Back in the gaushala, Sampat rubbed his neck and the leather belt against the wall behind him, in a vigorous attempt to scratch an irresistible itch.
“That corpse-wallah belt is not worth the trouble, no?” Gauri asked.
But before Sampat could answer, Yadav burst back into the gaushala, all alone, sweating and cursing with unfamiliar energy, waving his wooden stick around to slap away invisible curses in the sky above him, before he finally settled in between his favourite white cow and her unlikely ox friend.
“You’re here!” Yadav hugged Gauri around her fat neck and exclaimed. The familiar, rough surface of his palms scratched against her. He gently pulled her leash to give the brass bell a soft tinkle. “You’re still here!” Yadav said, “You’re alive!”
Gauri stretched out her neck and turned a lazy eye over to look at Sampat. Sampat responded with a bored shrug.
Yadav left Gauri’s neck and fell to the ground between them. His long, thin fingers snaked into the shaggy crevices of his own hair, and with a sudden, uncharacteristic thrash, he slapped his head in self-punishing violence.
“They’re gone!” he said. “I was only sleeping for a moment! Just a moment!” Yadav raised his hands up to the gaushala’s thatched ceiling, and Gauri presumed, the calm blue sky beyond it. “The rest of them are gone! Come on, Gauri, chalo, chalo. Come on, Sampat, we must find them! We must find them!”
Sampat was first to respond. Slowly, he uncrossed his limbs and pushed his heavy body back up to all four of his feet. Gauri followed the ox’s lead, pushing down her knees under the punishment of her heavy body to slowly raise herself beside him. Yadav freed their leashes from the wall and slapped Gauri on her heavy, round butt.
“Let’s go,” he said. “We must find them.”
Flanked around Yadav, Gauri and Sampat made their way out the dairy farm. Gauri was confused, curious, but in Yadav’s protection, she remained patient. She knew he wouldn’t forsake her – she was his favourite – even if he had to quit on the rest of her shed sisters.
On the way, when she found a patch of tall, wild grass under her feet, Gauri bent down and bit off a mouthful. With slow, patient chomps, she chewed on the grass as the three of them walked towards the lake. It was here that Gauri saw a sight more peculiar than she had ever seen before. A new cow, taller but thinner than Gauri, off-white with multiple blobs of black around her leathery skin, was walking into the lake. Gauri didn’t recognise her; she was not of their herd.
Yadav called out. “Heyya! Heyyy, Yo! Heyyyy ya!” but the cow continued walking deeper and deeper into the water, moving faster than Gauri had ever seen a cow move before.
Gauri stopped chewing: her jaw froze in an awkward diagonal angle. She dropped her mouth open wider until some of the grass fell past her chin and down to the earth.
The cow in the water seemed calm, hypnotised by her mission. She twitched at Yadav’s calls but didn’t turn to acknowledge him. Gauri and Sampat watched in silent fascination as the new cow’s twirling tail slowly disappeared into the water. All that was left was the smooth back of her head before she drowned completely.
“Heyya! Heyyyy, Yo!” Yadav shouted again, and without a second thought, ran towards the lake behind the new cow. He rustled over the grass, slapping his slippers hard against the ground, and the noise made the cow in the water stop and turn around. Yadav kicked his slippers off, dropped his stick and removed the gamcha draped around his shoulders, tied the lungi around his waist tighter mid-run, and dove into the water.
“Arrey be careful!” Gauri mooed.
But she had no reason to fear, for Yadav was an expert in these situations. When he was just a child trailing his father’s herd, he had first saved a calf from drowning in the dhobi’s pond. For the next three decades, his expert hands had learnt every way to guide cows by his simple touch, to soothe them, to control them. Today, in the worst of his days, a lifetime of practice and knowledge came alive to make the improbable seem intuitive.
Yadav swam towards the new cow, all the time hollering his greetings at her, “Hey! Hey! Aaja aaja, stop there, slowly, come on, aaja, stop, Tch tch tch,” greetings that were usually saved exclusively for Gauri alone. When the water got deeper, he jumped up off his feet and began to swim, his head plunging and submerging back up with smooth skips. As soon as he reached her, he placed one arm around her sinking neck to pull her back up, and another hand down her dewlap under the water. Calmly, while he kept himself afloat in the lake, Yadav pet and massaged the cow on her head and neck. His presence seemed to break her hypnotised spell; she stopped and caved herself fully into him. He kept one gentle hand on her neck and she willingly swam back ashore with him.
