It was in 1968 that the Malayalee and English writer and poet Kamala Das wrote a short story named ‘The Holy Cow’. Almost 50 years ahead, it reads out like a newspaper clipping of 2017.
Translated from Malayalam by K. Satchidanandan
One day a little boy picked up a banana peel from a garbage bin on the road. While he was eating it, a cow snatched it from his hands. The boy felt sad; he pushed the beast away. The cow ran along the street, mooing aloud. Some mendicants suddenly turned up from nowhere.
“Did you hurt the holy cow?” they asked the boy.
“I didn’t. I only chased it away because it snatched the banana peel I was eating.”
“What is your religion?” asked the mendicants.
“Religion? What’s that?” asked the boy.
“Are you Hindu or Muslim? Or Christian? Do you go to the temple or to the mosque?”
“I don’t go to any of them,” the boy replied.
“So you don’t believe in prayer?”
“I don’t go anywhere. I have no shirt. My trousers are torn at the back.”
The mendicants whispered among themselves, then turned to the boy.
“You must be Muslim. You hurt the cow.”
“Is that cow yours?” asked the boy.
The mendicants wrung the boy’s neck and threw him into the garbage bin.
Then they chanted together, “Om nama shivaya. Let thy holy name be praised.”
What has changed in these 50 years and what are the derivatives to measure progress?
In an interview at a University, I was asked why I was interested in Literature? The simplest answer that I could give was mostly about the relevance literature has to the contemporary times, regardless of the century or the decade it was written in. And today, this very relevance is pinching like needles in my consciousness. Countless have been burned or buried in the name of ideologies, but no lesson has been learnt. What significance must an animal hold in our religion that we place it above a human being. If seeing educated adults justify this barbaric atrocity wasn’t enough, imagine my shock and disbelief when I heard children giggle about another “pig’s death” and refer to “Gau-Mata being saved” in their afternoon games. Has the violence associated with this act been too normalized in our society that its another game the children will now play?
Its of significance that the boy in the story is from an impoverished background, indicating his position at the far end of the power struggle. The banana peel left at his disposal is from a fruit that many like him do not consume. The cow has been personified by its very act of ‘snatched it from his hands.’ The implication of the ‘beast’ is to establish a morality to this story, where by the cow renders itself at the very end of the moral compass, however ahead of the vigilantes only, who hunt the boy at the end. The conversation establishes the fact that it is in fact the supposed religion of the boy that is a problem. The clothes on the boy or the lack of it, are the evidence enough to establish his crime. The trial only lasts a few whispers and the neck is wrung like a chicken being butchered. The boy is flung into the garbage bin, exactly where he sought refuge from his hunger, in turn extinguishing the thirst (of blood) of the mendicants.