Sunday, 8 January 2012

A Lesbian Cow

A Lesbian Cow
Indu Menon

A column of sunlight, resembling smoke in its movement, had fallen into the bathroom through the glass ventilator. While taking her bath, Mehrunnisa often squirmed like a child. And every time she did so, the ray of light, awakening her curiosity, aligned itself with her navel like an umbilical chord.
At other times, it lay submerged in the cold water in the orange bucket like a light- filled submarine pipe. Or it left a ring like glitter on the cracked wall tiles.
Sometimes Mehrunnisa would stop it with her hand. Or, she would let it reach up to the dripping ends of her wet hair. Barring all these, she might even keep watching the millions of dust particles moving in the circle of light. That was precisely why it took her long to finish her bath.
But that day Mehrunnisa started to wash herself in a hurry. She had forgotten about the ray of sun light. Yet, as she drew the last dipper full of water from the bucket, she realized that the transparent finger of sunlight had not arrived to touch the water.
It was with a start of surprise that she raised her face toward the ventilator. Screaming, “Oh!”, she held the washing to her body. Two eyes were calmly watching her; one half of a face was slowly drawing itself away.
Mehrunissa trembled with fear when she came out after putting on her clothes. It was her- the lesbian cow!!!
When Mehmood Khan arrived on his moped at her rented house to call on her, she was doing the washing. The changes that had come over his daughter in three years took him by surprise. He realized that she had become quite a mature woman and that time had spared no sign of her childhood in her.
On the other hand, Mehrunnisa’s sister Eid, as she got older, was getting more and more prone to mischief and prattle and also to playing childish pranks on Mehmood Khan.
Eid had shown no signs of becoming a mother even after ten years of marriage. Since theirs was a Rowther family which followed matriliny, Eid Kamal’s husband also lived with the family of Mehmood Khan’s wife. The public was of the opinion that Raftas Junish had not divorced his wife because of this cosy arrangement but their love, like fever and its heat, was inseparable. Yet Mehmood Khan considered his daughter’s childlessness a permanent blight on his family.
The auspicious news that his younger daughter Mehrunnisa has managed to conceive in the third year of her elopement with her lover melted his wrath away.
Mehrunnisa saw the sight as she turned away after wringing the clothes and putting them on her shoulder. She broke out in a cold sweat. At first sight she took him to be the lesbian cow that was in the habit of coming in past the gate. Ever since it became known that Sreehari Venkatesh had left on tour, the lesbian cow had grown rather bold.
Mehrunnisa was taken by surprise. Her Atha stood near his moped, six feet tall and looked like a rock- hewn figure. She pulled down the hitched up ends of her sari. After three years Atha was smiling like a noon-day dream. Mehrunnisa too smiled back. She smiled, showing her gums, opening her brown eyes wide and fluttering her copper brown lashes.
Despair and disappointment suddenly assailed Mehmood Khan. He had longed to hear Mehrunnisa cry, simply because he had never known another girl who could cry so enchantingly as her.
But Mehrunnisa invited her Atha in with a smile. As he climbed the steps to the rented house, she saw him step on the Lakshmana Kolam that Sreehari Venkatesh had drawn three days before. After three years she coaxed her father in mock exasperation, ‘Move over please, Atha’
Mehmood Khan screwed up his face at the too-sour Suleimani. She started to cry when he told her that a Rowther girl who couldn’t make a good cup of suleimani did not amount to much, whatever heights she reached in life.
‘Is he an artist?’
Mehmood Khan looked at the kolam relishing Mehrunnisa’s tears.
‘What is his name?’
‘Sreehari Venkatesh Pai’
‘When will he be back?’
‘By evening’
Mehmood Khan nodded his head gravely
‘Any photos?’
‘I don’t have any’
‘What about your wedding album?’
Mehrunnisa cracked her knuckles in discomfiture.
‘We are not married’
Mehmood Khan kept nodding as if he had not heard anything unusual.
‘Did you change your religion?’