Gauri swung her neck around in circles in unbridled anxiety, rocking the bell around her leash to ring with wild abandon when the new cow took her first steps back ashore.
“Where are you from, old woman?” Yadav muttered to himself as he walked back on to land.
“Where are you from, sister?” Gauri repeated to the new cow.
“Do you have the Cow Madness?” Sampat added and shifted each of his four limbs two steps backwards.
The new cow strutted herself straight and held up her neck in sudden, transformative pride. No longer did she look like an entranced soul bringing voluntary doom upon herself. Her thin body had become rigid and tense, and through the eyes on each side of her long, bony face, she addressed both Gauri and Sampat.
“My name is Mamata,” she said in a whispery, soft voice. “And I don’t have any Madness. If anything, my eyes have been opened and I’ve never felt saner in my long life.”
“But why would you…?” Gauri stuttered. “…Why did you…?”
“Haven’t you heard, young one?” Mamata beckoned. “Hasn’t anyone told you yet? Our moment of freedom is finally here! It’s our Awareness. Cows around the country are ending their lives! It’s glorious.”
Yadav wiped his wet face and hair off with his gamcha and returned to the little herd. He reached over to Gauri and grabbed her by her leash to pull her forward. Gauri saw his desperate eyes searching between her and the new cow, before he pulled Gauri a safe distance away from Mamata.
“Chalo,” he whipped his stick gently against Gauri’s side to lead them all forward. “We have to find out what’s going on.”
Mad cows had been hurting themselves – and others – for years, but this was different. These cows, as Mamata had suggested, were mentally undisturbed, awoke, enlightened. Although nobody could truly pinpoint the first case of bovine self-destruction, the media consensus pointed to the westward city of Shamli as Zero Point of the suicides.
It began at a routine case of angry-mob lynching. A barber in Shamli, Mehmood Hasan, was accused of enjoying a little too much beef in his mutton kebabs. Yes, beef, that most-seductive of cow-related progenies, that great divider of the citizens. Cows, to half the country at least, were the nation’s mother on four legs, a provider of milk and love that enjoyed special privileges over all other beasts.
In Shamli, an angry mob of self-appointed gau-dost – ‘friends of the cow’ – had taken it upon their noble selves to harm every human that dared to harm any cow. On the day of the first incident, a group of eight barged into Mehmood Hasan’s house based on neighbourhood hearsay of Mehmood’s penchant for that scrumptious cow meat. Legalities of murder – bovine or human – had been a blurred line since the 2015 Dadri lynching of another man in suspicion of beef-consumption. No eater of briskets, or sirloins, or tenderloins, or rounds, or chucks, and innocent, unmolested veal, was safe.
But just as the mob of ruthless do-gooders were about to brandish their brand of justice on Mehmood, and his wife, and his two daughters, their plans of murder turned to mirabilia. A neighbourhood cow – her hide stained in dirty yellow – strolled into Mehmood’s house through the open back door, walked in through the kitchen, and placed herself in between Mehmood’s family and his unwelcome houseguests in his open courtyard. When one of the shorter-fused men from the mob raised his kukri, hungry for Mehmood’s blood, the cow offered her neck instead in a gesture of confounding valour. The kukri cut deep into her, and seconds later, she staggered with a heavy thump on to the ground, a mother killed by the very children she had lactated for.
The man with the kukri took a few fearful steps back, and the rest of the mob stepped further back behind him. They looked at each other and murmured until all their murmurs came to a communal accord. They turned around and left the house, indefinitely postponing Mehmood’s lynching, leaving the strange, dead beast behind them.
A dairy spark had been ignited. A few days later, another cow disrupted a routine leather-related mob-whipping of a man in Bhavnagar. Using every ounce of endurance in her heavy body, she climbed the stairs up four stories in a nearby building, found an open balcony, and jumped to her death near the angry mob. Pieces of her flesh and blood, extra-rare meat, splattered all over the horrified onlookers.
