My uncle, Kaka Monahar, as we called him, was known as the maverick of our family. Rather than join my Papa in the tailor business that was left behind by my late grandfather, he chose to forgo the busy town of Rajkot to raise milking cows on a small plot of land he purchased.
We hardly saw Kaka, as he was forever watching over his cows, herding them with his wooden dandi, stick, singing verses of the holy scriptures into their ears and even resting his head where they lay.
To Kaka, the cows were more than a means of survival. Rather, they were companions that shared the same star-studded skies and windless nights. The merciless scorching sun burnt just as brightly on their hides as they did on Kaka’s exposed neck. A deep mutual respect had grown over the years between Kaka and his herd. They were rooted in the common love of the land, each as invaluable to the other.
By the time, I had turned 10, I had not seen Kaka since the age of 7 but I remember his face greatly resembling the animals he tended, with a wide flat nose, separated eyes and a long pink tongue. His large bright eyes were usually stagnant staring at the chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, unless of course, they were scanning the elusive rural horizon.
His body in comparison was a stark contrast to the milking cows, as Kaka was of slight build, with frail glass-like bones. In my memories, I remember him mostly downing a white dhoti, that came to the knees and a bright red turban which was twisted and coiled like a woven basket, as normal in the Gujarati fashion.
After many years under the harsh, unforgiving sun, Kaka had dark shiny skin which stretched over his high cheekbones and smiling face. That’s how I always remember him, with a large smile.
It was not until my 12th birthday did we receive any news about Kaka and unfortunately it was not the most welcoming.
We sat across from Rajendra Putri, who was a large, bespectacled man. He had little by the way of hair, though what could be seen, reminded me of needles on a pin-cushion.
“I come on behalf of Monahar.” He said grimly, adjusting his collar. “I am his lawyer. I represent most of the gham-wallah, village-folk, in the area.”
“Monahar,” Papa repeated, “my brother?” He looked on at the man with the most curious of expressions.
“Is something wrong?” Mummy asked concern sprinkled in her voice. “Is he in trouble? If it is money issues, we have none.”
Papa gave her a sharp look and she fell silent, staring down at her feet.
“Excuse my wife,” Papa said, laughing in a hollow voice as he always did when excusing her behaviour. “Please, vakhil-sahib, lawyer-sir, tell me is my brother well.”
The man raised a hand, taking a moment to dab sweat from his forehead and take a hasty sip of water from the steel cup that Mummy had placed in front of him.
“Your brother has departed this world.” The bespectacled man said solemnly, bowing his head low. “He was very ill, and towards the end he found it difficult to do much, except swallow a few morsels of ghee, butter.”
The man shifted the glasses up his sweat drenched nose, looking curiously at Papa through them. “He had this written out the day before he died.”
The man handed Papa a letter which he unfolded and read. Papa’s eye seemed to widen as he moved down the page, as though an invisible string were attached between his eyes and the bottom of the paper, pulling it apart.
“Where is it?”
“I’ve tied him to your gate.”
“How old is it?”
“Half a year. The mother was sold off to pay his debts.”
“And if we don’t want him?”
“Arrangements have been made. A man from the nearby ghosara, cow sanctuary, will collect him tomorrow. It was your brother’s last wish that you and your family spend the day with the calf.”
A demand so sudden and serious made Papa hesitate a moment.
“Dear. What’s the matter?” Mummy asked, grasping at her wedding necklace as she always would when worried.
“It’s Monahar. It’s my brother.”
“Kaka Monahar.” I stated in a dumbfounded manner. Out loud, his name seemed to fall like a pebble in a still pond, so forceful that even I could feel its ripples.
We stood in shock for a moment listening, the sounds of rickshaws outside, speeding by. A bird must have been sitting close to the window because a musical chirp echoed throughout the living room.
“I’m very sorry for your loss. I will take my leave.” The man said picking up his briefcase.
“Wait.” Mummy stood from her seat. “Where are my manners. Can I offer you a warm cup of tea?”
“That’s kind of you, but I must make my way back home.”
“Of course,” Papa replied, shaking his head from side to side, gratefully. It was not the same excited head wobble we were used to seeing every day, as it seemed to have lost some of its buoyancy. He showed the man to the door, while we all sat dumbfounded. When he returned, he didn’t seem to know what to say, so instead leaned against a chair.
“What’s in the letter?” Mummy asked curiously.
Papa held her eyes for an excruciatingly long time. It was unnerving watching him, seeing his unblinking face bore into Mummy’s without responding.
