Somewhere in Pakistan.
With the advancing night, Sheedan had exhausted all the energy in her lean body. Her boys, a twelve and a ten-year-old were engrossed in something under the poorly lit cowshed. Sheedan repeatedly called them but they had decided to turn deaf ears to their mother’s summoning. Sheedan’s husband Riyaaz, shabbily dressed in a pale yellow shalwar kameez -that might have been white at some point of time- was contemplating, confined in the smoke prison emanating from the hookah placed beside the charpoy on which he was lying. Riyaaz’s eyes were glued to the tiny bulb hanging from the wooden pole attached to the mud walls of his house. Sheedan was around twenty-one years old but looked like a thirty-five- year-old woman. She was tall and lean with black coloured eyes which were always bordered by thick kohl, and wore a big size ring in her nose and big metal danglers in her ears. That night, while her boys were busy playing and husband -who did nothing except for sitting in a small shop from which they hardly earned anything- was relaxing, Sheedan continued to work on her chores. Her last task of feeding the cow Koki was completed, she then arranged the hay stacks, piled the firewood, made bed for her kids and husband and kept a glass of boiled milk beside charpoy on which Riyaaz was still laying and making the bubbling noise.
“Will you close the main door?” Sheedan asked her husband.
Riyaaz nodded his head in affirmation. Finally, she uncovered her hair, placed her dupatta on the thin pillow kept on her charpoy and lied down to rest. Her charpoy was next to Riyaaz’s. She summoned the kids again, who were busy playing with Koki. Her older son had managed to take away the bowl of henna paste that Sheedan had kept to apply on her partly grey hair the next morning. The boys decided to make an identifier on their cow to prevent cow theft, which wasn’t uncommon in their village Islamkot, located on the border of Pakistan. While the younger one undertook the task of painting the cow’s horns in green and white colours that he had borrowed from his friend, the elder one made a crescent moon cradling a star on the left side of her belly. Koki, the fat white cow, seemed to be amused by her beautification. While trying to secure their cow, the boys did not realize that the coarse rope that had trapped Koki had loosened up. A single shout from their father and the boys abandoned everything to go to bed.
The night was at its peak and it was getting colder. Boys curled up in their blankets while Riyaaz’s snoring hindered Sheedan’s peaceful sleep. She kept on changing sides with closed eyes and wrinkles at the center of her eyebrows. The only one not sleeping that night was Koki. Riyaaz had forgotten to close the main door. It wouldn’t make any difference; the verandah was fortified by small mud walls, which could be easily jumped by anyone who tried. While everyone was in deep slumber Koki managed to escaped her confinement.
Somewhere in India
Madhav brooded under the midday sun surrounded by hardly-grown wheat crops. It was that hour of the day when most of the farmers of Lakhatpur took a break from their work. Madhav was a skinny, middle-aged farmer crushed by the weight of gigantic mortgages. The breadwinner of a family of seven, the deep lines on his dark, sun-burnt skin depicted his predicament. He was engulfed in the intoxication of tobacco, when a wandering cow caught his attention. The sad sunken eyes sparkled.
“Gau Mata” he screamed.
He spit the tobacco on the damp soil of his field and rushed towards the lost cow with folded hands.
“Gau Mata, you come to my field at your will, bless me with good luck and bounty,” Madhav said, sitting in front of the cow with folded hands and bent head.
The masticating cow did not seem to be interested, she turned around her head as if searching for a familiarity that did not exist. An orphan cow was an uncommon sight in that remote village located on the border of India and Pakistan. Madhav looked around his vicinity for the owner of the cow but there were no claimants. The cow with green and white horns was all by itself. Gradually, the realization of discovering an undomesticated cow engulfed him in extreme happiness; a lost cow was an asset. “Free Milk” he thought and decided to take her home.
The village had not seen rain for a long time and the village leader had turned his back on his people after successfully gaining enough votes to win the elections. If rain decided to ditch the farmers, there was no way the farmers could water their dying crops as it was the only irrigation system of that village. Consequently, the farmers and their families would often look for means to earn money. One part was spent on family needs and other repaying the loan to the banks established for welfare of farmers. Madhav’s financial situation would have never allowed him to own a cow.
