‘Durga and the Holy Cow’ by Amita Murray (England)

Short story selected for the 2011 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

Durga sat in the meager shade of the chironji tree. Holding his breath, he opened the stainless steel lid of his round lunch box. It was carrots and cauliflower today, kidney beans in gravy, and rice. A meal a working man could enjoy in the quiet of an afternoon if only his wife were not trying to kill him.

Durga took a bite of the rice, scooping it up in his hands and mashing it to make a triangle of food. Undercooked today, not burnt like yesterday and the day before. It was the carrots that were burnt, black on one side and a vague orange-yellow on the other. The rajma, big, fat, juicy, cockroach-sized beans were neither too hard, nor too soft, they simply had no flavour.

Durga desperately chewed on a large chunk of ginger that had never seen the edge of a knife or a peeler, and watched his anxious mastication mimicked by the cow standing under the shade of the mangrove. It was fitting, he thought, that his place under the shady mangrove that offered so much more protection from the afternoon sun than this bored chironji should be usurped by a cow. He could see the number twenty-seven branded on the cow’s left haunch, and an Om painted on the other. At least it belonged to Durga’s farm and was not some stray that had meandered over from the neighbouring farms. Though to call the farm Durga’s was an inaccuracy; Durga was the head farmer of this patch of seventy-five acres of beige, spiky sheaves of wheat, a position of authority and status, but he was merely an employee of the actual zamindar.

Durga gazed at the land, parched and abused by the sun, and sighed. If the crop failed again this year, the landowner had suggested – a mere hint that Durga wondered if he had imagined – that perhaps the farm might need a new head farmer.

Durga turned his head towards the small patch of frangipani trees, not twenty metres away from where he sat. Their rare, delicate pink flowers filled the area around them with a fragrance like incense and mildew, and Durga inhaled the comforting scent. When he was first married, just six months ago, he would pick a frangipani flower everyday, curl each petal around to pierce the short stem of the flower, and offer it to his wife as a ring. She had been charmed at first, but then a few weeks into their new marriage, he had started to find his offering lying in the dust on the floor of their one-room hut, and once, in the pile of rubbish that his wife swept out of the hut every morning and collected to take to the rubbish heap outside the village every evening.

This was after he had realized her aversion to kissing him. Every night of their marriage, those first few weeks, she had dutifully opened her legs to him when he climbed into bed after a long day in the fields, but she had borne a strange resistance to kissing him on the mouth. He had at first wondered if it was just shyness, but had quickly come to accept that her silent recoil from his mouth would not change.

Durga could see a yellow rope tied around the patch of frangipani trees now, as he shrugged off the memory of his wife’s hesitating dry mouth. The English madam had had the rope tied securely around the trees, as a warning to the farmers not to cut them for wood. Durga couldn’t remember the last time anyone had cut a frangipani tree for wood, or for any other reason, not in his village, but the madam had developed a conscience about trees, to accompany her conscience about wife beating, abortions and Condoms for Prostitutes. The letters CfP had started appearing on walls around the village since the madam had started the campaign. Overnight, the slogan would appear, and the next night, someone else would draw a giant penis on the wall, with thought-bubbles next to it that said in large Punjabi letters, “Not if it is in the mouth,” or more succinctly, “Suck this.”

Like the other farmers, Durga called the lady who had arrived in their village the “English madam,” though, really, she could be from anywhere, America for all he knew, or even Australia. She was white, hence she was English. In fact, for all the attention he paid to the subject, England, America and Australia may as well be different names for the same place. It was simply Not Here. It was foreign, elsewhere, all-pervading and inconsequential.

“It is a sad day when a man cannot trust his wife,” he said out loud.

