A Memory from the 1970s

This is from a long time back.

I was eight or nine, a child obsessed with day-dreaming and playing alone with the tiny grass-flowers that grew abundantly in our yard. Memories of those times are coloured a brilliant green because that was the colour that overwhelmed all the seasons of the year. Our home at Muthukulam in Kerala comes back to the mind’s eye in greens of all shades, browns, rich reds, bright blues, silver of the ponds,canals, and the lake, the  bright yellow of the mangoes and jackfruit, and innumerable flower- and fruit-hues.

The old house was a bustling place and the main doors were never locked, night or day. To the south, where the yard tapered into a narrow path ending in a gate to the road outside, there was a large cow-shed with many cows: my grandmother’s darlings.

I still remember that evening. Evenings at Muthukulam hung heavy in my heart because the dense green melting into a denser black as the light grew fainter always made me feel low. But that evening was really bad because my grandmother had decided to call the butcher for Gomathy. Gomathy was my grandmother’s favourite cow, mine too. She was really old and really ill. The whole of that day and the night before, she had been moaning piteously. None of us slept; Ammuma stayed all night by her side in the cow-shed. I tossed and turned, and as soon as a tiny sliver of light slipped in at dawn, I jumped out of bed and ran there. Gomathy was worse; her moans had now become desperate cries. The vet came in, looked at her — and he spoke to Ammuma in private. Children were always spared of painful news, but I scanned all the adult faces  closely, holding my heart in my hands almost. By noon, someone said, the butcher will come soon. I still remember standing lifeless, staring at the tapering path: the fine sand whitish in the evening light, narrowing as the green crowded in and finally turning invisible in the greenish dark beyond.

Then, at night, I don’t remember too well, but supper was served as usual. We didn’t eat, my Grandmother and I. I never talked to her much in front of my other relatives, and she knew that. So when everyone else went to bed, and she still sat in her large easy-chair in the dark, I crept up.

“Why did you get her killed?”, I asked.

I still feel her warm palm on my head.

“Because she was suffering,” she whispered. “She was in terrible pain, and there is no medicine to help her back into living.”

I let it sink in. Then I asked her a question which I would never have asked if others were around:

“Will you want me to kill you if you suffer much without hope? And will you kill me if I suffer the same way?”

Her hand reached my shoulder. Her fingers grew tighter on my upper arm.

“No.”

I sighed – and gulped.

“But not because of what you think,” she continued, “Human beings must suffer because they bear the burden of Karma. So even if there is no medicine for our pain, we can’t be killed. We must suffer till death. But not cows. From the day of their birth, they give us so much … we can’t let them suffer … It is a great sin to let a cow suffer.”

I was not sure then if this was a good answer; to this day, I am unsure. But it amazes me that in the sorrow we shared, the Muslim man who rescued Gomathy from terrible suffering, never figured in any way, the least as a villain. Indeed, I remember his preparations — he suggested that we try to give it the food it liked best,that it be petted by all the human beings who loved and cared for it, he assured us that its passing would be swift and painless. And it was. We knew she was gone not from a scream of terror but from the sudden ceasing of the terrible, repeated cries of agony that had assailed us all day.

In the mind of the nine-year-old that I once was, it was we — my Grandmother and I — both upper caste Hindus — who were subject to the questioning of the conscience. If any immoral act had been committed, if any injustice was done to Gomathy, then it is we who had to answer for that, not the man who we had called in. If the killing of the cow was murder, then we were the culprits, not the Muslim man.

How far away those times! We do not live in the old house anymore, and so I see myself stand outside, looking towards the old gate to the south of the yard. All I see now is the small space of whitish sand reflecting the light of the retreating sun, tapering, ever-narrowing, into chaotic darkness.

12 thoughts on “A Memory from the 1970s

  1. Mukul Dube

    While I cannot accept the idea of “karma” in the context of killing a suffering animal, the notion of SIN is central here, and it is what those are fighting who wish to be permitted to gift death to their suffering fellows for whom there is no hope.

    1. jdevika

      I don’t think that’s how it should be read but i am not sure myself on how it should read. Anyway the point of the post is not that.

      1. Mukul Dube

        Your point appeared to be that a Hindu woman who believed in “karma” was comfortable with having a cow killed because the animal was suffering. I branched off from that to another matter, which I understand is permissible.

        1. jdevika

          No, she was not, and you’ve got it wrong, from how i saw it at least. Maybe my inability to communicate. Some things are hard to verbalise. And of course, i didn’t say that your branching off was not permissible. Its just not the point of the post. The hindu woman may or may not be guilty of murdering a cow but the point is that the question of responsibility was pointed squarely at her and not at the Muslim who was called in to slaughter it. and in these times the Hindu responsibility is totally evaded.

          1. Mukul Dube

            Let me try again. Replace “was comfortable with having a cow killed” with “was not violently opposed to having a cow killed”. Central is the statement “It is a great sin to let a cow suffer.”

  2. K SHESHU BABU

    ‘Karma’ is the action of ‘Karta’. Coe is both ‘Karta’ and ‘Karma’ and the and our deed is the action ‘Kriya’. So, if ‘kriya’ is in our hands, we can be the ‘karta’ of anything in the world. Are we not superior go cow?

  3. Mohan Rao

    Deeply moving Devika. But I am troubled by the idea of murder of a cow. This is what Maneka Gandhi would say and what was said by Amita Singh and others after the Jajjhar murders of the dalits. They said the dead dalits had “murdered” the cows, implicitly defending the killing of the dalits.
    Mohan

    1. jdevika

      Mohan, there is a saying in Malayalam, konna paapam thinnaal teerum. The sin of killing will end if you eat it. If you kill an animal to appease your hunger, it is no sin – or wrong, in secular terms. I am only against unbridled consumption of living and non-living things to satisfy human greed, and it is the elites in the world who do that, not dalits, not other subalterns.

  4. Nivedita Menon

    Thank you Devika, for daring to raise profoundly ethical issues in the context of such a deeply polarized debate. The Hindutvavaadi campaign against Dalits and minorities – their lifes and livelihoods- in the guise of concern for the cow has rendered it impossible to think about the ethics of human hubris on the planet and the human attitude that all non-human nature is a “resource” to be ruthlessly plundered. By presenting this childhood memory in all its evanescent hues, you have encouraged us to think in a more troubled way about questions of life and the taking of life.

    1. Shiney Varghese

      Thank you Devika, for an extremely moving piece — it brings back my own memories of growing up in farming household, where animals were part of our lives. They were not simply a part of economic relations, but non-economic too — thus something possibly pet owners in urban india too might relate to. Hope this article reaches many.

      1. jdevika

        Thanks, Shiney and Nivi – I am so glad to have a few friends who relate effortlessly to what I was trying to convey. The trouble these days that everything is so heavily polarised and nicely packed into labelled little boxes, that anything like this would immediately get red and green bulbs lighting up in people’s brains,leading up to a ruthless reductionism. I am so scared the animal world is being denied life itself in this melee.

  5. Majumdar

    Devikaji,

    Nothing – and more importantly no human being- is ever tightly packed into boxes. I am a Modista but I support the right of everyone to eat whatever they want, including the holy cow. Let alone a small fry like me even our founding father Savarkar had pretty much the same attitude towards the cow.

    Regards

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