‘Cow and Company’ won the overall 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and the regional prize for Asia.
‘Where is the cow?’ asked the office manager.
‘The cow?’ the junior officer responded.
‘Yes, what else?’
‘Oh, the cowwww . . .’
‘I told you, two days ago.’
‘Yes. I didn’t forget. By this eve –?’
‘No, not evening. By noon, in the lobby.’
‘I thought he wasn’t serious,’ said the junior officer, returning to his desk.
‘A cow?’ the accountant responded.
‘A real cow?’
‘Yes, a cow, a real cow, a living cow. Now, come with me.’
Glancing towards the main door, the junior officer spotted the office assistant sitting on his rickety stool, leisurely picking his nose. ‘Natwarlal, you also.’
Halfway down the stairs, the assistant saw the cleaner walking up counting who knows what with his fingers. He grabbed the cleaner’s hand. The cleaner didn’t seem to care about his new-found direction and now there were four of them stepping out to look for a cow.
‘I see two cows here, every day. Today’s a holiday?’
‘They must be at the fair.’
‘That was last week.’
‘Let’s look near the station.’
The station was a mile away.
‘I have to finish the ledger balances today. Mr Pestonjee said it was urgent,’ said the accountant, his legs already moving in the opposite direction.
‘This cow business is also for Pestonjee and it’s due by noon,’ said the junior officer.
‘Yes, yes. No, no. See you at lunch.’
The remaining three continued their journey, the assistant periodically looking back, then towards the sky, and then at the junior officer. Twice, when the junior officer had looked his way, not for any reason other than the variations in their pacing, the assistant would begin wiping the sweat off his brow, with vigour. The sun, now overhead and blazing, overwhelmed them all.
Half a mile later, despite her many manifestations – cow milk, cow curd, cow butter, cow leather, cow dung, cow paintings, cow murals, cow sculptures, a cow temple, shops named after cows, conversations around cows, a cow cart without a cow, and a man standing on one leg, hands together, uttering cow . . . cow . . . cow . . . repeatedly, the animal in its whole earthly form was not to be seen. A group, about a dozen, had assembled around the man standing on one leg. Enquiries indicated he had been in that position for eight months, nine days and five hours.
‘Ha! Who cares?’ said the junior officer. ‘There are such men standing on every street in Varanasi. Some even stand on their heads. My grand-uncle at the temple told us about a person who has been walking on his hands since he was six.’
‘How old is he now?’
‘I don’t know. My uncle died six years ago and he was eight when he heard this story. That man is still alive. Must be over one hundred years.’
‘You don’t understand,’ said the man who had taken upon himself the duty of a spokesman for the event and was addressing all kinds of enquiries, ‘The point is not the man, it’s the crow.’
‘He arrived two months ago and refuses to leave the man’s side. Now he has begun to crow in chorus. He says “cow” too but in English. A few days ago an Englishman was here. He confirmed this crow was saying “cow” in English.’
At that moment the church bells pealed. It was twelve. All three, as if caught in a hypnotic trance, stepped away from the crowd and resumed their journey towards the station.
‘There, I see one,’ the assistant shouted, pointing to a sturdy, milk-white animal busy rubbing herself against a banyan tree. Her horns were painted red.
‘Do you see the owner?’
‘She isn’t tied. Must be stray.’
‘She has a bell around her neck.’
‘Doesn’t matter. We aren’t stealing. She’ll be back in no time.’
The assistant gathered some leafy twigs from a nearby hedge. ‘Is this enough?’
‘She won’t eat them,’ the cleaner responded.
‘She will. There’s no time to look for grass.’
The cow looked at the leafy twigs the assistant was dangling across her eyes. When he began rubbing them on her nose she opened her mouth, then spat them out instantly.
‘How should I tie this rope?’
‘Around her neck, take it over her ears.’
The junior officer held the rope like a garland and advanced. The cow shook her head and the rope fell in dung. ‘Eee,’ he said.
‘You people eat it, don’t you?’ said the assistant.
‘Not like how you eat our cows,’ responded the officer.
They had managed to tie the rope around her neck. Meanwhile the assistant ran across to the temple’s gate to buy some grass.
‘Two pice,’ said the old woman, her back supported by the temple wall, a pile of uneven bricks, three feet high. The word on the street was that the wall was a hasty attempt by the Brahmins to prevent further encroachment, common under the pretext of road extension programs. The remaining three walls were not built – the idea had the stamp of Brahmin austerity.
‘Here, take one pice. You aren’t doing business anyways.’
‘Let that be my problem. I am not going anywhere.’
‘Take what you get old woman. Tomorrow the grass will dry up like your face.’ He threw the coin on the woman’s decrepit bamboo mat.
The cow, with the bell dangling under her neck, followed the three men. When they reached the stairs of their office, she stopped abruptly. The assistant and the cleaner began pushing her.
