Today, my heart is heavy with sorrow.
There are incidents that make us halt in the course of our lives and reflect on how little control we have over our lives. Incidents that reinforce the fact that nature that brings man infinite joys, is also capable of bringing intense pain and suffering. We stand helpless, holding our hearts that have become heavy with grief and that refuse to move on. We search for a larger motive and dimension, finding consolation in the deeper philosophy of life.
In the neighbourhood, a calf has been crying constantly for the last two days. It is a cry of agony and desperation. I could hear it cry in the day, and in the silence of the night. Perhaps it was ill. But then the cry sounded more like a desperate cry for want of something. It seemed to be asking for something…or somebody. It didn’t sound like the cry of an animal in physical pain.
It was only yesterday that I learnt the reason. The calf was calling out to its mother who had not returned. The mother cow had been out to graze that evening, sustained a fall and been unable to get up or move. With a shudder, I took in the news that the vet had been unable to help, and she had been sent to the slaughterhouse since she was paralyzed and could not be cured.
These are moments that bring me face to face with the harsh reality of life…with its bitter truths that I always choose to run away from. Aren’t humans the most intellectual of all species? We eradicated small pox, we stepped on the moon, and we made test tube babies. But aren’t we in a position to tend to a paralyzed mother cow whose 4 month old calf has not yet been weaned? Was there nothing that we intellectual beings were capable of, in order to rescue a helpless and mute animal from such misery? Would we ever do that if it was a human being? Is an animal’s life less significant than the life of a human being? I had no answers. I only had questions. What was the cow’s feeling at that point in time? Who would explain to the calf as to why its mother was no longer heeding to its cry? I felt helpless as a human…as the most intellectual species on this planet.
The faces of the calf and its mother play in my mind. The mother cow has been around from the time I have moved into this house. That was 7 years ago. She was golden brown in color, with beautiful dark eyes and curved horns.
I remember the time I had moved into this house. I had been fascinated by the old house in the distance, with its cowsheds and ancient trees. Somehow, the little amber glow from its barn on a dark monsoon night gave me the feel of a van Gogh painting.
I had been equally fascinated by the elderly lady who lived in that house all alone and tended to the cows. She dressed in rags that camouflaged her and perhaps made animals regard her with less fear. She was always preoccupied with chores. I would see her wander in search of tender grass in the summer season when everything was dry and the cows had no fodder. In the evenings, she would rush to fetch gruel and water from the houses for her cows. I would see her accompanying the cows, struggling to keep pace with them as they marched off in all directions. She would take them out to graze, and tie them to a tree or a pole. Occasionally, people would complain that the animals had eaten up freshly planted saplings or plantain leaves. The lady refused to take these complaints seriously. She had learnt the art of survival.
She fascinated me for she was different from the stereotype. She was slender and beautiful, despite all the sun tan, creases and wrinkles on her body. When she was young, she must have been very attractive. Apparently, a school teacher had liked her and wanted to marry her. His family had discussed the matter with her family. But she had quietly met him and advised him to call off the marriage for marriage was not her cup of tea. It wasn’t a trivial affair in those days for a woman to oppose her family, meet the prospective groom and have such a conversation. It required tremendous courage. And she had demonstrated that courage. From as far back as people could remember, she had lived the life of a cowherd. She was independent and had no fear. Day and night made no difference to her. She would be seen accompanying the cows in the darkness, through the wildest paths that one could imagine. She was not worried of snakes or scorpions or the likes.
The cows had brought us together. I would feed them little titbits and they had learnt to recognize me. I was particularly fond of the calves. The first calf I had befriended was a male with a silky black coat. He had surprised me with his ability at reciprocating affection. The animal always made me feel that it belonged to me. It had been very painful when he had finally been given off to the man who bought the male calves from the lady. Until then, I had not known that the male calves were eventually given off for meat. It had taken me a long time to come to terms with this bitter truth. Every time a calf was born, I would see it on the very first day. It would always be such a cute little thing, and I would silently compliment the cow for delivering such a beautiful creature. Some were black, some white and some the color of chocolate. But they were all phenomenally beautiful and most mischievous. Their innocence and mischief made me fall in love with them. But after this revelation about the predestined fate of the male calf, my happiness was always corrupted by that deep ache I felt when I saw the beautiful, innocent creature, blissfully unaware of its cruel fate. It was then that I stopped eating meat. In any case, I only ate chicken and fish, and I stopped that as well.
This was the first time I was seeing at close quarters the maintenance of livestock. And I realized what a big struggle it was. It involved immense labour, and a lot of patience. It made me very guilty to think that my life had none of the struggle and hardships that characterized the cowherd’s life. And so, I would do little favours for her as and when I could. Drive her to the market and to other places. Buy antiseptic ointments for her cows. Give her medicines when she was ill. Accompany her to the temple and for weddings and family functions.
It went on to the point that she started taking me for granted. And as is the case with human nature, she was deeply offended when I couldn’t do her a favour on one particular occasion. Her sarcastic response to that incident shocked me. Slowly, I realized that she had been manipulative and opportunistic on many occasions. As her true nature slowly became evident to me, I gradually withdrew from that association, and an emotional distance thus came between us, though things were fine on the surface.
The news of this tragedy that had befallen the calf devastated me. My mother and I visited the calf, and took bananas for it. I was unsure of what condition we might find it in, but thankfully, it was alert and responsive. Also, the presence of the other calves and cows perhaps eased the impact of the tragedy and made it bearable. I put out the bananas and the calf nibbled at it. I patted its head and whispered comforting words into its ear, believing that it could understand.
The cowherd appeared, her face pale and her eyes red and swollen from crying. Between sobs, she narrated the incident. Apparently, she had taken the mother cow out for grazing that evening, tied it to a tree and left it to graze. She had left the rope a little short for fear that the animal would stray far and eat up the plantain leaves. Some hours later, she had gone to fetch the animal and found it lying on the ground, unable to get up. It lay paralyzed, the rope completely entangled around it. The vet had been called for, but nothing could be done. It was on the subsequent day that the animal had been taken to be slaughtered.
The lady’s eyes seemed to hold vividly the memory of that entire event, and she couldn’t speak anymore. Her association with that cow went back to years. The cow had been brought to their house when it was a calf. The lady had been witness to the different phases of its life and had seen it through its pregnancies and deliveries. That cow was now family. I thought the lady would faint from crying for she looked so pale. It was heartbreaking to see her pain. She couldn’t shake off the feeling that her carelessness and thoughtlessness had contributed to the tragedy. And it was heartbreaking to think of this deep tragedy that had befallen on the cow and her calf. If it had affected me thus, I could imagine the lady’s plight. I held the lady close and she cried on my shoulder.
At that moment, I suddenly realized how sorrow binds us together. I realized that the only way my sorrow had eased was by being together in this sorrow with the others who were affected by it. That togetherness provided a strange strength. Perhaps, this incident will be forgotten in some time. Perhaps, the lady will get back to her old ways of life. Perhaps the emotional distance between us shall return. But what gives me hope is that the sorrow lighted up the humanity within her and within me. Somehow, that gives hope- the hope that humanity lies dormant within all of us, waiting to be awakened. A hope that reminds me of the amber glow from the barn on a pitch dark night.
The lady was out to get fodder for the cows in the evening. My next-door neighbour stopped her and said,”My balcony is brown with the mud from the JCB work at your place.” She perhaps never once looked at the cowherd’s face. Even if she did, she would not have seen what there was to be seen- the residue of a deep sorrow. A cow dying in the neighbourhood could not be more important than the mud that had stained the floor of her balcony…
As long as the integrity of her world was intact, she couldn’t be bothered.