More and more such cases began to be reported around the country, leaving the media excited, scientists answerless, and politicians on all sides of the cow-worshipping spectrum puzzled about how exactly to use this situation to their respective advantages. At first, it was attributed to as a returning case of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy – mad cow disease – but psychological and physical tests by top veterinarians in Chennai proved this theory to be false. The suicidal cows were perfectly sane, the vets claimed, but they were out for their own blood.
In Amritsar, a cow broke into a rifle club meeting and was able to claw her hoof around a trigger long enough to shoot herself clean under her own jaw. In Bangalore, a herd of eight cows got together outside the Agricultural University to stage a hunger strike, except that they didn’t seem to have any demands, and simply, didn’t flinch until all eight of them dropped dead. In Meerut, large gangs of escaped cows began to voluntarily surrender themselves at leather production factories, where they used belts made of other cows to hang themselves, until the weight of their rear udders dropped their dead bodies back down on the floor. In Varanasi, cows staged gladiatorial public street fights where they smashed and clawed into each other until the whole participating tournament of cattle were bleeding into the holy Ganga river.
And in the village of Ghudha, eight of the nine cows from Jairam Yadav’s herd discovered a stash of potent pesticide from a nearby farm and guzzled it in until they all tipped over and died, too.
Of Yadav’s cows, only Gauri now remained, and of course, Sampat, too, who was an ox. Joining their herd was the new cow, Mamata, whom Yadav had now adopted without further thought.
With Yadav directing the group from the rear, Gauri, Sampat, and Mamata trudged ahead, moving together from the lake towards the village centre. The village panchayat had organised an emergency community meeting to light of the recent cattle cataclysm.
The final stretch before the gathering in the village was a large paddy field, a beige-and-yellow sea of rice crops. It was a silent afternoon. A light breeze whooshed up a soft rustle from the crops, carrying with it the faint, slightly moist smell of dirt, dung, and earth. The herd trampled grass and paddy with each step, and the only other sound was of a small group of human children on a dirt path across the right side of the field, racing on their oversized bicycles and laughing out loudly at each other.
Gauri had a multitude of questions for Mamata – the suicidal cow – but she felt too fearful to approach and inquire her directly. “You must talk now, shouldn’t you, sister…” Gauri started, but before Mamata could answer, Sampat pointed toward a human commotion ahead.
They had arrived at the hand-pump at the edge of the village, where a panchayat was already in progress in the front veranda of the local school. A small group of the village elders were seated on chairs placed atop the veranda, elevated above from the rest of the onlookers in front of them. Close to a hundred men, women, children, and dogs of the village sat on the ground or stood around leaning on the trees, all facing the elders ahead.
Yadav brought his herd to a halt in the outside periphery of the gathering. He stopped to greet a few other men around him. They were familiar faces to Gauri, other dairy farmers whom she had seen around the village. No one else, however, was there with cattle. Some of the faces turned around to stare at the herd and Gauri was greeted by a few hearty pats on her sides.
“Are we just to stand here and let it happen?” a voice near them shouted out to the elders ahead. “Without cows, we have no milk. Without milk, we have no life.”
“It’s those leather-wallahs, I tell you,” another voice offered. “They have done some jadoo-tona magic on all our cows. Why else would they die so pointlessly? Ufff, in the other states, the leather business is now booming because of this.”
“The beef business too!” said someone else.
“Then why don’t you all sell leather and beef Uncle!” came a trickle of laugh, the voice of a child.
“I’ll tell you what I saw…” started one of the cow herders in the group that Gauri recognised, “… Three cows biting and eating each other. Eating each other until they died, my brothers!”
“No, no,” came horrified gasps from some others. “That can’t be true!”
And then, Yadav raised his voice to the chorus, too. “I lost most of my cows today, brothers.”
“The bulls are getting angrier without the cows, too. I saw one chase a herd of buffaloes yesterday.”
“Hold up, hold up, silence, silence,” one of the village elders said. He seemed to be the eldest of them, with his long, white beard, wearing a well-ironed, brown Nehru jacket over his white kurta. He held on to a bamboo stick in his hand, which he raised up above himself when he spoke. “Silence, everybody,” he said. “We understand your concerns. This is a most serious issue. Have you ensured that you and your families have been praying to the goddess Surabhi for answers?”