Mehrunnisa watched his face grow red and glow like an ember with rage. The gray hairs of his beard lashed against the front of his kurta.
‘You could have changed your religion. At least it would have been more decent than what you are doing now.’
He placed the cup of suleimani on the parapet.
‘I didn’t even know you were living in such damnation.’
He stood, planting his pointed shoes firmly on the kolam. The smell of thick laundry starch filled the air. ‘There’s something called pride, Mehru.’ He started his moped.
Mehrunnisa was startled. She stood stock still as one lost in a dream.
It was the ever-wakeful fluorescent lamp in the verandah that showed Sreehari that his kolam had become a mess. Foot- prints lay on sugar- fine grains like marks of sin. Even though he was tired from his travel, he went into the kitchen and made tea. The code of conduct that Sreehari and Mehrunnisa had laid down for each other was ever so fixed and immutable. There was a kind of seriousness and discipline even in the courtesies they extended to each other.
Sreehari made up his mind to speak to Mehrunnisa while drinking his tea. For he happened to believe in signs. The marks that he had come across upon his arrival indicated the presence of three persons.
‘Who were the guests?’
‘Atha!’ Sreehari felt ashamed. He knew that Mehrunnisa’s Atha was the richest gem merchant in the city. Sreehari felt that he might have viewed his daughter’s shabby rented house with derision.
There was another reason too. An aunt of his used to drop in at their rented house once in a while. Mami was fond of Mehrunnisa, who wore a diamond nose- ring on her right nostril and who was tall and nicely proportioned, and delicate like a white water lily. Even her religion did not exasperate Mami. She even used to trot out reasons for her liking. One was the Konkani language, which Mehrunnisa wielded with even better skill than a G.S.B. woman. It was beautiful bird song –Konkani with the hint of a lisp in it.
Still the termite - ridden doors and rat and spider infested cobwebby roof of the rented house both frightened and put her off. And Mami used to quarrel and also worry about the house all the time.
He did not ask her for Atha’s news. Without ever having actually laid down rules, they were in the habit of observing all kinds of rural and urban etiquettes that might be observed between a man and a woman.
Even before Sreehari asked, Mehrunnisa started to tell him about her dream of slugs. ‘Around ten in the morning yesterday I dreamt of slugs which do not have thick outer shells. I saw the thick body fluid that they expelled into the water and also the many eggs floating in the fluid. The slugs kept pushing their fleshy bodies out into the water and went on laying eggs. The same slug kept passing into the water the white fluffiness of its fertile eggs that will not easily be swept away by the flow. It was holding a flower vase of glazed china clay that I sat on the bank, watching with interest the slugs laying their eggs and collected their eggs with a spoon made of a jack -tree leaf and deposited them in the vase. I saw tender rice saplings moving about in the water like tentacles of green octopuses. It was when Atha called me to start for home, that I accidentally stepped on the slugs, which were crossing the narrow bank between the paddy fields. The eerie ‘krruk’ sound disturbed me.’
Sreehari scratched his head in wonder. It was the first time since they started living together that Mehrunnisa was describing a dream as if it were a real life experience.
‘This is not just a dream that I had in my sleep, as you seem to think, Sreehari.’
‘Then, what Mehru, a noon-day dream?’
‘No. I think it was day before yesterday that I started to feel a kind of uneasiness. I vomited. By yesterday morning it had become something of a gesture. Only yellow bile kept coming out as if my body had nothing else to throw up. While I was washing my face by the well I stepped on three slugs and crushed them to a pulp. It was the very same moment that the cow pressed me to herself from behind and I fainted away. The dream is the one I had during my fainting fit.’
‘Mehrunnisa,’ Sreehari called insistently. He could not suppress his joy. He placed kisses on her forehead and her eyelids.
Mehrunnisa lay on the cot like an organic clock. Her eyes shone in the dark like the dial of a digital clock.