“Dear, is everything alright?” She faltered. The knuckles around the steel glass she held going pale.
“How can anything be alright? I have lost my younger brother. He did not even call to tell me he was sick.”
Then he looked in my direction, with those round eyes, giving no suspicion that he might be mourning the loss of his brother. Rather he looked hollow, as though his figure had been carved out of clay.
“He has asked that in memory of him we spend the day with a young calf he raised.”
“A calf?” I asked. “A real one?”
“It’s tied up outside.”
Quietly and gingerly, Papa tip-toed towards the window from which you could see the gate to our apartment complex. Then without a word, like our bespectacled guest before him, Papa slipped wordlessly out the door and descended the stairs. Mummy followed him outside, down the stairs and towards the building entry.
From the window, I stood on tip-toes, my brother at my side, trying to catch a glance of the young cow. It was stood still a moment, on the dusty yellow road, looking around inquisitively at the rush of black and yellow rickshaws and cycles that passed. Papa rested a hand on its head and seemed to mutter a few words, while the cows tail twitched and swung away at flies.
“I can’t believe he has gone,” Papa said as he came back into our house.
I did not cry, though I was very near to it and was only saved from tears by the consciousness that Mummy was very angry at being left a dependent calf. There was a mixture of rage and exasperation in her wicked black eyes, as she cursed Kaka’s name.
“I’d rather he’d have left this world quietly than burden us with his oddities.” She spat, her face fixed with a petulant scowl.
Baboo, my brother, kept his face hidden on Papa’s shoulders, who said nothing to challenge his wives slandering words and instead stood still like a statue. A most becoming ray of light filtered in through a crack in the curtains and touched Papa’s clammy forehead.
“We will watch the calf for a day, as Monahar asked,” Papa said quietly.
“For one day!” Mummy’s voice raised. “Is this a magic calf that shits rupees? And what of the children’s school, or is that not important?”
If Papa had looked angry, it was only for a fleeting moment because he seemed to be thinking of how to phrase his next sentence.
“These were his wishes. I will honour them, Tara.”
“But…” Mummy began, but Papa held up his hand and she fell silent immediately.
“Wash quickly,” Papa said, ushering us towards the bathroom. “We will leave straight after nashto, breakfast.”
We left that morning, like conspirators, taking with us a simple packed lunch of spicy flat-breads, fruit and milky tea. Papa brought us to the shallow river near the outskirts of town, where we sat, shaded by a clump of trees. The morning sun brightened the waters of the river and the surrounding red, wet earth which had been trampled by many feet. We took the calf, whom Baboo had christened Bhim and led him to the water’s edge, allowing him to frolic while we searched for shiny stones. The current was not strong and with the light of the sun, we were able to capture many a polished pebble. I helped by carrying them in my upturned skirt, while Baboo’s impossibly fast hands shot into the water as though he were catching fish.
“You’ll catch a cold.” Mummy scolded from the edge, where she sat with Papa, holding nothing but a stern expression.
“Let them play, Tara.” He said smiling, sinking back onto the grass as though he were melting in the sun’s heat. Bhim let out a snort of approval, at which we all laughed.
We sat for lunch not long after, Mummy peeling the skin of the apples she had brought and passing them around. She held such a gaze of concentration, as the knife sliced spirals of rosy flesh, that she hadn’t even noticed Baboo putting segments of apple into Bhim’s mouth.
As we ate, Papa pointed out plants and taught us their names and properties. We sang songs, some religious, some from the Bollywood movies we enjoyed. I was elated, resting on the grass and patting Bhim on the back. Our escapade had a delightful flavour. It was fresh, with the taste of independence, of rebellion with a sweet reverie of a classic children’s story.
We left as the afternoon sun began to bare down on us.
The town was busy, crowded with people moving in all directions. Young children no doubt heading home from school moved in gesticulating groups, chattering away excitedly. Mothers, with young babies, clad in bracelets and veiled rushed out of the mandirs, temples, effortlessly carrying their young child as well as gourds of vegetables. Near the edge of the fruit stalls, a group of stray cows foraged on heaps of rotting paalak, spinach. While dogs, at the edges of the road, under the shade of shop canopies, dozed wearily through half-open eyes. The hot, still air smelled of spices.
Papa had stopped us near a rekri, food stand, which sold fried pakora, dumplings.