His voice was muted in the afternoon, sucked in by the heat that clamoured around and up into his body. He could hear a distant tractor humming its way through the fields, its giant tires flattening the Congress grass that invaded the soil and made the cows produce bitter milk. He unscrewed the top of the thermos flask and poured himself a lid-full of water. The zamindar’s wife had given him the flask with its pattern of cartoon characters that he had seen on the public television in the zamindar’s house – Tom and Jerry, had said the zamindar’s wife. The zamindar’s wife loved all things foreign, though she had developed a bottomless hatred for the English madam on sight.

The thermos had a glass interior to keep the water cold, the zamindar’s wife had pointed out, although the water would have to be cold in the first place to stay cold in the thermos, Durga had thought. He held the lid over his mouth now and drank in large gulps, his Adam’s apple moving in and out, in and out, gulp, gulp, gulp.

“A man should be able to go home without fearing for his life!” he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

He held up his fingers to count the list of suspicious incidents that made him sleep a light sleep at night, and keep a cautious eye on Seema, his wife.

First, he counted, it was the scalding tea that had splashed all over his crotch, when Seema had run screaming out of the hut because there was a gecko in the corner, chirruping and clicking at his mate, a fat, slumberous creature who had evidently not been in the mood for love and had been, instead, staring balefully at Durga’s wife. That Durga’s crotch had not turned into chargrilled meat was only due to the fact that he had – not two minutes’ before Seema’s hasty exit from the hut – placed a plastic sheet on his lap to check on the progress of his drying mangos. After the success of his mango pickle the previous year, the zamindar’s wife had requested more. He had unrolled his plastic mat of mangoes in the sun every morning, and taken them in every evening to protect them from stray rodents. The mangoes had been drying beautifully, a pasty white color, with their thick green skins, their thin veiny seeds scooped out to leave a silky hollow, ready to be mixed with turmeric, cumin, coriander, mustard oil, and his special favorite, asafetida. The tea from his cup had ruined any chance of a fresh batch this year, though Durga supposed that he should be grateful he could still feel the sting of urine every morning when he went to the toilet.

“And then second,” he said, holding up another finger, “just a few days ago, as soon as I came to the top of the hill that leads down to this farm, my bicycle started to wobble all the way down the hill at great speed! The tire had been loosened, and I found a hairpin, Seema’s hairpin, stuck in the loose wheel! I would have ended in the ditch with a broken neck but for the old mattresses from the clinic that have been thrown away by the English madam to make room for new ones! As it was, I catapulted head first into the pile! Could that really be an accident?”

“It could be,” said a voice.

Durga had been resting with his chin tucked into his chest and his hands folded on his flat stomach, in the half-reclining position he had adopted after his half-hearted lunch, but at this, he jerked and sat up straight. There was no one around. Durga peered suspiciously into his thermos for signs of hallucinogens. When they were first married his wife had tried to persuade him to take ganja that grew wild in the forests around their village. But he had refused. God gave him enough excitement, he had said, he was in no need of mind-altering substances.

“Could this really be an accident?” he repeated slowly, peering around him, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. Perhaps it wasn’t ganja, perhaps someone was spying on him.

“It could be,” said the cow.

Durga sat back down on the hard earth with a thump. Then, rubbing his bottom, he stared at the cow – number twenty-seven, an anonymous brown, ribs protruding, with a white patch, roughly the shape of a woman’s distended breast, a heavy chalice, on the left side of its neck. Durga sat up. He had seen this cow before, lurking around the frangipani trees.

“Did you speak?” he said.

“You heard me,” said the cow, chewing on a mass of cud that had lost all resemblance to its original shape and mass, and that hung in stringy coils out of the corners of the cow’s mouth. Oddly, this made Durga salivate.

“But how!” said Durga, “I come here everyday, and you’ve never spoken before!”

“You’ve never asked me a question before,” said the cow, with a faintly supercilious look in its eye. Its nostrils flared for a second and it sneezed, much like a horse, phlegm and large bits of cud flying from its mouth.

“Do you mean you can talk?!” asked Durga. “But how?! How is this possible? Do you mean that if I ask you a question, you will answer it?” he said, warily eyeing the beast in case it sprouted wings or started doing somersaults. He peered again into the thermos, but the water remained clear, transparent and glassy.