‘What’s going on?’ the guard came running behind them. ‘Where are you taking that cow?’
‘To Sir Thompson,’ said the assistant. ‘She refuses to walk up.’
The guard whacked the cow with his baton, hard. By the time they reached the second floor she had urinated on the assistant’s shirt and on the red carpet in the lobby. The junior officer laughed loudly.
‘It’s OK for you. You people drink this, don’t you?’ said the assistant, removing his shirt midway to the toilet.
The junior officer was quiet. It was an old joke.
The managing director sat expansively, his legs resting on the sprawling table.
‘What is the price of our chewing gum, Mr Pestonjee? One pice?’ He twirled his stick.
‘Yes, sir, one pice, like paan. Everyone eats paan, rich, poor, Hindus, Muslims. Do you know the price of paan?’ asked the manager.
‘Never quite liked it.’
‘I don’t like it either, sir. Banerjee needs one every hour and he spits it in the corridor.’
‘Those filthy red spots. I knew it was Banerjee.’
‘Yes, sir. That’s him.’
‘The first time I ate paan I felt my lungs explode.’
‘You must have swallowed it whole, sir, instead of spitting.’
‘Well, the English haven’t quite taken a fancy to spitting, you see.’
‘Ha ha, will they ever? Do you know the price of paan?’ repeated the manager.
‘Just tell me?’ Rat, tat, tat, tat, tat . . . the managing director was drumming his stick against the table.
‘One pice. Sir, we are competing with tea and paan. But chewing gum has more benefits.’
‘Why is that?’ asked the managing director, continuing the drumming – a rhythm had evolved.
‘Is it a symphony?’
‘I wish. Being here it is hard for a man to follow his persuasions. What were you saying?’
‘So I was saying, one day while walking home I stopped at the vegetable market. Beside me was a bellied man reading Bombay Samachar. It’s a wonderful newspaper, almost as good as the English –’
‘What’s your point?’
‘Yes, yes sir. So, he stood there reading his paper loudly like he was the –’
‘I don’t have time for this Pestonjee.’
‘I am coming to the point, sir. So he spits without a care in the world on my new leather chappals. That barbarian! Sorry sir, for my language. He had no manners.’
‘If he spits chewing gum, it won’t soil anything.’
‘Chewing gum does not have tobacco, Mr Pestonjee.’
‘But poor men will still chew it.’
‘Pray tell me?’
‘If they are hungry and want long-lasting flavour.’
‘They can always keep paan in their mouth.’
‘But then the red betel juice will drain from the sides of his lips and stain his clothes. If his clothes are stained his wife will be angry. If his wife is angry she will beat him. Instead he can chew gum all day long and everyone is happy. Also, paan makes you hungry. It is a digestive after all.’
‘It is what?’
‘Digestive, digestive, for the stoma—’
‘Yes, yes. But I still think children are better disposed towards chewing gum, not men. We have a small propaganda fund for this. Why don’t you work on that? Erect a few boards near some of the schools, ten or twelve at first. Make sure the shops stock the chewing gum before the boards go up.’
‘Sir, we should have made paan-flavoured gum instead of mint. Why will anyone waste money on chewing gum when they can steal mint from their parents –?’
‘It’s not the taste Pestonjee, it’s the form.’
‘Sir, in that case, why not paan-flavoured gum?’
‘By the way, have you recalled the old label?’
‘Why? Did someone complain about my memory?’
‘Sorry, sir. Yes, sir. I did.’
‘Is the new label specific about the contents?’
‘Does not contain animal products. Suitable for all vegetarians.’
‘Good. I want this message on the poster, not just the label.’
‘Sir, these additions will cover too much space. It’s written quite clearly on the label.’
‘And the caption?
‘Go Mata Ko Bhata – The chewing gum the cow mother loves.’
‘It still sounds a bit out of place to me.’
‘You can trust me on this, sir. I have spent quite a bit of time on the subject. What better way to get the natives to love our chewing gum than to link it to the cow? After all, it is the first chewing gum in the country.’
‘What is that smell?’ asked the managing director, looking around.
‘Sir, I have something that will convince you the cow is the best ambassador for our product.’
‘Here in the lobby.’
The managing director stepped out of his room. A cow stood in the lobby looking at him with big moist eyes, masticating.
‘What is this nonsense? Is this a joke, Mr Pestonjee?’
‘No, sir. I got her for you. To show you how she eats cud, just like chewing gum. That she deserves to be on our posters. I am going to open her mouth and show you.’
‘Natwarlal! Open her mouth,’ the manager ordered the assistant.
‘She might bite.’
‘Cows don’t bite. Just open her mouth.’
The assistant put a cloth around his hands and tried to open the cow’s mouth. The cow stood still. Her saliva trickled down the assistant’s wrist towards his underarms, making him wiggle.