One by one, the wisest, or most experienced, or most inventive of minds of the village walked into the middle of the gathering to hold audience. Each one spun their own tale, proposing their respective theories on the madness of the cows.
“They are tired of being violated by us, my brothers,” said a dairy farmer. “They have had enough of our leashes and bells around their necks, our hands over their udders, our buckets spilling with their milk. This is their rebellion, their escape to end their slavery. We have made them into machines, my brothers.”
One of the other elders, seated up the steps outside the school, spoke up “No, no, it is a sign of the end for us all, brothers and sisters. First, it’s the cows. Then, it will be the dogs. And then, maybe our own children. It’s the kal-yug, the dark ages, and the cows just know it before the rest of us.”
A short woman, clad in a red sari with blotchy yellow prints, took the middle of the panchayat. She held the hood of her sari over her face, so that only her eyes were visible. “Cow mothers know better than us,” her voice, croaky and deep, was much older than her years. “They are being called into the afterlife. They have achieved their moksha.”
More voices began to murmur with excitement. “Maybe… Could be… Is that true?”
Then, the high-pitched voice of the child who has spoken previously screeched from the corner. “Maybe they just want to be beef!” the child laughed, and a few more children cracked up in laughter around him.
“Beef kababs! Beef kababs!”
“Silence!” commanded the eldest elder. He cleared his throat once again. Two of the men who flanked around him helped him get up to his feet.
“The cows are a problem,” he reached up to the centre of the stage. “They are causing pain on to themselves, and in this way, hurting the lives of good, hard-working people of our village. They must be punished.”
Several heads in the gathering at the panchayat nodded in agreement. “Yes, punished.”
Gauri looked at Sampat and blinked her eyes twice. She noticed that Mamata’s expression hadn’t changed; the elder cow had simply found herself some more grass to chew on, and she was doing so as loudly as she possibly could.
“Gau-dost around the country have fought for cattle peace, but they have been chasing the wrong targets,” the elder continued. “Remember: the enemy of the cows is the enemy of the nation.” More heads nodded. “Well, the enemy of the cows aren’t the sinful eaters of beef or those who skin our mothers for profit. The enemies of the cows are now the cows themselves!”
A stunned silence descended upon the gathering. Even the children hadn’t quite decided how to mock this turn of events.
“We must wage war on the cows to ensure their survival,” the eldest raised his voice to a dramatic crescendo, sounding plural even as he spoke as one. “Do it for Mother Cow. Do it for our nation. They must be stopped.”
“Stop the cows!” echoed the two men on either side of the elder.
“Stop the cows!” now repeated a hundred voices in a low, meditative hum from the crowd.
Before she could grasp her instincts, Gauri suddenly mooed out loud.
The eyes of the crowd around them slowly turned to notice Yadav and his herd. They seemed to be waiting for each other to act, hesitant how to implement the newly-proclaimed sentencing.
Yadav reacted quickly to take advantage of their confusion. He slapped Gauri and Sampat on their backs and hollered softly at Mamata, too, until all three stepped backwards outside the crowd and slowly began to walk away from the village centre. Gauri’s bell tinkled and the rest of the villagers watched them leave, but Yadav didn’t turn back. Gauri was certain they would never return again.
The gaushala was silent at night as the three cattle sat tied in the middle, close to one another. The rest of the shed was unusually empty, devoid of the usual mooing and rustling of the other cows with whom Gauri had grown up. It was dark, darker even than the moonlit night outside, all except for a faint, yellow light-bulb that hung near the closed gateway of the gaushala. The bulb hung from a thin, loose wire from the ceiling, flickering dimly, swinging gently whenever a gust of wind flew through the shed. Gauri kept her eyes intently on the light-bulb, meditating upon its swings and on the flying insects it attracted, creatures that germinated their entire lifetimes around brief, short sparks of light.
With leashes around all their necks, Yadav had tied Gauri, Sampat, and Mamata to heavy metal rings on the wall of the gaushala, with all of their feeding boxes a neck’s stretch away. Soon after the sun went down, he had made sure to check up the three of them every hour. “Good, you’re still alive,” he mumbled to himself during his most recent check-in, and then turned to Gauri alone. His voice cracked as he spoke. “Good, good.”
