A story by Perumal Murugan | Translated by Kavitha Muralidharan
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
THE OMINOUS CRIES of the death-birds reverberated across the village. Six deaths in a month. It started at the cattle shed of Maagaadu Sengaan, spread its wings to many households before finally reaching the field of Manakaadu Ramasamy. A trail of death like the leap of a monstrous frog. The wails of Ramasamy’s wife Poovayi pierced through the darkness. Grief lay like a dog in front of every home and howled. Everyone was worried if the next leap of death would be at their house. It had happened after the sunset, so they decided to visit him the same night, carrying lanterns. Poovayi’s unkempt hair, teary eyes and wailing mouth would move anyone. Beating her chest, she often rolled on the floor and sobbed.
It was hardly a month since the calf was born. It was a male calf and so was allowed to drink milk to its fill. A calf that could be trained according to the job. It also had a good whorl of hair. A calf that had not yet bitten the grass. But it had started eating the mud, after the itching caused by drinking milk. They had covered its mouth with a basket to stop it from eating mud, and had allowed it to stray across the fields. When dawn broke, it was upbeat and ran all over. The leaps would strengthen its legs. “Is it a calf or a horse? It spreads so much dust,” people would ask, and Ramasamy would respond: “Would I bring up my calf without any care?” Now it was crying for its mother. Besides feeding the calf, the cow would yield three or four measures of milk two times a day. It never tired of work too. It could walk without any fatigue even if tied to a plough or a vehicle. It could also fetch a handsome price in the market. One could buy a sovereign of gold from the money. Wouldn’t Poovayi be sad then? She wept as if she had lost her husband. No visitor could utter a word to her. Tears flowed even before they did.
The house carried symbols of bereavement all over—there were cots outside, and the men were seated on rocks scattered outside the house. The lanterns were like fireflies now, after their lights were lowered. Nobody had any idea what to do next. Some said the village was cursed. Some said it could be the handiwork of the soothsayer who had come to the village a month ago. He came straight from the graveyard at midnight, made predictions for the families and prescribed some rituals. But for want of money, the families did not pay any heed. It could be his act. Had he come in Thai [the Tamil month from mid-January to mid-February], he would have to carry all the offerings in a vehicle. What had he left here, after the humiliation of being sent away empty-handed?
Even the traditional healer who had every solution handy for the diseases of the cattle couldn’t ascertain the cause. He read all the manuscripts related to animal diseases through the night with the help of the dim mud lamp. He made enquiries with every source. He stayed overnight at homes that had manuscripts. It was believed that the solutions given in the manuscript will work only when it was opened and read in the light of a mud lamp. The healer stuck to it and read each line. There was no mention of this kind of disease. Could this be a new one? Wouldn’t those who lived for thousands of years be aware of it? They have discovered everything and written about it all. He would always say it would suffice to interpret those notes. If he is helpless, where else could they turn to? What else could it be but the wrath of the God?
It was unprecedented. When they were milking the cow at Sengaan’s house, its hind legs started trembling. He thought the cow was up to some gimmick and hissed at it. How does a cow that had begotten calves still hesitate to yield milk? But as the legs kept trembling, its mouth started to froth. Barely five minutes would have passed by. Before they could realise what was happening, the cow shrieked in pain and fell down. The eyes were still. The animal was instantly dead, but the body was shaking from its weight and the impact of the thud. It would have been some consolation if the cow had been unwell for a few days, had been tended to and then died. The sight of it falling and dying instantly was unbearable.
When the Dalit Colony was informed, they came as a crowd and carried the carcass away in their cart. The cow had to be bound fully by a rope before it could be shifted to the cart. The cart was now very heavy. Ideally, they would have chopped the cow in the field and left with pieces, but he said the animal shouldn’t be chopped on the same field that it was grazing on. It was evident that the cow had not died by poison. They observed its tongue and said there was no sign of poison. Instant deaths normally came about only because of poison. The tongue would have turned blue.
Its intestine would have popped out if it was a case of poisoning. A cow would barely survive if it had grazed on a stack of maize till its stomach is full. Where can one find a stack of maize during summer on the hot fields? This cow will move away from the shed only when it is not roped and pulled. It would stand still even if the rope is tied to a small plant. To which village will it go and graze? There was no sign of the cow being inflicted with any disease. Its liver was sagging. Next day when they came and said they couldn’t find anything, Ramasamy’s sorrow only grew deeper. Before he could draw comfort from the possibility of the cow being hit by a bad spirit, the next thing happened. The cow of Chinnaan from the Vadakkadu. A similar incident. Death leaped from one field to another—Semmankaadu, Ottukaadu, Sarakkaadu and now it was at Manarkaadu.