With a healthy white cow walking alongside Madhav, with coarse rope in his creased, rough hands, they both crossed his wheat field and stopped in front of a narrow mud road running along side a dried canal going deep into the tunnel of tall jamun trees. By the time he entered the village, the news of Madhav and the white cow had already spread in the village like brush fire. Men had lined up on the sides of the street whereas women peeped in from behind the doors with saree pallu tucked between the lips from one side to partly cover their faces. Children walked behind Madhav and the cow whispering in each other’s ears and occasionally trying to get a feel of Koki. Madhav walked with chin high up, triumphant, accompanied with a sense of superiority monopolizing his sullen face.
“We thought he was poor; how did he get that?” said a village lady.
“And his wife is always crying about the financial crisis,” said another village lady. “Both husband and wife are misers, must have saved up for this”.
“If now his wife comes for help, I will not give her a penny”.
Madhav enjoyed the attention and did not refrain from boasting about his newly acquired high status. The entrance of his house was small for a fat cow; it was made for the lean family members only. Madhav called out for his wife from outside. A terribly tanned wrinkled woman came running towards the partly broken wooden door. She was short and skinny, draped in a worn-out printed saree, her pallu covered her coarse mud-coloured hair, roughly held together in a braid. She saw Madhav standing at the door, with a huge smile and a cow beside him, along with the children of the entire village. It was beyond her reasonable limits to even think that Madhav had purchased that cow. By now, Madhav’s eldest son of about fifteen had arrived to the location where the village had gathered.
“What’s the deal with that cow?” He asked Madhav.
Without answering the question, Madhav asked his son to open the rusty aluminum gate at the back of the house to let the cow in. Koki was welcomed to the dilapidated mud house. Un-plastered brick walls, prepping for their last days, bordered the house. In the center of the verandah was a charpoy occupied by an extremely skinny old woman. Her skin was the color of damp soil, wrinkled like the stiff organdy fabric twisted and tied into a rope for days and then left out in the open. The tips of her nails were black, and she had big size glasses which made her eyes look like huge black balls popping out of the sockets. She was Madhav’s mother, the oldest member of the family. The truth about the cow was revealed to the family behind locked doors; Gau mata was to be fed abundantly whether the family had food on plates or not.
“We will sell her milk and repay our loan,” Madhav said, sitting on the patio that night with his wife.
“And fields?” asked his wife.
“They are barren; we cannot rely on them unless it rains.” He replied.
Their children surrounded Koki, examining the one who might change their lives. Madhav stared at them with a huge contended smile.
“I have never seen you so happy,” said his wife noticing his tears-filled eyes.
“I foresee a better, mortgage-free life ahead,” he replied wiping his eyes with the cloth resting on his left shoulder.
“What if the owner finds us?” questioned his wife.
“Take the kids and go to sleep” Madhav ordered her.
When life is consumed by fear and swamped by responsibilities, even a tiny ray of light, seeping in from a broken column on the walls of the dark, gloomy room, seem like a beam of hope leading to a bright valley of sunlight. For Madhav, Koki was that ray of light in his dark room.
While everyone had gone to sleep, Madhav sat wide-awake, head resting on the wooden pole, staring at Koki and marveling at his luck. He calculated the time it would take to repay his loan of rupees twenty thousand by selling the milk and clarified butter. An army of moths had gathered right on top of Madhav’s head, around the tiny bulb affixed on the wooden pole Madhav’s head was resting on. He kept on fanning them away with the cloth on his shoulder. One of the moths left the light behind and came down to rest on one of Madhav’s feet. The cracks on Madhav’s feet resembled the dried and cracked fields of Indian farmers, devoid of water for ages. Madhav did not fan it away; he kept staring at the restless moth and its desperation for peace.
Next morning Madhav’s eldest son, Suresh was standing, staring right at his father, who had fallen asleep sitting on the patio.
“Baba, Baba,” he called Madhav.
Madhav woke up in surprise, “Where is the cow?” was his first question.
“Where did you find this cow?” Suresh questioned.
“In the field,” he replied.
“Something is not right with it” Suresh explained.
