Translated from Hindi to English by Punarvasu Joshi
In India’s village schools, children are often assigned simple essays asking them to describe their idyllic surroundings. The essay starts with simple sentences such as: ‘A cow is a domestic animal’, ‘A pair of oxen are used to till the land’,—and so on. Mr. Pandey writes his story in the style of a child’s essay to draw out the complexities of India’s current socio-political scenario. This simple and innocent style of writing of a child’s essay, when used in this way, the way it is used in this story, and the use of a cow as a metaphor, lays bare the complexities of the changes the Indian society is going through due to the rise of ethnonationalism. As a translator, my major challenge was to faithfully capture Mr. Pandey’s style which imitated children’s writing, so that an English reader too could feel the restlessness that animates the short story.
A Country Turning into a Golden Cow
There used to be an animal in the Golden Country, the female of which, people addressed as cow. The cow was a simple animal. People had understood this long ago. It fed on grass and drank water. And sometimes to make it happy, people often gave it their leftovers. It enjoyed this. Some people considered it to be a sacred animal. They would take out the first bite of their food, give it to a cow, and in turn, they would feel flush with piety.
The cow would chew the bite in its mouth for a long time. Often, this bite would get stuck in its throat, and to push it down, it would have to eat husk. While chewing husk, the cow would wait for people, so that they could come and milk her. People considered a cow to be a mother and its milk the nectar of gods. That a mother’s milk is the nectar of gods, even the calf, which was tied afar and craved the cow’s milk, knew this. This was known to the cow as well, but the cow had been told that it was great, and greatness always demands sacrifice.
A question asking students to write an essay would often appear in the school exams of the country. The title of this essay would be ‘The Golden Country Is Predominantly an Agrarian Country.’ Even the weaker students would know the content of this essay by heart. Anyway, nobody faced any problems writing this essay. That the Golden Country was predominantly an agrarian country was proven by the fact that farmers lived in this country in large numbers. That the farmers lived in this country in large numbers was proven by the fact that farmers topped the list of people who committed suicide in the country.
It was baffling to people living in other parts of the world that despite so many farmers dying every day in the country, they still hadn’t become extinct. This, too, proved that the country was predominantly an agrarian country. This was further proved by the many times over that people would end up writing cow when they meant to write farmer and writing farmer when they meant to write cow, and that made no difference to the meaning at all.
When it came to other things though, this matter of meaning would change. If one called somebody a lion, that person would be elated, whereas the lion, in fact, ate cows, and on the other hand, if one called somebody a cow, even the people who considered it to be mother would glare at them. The person who was addressed as a cow would be seen with pity, instead of being seen with affection or reverence. Still, people loved cows a lot. Many of them wanted a cow to get married to as well.
It was a different thing altogether that a cow, too, would kick or gore once in a while, but it didn’t seem to matter. People would pierce its nose and put a halter-pin in it and tie its feet and milk it. Once in a while, if it created too much trouble or it had an outpouring of affection for its calf while being milked, then people, while maintaining the feeling of being a devoted son doing a service to the mother cow, would rain eight to ten blows of a bamboo stick on it. It was already a cow to begin with, but it became more bovine after receiving the blows of the bamboo stick.
That the Golden Country is predominantly an agrarian country was known even to cows. They were aware of this thing with pain-inducing pride for centuries—that the Golden Country is predominantly an agrarian country due to the might of their wretched sons, who were thrown down to the ground and turned into oxen, and they remained oxen for the rest of their lives. Often, the tears seen in their eyes, borne out of this scene, would remain stuck in their eyes. Despite this, they were happy that at least their sons were in front of them, and they could lick them whenever their hearts desired.
Their hearts, sometimes, even desired to suckle those oxen as well; after all, they were mothers, and a boundless emotion of affection welled up within them. Then, they would be reminded of those bamboo sticks which rained on them when they would furtively suckle their calves. They were told that it was bad to steal, it was unethical, and if the mother turned unethical, then what would happen to the children who were raised on her might.
The cows, often, remained silent. This didn’t mean that they didn’t know anything. They weren’t literate but they were aware of the food cycle. They knew that the cows ate grass. They knew that the lions and tigers ate cows. They liked crows sitting on their backs which would eat the parasitic ticks stuck on their hides. Similarly, they knew that many humans, too, ate cows. They would feel sad, but this was part of the natural cycle for them in this world. In such situations, they often remembered their mothers, who when they got old, were fed anything hard and dry. The oxen that got old and became skinny would wait for their death.