Sreehari felt happy as if he were back in his father’s watch repair shop. Sreehari’s bappa was Venkitesh Pai who kept studying the needles and tiny cog- wheels of time- pieces through his magnifying glass till his death. Sreehari always used to fancy that there were needles in his father’s extraordinarily sharp -sighted eyes. Moving his irises up and down, he kept his clock-like eye always in movement.
Pai had built a clock tower with the inscription ‘sponsored by Pai’s Watch Works’ in the Gowda Saraswata Brahmin Street in Andhra Pradesh. The giant clock, which never showed the wrong time or chimed the wrong hour, had stopped one fine morning and hit the ground with a terrifying peal.
At the same time at Pai’s Watch Works, Venkitesh Pai was lying spreadeagled on a chair like a clock that had stopped ticking. A magnifying glass was screwed to his right eye. Only the ting-tong sound of a pocket watch that he had repaired filled the place.
The villagers were disturbed when Sreehari Vernkatesh and Mehrunnisa started their ‘cohabitation’. People kept discussing whether it was right for two people belonging to two different religions to live together out of wedlock. Mehrunnisa and Sreehari had simply shifted to rented accommodation straight from the hospital leaving a note explaining that they were going to live together.
At sixteen years of age, Mehrunnisa had made the acquaintance of Sreehari Venkatesh at the complaint redress committee of the Ayurvedic hospital. Apart from being the social welfare officer, he was also a handsome young man with bluish stubble shadowing his face. His face with its faint tracings of blue and green veins used to shine because he put too much oil in his hair.
It was a very complicated affair. Mehrunnisa’s small teeth and her smile which revealed her gums created a certain amount of interest in him. He was about thirty six at the time.
The accused, a nurse, stared at him like a belligerent cow. She could not bear it when he looked at Mehrunnisa.
Mehrunnisa had come to the hospital seeking treatment for paralysis. Even the hardest of treatment regimens had not scared her. Sreehari came across a sentence like this in the copy of her complaint: Ever since the accused has been assigned to look after me, instead of massaging my body, she has been indulging in caressing it.
‘She smells like a cow, sir. She has a face like one too. The soles of her feet are just as hard as the hooves of a cow. She used to stare at me all the time. Do you know how much I hated the creature just because of that?’
As soon as she heard the word ‘hate’ her face became hard. Sreehari kept watching the accused.
Her eyes were like an antique battle ship. Sreehari saw water spattering from her eyes as though an aquatic pageantry of gun smoke and cannon shots had taken place in them. Like the bullet of a gun, like an ocean wave, like a molten piece of glass, the tear drop stuck to her cheek.
‘She trampled on this chest of mine with iron horse- shoes.’ Mehrunnisa placed her hands on her chest.
‘From the beginning I felt there was something wrong. She used to kiss my daughter while she slept. How can this woman behave like this to my daughter who is ill?’ Nihad begum deposed before the committee.
‘My body had become more pliable than wet clay. At the end of each massage session, like human flesh sizzling in oil, I would toss and turn in semi –sleep. Then each and every one of the nurses used to bathe my body. And all of them had shown my sick body the compassion and respect that one must show to one. Everyone except this dirty cow.’
‘I was worshipping your body, Mehru’, the nurse said in a rush of passion, ‘Just as one cow loves another cow.’

Even Sreehari paled at her shameless revelations.
Hailing from the Gomatha family, her name was Nandini Gomatha. The punishment she got was a three- month suspension from work and a life-long banishment from Mehrunnisa’s ward.
‘After that she used to come to my room on the sly. Once when I woke up, she was kissing me passionately.’
‘Sreehari,’ Mehrunnisa opened her eyes. ‘When I came to my senses, the dirty cow proposed to me.’ Frowning , Sreehari sat up . So the third guest was her.
Sreehari was startled out of sleep when flame –bright stars and resplendent moonlight rose in the sky. They always slept with the windows open. He was not afraid to do so. Yet he fancied that bovine ears and battleship eyes appeared on the face of darkness. A stone wrapped in a piece of paper landed in front of him. Someone disappeared into the darkness behind the wall. The forlorn lowing of cattle rose from the dairy farm. Scribbled on the paper was this message: ‘Leave Mehrunnisa to me.’