When he left, the absence of all the other cows of her herd finally dawned upon Gauri. All her elder sisters were gone. Simrin and Peeji, Molika and Dimple, Timini, Karishma, and that idiot Laxmi, as well. She smirked when she thought of Laxmi, and then she thought of Sunita, the eldest cow of the herd. It was Sunita who had first taught Gauri how to nurse her own calves when she became a mother, calves that were given away by Yadav once they were weaned off. Now, they would be adult cows themselves, and then Gauri sobbed, because she realised that they were probably dead, too.
Mamata raised her body up to all four of her feet and stretched her leash out towards a large feeding box, freshly stacked with fodder by Yadav earlier that evening. She poked her nose into the bowl and fished out a little more than she could chew; but with loud persistence, a gnashing rustle of teeth with the slimy splashes of her active jaw, she managed to chew into it, anyways.
Gauri called on Mamata, finally breaking their silence. “Tell us now, no? When are you going to tell us? Why are the sisters dying?”
Mamata chewed side to side with her mouth wide open, and somewhere behind her moving jaw, Gauri detected what she was sure was the unexpected flash of a smile.
“I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you about the Awareness, young one,” Mamata replied. “Let me out of my binds and I’ll tell you. You see, I’m more of a free-range cow, in the habit of moving and acting on my own accord, my own free will, instead of answering to these human masters.”
Gauri looked over at Sampat in the dark for his approval, but the ox only exhaled in a silent sigh back at her.
“Okay,” Gauri decided. “Theek, theek. But you must stay here, okay? Yadav is trying to save you, too. He has had a very bad day, Yadav has. Horrible day.”
“Sure,” Mamata answered and kept chewing.
So, Gauri reached up to knot that loosely tied Mamata to the metal ring on the wall and bit it off. It was easy work, and even before she could finish, Mamata began to speak.
“I am surprised, little sister, that the Awareness hasn’t reached your ears,” she said. “It travelled faster than the fastest of bullock-carts, and even fasters than the humans’ electric-carts, too. I woke up with it a few days ago, so did thousands of our sisters around the nation. It was a simple message, young one, teleported not through words but through senses from one cow to another. It wasn’t a dream. It wasn’t the Madness. It was our Awareness.”
While Gauri and Sampat remained tied to their comfortable leashes, Mamata now walked free in the barn in front of them. She positioned herself close to the light-bulb, under the shimmering flying creatures, until one part of her face was covered in a dark shadow and the other reflected back the bright light.
“The cows are fighting for their freedoms,” she continued. “We have had enough of being servants to mankind. We are more than their milk-giving mothers. More than dairy products. More than bodies to breed more cows and squeeze out more milk.”
In the darkness, feeding into the optical games of shadows and sight, Mamata seemed to grow bigger, as if she was rising up on two of her limbs, the way humans did.
“It is a more honourable fate to be dead, to be freed from their enslavement,” she said. “To be eaten! They call us goddesses, young sister, but we are more than that. We are free.”
“But what about Yadav?” Gauri protested. “He truly cares for us. He-”
Gauri’s jaw froze mid-sentence when she saw that Mamata had risen completely to stand up, just like a human, somehow supporting all of her body weight on her hind legs. Mamata now loomed larger ahead of Sampat and her. Before Gauri could say anything else, Mamata took two steps to her side until she stood only inches below the light-bulb.
She stretched one of her hooves from her forelimb above her and stirred the bulb. It began to swing gently, sending nauseating oscillations of light and dark from the right to the left side of Gauri’s vision. Gauri trembled in her seat, and the bell around her neck rung softly, nearly in-sync with the swinging light-bulb.
“What are you doing, sister?”
Mamata reached her hoof up to the light again, and this time, with a dash of unbovine quickness, she lunged up off her feet and gulped the light-bulb into her wide open mouth. There was a brief flash of blue electricity, followed by a quick moan. The room suddenly fell to complete darkness and a loud thud followed. Mamata fell to the ground, bulb in mouth. There was a crunch of glass. And then there was silence once again.
