It happened in silence, except for the motorcycles which throbbed in front of the hut. Vatan got up slowly, his left knee aching as it always did in the early morning. Outside, his wife leaned against the cow near the hitching post. His widowed daughter Gomti stood in the compound with her child who cried in fits.
The men searched in silence. Vatan knew they were looking for his son but they did not ask him anything. The first man emerged from the hut, gesturing “nothing.” One signalled with his head for Vatan to stand away. A small crowd gathered to watch.
Vatan turned to the verandah of the big house where they stood. He held his ears crosswise and did a few squats. He then fell on his knees, hands clasped and looked up in supplication. “Maharajah, maharani, punish me for any transgressions any way you like but please don’t do this, don’t throw us out of our home, please,” he pleaded. His sahib took an envelope from his jacket and flung it at his feet. Vatan picked it up. Money. By the time he had gathered his dignity and straightened to thank them, the door slammed. They had gone.
Vatan unhitched Gauri from the post. He looked at the men. They nodded. Gomti held her child on her hip. The crowd watched the women carry what they could on their heads. Vatan used the staff to punt his left leg along. The cow ambled alongside, its bell tinkling with each step. It was not until they had reached the trunk road that they looked back and saw the smoke from the bonfire.
They walked west. The old man strapped his granddaughter Ganga to Gauri’s hump. The sun had burned off the fog and now tipped molten lead on the walkers. Along the way, they ate handfuls of parched gram and stopped at streams to rest, relieve their thirst or to wash the grime and sweat away. During the exodus, the family was silent and uncomplaining.
Near the tannery outside the town precincts, a group of dogs rushed them. The smell and the barking woke up the child. She screamed in fear. Vatan threw stones at the curs and hobbled after them with his stick. They retreated, yelping and snarling, before turning down an alley. Vatan was more worried about the jackals that called in the fields. As darkness approached them near Kausambi, Vatan feared that Gauri’s bell would attract them.
They reached their cottage in Sassurkhaderi in the early morning. The child was still asleep. Vatan’s wife’s feet had blistered and Gomti’s right slipper had broken. Vatan’s knee was locked and swollen and his horny soles felt as if they had been over broken glass. Vatan tied Gauri to the post and lay down. Tomorrow, he would have to find some oilseed cake and grass cuttings for the cow.
The next morning, a familiar face appeared. Jagdeo Yadav asked after the family and listened in silence to Vatan’s story. He said that things had been bad in his absence. The crops were dying. You could not plant any more seeds. You had to buy them from the company but no one could afford those prices. Three farmers, including his brother-in-law, had committed suicide last year. They had tried to plead with the seth who sold the seeds for the company but he would not listen to them. Maybe Vatan, as the head of the family, could talk to him.
After washing at the pump, Vatan stopped outside the tea shop. All conversation ceased when he approached. The seth was inside picking at a plate of sandesh.
“Have you come to have tea with us, Vatan?” Sniggering.
“Sethji, you’re our father and mother. My kin and I have lost everything. They’ve asked me to speak to you about the seeds.”
“Vatan, go home. I’ll come in the evening. I have business here.”
At home, Vatan found the pujari waiting near the cattle post. He was stern.
“Vatan, your son has violated our caste by marrying into another religion. Your family’s under a curse. It has ruined our village.”
Vatan bowed his head.
“Take Gauri on a gau yatra to Badrinath and wash away your sins. Only then will the gods smile on us.”
“Badrinath is very far and I’m an old man.”
“The seth will not relent until the gods make him change his mind. That is the only way. As proof of your penance, you will give Gauri to our temple when you return.”
Vatan lay down on his palliasse and thought about his son and his life. He was full of bitterness.
They gathered for the ceremony. The pandit grumbled about purifying a cow for an impure person. Gauri was washed with holy water and then drenched in milk. A mirror-studded purple cloth was spread across her back and a saffron ribband knotted above her tail tuft. Gauri bore the attentions patiently, her head in a bag of oats, tail swishing occasionally.
His wife did not question his decision. He gave her half the money from the envelope. She packed some parched grains and nuts for the journey while Gomti and Ganga stood quietly watching. Vatan made a bundle of clothes and supplies. The village saw them, the old man with his packet, his staff and his cow.
The journey was slow, the sun hot. He thought of fields of waving ears of corn and wheat where he and his sisters played. He thought of the river that coursed through the village and sometimes overflowed its banks. He thought of the sweet fruit of trees. He thought of his son and cursed his fate.
The days folded into weeks with the same cadence. Children walked behind Gauri, some trying to pull the teats before peeling away with laughter, dogs barking and advancing until Gauri lowered her horns at them, housewives emerging to drop flour, rice, curds, grain, flowers, even money into the tin cup wherever they stopped.
Towns belched smoke and noise before passing into groves and open vistas with the sound of wind and the cry of beasts. He saw suns that grew bloodshot over the stubbled fields and chaffed grain and moons that uncovered more and more stars. Sometimes, hills appeared and diminished into brush, rivers or jheels. Through it all, Vatan and his cow moved inexorably on, unaware of the cold, the rain, the wind, the sleet, the heat that stung them. At night, the pair stayed under trees, huddled under gunnysacks.
After two months, Vatan saw the mountains and the snow and his heart lifted. He made the slow climb on the narrow road with its throng of pilgrims and holy men on foot: infants, women, families, and old men carried on their sons’ backs like children. Some touched Gauri for good luck and prayed for fecund fields or for children, others for prosperity.
In Badrinath, with its cliffs and torrents, Vatan visited the temples that would allow him in and repented as the priests demanded. He dipped in the cold holy river, fasted and meditated, recited slokas, mortified his flesh, and collected alms on which he and his cow survived. After a month, he saw a dream. His wife spoke of how much Ganga missed Gauri.
Although he was ready to leave, his body and soul were exhausted. He had, by now, a cough which sounded pulpy and pains in both his knees and back. The journey home was fraught with dangers. By the time they reached the plains, Gauri was too weak to continue. She panted with each step. Vatan stopped. Gauri buckled to the floor, her head on her forelegs and, although Vatan stayed with her for eleven days, she did not get up again. She foamed at the mouth, her eyeballs rolled and her skin trembled. From her eyes ran a yellow discharge. The animal doctor said she was hopeless. She died one night as they slept together, the old man and his cow. He stayed with his hand on her head for hours lost in thought. He covered the corpse with a gunnysack and started walking without looking back.
Months later, when he returned, hardened and spent, he saw something strange in the twilight. The seth had persuaded the council that Vatan had died unatoned and that his family had to be dispossessed to get rid of the curse on the village. The pujari had agreed. They had torched his hut and ordered his family to vacate the land. His wife, his daughter and Ganga had been expelled to Bamrauli.
Yesterday, the seth’s men had set fire to the millet crop in Amitabh’s patch. They had stood, bandanas over their noses, wooden torches burning in their hands, setting the place alight. Without feeling, Vatan untied his bundle and walked towards the field in the dark. He lay down in the warm ash, looked at the stars, and waited for the cold night to descend.