In the meanwhile, the cows found out that this cycle was changing. Many mechanical oxen had arrived who had freed the oxen from their job. One of the oxen had been kicked out from Premchand’s ‘The Story of Two Oxen’. The other ox, whose name was Farmer, was seeing this situation, stunned, and was running with the mechanical ox with all its strength. In the beginning, he ran happily with it. Then, he broke a sweat. Then, he started panting, and soon he fell on the ground, breathless.
There, on the other side, the cows became happy that now their sons and brothers wouldn’t have to become oxen; but soon, they came to know of this situation that had become much more horrifying than before. Their calves were driven away. Now, they were of no use. They started asking the farmers their ancestors’ share in the farmers’ crops. The farmers had already become breathless by running and panting with mechanical bulls. They had nothing left. They presented themselves to the cows. The calves who were eager to smash butt their heads with the farmers, started licking the farmers’ heads instead.
The cows were still struggling to understand all of this. They had found out that most of their owners, who had reared their cows in the tens of thousands, had started killing calves by poking them with needles. This, they hadn’t thought of even in their dreams. The cows shuddered. It was better to till the land being an ox. On the other hand, more trouble was brewing. When they were unable to give milk, they would be driven away to find fodder for themselves.
They wandered around here and there. They wouldn’t be able to find fodder for days on end. They were mothers; they didn’t have a right to complain about such things. And they didn’t complain either. If hunger pangs became unbearable, they wandered towards roads and dumping grounds and would get their fill by eating anything edible or inedible and would start chewing cud to digest it. Often, their food was so nutritious that they would die while chewing the cud, while the food remained undigested.
There was democracy in the country and the cows, too, had the right to cast their ballots. This was something different altogether, that just like the humans of this country, the cows, too, suffered from the evils of nepotism, and that’s why they voted for bulls, whom they considered to be their lovers, husbands, brothers, sons and protectors. In return, the bulls gave them their word every time that whatever they’ll do, they’ll do it only for the cows. The cows would be elated to hear this, and they’d continue to chew their cud, even if they didn’t have a single blade of grass in their stomach.
It is said that even the days of a mound of trash change someday, and they, after all, were cows. The candidate who descended in the next election for the post of the king said that the protection of cows is the greatest purpose of his life. Getting impressed by this announcement from the future king, lakhs of such people came forward who had made the protection of cows their life purpose. They promised to go to any lengths to fulfill this purpose. These were the days of happiness for cows. The tears in the huge gleaming eyes of cows were tears of happiness.
The Golden Country—whose story this story is—that country was once called the Golden Bird. The new king, after the election, declared that his target was not to make the country a Golden Bird; rather, it was to make it a Golden Cow. The birds were carnivores. They fed on innocent insects and flew away. They were not ideal to become symbols of ideals because they couldn’t be controlled. An ideal symbol of ideals could only be that which could be kept under control completely. In that regard, the cows were the most ideal symbol. And for this reason as well— that they were completely pious. Earlier, their piousness was compromised due to the matters of birthing a progeny and such things. Now, our people had taken over their reproduction completely. Now, even their race was in our control. Hence, we resolved that we would not rest until we had turned this country into a Golden Cow.
This was a country that was progressing towards turning into an ideal; therefore, the country’s media, too, was completely alert and brimmed with a pious sense of duty. They raised the question: why just a Golden Cow? Why not a Golden Elephant, a Golden Lion or a Golden Rhinoceros? The king replied that they should listen to his speech carefully. He had already answered this question. And then, he said in jest, we had to climb one step at a time. Going from a bird to a cow is alright, but wouldn’t it be too much if they went directly to an elephant? He laughed out loud as he said this. The media, too, laughed with him and kept on laughing with him for days on end. Due to this laughter, such a pious noise spread everywhere that the cows of every kind started quivering due to happiness.
The new king did whatever he had promised. The very next day, the new king declared that a new ministry was being formed for cows. It would directly work under the king. He made the national symbol minister, a deputy minister of this department, and declared that since this was such a sensitive matter, the minister could consult with him anytime. The minister, after consulting with the king, decided that the cows all over the country would be counted again, and after that, a scientific graph of their births and deaths would be plotted. For this graph to remain updated at all times, every cow must be assigned a certain number, so that it could be properly identified.