“I will answer it if I wish,” said the cow. “Isn’t that obvious?” it asked, surprised.

It was the opposite of obvious, but Durga held his peace.

“Do you talk to other people? Does anyone else know?” asked Durga.

These seemed to be reasonable questions to ask, and might, he thought, help establish his own sanity.

“Now and again,” said the cow.

“What do they talk about?” demanded Durga, to test the veracity of this claim.

“I couldn’t tell you what they say to me, it is, of course, in confidence!” said the cow.

“Do you mean,” said Durga in surprise, “that people come here to sit under this tree and they share their secrets with you! And you talk back at them?”

The cow shrugged. A new and interesting thought occurred to Durga.

“Do you mean,” he said, sitting up straight once again, “that if I asked you, does Raju Mal eat a liquid dinner everyday, you could tell me! Or if I said, does the zamindar know that his crop is failing again this year and that there will be no money left for the winter, you would know! Or, if I asked you why am I stuck here tilling dry land, when our landowner could set up a new irrigation system—”

The cow looked bored.

“I would not disclose something that someone has told me,” it repeated. “And I do not speculate. Not often.”

“But, but, wait!” said Durga, hopelessly curious, “You mean you – you couldn’t tell me that Raju Mal beats his wife after dinner and masturbates every afternoon during his break, you—”

“Yes he does, and yes he does,” said the cow.

“Ah ha!” said Durga. “Why are you telling me the answers then, if you can’t disclose secrets?” he demanded.

“Because I have heard the village women gossip about the first – and I can repeat hearsay. And I have seen Raju Mal do the second, so it is merely my own observation, and hence no break of a confidence.”

“Who makes all these rules!” asked Durga, flabbergasted and excited at the same time. Questions of all kinds raced through his mind.

“I do,” said the cow.

“Okay, okay,” said Durga, sifting quickly through his jumble of thoughts, “then perhaps you can tell me what you have seen!”

There were so many things Durga wanted to know. Why the heavens hadn’t graced them with rain three years in a row, what was his special destiny, was Raju Mal jealous of him because Raju Mal came from a farmer’s family, and yet he worked in a position inferior to Durga’s? What did the zamindar know? Did England have droughts? Mountains? Sunny days? Rainy days? Did everyone in England have blue eyes? How did their hair turn blonde? Did blue eyes and blonde hair give special powers? Was the Christian God the same as the Indian Gods? Did Seema dream of a different kind of lover, richer, less brown and burnt from the sun, softer hands, a harder cock?

“Can you tell me – what can you tell me about the English madam?!” he finally asked.

“I can only answer yes or no questions,” said the cow.

“Says who?!” asked Durga in exasperation.

“I do,” said the cow.

“Okay. Okay, wait,” said Durga, thinking furiously.

The cow turned its back on Durga and continued to munch. Durga, still astounded at this turn of events, mulled several questions over in his mind.

“Does my wife come here?” he asked, after several minutes.

The cow turned its head around for a second, then turned away again.

“Yes, she does,” it said.

“Does she come alone, does she come with other people?!” asked Durga.

“Yes, and yes,” said the cow.

“Does she look happy, does she look sad?” asked Durga.

“Yes, and yes,” said the cow.

“Does she care about the new school that the English madam is building? And the new shop that sells Marie biscuits, old bicycle parts, and charcoal?”

“Yes, and no,” said the cow.

“Does she still love me?!”

“I cannot answer that question.”

“Is she trying to kill me?!” asked Durga.

“I cannot answer that question,” said the cow.

“Wait, wait!” said Durga, his heartbeat racing and his breathing a little strangled. “You can’t answer because you don’t know, or because she told you the answer in confidence?”

The cow turned around to face Durga.

“You are beginning to bore me,” it said.

It sat down, crossed its arms and flipped its tail lazily in the air, twice, all the way left, in a 180-degree arc, and then all the way right. Durga, all of a sudden losing his fire, slumped against the tree. He silently watched the cow.