“Over here. Look at these pau pakora.” Papa’s excited voice startled a pair of dogs, who were rummaging through the trash nearby. They yelped loudly, then leapt away into the distance. We were walking on the roads because the streets were lain with trash, carnal dogs and even the odd sleeping person wrapped in sky blue tarps and covered in sheets of newspaper.
I pulled Bhim away from a pile of newspapers that he was trying desperately to devour.
Papa and Baboo washed their hands in a nearby oil drum, wiping the water away on a handkerchief before wafting over to the man.
“Give me a dozen,” Papa said excitedly.
“A dozen!” Mummy interjected. “Who is going to eat that many?” I watched the man who was eagerly dropping the tiny triangles into the burning oil. It sloshed up excitedly on the sides. “Only a few Bhai.” Mummy put her hands out as he went to toss a few more in the fryer. “We’ve just eaten.”
“Don’t be silly, Tara,” Papa said, nodding encouragingly towards the man whose hands were frozen mid-air in confusion.
“We’ll eat 2 each and our darling Bhim will eat the rest.” He smiled patting Bhim on the head.
The man drained the pakora with a metal strainer, shaking it twice so that drops of golden oil fell off its surface, before wrapping it in the morning addition of the Hindustani Times. In a small plastic cup, he spooned in ruby red, sweet chilli and very tangy chutney. He handed the package to Baboo who brought it gratefully up to his nose to take a tantalising whiff.
I’ll admit, my stomach was not grumbling before, but as soon as Papa peeled off the newspaper packaging my stomach began to grumble. There was nothing finer than the smell of newspaper slightly moist from hot oil. I took a triangle, tearing it in half I handed a portion to Bhim. His tongue slathered over my whole hand and had my hand not been attached to my arm I felt it would have been hoovered into his stomach.
“They are so tasty,” Baboo said happily, holding a corner of his triangle in front of my lips. I took a bite, savouring the taste. The crispy batter was light and it was not as oily as I had expected. I hurriedly took another bite of my own, secretly thinking that the man was a far better cook than Mummy.
We headed home, early evening, our feet aching from the walking. From atop of Papa’s khanda, shoulders, Baboo hardly spoke a word on the way home. He rested contently, only moving to steal glances at Bhim. He wore a face eloquent with happiness and it was only once we walked the familiar streets towards our flat that he said: “Today has been the best day of my life.”
I didn’t say anything and instead rested a hand on Bhim’ hind. My hand was pushed up and down, like the gears of a machine, rising and falling against the joints of his back legs. He let out a contented snort from his nostrils, as though enjoying the touch.
I thought, as we walked, it was difficult to remember the details of my Kaka’s face. It was like remembering the word caught at the tip of your tongue, or a dream that you had been awoken from. But as we walked with Bhim, it was easy to remember him, it was easy to summon the kind, large eyes, or the gentle voice. With Bhim I could remember the coarse hands that had rested on my cheeks or the cracked lips that had kissed my forehead.
“Are we going to keep him?” I ask Papa, speeding up to him as we reached our road. “Can Bhim live with us?”
Papa was quiet for a moment. He did not look at me, but I did see an unspoken agreement pass between him and Mummy.
“Parul,” he says, “being tied to a metal fence is no life for Bhim.” He puts a hand on my shoulder. In anger, I jerked my body away from his touch.
“Parul.” Mummy tries. “You must understand. Bhim would be much happier in a ghosara.”
“But I love him.” I could hear the immature tone in my voice. I knew how unreasonable I was being, how childish but still, I could not help myself.
“We all do, Parul. Just as we all loved Kaka, we all love Bhim, just as much.”
I held desperately onto the calf’s neck, my heart somersaulting in my throat. I stood there in protest, as Mummy tried to prise my arms off Bhim, my fingers gripped together in a tight vice.
It took Baboo’s words to slacken my hold. His little voice sounded in my ear and all I could do was let go.
“Didi, sister, Bhim will be happy with the other cows. He will be lonely here when we are at school.”
I cried in my little brother’s arms that whole night, hardly sleeping. It was only when the morning sun began to rise the next day that I decided I would not be crippled by sadness. Kaka would not have wanted it that way. He has a right to be happy too, Kaka would have said with a smile that was both wise and innocent. That he brought you a little joy, I am grateful. I suppose that I was so bothered by the news of Kaka’s death that it disturbed me to say goodbye to Bhim so soon after knowing him. How the events of that day unfolded was all dependent on Kaka’s death. His departing from this world reminded us to enjoy life. It had reminded us to live. And so, I resigned myself to moving forward, to being grateful that Bhim came into my life