It became a phenomenon. A seemingly healthy cow’s hind legs would tremble, its mouth would froth, and it would fall down and die. How is it possible to do farming with cattle if two cows died every week? When it was discovered that only dairy cattle suffered this fate, people started selling them in the market
It became a phenomenon. A seemingly healthy cow’s hind legs would tremble, its mouth would froth, and it would fall down with a thud and die. How is it possible to do farming with cattle if two cows died every week? When it was discovered that only dairy cattle suffered the fate, people started selling them in the market. Since the news had now spread far and wide, the buyers sought a very low price. Everyone was seized with the fear that if infected with a new disease, the cattle might spread it to other villages too. Money was spent from a common fund to appease the village deity and hold rituals. But the deaths didn’t stop. There was nothing left to do. The village decided to forget their differences and hold the annual festival. There was nothing else they could do except sit in front of houses that had lost a cow to offer consolation for the death. If only they knew about the cow being infected beforehand, they could have done something to avert it. But there was no symptom. How would they treat a disease that kills the cow immediately?
The village head snapped at Ramasamy’s wife Poovayi for wailing incessantly. “Why is she wailing now? This is the sixth death. Your family isn’t the only one to be affected. The entire village is scared of this disease. Ask her to stop crying, she might end up hurting herself. What are the women standing there doing? Console her. Would it be enough to just watch her wail?” he shouted.
“Men talk to each other and get over it. Women can get over it only by crying.” The response irked the village head. “What do you achieve by talking back?” he shouted again. The murmurs however continued.
Just then Vettukaattan emerged from the night and looking at the porch filled with people and said: “Every house is bereaved here, but that place is full of festivities.” “What are you saying?” the village head asked him. He recounted the happenings at the Dalit Colony. The colony would wear the look of festivity on days they cook meat. Those who do farm work would excuse themselves early to join the festivities. Celebrations would be greater if the cooking was done at night. The job of cutting the beef and partitioning it will be done under the light of lanterns. The women would sit around with ground masala. The drinking session would start soon after the meat is mixed with masala and set to cook. There would be fights and commotion, but it would settle the next moment. “They are like a murder of crows. They are together and always make noise. But we are scattered. Even if a person has to be heard by another, he has to shout on the top of his voice,” the village head would often say.
Six cows in three weeks. Every cow was sturdy. The milk-yielding cows were obviously well taken care of and the meat was generously available for every family in the colony. The households would be counted for partitioning the beef.
Depending on the number of persons, some got more. The skin though belonged to the colony as a whole. Vettukaattan who went by that side for some work, looked at the celebrations and recounted it to the village.
“Every house got a large vessel full of meat. How could they finish it off in a day? Visit them tomorrow, you can see the meat hanging outside each house. They would preserve the meat in salt and use it for gravy every day. They have meat even to go as an accompaniment. Even the kids are served meat.”
“Dude, we are suffering from stomach pain, for them it’s a huge stroke of luck. The Gods have created them so.”
Ramasamy’s voice was choked in sadness.
“Only moments before the cow died, Kandan fed it and told me to take good care of the milk-yielding cow. How could he chop and eat it now?” Poovayi cried again.
“This has to be thought about. Kandan should come, feed the cow, inform us about it and leave. Why should he advise us about it? Is he doing the farm work here? Or a labourer? Why is he particularly concerned?” Muthaan asked. Everyone seemed to agree with him.
“He could have harmed the cow, lured by its meat,” someone said. Sengaan remembered that Raman from the colony came to the cowshed on the day his cow had died. Maarappan doubted the presence of Kuppan from the Dalit Colony on the day of his cow’s death. All the six cowsheds had visitors from the colony. Some were doing farm labour too. “They would always come to the cowshed,” Vellappan said, but nobody would care.
The night was still early, the youths had gathered at the common ground of the village. The torches spread light across the common ground. It was decided that only the young men would go. They shouldn’t take much time. Nor should any life be lost
The cows had died soon after the members of the colony visited the cowshed. They could have probably fed the cows with poisonous food. Or they could have done some black magic. Some of them knew it. There were soothsayers too. They could have done something to the cows. Usually, a man from the colony would visit them and inform them about the reason for the cow’s death before the meat is partitioned in the colony. But for the recent deaths, they come back only the next day and claim they know nothing of the death. Normally, they would get dead cows only once or twice a year. Once or twice a month, they would visit the market, purchase a very lean calf and cook it. Each house will have to scrape the vessel to get enough meat. But they would end up getting the meat juices. They could add more water to the meat for the juice. It was now believed that the starving colony decided to do something to the cows to feed themselves with meat.