‘Now shoot,’ the manager shouted at the photographer, who was called exclusively for this purpose.
‘It is too dark,’ the photographer responded. He was a portrait sort of a person, unprepared, unenthusiastic about drama.
‘Natwarlal! Get a torch.’
The assistant ran to the stationery room and returned with a torch. The manager flashed the torch into the cow’s mouth, which was held open by the assistant with both hands.
‘Perfect,’ the photographer said.
‘I want her mouth wide open,’ said the manager, then turning towards the managing director, ‘Sir! The cow chews all day long. All Hindus love cows. If we use her on our posters they will love our chewing gum.’
He flashed the torch again. The cow shook her head nervously, and then ran into the photographer and his equipment.
‘First, get her out of here,’ shouted the managing director. ‘Clean up this mess right now! I can’t breathe. I want this place cleared, spotless, before the day ends!’ Then he left for the day.
The three were pulling the cow again. With a twist of her neck she sent them to the floor. Then she turned towards the filing room.
But the day’s mail was pending. The assistant sprinted to the dispatch room, then to the kitchen to fetch his sandals, then to the accountant to collect change, and only managed to catch his breath half a mile away at the post office, two minutes before closing time. When the assistant returned it was past 5 p.m. The office was empty. The manager was resting against the door of the records room. After the mishap with the photographer, he had run after the cow and quickly bolted the door from the outside.
‘Is everything OK?’ the assistant asked.
‘Come here, you idiot!’
‘Oh no, the cow!’
The manager opened the door to the stench of cow dung. In the middle of the room, the cow sat demurely with her legs folded. In her mouth was a brown file.
‘Which file is that?’ the manager asked.
‘I don’t know.’
The assistant yanked out the half-chewed file. ‘The correspondence from the file for May, Volume 1.’
‘From last year. No one will ask for that now. Clean all this and kick her out. I don’t care if she’s a cow.’
The manager advanced towards the cow and lifted his leg. ‘Get up, you filthy animal.’
Schlip – flop – he slid on the puddle of dung and urine and landed on his back. The assistant covered his mouth. The cow rose. She looked at the manager lying on the floor, and their eyes locked for two seconds. Her neck turned, as if embarrassed. She walked past the manager, through the doorway and down the stairs. The assistant followed her with his eyes until she disappeared into the streets.
‘See, sir, what an intelligent animal. She knew her way out.’
‘Only one door was open, you idiot. Get me a towel.’
‘But still, sir. She could have pushed open the other doors.’
‘What do we do now?’ the manager asked.
‘About the file!’
‘I have a great idea. Let’s get one or two mice and leave them in the room. We will blame the mice for the file,’ responded the assistant.
‘What if the mice destroy more files?’
‘We will put them in a cage and say we caught them. No one comes in the records room anyway.’
‘OK. Tomorrow I will tell Mr Banerjee I saw a mouse. Or you say you saw a mouse. What would I be doing in the records room?’
‘No. You tell him,’ the manager said.
The accountant, was looking out of the window into the sari shop when the assistant came up to him.
The accountant looked across the street. The sari shop was popular with the city’s new women. They came from nowhere, disappeared to nowhere, their untied hair playing with the sea breeze, their midriffs exposed, accentuated by the small sleeveless blouses. Did they walk out of Dhurandhar’s portraits? Was he hiding behind a window, or in the shop, painting them?
The accountant was certain Raja Ravi Verma was the country’s greatest painter. On Friday he overheard the managing director say Dhurandhar had transcended Ravi Verma. The next day at Dhurandhar’s ‘Women in India’ exhibition at the arts school he nodded affirmingly.
‘Huh . . . What is it?’
‘Nothing . . . how is the plague in Calcutta?’
‘There is no plague in Calcutta. Who said?’
‘I was just asking. I saw a mouse in the records room yesterday so I thought –’
‘There are no mice in this building.’
‘I saw it with my own eyes.’
The assistant rushed into the records room and returned with a file.
‘Sir, see this file. The mouse ate half of it.’
‘Let me see. Why is this wet?’
‘No. No. It wasn’t the mouse. There must have been a leak.’
‘Is it raining cats and dogs in the records room?’
‘Cats and dogs,’ repeated the accountant with emphasis. He had learnt the new phrase last week and noted it in his diary which he filled at the rate of one page per day:
Raining Cats and Dogs
By: Jonathan Swift (1710)
Meaning: Heavy rain.
Sentence: ‘It is raining cats and dogs in Calcutta today.’
‘And the rain made such a big hole?’ the accountant asked, as he walked towards the records room.
The assistant blocked the doorway. ‘No! It’s all OK. I must have eaten it by mistake.’
‘Have you been drinking, Natwarlal?’
The stench in the records room hadn’t dissipated. The manager rushed to the scene. Seeing him, the assistant appeared less strained.
