeper. And not until after they started to dress me up did I realize it was my engagement. I saw the bridegroom through my bedroom window. He sat in the front yard with his family, with various fruits and jewels laid out on golden plates in front of him. My heart pounded when I saw him, tall and good-looking. But then I panicked, my thoughts went to Damini, my Krishna. She said she was my man.

     ‘Amma, I don’t want this engagement.’

     Amma dragged me by my hand to the corner of my room, looked piercingly into my eyes, slapped me across my face, and said, ‘I know what’s on your mind Kayal. And you better listen to what I say.’

     I had never seen Amma like that before. It scared me, and I did not say anything else for the rest of the evening. My mind was blank, and I was lost. Though my eyes often searched for Damini in the crowd, it was in vain. She wasn’t there, and neither were her mother and Udayan Maama. I sat through the Sanskrit mantras and got engaged.

     The groom, he tried to look at me and smile. I kept my eyes on the ground but I felt his eyes on my skin, and I liked it.

 

That night, after everyone at home had fallen asleep, I met Damini in the dank shadows of the cowshed. Padmini was lapping up water from the barrel, and Lakshmi rubbed her head on her calf’s body once in a while. Damini did not say a word. She stood staring at me, her boyish lashes curled upward, as though waiting for me to confess my sins. What was worse was that I felt as if I had sinned.

     She abruptly walked towards me and held me by my shoulders. ‘What about all your promises?’ she asked, shaking me.

     ‘What about them? What could I do? I had no choice,’ I cried.

     She pushed me towards Lakshmi; I stumbled and fell on a trough of muddy hay. Damini started to walk towards me but I had managed to get up by myself. She then stopped and glared at me. I tried to touch her but she batted my hand away.

     Lakshmi gazed at us; only she knew all my secrets.

     ‘What choice do I have?’ I pleaded.

     ‘You have a choice, Kayal,’ Damini said, letting her hands hang loose at her sides. That’s when I noticed a fresh wound on her wrist.

     I still felt the sting of Amma’s slap on my face. Damini had been thrashed so many times, yet, for all her strength, I knew how fragile she was. My eyes filled with tears. I inched closer to her, put my arms around her hips and rested my head on her chest.

     ‘You don’t want me anymore, do you?’ She started to cry, her lips twitching in pain. Damini never cried. My Damini never cried. I felt a sudden urge to show her how much I loved her. I wanted to heal all her wounds. I wanted to soothe all her pain. Our pain.

     ‘Take her, Damini,’ I said suddenly. ‘I’ll come away with you. You are all I want.’ I was surprised by the words that fell from my lips.

     Damini stared at me for a few minutes, and let me wipe her tears.

     ‘Are you sure?’

     ‘Yes.’

     Everything seemed to whizz past me. My head felt heavy, and all I could make sense of was the salt of my tears. I barely had the courage to gaze into Lakshmi’s unsuspecting eyes. She stood licking Padmini’s neck. Padmini’s bent hock caught my eye, and it brought me memories of Lakshmi as a calf. I glanced at Damini from the corner of my eye; she stood there sadly. I touched Lakshmi’s wet nose; this time, she did not snort. I held her close, breathing in the smell of warm milk and hay, stroking her coat of white-and-brown hair.

     I sat crying on the ground next to Padmini. ‘Forgive me, Padmini, I know no other way.’ And I watched Damini lead her away. Lakshmi walked to her death without making a fuss, without a noise.

 

There are drums and nadhaswarams playing outside, there are children running around the temple pillars, the sun is shining. I am dressed in a heavy silk sari, necklaces of gold hang around my neck, the priest is throwing rose water and hemp into the flames . . . 

      And I never thought this day would come, but here I am, sitting in front of the ritual fire, repeating Sanskrit mantras I don’t understand. He’s looking at me now, and I can feel it on my skin. We are getting married. Damini is locked away somewhere in a room, Lakshmi is at Lord Krishna’s feet in the heavens, and I’m going to be his wife.

 


To comment on this story, please register, sign in and click here.


 

More Fiction

Please Register or Login

Register now for full access to News and Events, Web Exclusives, Blogs and Comments.

If you've already registered, please login.