“She doesn’t love me, does she?” he said. “You would tell me if she did.”

A lone green leaf fluttered down to Durga’s head; he held it in his hand and traced the fat vein in the centre, with a sudden spring of tears in his eyes. The cow did not answer. Durga sat in silence for some minutes.

“Perhaps,” said Durga slowly, smoothing the dust from the leaf and holding the leaf to his nose, “perhaps if we were to have children, she would love me more. But it is six months already! Perhaps it is my fault that we can’t have any!”

He was quiet for a moment, then looked at the cow.

“Is it?” he asked.

“Now how am I to know that!” asked the cow, shaking its head. It looked pointedly towards Durga’s crotch and blinked.

“In any case, it isn’t,” it said.

“How can you possibly know?!” asked Durga, opening his eyes wide, and scrunching the leaf in his hand, releasing its brittle scent.

“I cannot answer that question,” said the cow.

Durga scratched his head in exasperation.

“Let me get this straight. You’re saying,” he said slowly, “that it isn’t my fault that my wife is not yet pregnant. So you have seen something or heard something? Come on, you must tell me what it is!”

The cow shrugged.

“Okay, okay,” said Durga, trying to work it out. “Yes or no questions. Let’s see. Tell me, has my wife said something to you about it?”

“No,” said the cow.

“You have seen something?”

“No,” said the cow.

“You have heard someone say something about it?” asked Durga.

“Yes,” said the cow.

“This someone knows that I am able to father children?”

“Yes,” said the cow.

“How can they – never mind!”

Durga sat up and held his head in his hands. He was beginning to get a headache.

“Was it one of the villagers you heard?”

“No,” said the cow.

“Someone not from this village? The English madam!”

The cow nodded.

“The English madam knows that I can have children! Perhaps then,” said Durga, “she knows that my wife can’t! Perhaps my wife has gone to see her in her clinic!”

“Yes,” said the cow, “no, and yes.”

Durga worked this out.

“The English madam knows. Seema can, and Seema has gone to the clinic!”

The cow nodded.

“How—?!”

Durga thought for some minutes, shaking his head, and then suddenly sat up straight.

“My wife can have children,” he said slowly. “The abortion clinic,” he said, feeling cold all of sudden, despite the heat of late afternoon. All around him, there was the afternoon chirping of the birds nesting in the shade of the trees. In the distance, he could hear the dull drone of traffic on the highway north of the village. The air around him slowed. He felt the vibrations of the hydro-electric range in the neighboring village suddenly through the dry earth, running up his legs and into his body, the steady hum, the drone-drone of the giant machine, the range in which his zamindar had refused a share. He had seen it erected with his own eyes, the machine that promised water and employment, that utilized cow shit and green garbage to make electricity.

The cow finally nodded.

“My wife has had an abortion,” said Durga slowly, coldly, already knowing the answer.

The cow nodded.

“Two months ago,” it said.

“How can you tell me that! It is not a yes or no question!” said Durga, focusing on the inconsequential detail.

“I can change the rules when I like,” said the cow. “That is obvious.”

Durga felt a blind rage. An abortion! And Seema knew how he longed for children to bring laughter to their new marriage!

“Why?” asked Durga, finally. “Why?”

“I cannot answer that question.”

“Why?!” cried Durga, standing up. “You know, don’t you?! You know why she did it! Why can’t you tell me?!”

The cow was quiet.

“She goes to the clinic regularly now,” said Durga, dully. “She works for the English madam now. She makes her own money. She has so much money now!”

“Yes,” said the cow.