This identification card would be affixed on the forehead of every cow through surgery, through which all the cows would be directly connected to the ministry’s data centre. In this identification card, the cow’s race, the amount of milk produced by it, its age and the amount of available meat in her body, all of it would be correctly registered. The contract for this important project was given to a trusty fat cat of the king, who was involved in the trade of cow’s meat, hide, bones, etc. for many generations and had been earning valuable foreign currency for the country.
Nobody else knew about cows better than him, the king said. Everybody nodded in agreement and praised the king. Now, nobody could stop the country from becoming a Golden Cow. The fat cat declared that he wouldn’t take a dime from the king for this important project of the national symbol. He would generate the money necessary for the project from the project itself. Not only that, he would conduct this whole process in such a way that employment, too, was generated in large numbers, and people would get the opportunity to have the honour to serve in this project of national significance.
The fat cat, after taking the minister in confidence, declared open enlistment for Cow Soldiers, who would make this project possible. Then, that identification card was designed which was going to be affixed on the forehead of the cows through surgery. After that, the Cow Soldiers were assigned the task to affix the identification card on the foreheads of cows within a stipulated time.
Since neither the Cow Soldiers nor the cows had any experience of this task, many cows were left behind. The fat cat congratulated the symbol minister for this thing and said that these cows were weak and old and hence, they weren’t really eligible to be a national symbol. But they would be useful for our project in a different manner. Their flesh, bones and hide could be sold, and money could be collected for this resource, and these cows could be conferred the same honour which in the tradition of the Great Country belongs to the king Shivi and sage Dadhichi, who had once sacrificed their lives for the sake of the betterment of their people.
The next in line were the bulls. The bulls, anyway, didn’t have anything to do with farming anymore. Rather, they were the enemies of the crops. They would often hurt the cows out of the arrogance of their physical power. Still, the cows were shaken. When the bulls were being caught and nabbed in large numbers, a delegation of cows went to see the king.
The king listened to their plight with patience and love and said that none of the symbols have any right either to tell their troubles or to come to him with any type of delegation. Still, because he is a king who has been elected in a liberal and democratic way, he listened to what the cows had to say. Now, the cows, too, should know that they were taking this step for the safety of cows. They had reports from the Cow Soldiers that in many places the bulls had hurt cows and the cow herders. That couldn’t be tolerated. It was alright for the bulls to belong to the clan of cows, but now they had become clan-killers. They would receive punishment for it. They should be forced to be of some use to cows, even if that use was after their deaths.
It was found that the people of this country couldn’t eat their flesh, for sure, because the bulls come from their mother’s clan; hence, the meat would be exported to those countries which happily ate them. That way, the sin of murdering somebody from a cow’s clan, too, would be shared. The fertilizer made from their bones would reach the fields and would contribute to the agricultural system of the country. From that money, the farmers, whose crops were trampled and destroyed by the bulls, would be compensated. And if the farmers benefited, then that would benefit the cows too. They would get fabulous fodder. And the same way, the hides of these bulls would be useful for the Cow Soldiers. They would wear these hides and would hide within the cowherds in the disguise of cows. That would be an impenetrable safety system for the cows.
The Cow Soldiers were being trained to walk on all fours. They were being taught the usage of hooves and horns. The psychologists were working on them in a different way as well. They were being trained in such a way that they would feel bull-like after cloaking themselves in the hide of a bull. Then, they would be able to become more collegial with the cows and then, they wouldn’t hesitate either in taking somebody’s life or giving their own to protect the cows. They were told that they had to protect the cows in every situation, and this was the only law and religion for them. Any other law which came in the way of enforcing this law could be broken without any hesitation.
With the speed with which the Cow Soldiers were learning all of this and the way they were molding themselves according to new conditions, it was quite possible that soon they would be transformed into real bulls. They were being fed tail-enhancing drinks as a supplement regularly. On the other hand, the real bulls were in trouble. They couldn’t figure out what was happening with them. They would walk here and there, raging in anger. In the end, they decided amongst themselves that they wouldn’t concede defeat so easily. They would fight against the Cow Soldiers. But this fight couldn’t properly last even for a day.