A month ago, Raman’s son Rasu had jumped into the well in Sengaan’s field and had a swim. Sengaan caught hold of him, tied his hands and feet, and whipped him. For fear of killing him, Sengaan had let him go. The moment he was set free, Rasu ran away like a calf, shouting: “Dei Sengaan, you have beaten me, right?! Wait till I get back.” He ran away from the village after that and had still not come back. His parents came and cried to him. “I would behead him if I see him anywhere here,” Sengaan told them. There were rumours that Rasu came to Sengaan’s house in the thick of the night. Maybe he was up to some mischief to settle scores. How could a new disease come up all of a sudden? Who could invent a disease that has not been written about? Could they kill a milk-yielding cow just for its meat? Will anybody with some mercy in their hearts do this? It was decided to summon them immediately for an inquiry.
Is this some business deal to invite them in person for an inquiry? The truth will come out only if they were beaten on the same mouths that were savouring the meat before being brought for the inquiry. What did the thief bring every night to kill the cows? Where is he now? They demanded answers for all these questions. The night was still early, the youths had gathered at the common ground of the village. Everyone had thick sticks. Some had sticks that hold a cart together, some had round sticks used at the fodder place and some had neem sticks used at houses to ward off insects. Every stick was tall enough to touch their necks. The torches spread light across the common ground. It was decided that only the young men would go. They shouldn’t take much time. Nor should any life be lost. When they come back, there should be at least one person in front of each stick.
The entire common ground remained silent, hoping to hear the noise that emerged from the colony, after the youth left with the sticks. The village head and others seated on the stone bench at the common ground did not talk to each other. The women and children were seated in groups on the ground. When there were murmurs, the village head cleared his throat, and the murmurs stopped.
The dogs barked on the roads where the sticks walked. There were forty to fifty small houses in the colony. The sticks laid siege of the colony, as planned. After a whistle sound was let out as a sign, all the sticks landed blows on the colony. The sticks broke everything right from the vessel cooking food on the stove. The legs and the backs of the women in front of the stoves were hurt. The sticks pushed them to the ground by their hair and proceeded to violate their bodies. The children cried after one or two lashes, and curled up in the corners of the huts.
The men heard the cries and screams of the children and women, and rose from their liquor haunts. They were not sure what was happening. Some realised that the sticks were hovering over the colony as shadows, and took refuge in the shrubs and dark fields. The youths couldn’t immediately find weapons to counter the speed of the sticks, and tried using their hands. The older ones begged to the sticks. “Don’t kill us, Saami. What did we do? Whatever it is, grant us pardon,” they begged holding the feet of the sticks, only to be thrown away and left to scream.
The mouths of the sticks had only two questions. “What did you do?” “Where is he?” No one could respond to the ambiguous questions. The sticks did not wait for a response. They continued to work, without a moment’s rest. They landed blows on everything in front of them. The legs of the goats and calves tied were hurt and they cried in pain. The dogs that had eaten the beef bones ran away from the colony in fear. The cats hid themselves on the roofs, like rats. The vessels were broken. The dried leaves on the roof came away when the sticks landed blows on the roof. The chickens went atop the baskets and small trees, and let out cries seeking help.
The sticks were still raging. They landed as bruises on the men they could get hold of. The colony was filled with the scent of blood. When the sticks finally rested, there were weak laments all over. In front of each stick, was an image with hands bound. Some sticks were clever enough to have two images in front of them. The images couldn’t say anything except, “Aiyo, Sami!” “Walk!” the sticks ordered and pushed them. The women who ran, walked and crawled to the end of the colony and stopped at the hooting of the sticks. Hands tied, the images walked with their bodies shrunk. Some were clad in loin clothes. Some were fully naked. The eyes hidden in the fields and shrubs were terrified to see the sticks pushing them. Nobody knew what the reason was.
The sticks laid siege of the colony, as planned. After a whistle sound was let out as a sign, all the sticks landed blows on the colony. The sticks broke everything. The legs and the backs of the women in front of the stoves were hurt
Produced in front of the village common ground, the images squealed and wept. The bodies that writhed in pain could express their agonies only as tears. The naked images tried hard to hide themselves among the crowd. The sticks continued to threaten them. Sometimes the long sticks hurt their ribs. The village head seated at the centre of the ground began his enquiry. “What did you do?” Just one question. “We did nothing, Sami,” an image said, still weeping. A stick hit his back and he shrieked: “You didn’t do anything?” “Where is he?” There was no answer to this question too. They couldn’t even ask who they were enquiring about. “We don’t know Sami,” an image said only to be hit by a stick on its leg, and collapsed with a sharp cry. Some images realised the right thing to do was to be silent. They kept their heads down and did not open their mouths. “What did you do?” The same question was repeated over and over again.
“Would they respond if you enquire this way? Break their hands and feet, and then ask them,” a woman’s voice from outside the circle was heard. “Where is that motherfucker Rasu?” asked a man standing next to the village head. The images immediately realised the enquiry was about him and cried together: “We have not seen him, Sami.” “What was the poison he gave for the cows?” the question was now clear. “Nothing, Sami,” the images said and fell down on the ground. Their hands were folded. “We know nothing, Sami, Grant us pardon, Sami,” they started begging.