The dreams of peaceful life were ephemeral. His son and his friends noticed the unimaginable. As the green and white coloured horns with a star cradled by a crescent moon at the belly were not Indian enough, the boys concluded that the animal had something to do with the neighbouring country.
“It’s not possible, and even if it is, how does it make a difference?” Madhav questioned, trying to rubbish his son’s conclusions. He went to examine Koki and decided to wash away the paint but it was too late. The gossip had already been spread throughout the village and within a few minutes, various men began paying visits to Madhav, curious to know whether the cow was a citizen or an immigrant.
The next morning, Koki was summoned to appear in the court of Panchayat. Unwillingly, owner of the cow for just a day had to wrap up all his future plans and take Koki with him.
“White and green horns, moon and star on the belly; she is definitely a Pakistani!” said a villager closely examining the cow.
Koki remained unaffected, she had decided to ignore the attention.
“A Pakistani cow in our village! How did she even come here?” cried out another villager.
“Must have crossed the border illegally,” remarked another one.
“But are we not sure if it’s a Muslim cow?” said the sarpanch, who was sitting on a pedestal, clad in a freshly starched white kurta, dhoti and light pink color turban to prevent the enormous knowledge he had acquired from falling out of his head. Moustaches pointing straight up defied gravity. He was seated with another four men who together were the decision makers of the village.
“Let me check” said a villager and caught hold of the cow’s tail.
“It’s a cow not a bull and no one circumcises a bull, you fool,” shouted the sarpanch.
Everyone burst out in laughter. The men of the village gave their suggestions and opinions while Madhav stood in one corner with a long face. The inability to reach a conclusion forced the Panchayat to confiscate the cow, unless her fate was determined. Not being the owner of the cow, Madhav did not have the right to take advantage of the animal. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and slowly rubbed his eyes, which had swollen up with tears.
Koki was taken away and tied to a peepal tree just outside the premises of the temple where the other cows were resting and roaming around. Koki saw men dangling leafy twigs in front of other cows and yet no one came to her. She was struggling to get accepted. She was similar to them yet she was still not one of them; foreigner amongst the familiar. She resembled a Muslim man tired of listening “Go to Pakistan”.
The news of a Pakistani cow spread to the neighbouring villages and soon, herds of men and women came to have a look at the foreign visitor.
“But she looks like the cows I own” said a neighbouring villager.
“Look at those painted horns!” said another one.
“Green is a Muslim colour.”
“I have seen the star and the moon on Eid goats too, they make it here also.”
Koki was discussed while sipping tea, while making cow dung cakes, during temple processions and while playing hopscotch. Men and women routinely visited the temple for the cows to partake in sprinkling and drinking their urine. Koki would deliberately take a leak at that time but no one acknowledged her efforts. When the place we assume we belong to, alienates us, the fear of isolation engulfs, coercing us to succumb to our new surroundings.
One day, when the sun had not come out of its nightgown completely, the village of Lakhatpur witnessed the unthinkable. A large pack of painted vans with umbrella-like structures attached to the roofs, swamped the tiny unknown village. Men and women with cameras on their shoulders and mikes in their hands, raced to surround Koki, while the villagers sat in groups, under the trees, on the branches and the rooftops. The village women from behind their veils stared at women clad in denims, short hair and speaking in a foreign tongue, English.
The entire country then experienced what they hadn’t prepared for.
“A Pakistani cow”
“Green and white horns, a cow or a spy?”
“Pakistan’s attempt to terrorize Indians”
“Gau Mata or Gau Ammi”
“Will you worship a cow from Pakistan?”
“Cow, a Hindu or a Muslim?”
The headlines of the news channels had consumed the nights and days of the country’s population.
“Focus the camera on her face, and do enhance the color of the horns while editing,” said a reporter to her cameraman.
“I’ll stand next to the moon and star and you try to put the horns in the same frame” said another one, hunting for the perfect reporting spot.
Media people stormed Madhav’s shack, flooding him and his family with questions which had no answers.
“In what condition did you find the Pakistani cow?” asked a reporter.
“I saw her standing in the middle of my field.” Madhav replied nervously.
“Did you try to find out where she had come from?” asked another reporter.
