The cow lay dead inches away from my foot, its head partly cut off from the throat. When father slaughtered it, blood poured out severely for minutes and then began to slowly drip down the throat. Soon there was a patch of congealed blood on the mud.
I watched the bleeding all the way through. My mind was all but a farrago—there were some grief, some confusion and even some fascination as well. I couldn’t feel anything distinctly, except for a flow of fragmented images, all vague and trembling and fleeting.
Father had taken me to the mart with him this year so I could learn about buying cows. We were going to buy a cow for the “Qurbani”—a religious ritual wherein a domestic quadruped is slaughtered as a symbolic sacrifice in the name of God.
Father spent hours going through a vast array of cows, making me exhausted and bored, yet none of them could pique his interest. Finally, he picked one owned by an aged herdsman.
It was reddish-brown in color, its plump stomach alive with flesh, its horns long and pointed, presaging its vigorous youth. But I was fascinated most to see its lofty withers—it was the loftiest of all withers I’d seen before—which made the wise words of father buzz in my head, “The loftier the withers, the better the cow.”
As the price was agreed after a mild bargain, father went on to take the cow from the herdsman. But hardly had he moved anywhere closer to the cow before it grunted with loads of heat, its eyes a pair of blazing fireballs. Stepping back, he made an attempt to shush the cow and moved closer towards it. This time, the cow reacted even more wrathfully and hit him with its horns, sending him sprawling to the ground. I rushed to see if he was okay and found out that he was just a touch hurt in his elbow. I couldn’t believe that father—the same man who handled cows for a living for years—was unable to stand a chance against that cow.
And then came about the magic as the herdsman stood before the cow and took the rope tied around its neck in his hand. Straightaway, the cow calmed down and began to walk after him with sheer quietness. It seemed as if the herdsman had hypnotized the hostile cow into an unruffled entity.
As we walked back home, I couldn’t help asking the herdsman, “Hey, mister! How come your furious cow is so much humble to you?”
The herdsman retorted with a warm beam, “It’s nothing magical, son. I’ve reared this cow ever since it was just a little calf. I guess we’ve made a healthy connection in all these years. That’s it!”
“But has it been so aggressive all the time? I mean, the way it behaved with dad, it was…” I flinched recalling the scene, “Scary!”
“O boy! If this seems scary to you, then you’ve seen nothing of my cow! When I was younger, it chased after my father once and made him hide in our kitchen. That wasn’t the end of the show! It stood before the kitchen for minutes waiting for my father to come out so that it can poke him the horns until I came in and took it away. Not a single person in my family has been spared from its anger, except for me.” Excitement glinted in the herdsman’s eyes.
The herdsman himself took the cow into our cow-shed when we reached home. I peeked into the shed and found the cow chewing raw straw with all the luxury in the world.
How the cow suddenly transmogrified in the mart was still an unsolved riddle for me then.
Father had no other option but to request the herdsman to stay in our house until the ritual was done as the cow showed obedience to none but him.
That afternoon, I sneaked to the meadow whereto the herdsman had taken the cow earlier. I’d challenged myself to conquer the heart of the unfriendly cow and befriend it.
I began to tiptoe towards the cow. But the closer I went, the more frostily did the cow gaze at me. When I was just inches away from the cow, it breathed a fume of fury through the nose and lifted its legs as if to kick me away. My nerves couldn’t resist the fear anymore as I jumped off and ran away from the place.
That night, a question kept on gyrating inside my head over and over again: “How ever can a man influence an animal to that much extent?”
Father prepared some chaff in a large bowl for the cow the following morning as a cow to-be-slaughtered must be fed before the slaughter. He tried to hustle the cow towards the bowl but it turned out to be a futile attempt as the cow tried to lash him out. It agreed to move only when the herdsman came in and pulled the rope tied with its neck.
As long as the cow ate the chaff, the herdsman caressed its entire body, starting with the throat, and then the dewlap, the head, and the back, one after the other. Clearly, the herdsman was venting his deepest emotions on the cow, for it was the last time he could do so.
Helpless with curiosity, I asked, “Mister, if you adore your cow so much, then why did you put it on the mart and let it die like this?”
The herdsman looked down for a moment. His eyes took on a thoughtful frown and the vessels of his throat swelled with immense force, as if they were about to break through the fences.
Then he said, “Well, I’ll say my emotions couldn’t beat my poverty. When you have your family suffocating in hunger and diseases and you don’t have a penny in your pocket to save them, the toughest decisions won’t seem tough to you anymore.”
There was something about that reply that struck my heart sharply, leaving me low.
As soon as the cow finished taking the chaff, the herdsman took it to the meadow where the Qurbani was supposed to be held. I wasn’t surprised at all to find a decent crowd waiting for us to come, for rumors about our fierce cow had already permeated the entire village.
The herdsman tied the head of the cow with two contiguous trees to restrict its movement. Even then, the cow violently shoved the rope and somehow managed to behold deep into the eyes of the herdsman.