The next day when Mehmood Khan, Nihad Bejgum, Eid Kamal and Raftasunish called on him, Sreehari Venkatesh, in his agitation, even forgot to welcome them.
‘I have come to talk to you about something very serious.’ When he took off his spectacles Mehmood Khan’s bleary eyes with their cataract rings were revealed. The sharp pendulum of old age discordantly swinging in them haunted Sreehari.
Mehmood Khan explicitly asked him to marry Mehrunnisa and promised him ample dowry, ornaments in the Pathan tradition, property and some movable assets. But Sreehari responded in an unexpected manner. So long as he remained a feminist, he said quite candidly, there was no question of his recognizing the institution of marriage.
‘Give women plenty of freedom. Mehrunnisa richly deserves it.’
Khan fidgeted in perturbation and hid the long needle of tear that crept down his cheeks with his hand. Sreehari recalled his father who had told him ‘There is a clock in every human organ.’ He touched Mehmood Khan’s feet. ‘Bappa, please forgive me. This is a question of certain positions I have taken in life. Don’t take it for impudence.’
At the same time Nihad Begum was anxiously enquiring about the lesbian cow. Mehrunnisa had not thought of her even once since moving into the rented house. The five- acre dairy farm next door or the huge cows that came past the gate to eat the flowers of the crepe jasmine plant in her garden had failed to remind her of Nandini Gomatha. And recently, the lesbian cow had taken to visiting her garden along with the other cows to browse on the flowers of the crepe jasmine plant and hungrily peep at Mehrunnisa while she took her bath.
‘Come, let’s get married’ was what she keeps saying.
Nihad Begum was scared. She had of course heard tales of forlorn lovers who madly pursued married women, who rolled on the ground on which the shadow of their beloved had fallen. But she failed to understand why a woman should pursue another woman claiming to love and desire her.
‘Some nights she can be seen observing our rented house from her room at the top of her dairy farm. Before I close the window at night, I see her skin rough like the hide of a cow and her face crumpling up like shrivelled hide ripe for tanning.
‘Maybe she’s a witch, dear….’
Mehrunnisa and Eid were disturbed.‘It’s alright, Mehrunnisa. For one thing, your Atha and I have once stayed for about five months in a village, which had a lot of such people. The villagers used to call them panas. They used to shun them because they ate beef. The cow was considered sacred in the villages. It was the panas who used to look after them. If a cow went down with some disease, its caretakers would happily drag the carcass to their hovels. They would roast the meat and eat it. If somebody elected not to eat the meat, I have personally seen the villagers punish him by flogging him.’
Mehrunnisa felt faint.
‘I believe these panas acquire whatever is divine in the cow. So they become sorcerers and magicians. They have the wonderful power for performing odi. My dear, the one who knows odi can acquire any shape. But they will be naked. Mostly they assume the shape of a cow. And the odiyan thus avenges himself on those who have done him wrong’
Mehrunnisa felt her head bursting. The terrifying peal of thunder rang in her ears. The angry snorting of a cow.
‘These odiyans, in the shape of a cow, stalk women to whom they have taken a fancy. They are said to avenge themselves by trampling on the bellies of pregnant women.’
Mehrunnisa tried hard to believe that the odiya tale of belief and disbelief and blind superstition was a myth. She feared the lesbian cow that violently shook the iron gates of her house once Sreehari left for work. Did it have two protuberances on the top of its head? Two large protuberances hidden by its horns?
The sound of a hoof followed Sreehari that evening, on his way home from the market after buying milk. The lesbian cow! Sreehari watched her intently.
She was wearing a dress made from cotton that was coarse like cow- hide. The ends of her dupatta moved up like a cow’s ears. She wore slippers with high heels, which reminded one of horse- shoes. Her eyes were like battle ships. Her pink skin was softer than freshly churned butter.