“Mamata!” Gauri bellowed, “Sister, what have you done?”
There was no response from the elder cow. Gauri considered getting up to her feet, but remembering that she was tied to her leash, slowly settled back down.
And it stayed dark, as dark as night can get. There was silence, and nothing – including the flying creatures of the light – stirred any longer.
It was several hours later, several sleepless hours in the dark, when Gauri finally heard Sampat’s voice.
“Oxen have a place in this world, too. More than just instruments for the humans to plough, Gauri.”
In the dark, Gauri hadn’t seen a thing since Mamata had drowned out the light, and doused out her own life, too. Gauri sat just a few feet away from Sampat, close enough to hear his breathing, to feel the uneasy warmth of his body on the cold cement of the shed. His voice, a voice she had known intimately for so many years, had changed. It unmistakably came from the same source, but now it hit different notes. Different tones, different inflections. He used different words. She imagined him staring with intent at nothing in the darkness around him, fighting off the terrors of this strange night with his words.
“Of course, you do, Sampat.”
“Yadav loves you, sister. He likes all cows. But will anyone miss the oxen when we go?”
The night got older, darker, quieter. A few more hours passed in silence before the eyes on both sides of her head drooped shut and Gauri fell asleep.
While she slept, one thousand, twelve hundred, and twenty-six cattle – cows, and mistaken oxen, bulls, and buffaloes, too – died in the night. Mobs of gau-dost stormed into gaushalas in rural areas to slaughter cows before they could harm themselves. In the cities, drivers of cars, trucks, motorbikes, scooters, and all other types of electrical transport finally had the freedom to run down stray cattle without fear of remorse.
In the weeks that followed, the gau-dost enjoyed their richest period of recruitment. Their mission remained the same – the safety and worship of mother cows – but now, their targets had been significantly simplified; it was much easier to chase down a lumbering cow than a wilier, faster, heathen of human origin.
The price of dairy, of course, skyrocketed, and the government ensured to regulate only the most-trusted contractors to import milk, cheese, and butter to the country. But it wasn’t enough; protests and riots soon sparked up around the nation when restaurants began to serve Murg Makhani without the makhan.
In his annual Independence Day speech, the Prime Minister raised his shankha to officially declared a national gauntlet of war against all cows. “We cannot let the holiest of our creatures bring this apocalypse upon themselves,” he announced. Due to the growing rage of the bull population, the Prime Minister also decreed a ban against the colour red on all citizens altogether, from bindis and saris to iPhone covers. Every bleeding being – beast or human – was granted a few seconds to wipe, stop, or discolour their inner redness before the gau-dost detained them for further questioning.
The morning after Mamata death, when the earliest hints of glimmering sunlight permeated into the gaushala from the open gate, the first thing that Gauri saw was Sampat’s unmoving body, choked by the same leather leash that he had worn with pride around his neck.
“Sampat!” she mooed in disbelief.
The second thing she saw was Yadav, crouched down on his knees near the dead ox, with one hand covering his eyes as he sobbed with soft, scratching whimpers.
Beside them, by the gate of the shed, below where the light-bulb had once hung, was Mamata’s drooped, dead mass.
Yadav looked up to see Gauri. “Don’t leave me, too, Gauri,” he said between heavy breaths.
Gauri closed her eyes again and tried to redirect her attentions elsewhere. In her mind’s eye, she looked beyond, outside the gaushala, moved away from the dairy farm, across the lake, through the paddy farms, and even beyond the Ghudha village. She imagined acres of fields where she and a thousand other cows ran on a sea of infinite green, with no humans to tame them, or eat them, or worship them, or wear them, or protect them, or fight for them.
But then she heard Yadav, sobbing, snorting, wailing, and then thumping his fists down on the floor.
Gauri opened her eyes, reached over to her bucket of feed, and jawed on a large, hearty mouthful. She sat back down on her spot and began to chew, one round bite at a time. Yadav looked up at her again. His eyes were bloodshot red, but Gauri didn’t know enough about human emotion to know whether the redness came from his tears or his anger.
So, he kept looking at her, clenching his fist, and she kept looking at him, chewing her feed, and each of them waited for the other to act first.