A freak incident in Kolkata has unwittingly become a powerful reflection of our times.
It was the last day of April, a Sunday, around 8 am. On Masjid Bari Lane in the Tiljala locality of Kolkata, 43-year-old Abdul Mannan had stepped out to buy vegetables.
That’s right. Not beef, but vegetables.
The vegetable shop was located on the ground floor of a four-storey building. On the topmost floor, for some unaccountable reason, a tenant was raising a cow.
Six months before that, the cow had given birth to a calf. Male or female, one does not know. In the English language, the same word is used for both (news of the incident was published in an English newspaper). Let’s assume it was a male calf, which weighed about 86 kgs.
The calf must have been straining at the rope for days on end to free himself and, coincidentally, his effort bore fruit the day Mannan was buying vegetables.
Not wanting to lose his hard-won freedom, the calf was in a tearing hurry lest word got out to some human, particularly his master.
He wanted to frisk around freely, which he had perhaps not been fortunate enough to experience until that moment. He wanted to be drenched in this new and unexpected pleasure of having gained freedom from the confining movement of the tether, which is why he sailed high over the three-foot high terrace wall to plunge 70 feet below.
Had the calf been human and had his intention not been to commit suicide, he probably would have known that a 70-foot downward plunge meant nothing but death. He might have found another way to secure his freedom.
Granted, he was the offspring of a mother venerated by Hindus as their mother. But he was not a Hindu. In fact, he was not even a human being (although the dream of freedom sometimes causes even humans to make such mistakes). While the calf took his own life, he also almost took Mannan’s life too. At the time of writing, he was still alive, although he suffered severe injuries to his legs and was suffering from broken ribs.
He had also sustained a terrible wound to his head but was still alive when he was taken to the hospital. Who knows, maybe he did survive after all. But why would any newspaper publish the news of his death or of his being alive? What meaning does his life or death hold now? The life and death of such people is a fairly common occurrence.
It could be that the calf’s mother, despite suffering the extremes of heat and rain, had got used to being tied to the stake. Maybe she had forgotten what freedom was – had no memory of the joy of wandering the streets purposefully or aimlessly, even if it meant being shooed off or berated. Or it may be that she too had tried to break free but lacked the strength required to uproot the stake to which she was tethered, whereas her six-month-old calf, weighing 86 kgs and full of brawn, managed to do so and gain his freedom.
Mannan was neither an obstruction nor a facilitator in the calf’s quest for freedom. When one human being is unable to read the mind and heart of another, how was Mannan to know that there was a calf on the terrace struggling to break free and also that the calf’s new-found freedom was going to cost the young animal and him dearly.
How was Mannan to know all that – Mannan, who eked a living selling sprouted lentils and peanuts just outside a school? The calf was not to blame, nor Mannan or the vegetable vendor. No blame can be attached to the particular month, April, or day, Sunday, either.
If at all someone was to blame, it was he who had the temerity to keep a cow tied up on the terrace, who probably never took the cow and calf downstairs.
But even if he was at fault, he may not be guilty of bad intentions. The possible consequences of such reckless behaviour may not have been obvious to the landlord and, for all you know, to the one raising the cow as well.
It is also possible that the tenant had wrested the freedom to raise a cow on the terrace through sheer strong-arm tactics, or maybe the landlord, being a cow lover and devotee, had allowed it, seeing it as a pious act.
It is equally possible that the tenant hailed from a village in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or West Bengal where he had kept cows and wanted to try doing so in a metropolis as well.
Or perhaps, living in the time of violent attacks being perpetrated in the name of cow protection, he became a cow lover. And instead of inviting violence against the Muslims in the name of the cow, he was trying to present an example of cow rearing in a metropolis for others to follow if they so desired.
If the incident had been confined merely to the calf’s plunge to his death, it may not have made it even to Kolkata’s local newspapers. The fact that a human almost died along with the calf made the animal’s fall newsworthy.
It was sheer coincidence that the man who fell victim to the incident happened to be a Muslim, from a community that, as it is, has fallen victim to the rage of cow protectors. Mannan had nothing to do with saving the calf nor, as stated, did he have anything to do with its death. All he was concerned about was to be able to earn a livelihood to feed his family. Who knows, maybe he had never even tasted cow milk.
Anyway, in the final analysis, the blame must lie at the door of the man who tried to rear a cow and its calf on a terrace. It is fitting that it should be so. If he was indeed held accountable, it could be on account of the fact that the incident had occurred in Kolkata, in a state whose government does not lean towards Hindutva. The government of that state is not in the business of fomenting hatred on the issue of cow protection. Had this incident taken place somewhere in north India, the consequences may have been very different.
While the incident is a reality, it has also unwittingly become a powerful reflection of our contemporary reality, where a docile and loving animal like the cow is being used as a pretext for killing Muslims.
The incident is imbued with a symbolic meaning as well. While its scenario does not contain any so-called cow protectors, their intentions are certainly lurking in the picture. In this sense, the incident seems to present itself as the ultimate fantasy for our times of communal frenzy. The narrative has a cow, a calf, a Muslim and a proximity to death. The difference being that the calf’s death was not due to an act of killing, and the man too survived at the time. There is another difference too, namely that this incident cannot give rise to communal frenzy and hence it is of no use to the flag bearers of Hindutva.
As to the question of how the family of a 45-year-old man was impacted by his grievous injuries or possibly even his death, such questions have never been considered integral to the task of journalists. The interesting peg was the incident itself, due to its freak nature. We too leave it at that. We hear of hundreds of thousands of people dying of unimaginable tragedies and sufferings day in and day out. Mannan was part of those multitudes after all.
As for the mute creature which has forever been separated from the calf that was always tethered alongside her, what is there to think about? Finding out about the sorrows of mute creatures is unheard of, so why should we even try? If that cow is tied to the post in the same place even now, who might she be sharing her sorrow with?
We are somehow able to find ways of sharing our pain with others, but how will the cow do so? From the terrace, she may be able to hear some indistinct voices, but they were meaningless to her then and they are meaningless to her now.
Translated from the Hindi original by Chitra Padmanabhan.