The ways and means which the bulls knew to fight were being rendered useless. They marched forward, raising their tails, puffing their nostrils, shaking and clawing the ground underneath them with their hooves. Then they would be killed. Their tails would rise, and the very next moment they were cut down. Many tail-enhancing drinks had been brought into the market made from their tails, and one could regrow the tail which had fallen off centuries ago. The real bulls were losing to the fake bulls.
Later, when the hides for the Cow Soldiers fell short, then with the permission of cows, more cows were asked to donate their hides. This, after all, was the question of cows’ safety, and the king didn’t want to leave anything to laxity. On the cows’ hesitation, the king told them that the way all wars are waged to establish peace, in the same way, the killing of many cows was necessary for the safety of other cows so that a sufficient number of cow shields could be prepared for the Cow Protectors.
That way, when the number of cows slowly dwindled, the farmers of the country were given this freedom that, if they wanted, they could register themselves as cows. This way, they could avail themselves of all the facilities and securities which were provided to the cows. Later, the king recounted this plan proudly while recounting the other welfare plans that he granted the farmers. It was the first time in the history of the country that it had become possible for the farmers to become cows.
For people to properly understand what the king was saying, a lot of cow dung was needed, which could then be filled into people’s minds. This responsibility was given to the country’s media, which dutifully fulfilled its responsibility. It had transformed the cow dung into airwaves. Now, not only through eyes and ears but through all possible ways, this cow dung was filling people’s minds. In many instances, the cow dung was already present inside, but there was also no dearth of people in whose minds the trash of education and urban culture had taken up the entire space. The cow dung rapidly pushed this trash out and took its space instead.
On the completion of one year of this plan of turning the country into a Golden Cow by giving the cows protection, a big function was organized in the capital of the country. On this occasion, the fat cat, who was involved in this plan of the king’s with all of his heart, told him that this plan was becoming spectacularly successful. They were discovering gold in the bones and flesh of cows in large quantities. A large part of the gold is being spent in the breeding of cows.
When asked by a silly journalist why the cows had to be slaughtered for their breeding, the king replied that this was a policy matter which is related to the country’s security and hence, a proper answer for this question couldn’t be provided right now. The fat cat though did offer a clarification, that they sold the flesh of dead cows which were slaughtered by the machines, so how could one apply human laws to the machines?
In a banquet organized that night, in an offline conversation with the fat cat, the king told him, laughing, that actually, he wanted to make this country a Golden Elephant, but there were many problems in doing so. The first one is that there were far fewer elephants in number. Second, keeping them under control is a difficult task. Third, that the elephant had disgraced itself by becoming an election symbol of an opposition party. And lastly, and most importantly, it would have been very difficult for the Cow Soldiers to cloak themselves in elephant’s hide.
So, he actually wanted to make it a Golden Elephant, but the difficulty was that even after crawling on all fours, the Cow Soldiers wouldn’t even look like an elephant’s offspring, leave aside elephants. The fat cat, who always stayed serious, had laughed at it for a long time. The king, too, laughed for a long time, to give company to him. The king suddenly coughed while laughing. The fat cat then kept on caressing the king’s back for a long time.
There were cows on the other hand who were watching all of this, helplessly. Their heads would ache because of the identification cards affixed on their foreheads. Some cows tried to rid themselves of this card by rubbing their foreheads on a wall or some tree, but that action was considered treasonous. They were hanged as punishment so that it would become a lesson for other cows. If the nation’s symbol, the cow itself disregarded the country, then how would the country run? The cows couldn’t understand what they were to do.
They couldn’t even understand why the hands which caressed them with affection and familiarity seemed so scared. Where did that shuddering come into them from? They couldn’t understand anything. Their huge innocent eyes would always remain watery. Their ears quivered continuously. They were somehow spending their lives just by eating grass and giving milk. After all, they were just cows. They didn’t even know that their status in the country had changed so much. They had been converted into a powerful national symbol. Anybody could be beheaded in their name, any time.
Though, even if they had come to know about this, what could they have done? And as far as the people of the country are concerned, earlier, when they heard the word cow, an image of a simple animal was formed in their minds, for which they had a deep sense of gratitude somewhere in their hearts. But, after this great plan of making the country a Golden Cow, as soon as they heard the word cow, they shuddered, and an image of a different kind of an animal formed in their minds—one that had abandoned its old food and fodder of centuries and now fed on human flesh and drank their blood. The irony was that the poor cow was not at fault in all of this.
Illustration by Nur Khalisah Ahmad
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