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The Strange Case of Dying Calves

Short Story by Manjula K

Stormy evenings, sylvan surroundings, lonely nights somehow always remind me of that eerie summer of 1973. And of the strange unfulfilled wish of Tara Chand, the fat and frowning sweet shop owner from Roygada.

Every year, my family would make a trip to our farm in Roygada, a remote village in Orissa. It was here that my grandparents lived in a modest house with a long white-washed veranda where all the new-born calves were tethered in a cosy corner.

Grandmother had made this arrangement for she feared that keeping these young ones in the cattle shed would make the larger animals trample them in the dark.

My sister and I loved to visit the farm with its lush greenery, and the musty smell of cow dung constantly tickling our nostrils.

That summer of ’73, grandfather had instructed the village carpenter to reweave the thick coir thread of the charpoys. He then brought out the light linen from the old worn-out trunks and set them out to dry in the sun.

Our train reached Roygada late at night.

Kishanda was there at the station to receive us, with a torch in one hand and a stick in the other. Kishanda helped grandfather at the farm and was a loyal, trusted worker. He was like an uncle to all of us children.

The moist gravelly path that led to our house had no street lights, so the torch Kishanda waved around helped us find our way through the dark surroundings.

The journey home was exciting, for the tall trees looked like shimmering shadows against the faint moonlight, while the sounds of the owls and frogs lent an eerie touch to the wild, yet willowy terrain.

A quick wash and meal later, we rested on the charpoys in the front yard, and talked animatedly with our old grandparents.

Later, we lay down on the charpoys and gazed at the millions of stars staring back at us from the dark velvet sky. We finally succumbed to the much needed sleep.

In the morning, I ran to the corner of the veranda and set my eyes on Mali, a lovely golden calf with lissome eyes, fringed with the longest eyelashes I have ever seen. I tickled her long neck, and in response, she licked my hand tenderly with her coarse tongue.

"No more calves this year, grandma?" I asked grandmother who was approaching Mali with vermilion powder.

Grandmother drew a long mark with the vermilion powder on the calf’s forehead and shook her head sadly. "We had five other calves, but all of them have died. Mali was the only one to have survived the curse."

"What curse?" I asked her.

"Now, now, don't bother about it" she replied, and turned away abruptly.

Why was grandmother so reluctant to give me an answer, I wondered

That evening, I approached Kishanda.

"Choti Memsaab, how are you today!" he enquired with a smile that displayed his paan- stained teeth.

"Kishanda, why did the calves die?" I asked him abruptly.

Kishanda rumpled his hair and scratched his ear lobe.

"It is quite a long story. I will tell you all about it tomorrow afternoon, when I usher in the cattle from the fields."

He bade me farewell and took to the muddy path that led to his thatched hut.

The next day, I paced restlessly in the veranda all morning, ignoring Mali's grunts that were inviting me to stroke her chin.

At last, I spotted Kishanda sauntering towards the cattle shed, with the animals in tow.

Kishanda beckoned me towards the big banyan tree in the backyard.

Squatting on the ground, he lit a beedi and began to talk.

“Tarachand was angry with your grandfather.”

Tarachand was the neighbourhood sweet shop owner who displayed the most delicious looking sweets in his glass covered shelf. Clad in a pristine white kurta, Tarachand  would wrap up batches of sweets in newspaper, and thrust the oil-soaked paper packages into the customer’s hands before swiftly tucking away their money into his kurta pocket.

Now Kishanda was blowing out delightful tufts of smoke before narrating the strange story.

“You see, some time back, Tarachand had acquired a farm nearby. He wanted buy young calves for the farm, and had approached your grandfather. But your grandfather refused to sell any of his calves.”

Kishanda spat out tiny bits of tobacco before continuing with his narrative.

 “Tarachand got angry with your grandfather and shouted- 'May your calves die writhing in pain!' So saying, he stormed out of your grandfather’s house.”

I shuddered to think that a man who sold sweets could nurse such bitter thoughts.

 “Is grandfather locking the poor calves in the shed?” I asked him anxiously.

“He didn’t have to, you know.” he replied.

I looked at him, a bit puzzled.

Kishanda took a deep breath and continued.

“You see, Tarachand died in his sleep the very night he uttered those words.”

I sighed out of sheer relief.

 “So the calves are safe, right?” I asked him.

Kishanda shook his head slowly and whispered “No memsaab. Every time a calf is born, it shudders violently and dies a terrible death.”

“But Mali is fine” I arguing, looking at Mali who was chewing on some soft grass.

Kishanda gave me a strange look and said, “Mali was born during Durga Puja, so the Goddess is protecting her.”

I did not get much information from Kishanda, that day. He had many chores to complete before evening set in.

So the next morning, I walked across to the village, and into Tarachand’s sweet shop, which was being looked after by Minnie aunty, Tarachand's wife.

Minnie aunty greeted me a weary smile. I waited for the last customer to walk away, before talking to Minnie aunty.

“Ashun (Come).” She bade me to sit down on a cane chair.

I found it awkward to start a conversation with her.

“Aunty, I'm so sorry to hear about uncle”

Minnie aunty wiped her eyes.

“He died complaining of chest pains.”

“What were his last words?” I ventured to ask her.

She shook her head.

“He just only stared outside the window. I don't know what caught his eye, but he looked strange."

"What do you think he saw, aunty?" I asked her.

She thought a bit before replying: “Oh there were only a few calves that had somehow strayed into our garden. He just frowned for a moment, muttered something so softly that I could not hear what he was saying. Then he closed his eyes forever." Aunty continued, dabbing her eyes.

I was intrigued by this revelation. I took leave of Minnie aunty and started walking homewards.

To my utter dismay, It began to rain and the storm caught me unawares. I had to stop and take shelter under a big banyan tree.

The branches were thick and sturdy, and shielded me from the downpour.

I was stuck under the big banyan tree and found myself shivering with cold.

Suddenly, my eyes caught sight of a man clad in white, approaching the road.

Strange, I thought, but he didn’t seem to be a bit bothered by the rain. I tried calling out to him, but he just walked on. Maybe he was deaf, I thought to myself. Or maybe the noise of the rustling trees had blotted out my voice.

The man turned towards grandfather’s house.

The rain soon subsided. I ran all the way home, tripping several times over dead branches and twigs.

Grandmother was standing out in the veranda, waiting for me.

“Where were you child? I was so worried!” I declined to answer and looked around for the man.

My eyes focused on the corner of the veranda.

“Grandmother, where is Mali?”

It was grandma’s turn to look surprised. She hadn’t noticed Mali's absence. At least, not till then.

I didn’t wait for her answer, before continuing.

“Where is the man I saw approaching our house?”

 “What man?” grandmother asked.

"The man in the white kurta," I replied, with a tinge of impatience.

“No one came here, my child.”

I turned away abruptly. My hands were shaking with fear. In no time, we noticed that Mali was not on the farm. She was gone.

We waited for several days, but Mali never returned. My sister and I cried inconsolably until grandma told us that we could visit another aunt who owned a neighbouring farm that hosted several farm animals.

In the days that followed we visited Radha aunty’s farm and played with the cows, walked through the fields and plucked ripe, juicy mangos in her orchard. My grief had abated a bit, but whenever I thought of Mali’s golden fur and lissome eyes, my own eyes would fill with tears.

The story continued here.......