“I just saw her standing.”
“Do you think someone might have left her there deliberately?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you notice any suspicious actions of the cow?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did the cow behave in a certain way that might have been dangerous?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why didn’t you notice the painted horns and moon star?”
Madhav began to sweat, unable to respond to the questions.
“How is it possible that you did not notice such a huge animal trespassing your field with the Pakistani symbols on her?”
Madhav wiped his forehead with the cloth hanging on his left shoulder. He looked at his wife and children, who were sitting and staring at him vacantly. His mother stared at him from her big glasses, lying on charpoy, chewing betel leaves -instead of cud, red juice dribbled from a side of her lips.
“Are you lying to the entire country?
“Are you hiding the truth from your own country?”
Madhav dropped the cloth and fell on the ground.
“As we can see Madhav has fainted but the question remains; was he lying to us? Is he a Pakistani spy who helped them send this cow to terrorize the Indians?” remarked the TV reporter.
Koki, a.k.a., the Pakistani Cow and Madhav were taken into custody by the local police. Madhav who a couple of days ago entered the village with Koki’s rope in his hand, left the village in handcuffs. Both of them were later on handed over to the anti-terrorist squad.
The strangeness of the anti-terrorist headquarters frightened Koki. She stood at one place, adamantly refusing to move. The cud dribbled down on the shiny white tile flooring making it sticky and slippery. When forced by the ropes to move towards the scanning machine, she urinated, wetting the shoes of the officers. Disgust occupied their faces as they tried to walk with urine dripping from their shoes. Koki stood there, masticating.
After being scanned from horns to tail, it was announced that Koki, the Pakistani Cow, had no chips or spying objects inserted in her. While Madhav was released, Koki was still kept in remand.
An expert panel on a news channel proclaimed her unworthy of being worshipped by Hindus, declaring her a “Muslim cow”. The Muslim community demanded her to be handed to them to settle down their beef cravings, post the beef-ban in the country. Hearing this the Gau Rakshak protested alleging India to be a beef-free land and they would not let Muslims commit such blasphemy. The animal rights activists had demanded freedom for Koki and an end to her trials.
* * *
From the tiny grill of a dark blue police truck, Koki ogled at the fast moving city, Delhi. She saw men and women rushing to reach somewhere, kids running after balloons at India gate, BMWs, Jaguars, a swarm of modern cafeterias in British-built Connaught place and the poster-laden walls of Jantar mantar.
The truck came to a halt at a police station where Koki was handed over to a constable named Nisar Khan, to be securely tied to the large peepal tree.
“Tie her properly as tomorrow minister sahib is coming to see her.”
The disgusting experience of the anti-terrorists’ office had refrained them from taking Koki inside. Nisar Khan was a medium height middle-aged man. His paunch rested on the tight belt of his khaki uniform. The whistle hanging from the mustard rope on his left shoulder had never been used. A tiny medal was pinned on his heart, awarded to him for his honesty and dedication. He sat on the porch, keeping a tight vigil. That night, heavy rain had caused massive jams throughout the capital city. Everything was wet. The constable had fallen asleep on his bench, the peepal tree was drenched, each leaf, which had been buried under the brown dust, turned dark green and appeared fresh. Koki had stopped masticating; the cud had seemed to dry. She kept on fidgeting with the rope as if trying to escape once again. The soil beneath her had turned mushy, forming tiny streams draining into a huge pothole. But the streams were not only filled with muddy water and dried leaves, there was green and white colour paint as well, slithering like a venomous snake wanting to hide in the pothole.
Next morning, Nisar Khan was seen running and stumbling across the premises of the police station. He looked under the truck, behind the wagon, in the back lawns, side lawns, front lawns, in the lock ups but the Pakistani cow could not be seen anywhere.
“It was just a cow, no one would care”, he thought.
He decided to see if she was outside the premises, just to be sure. The street was deserted; only a white Indian cow with unpainted horns was sitting with left side of her belly resting on the police station wall feeding on an unusually large bunch of leaves. Nisar Khan went back into the police station.
News headline the next morning said “Nisar khan, a police constable accused of stealing the cow and eating beef lynched by the mob”.