‘Natwarlal. You left the cow here?’ asked the accountant.
The assistant looked at the manager, then at the accountant, and then at the manager again.
‘You will be fined a day’s salary,’ said the accountant, ‘and repair that file.’
‘No. But Pestonjee Sir. You –’ protested the assistant.
‘Pestonjee Sir? Pestonjee Sir won’t save you this time. Mr Banerjee is right,’ said the manager, winking at the assistant for the second time. The assistant did not look up and walked grumpily towards the records room, mumbling to himself.
When the manager reached home that evening and stood at his door he saw the nameplate of the new neighbour – A.K. Hedge.
‘Persis, you met the neighbours?’ he asked his wife when she opened the door.
‘No. Why do you smell?’
‘Did you shit in your pants?’
‘No, I fell on it.’
‘Fell? How can you be so stupid?’
‘It’s not my fault. It was the cow.’
‘Don’t you look down when you walk? Always in the air. Can’t you see a cow? It’s the size of an elephant.’
‘Did you see the neighbours?’
‘They must be from London.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I know. Prepare your special dhansak tomorrow. I will give some to the neighbours and introduce myself. And don’t use the steel bowl.’
The next day he covered the china bowl with aluminium foil, used for the first time since his cousin had brought it eight months ago. He tied a white ribbon around it like a bow, and felt his tie for the second time.
‘Can I see Mr Hedge? Could I have the pleasure of meeting Mr A Hedge? Could I be pleased to meet Mr Hedge? I have come to meet Mr Hedge? I have come to meet my new neighbour Mr Hedge about whom I have only heard great things. How do you do? Delighted! Delighted! How very kind of you . . .’ he continued muttering until he pressed the neighbour’s doorbell.
‘Mr, Mr He-Hedge please,’ said the manager.
‘Yes, Mr Hedge.’
‘No Hedge. Hedgay, Mr Hed-gay you mean, from Solapur, Bombay Province?’
‘Hedge!’ the manager repeated.
‘No. Mr Hedgay.’
‘Sorry . . . I was . . . I thought . . . Thank you.’
Before the person could open the door fully, the manager scuttled down the stairs. The bowl slipped from his hands and fell. The brown gravy trickled down to form a dense puddle. Broken pieces of ceramic jutted out precariously. A large stain appeared on his new suede shoes. Only the white ribbon was safe, hanging on the handrail, far away from the mess below.
The pundit was at the office looking for the manager for the second time that week. People came to him, he did not go to them. But this was the third office in the neighbourhood that did not bother performing a puja. If they refused, others will refuse, even native businesses. And puja was good for everyone. The prayers, the chanting, brought luck, prosperity. After talking to fellow priests he planned to offer his services gratis. A public ceremony will send a strong signal. Expenses could be recovered later, from others.
When the assistant saw the pot-bellied man he did not even wait for him to climb all the stairs.
‘Mr Pestonjee is not in,’ the assistant said, though the manager could be seen walking into the managing director’s room. The assistant had standing instructions. The pundit would have preferred some water and a minute to rest. But who knows where the water came from or who touched it, he thought on his way down. Saved me the climb.
The next week he was giving a sermon in a school compound across from one of the chewing gum company’s freshly painted poster. Almost impulsively he made a transition.
‘These foreigners have no respect for our values. How can we talk about non-violence when our cows are being eaten openly?’ He pointed to the poster.
‘That foreign product has cow’s intestines. See how shamelessly they advertise. What are you doing about it? Wearing bangles?’
‘Does chewing gum have cow in it?’ a person whispered in the crowd.
‘What did the Muslims do when they found their cartridges greased with pig fat? The 1857 Mutiny!’ the pundit continued.
‘Mutiny, mutiny,’ the crowd shouted.
A day later, a newspaper headline read, ‘Cow in Chewing Gum: British Company Insults Hinduism.’
That day, a large crowd was seen gathering near the railway station. At 11 a.m. an old man walked to the gate of the company and whispered something to the guard. The guard dropped his baton, ran up the stairs, through the lobby, straight into the managing director’s room.
‘They are coming for us.’
The manager ran from his desk.
‘Call the police,’ the managing director said.
‘It’s too late. They are coming for us. They are burning our posters,’ said the guard.
‘Call the police,’ the manager said.
‘Tell everyone to leave, now! Close the building,’ said the managing director, quickly gathering papers from the second drawer of his desk and throwing them into his briefcase.
Within minutes all of the office’s twelve employees were out and the guard had locked the gates. The managing director’s car took off first. Then bicycles moved in three directions. Some like the manager walked hurriedly through the back lanes.
A week later, on the way to the railway station to catch the train to Surat, the manager saw a young boy pull the half-burnt nameplate of the company from the gravel where it once stood. The white cow sat near the temple, healthier, busy with the unusually large bounty of grass she had received over the past week.
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