In fact, Seema had money to spare. She bought herself a comb hairclip last week, a little pink, plastic mirror last month with a cartoon character called Jessica Rabbit painted on the back, and once a strand of plastic white jasmine flowers for her hair. She had had her ripped blouse repaired – though she could have done it herself – from the local tailor, and then had it embroidered with little red mango shapes, and she hadn’t once asked him for money or permission. She bought a little bottle of rose water from the chemist too, though as far as Durga could see, it was just water, scented water. What was the point when roses grew a dime a dozen around their village? Red, pink, yellow, peach-colored, silky. Roses were cheap. Their petals fell, fermented, dried, and rotted under his feet everyday! What was the point putting the scent on your face? As far as he could see it made no difference to his wife’s complexion, or come to that, her mood.

“Is she planning to leave me?” asked Durga.

“I cannot—”

“Yes, yes, yes,” said Durga. “I know! You cannot answer that question!” He was silent for a minute. “My wife cannot like me very much if she cannot bear the thought of having my children,” he said quietly. “Can you tell me why my wife does not like me?” he asked.

The cow pondered for a minute, settling down more comfortably on its haunches. It sat daintily, much like the zamindar’s wife when she had guests, when Durga brought in tea for the party on a tray made of marble. He squatted by the little teak table on these occasions and made tea for the ladies of the village, while the ladies chatted about television soaps. About the one with the daughter-in-law whose mother-in-law hated her, and who was just now learning to speak up and be counted. The one with the large family, where the youngest daughter had gone missing, and suspicion fell on several of the family’s enemies in turn. The ladies speculated everyday about the young daughter, where she was and who had abducted her. Or had she run away?

A myna bird alighted on the cow’s spine and tightrope-walked from tail to neck, and then back, twittering senselessly but amiably. The cow seemed to enjoy the sensation.

“I overheard the village prostitutes gossiping about it, so I have no way of knowing that it is true,” said the cow, in its longest sentence yet.

“What do the prostitutes know about it?” asked Durga.

“They know everything. They are friends with your wife. Good friends! They know that your wife does not like that you are illiterate, she does not like how you smell, and she does not like that you kiss the zamindar’s wife under the shade of the frangipani trees when the zamindar works in his office in the evenings!”

A whimper escaped Durga, and he sat down on the ground with a thud.

“She knows?” he whispered.

The cow nodded. Durga sat silently for many minutes. He had already missed his afternoon rounds. The sun that had been overhead when he had started his lunch had travelled rudely west now, and was shining directly into Durga’s eyes. Durga felt a lethargy start to creep up through his feet all the way up into his body, taking the enervation of the dehydrated land and filling him with a restless inability to move. He stared blankly at the cow, the trees, the field. He leaned against the tree and hunched over his bent legs. Then suddenly he sat up.

“You told her,” he said, pointing at the cow. “You saw us, and you told her!”

“And now to return to your earlier question,” said the cow, “the reason you are stuck here on this dry land without a new irrigation system is that that is your karma. Your life task, your life’s work. You have simply to do the task, as Lord Krishna would say, and let go of the question of why. And to go back to your question about Raju Mal, I would say that…”

Glossary:

chironji: name of an Indian deciduous tree
ganja
: cannabis
rajma
: kidney beans
zamindar
: landowner

Illustration by Alan Van Every

About the Author:

Amita Murray is a London-based writer and dancer. She has lived and travelled between London, Delhi and California and she often writes about the comedy of personal and cultural relationships. She writes features and reviews for London Festival Fringe, Radia, Writing Raw, and Brighton Fashion Week. She also writes the odd poem! Her fiction is published in Brand literary magazine, Asia Writes, and others. She teaches creative writing and dance in and around London. Check out her blog.

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3 comments for “‘Durga and the Holy Cow’ by Amita Murray (England)

  1. Arshabhi Rai
    20/03/2011 at 10:09 pm

    Really enjoyed reading it 🙂

  2. 09/04/2011 at 11:11 pm

    Durga and the Holy Cow lives up to its title. It’s a quirky offbeat mix of fantasy, humour and realism. You just have to love that cow. But then Indian cows are like no others in the world, not only wise but very self-assured. Durga was lucky to find one who could be bothered to talk to him.

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