I’d never seen such a vivid eye-contact before!
The cow gazed at the herdsman with an earnest appeal, as if it had in some way foreseen what was about to be done with it. Its eyes were glittering with tears, looking ineffably miserable.
The eyes of the herdsman, on the other hand, sparkling with a deep agony, were trying as hard as possible to withdraw the tears in their edge.
Father and the enthusiastic crowd around didn’t notice anything—they were too busy preparing for and anticipating the ritual—but it appeared to me as though a magical spell was cast in the meadow which seized my senses. Everything else in the world—the trees, the people, the smell of wet mud and all other sensations—disappeared completely, time itself forgot to flow, and there remained only two pairs of eyes, forming a deep, otherworldly connection, gazing infinitely at each other.
No, maybe there wasn’t only a gaze; perhaps it was a communication. An inaudible exchange of desperate feelings between two entities. But I couldn’t grasp what was exchanged. It was far too intimate for the understanding of a third person.
The magic dissolved quite suddenly as father began to move closer towards the cow, distracting the two pairs of eyes from each other. My senses slowly began to return home, but then again only befuddlement dominated them.
Father was making for the cow with some of the toughest laborers in the village—so tough they were that removing the heavy fallen-off trees from the roads in the monsoon was merely a walk in the park for them. The herdsman walked away to make room for the laborers and stood an onlooker beside me—he quite understandably couldn’t be a part of the slaughter.
I expected a vicious protest from the cow as the men started to bind its legs. But that was a day where my expectations hardly matched the reality; the cow didn’t even move an inch while the laborers bound four of its legs separately.
What had happened a second later, has a great chance at defying all the imaginations of even the dreamiest fantasist in the world.
Before the laborers made a move to compel the cow to collapse, it had miraculously lain down on the slaughtering-shrine by itself, spreading its throat wide open. Even the calmest cow in the world would at least try pushing all those men and put up a fight to survive, like all living beings under attack would do. But there was no protest. Not even in the slightest.
The herdsman fell to his knees and cried like a child as he saw his cow lie down. Murmurs of shock reigned in the meadow.
Father uttered a mantra and then drove the knife along the throat of the cow. The cow groaned and shivered and wheezed heavily, until its last breath came out.
And suddenly, the flashback before my mind’s eye came to an end. I returned to the earthly world and the dead cow reappeared in front of me.
I stepped closer towards the cow. Its eyes were black and impassive, but no longer lively as they were minutes ago while meeting the eyes of the herdsman.
The herdsman was sitting near a tree to my left, his back supported on the stem. It was the look on his face that said it all.
I had a flurry of puzzles in my head: Why didn’t the cow fight the laborers? How the heck does a cow lie down on a slaughtering-shrine by itself? Could it be that the cow did it for the herdsman? Could it be that the herdsman wanted his cow not to fight its destiny of being slaughtered in the name of God? Could it be that the herdsman had conveyed this message with his eyes? Did the cow surrender out of its blind allegiance to its master? But I was too afraid to ask the herdsman.
It took quite long for the laborers to finish chopping all the flesh of the cow into pieces. By midday, mother had served beef and hot rice in our plates—it’s a usual practice to have the meat of the sacrificed animal for lunch.
One look at the beef and I knew it would be delicious, but as I began eating, the taste couldn’t really reach my tongue—something else was impinging me overwhelmingly. I knew the herdsman was taking lunch in another room of our cottage—the guest room to be precise—and that he was probably served the meat of his own beloved cow. It was such an inhuman and cruel thing to imagine!
The thought was biting me unbearably, so I got up from the dining table halfway through the lunch and dashed to the guest room.
I found the herdsman was served rice, beef and dhal. He lifted his head to look at me as I came, his eyes no longer teary, but still reflecting a deep ache.
I paid a visit to the kitchen and asked mother, “Why did you serve the herdsman his own cow’s meat? Don’t you think we’re being too harsh on him?”
Mother gave me a grin and said, “Son, do you really think we’re fools? He’s not eating the meat of his cow. I brought some meat from Akbar’s house earlier. Right now, he’s having that.”
Uncle Akbar lived in the cottage next to ours and he and father were among the very few in the village who had the means to give a ‘Qurbani’. So I got relief from the anxiety.
Father offered the herdsman a handsome amount of money—more than what a typical herdsman would get. I thought he was worth it, for we’d just stolen from him the apple of his eyes once and for all.
He left our cottage when the sun had fallen into the western horizon and was about to set. I still had the questions in my head, but I chose not to ask. Though a part of my heart kept on pushing and pleading and urging me constantly to do so, I didn’t listen. I didn’t want to listen. I just watched him walk till he disappeared from my line of sight, and from my life forever.
These days, often I ask myself why I hadn’t dispelled the doubts in my mind by asking the herdsman that day. The answer that I find is perhaps I didn’t want to disappoint myself.