“Shouldn’t we protect the famished people first? Tell me, what is the point of saving barren cows which only gobble up the feed?”
The eminent Kannada writer U.R. Ananthamurthy passed away on August 22, 2014. He was known for many works, most famously his novels Samskara and Bhartipura. A trenchant critic of Hindu right-wing parties, Ananthamurthy was not a mere partisan. His novella, Bara, published in 197, which was made into the Kannada film by the same name in 1982 and published as Sookha in Hindi in 1983, was a sensitive, probing analysis of both the Left and Congress positions during the Emergency.
The title itself, which means drought, but also conjures ideas of infertility, barrenness and shortage, is evocative. The quick sketches that lead to the intellectual unmooring of idealistic district commissioner Satisha in a drought-affected region are profoundly disturbing. Written as critique of the Emergency period liaison between the Communist Party of India and the Congress, Bara contains one longish section of an interaction between Satisha and a figure that has become (in)famous today – the gau rakshak. It is both wonderfully empathetic as well as revealing.
The man had arrived early in the morning. He stood hesitantly inside the office, not taking the seat offered him. He faltered when asked the reason for his visit. He had a big moustache and a large mark of kumkuma on his forehead.
‘Sir? I’m the secretary of the Cow Protection Group. Our Guru has arranged to protect cows from the drought. We are starting a cow shelter in this town. Our Guru will arrive here on Friday. You must chair the reception committee that will welcome him.’
Satisha did not ask who his Guru was.
‘Please sit. Why do you stand? I didn’t get your name.’
After some persuasion, he sat on the edge of the chair. He wore a clean, collarless shirt and a dhoti tucked into his waist at the back.
‘Me, Sir? I run a watch shop for a living. My name is Govindappa.’
‘Forgive me, Govindappa. Shouldn’t we protect the famished people first? Tell me, what is the point of saving barren cows which only gobble up the feed? If all of them perished, we could develop a fine breed. Please forgive me if my words hurt you.’
Emotions swept across Govindappa’s face. Beginning to speak nervously, he would rise excitedly and then sit down shaking with emotion.
‘Sir, the entire district respects you. A pilgrimage centre itself emerged in Ullur due to your punya. Antharganga, the holy river flowing underground, springs to the sky from there even now. Even this country’s punya, Sir, flows unnoticed under the ground. Your belief lies underneath too, Sir. Even you believe within you. You certainly believe in the Go-maate. It is this belief, Sir, which has helped this country survive for several thousand years. That’s why our dharma is considered eternal. Our society, our dharma, our economic system: the cowmother is their foundation, Sir. She gives manure. She gives milk. Her children pull carts. They plough the land. After her death, she becomes the sandals for our feet. After killing all the cows, will you get a tractor? Can this poor country buy petroleum from those Arab countries and really get by, Sir? The tractor doesn’t give manure. It doesn’t give birth to calves or give milk. Isn’t this so, Sir? Gods have made their homes in each and every hair of the Go-maate – yes, they have made their homes there – this belief has shielded us for thousands of years.
‘Why do you suppress what is inside, Sir? Can we be sure that those indifferent to the death of cattle will care about human deaths in the future? Aren’t our poor people barren too, Sir? Are they educated? Are they strong? Can they give birth to healthy children? They can gobble up the entire stock of grain. Why don’t you let them die, Sir? We might die but we won’t let the cows perish: our country accepts this precious value; this is why it is a blessed land.
‘Sir, you’re afraid, that’s all. The goddess within you has gone mute. You are afraid of what the Muslims in this town will think. If we hold up our dharma, even they will change, Sir. God has given birth to them here so that they can change in this way. Please don’t laugh, Sir. What I say is true.
‘God didn’t create the earth for humans alone. Wild animals, birds, cattle, insects, worms, snakes – all of them have the same right to live here as we do.
‘Sir, I’ll leave now, Sir. Please don’t be angry that I spoke so much.’
Govindappa stood up. His eyes that had opened wide with excitement had turned moist and were shining. Haven’t our lower castes eaten beef for thousands of years? Satisha wanted to ask but he kept quiet.
Govindappa took out a tiny, brownish ball of mud from a satchel with an image of Krishna, placed it on the table, and folded his hands, ‘This is sacred earth, Sir. It is from our Guru’s ashram. Although it is made from the soil of this famished land, it has guarded believers for ages. Our Guru has stepped on this ancient bountiful land and made it holy, Sir.’
Govindappa folded his hands solemnly and left.
Excerpted from Bara by U.R. Ananthamurthy, translated from Kannada by Chandan Gowda and published by Oxford University Press