‘Please leave Mehrunnisa to me. Give her up. Since your relationship is not legal, it will be easy to part. She is not even your wife.’
Sreehari Venkatesh lost his temper. ‘Don’t you ever disturb Mehru. If you do, I’ll call the police.’
‘Look Sreehari, it’s no use getting angry. Listen to me. I have a better claim on her than you do. I have touched her breasts twice as many times as you have done. I remember each and every atom of her body awakening to the touch of my finger- tips’ she concluded her passionate outburst.
‘Get lost woman!’ Sreehari Venkatesh screamed at her. He pushed her away.
Her demeanour changed suddenly. Instead of the heat of lust, resonances of anger worked up her face. Heated blood coursed through her veins to her face. The smell of gun powder emanated from her.
Swearing at him, she butted him on the chest with her head. And kicked him hard with her horse shoe clad long legs when he lay sprawled on his back. Pressing her feet down on his face, she cried as if she were mad, ‘I’ll kill you.’
Sreehari Venkatesh decided to marry Mehrunnisa as he lay like meat on the threshold of the butcher’s shop in the market place, which smelt of cow’s urine and its dung. As for the lesbian cow, she turned and stormed out. And Sreehari Venkatesh saw that her plaited hair was just as skimpy as a cow’s tail.
Sreehari Venkatesh married Mehrunnisa according to both Hindu and Muslim rights. It was on the very same day that the lesbian cow breached the walls of the dairy farm. More than two thousand cows broke into the village through the ruined gate.
The rumour that the cows had been let loose due to the mad cow disease spread. Villagers ran helter–skelter. Children kept away from school. The village sank into a post bellum stupor. Some young men, to guard their place from this calamity, took to patrolling the village, armed with stout wooden sticks and bamboo poles studded with nails at the ends. They ganged up to beat the cows and set upon them with stones and tins and thus killed them.
The very same evening, as if to settle a score, Sreehari married Mehrunnisa at a civil ceremony too. On their way home from the Register Office, they came across the carcasses of cows dumped in various places.
Sreehari feared that a clash might break out between Hindus and Muslims. As in a riot torn place, there were no people or vehicles on the streets. Cows, half dead and injured and with broken skulls, crawled on the streets and lowed piteously.
Mehrunnisa and Sreehari saw people thronging the west of the dairy farm. Stopping the vehicle, Sreehari rushed anxiously up to them. The lesbian cow lay sprawled face down on the road. She was naked. Blood, oozing from her chest, had flowed on to the midnight black of the tarred road and not having dried up,bubbled.
He felt that the air was redolent of the smell of cow’s milk.
‘Since she was gored by a mad cow, people stoned and beat her to death with bamboo sticks.’
Sreehari felt a curious relief. ‘Oh, she’s dead.’ Sreehari spoke in the same light tone that he would use to talk about a cow.
‘Who are you talking about?’ Mehrunnisa wanted to know. ‘Nothing. People beat a mad cow to death, that’s all.’
Sreehari slammed the door of the car shut.
The next morning, Sreehari stopped Mehrunnisa who was trying to read a news item about ‘ People stoning a dairy farm owner to death suspecting her to be a witch.’
‘Go and bring me a cup of coffee, you!’ he said and sat back in the arm chair, preening himself with all the pride and ego of a husband.
Translated from Malayalam by R.K. Jayasree.
Translator’s Note
Indu Menon is the bright young face of Malayalam short fiction, ‘ A lesbian cow’ is the kind of story that would have had the morality brigade out in full force after the author had it been published a decade earlier. That it has not done so might mean a number of things. One of them , hopefully is that the average reader of Malayalam short fiction has come of age.The restraint with which someone so young (born in 1980 she is barely 24) has handled a supposedly incendiary theme is commendable.
R.K.JAYASREE : Teaches English at the Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam. Has translated fiction from Malayalam to English. A committed feminist activist.

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