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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Retired Ox

I am currently living in a corner of the cattle-shed. Nobody notices my pitiable existence in this corner. Noticed the slush all around me and the flies over my body? That’s it – no one bothers to keep my surroundings clean, nor does anyone bother to keep my body clean till I die by cleaning it, at least, whenever possible and make my demise happy. Over it, my owner and all other inmates of his family despise my hanging around instead of being dead long ago. I too would like to die soon. But what can I do! My turn has not come. Even my master’s father—lying in the bed with his skeletal-body—too thinks of me similarly! Well, I shall talk of it another time.

Seen those oxen that are eating grass majestically while the bells around their necks are jingling? My master loves those oxen the most. He would feed them with legume stalks, green grass, horse gram and what not. Fearing that their skin may get soiled while they lie down, he would brush them thrice a day. He would polish their body with his own hands and keep their body shining. Proudly, he would present them to everybody in the village.  

But he would never bother about me lying in this corner. He wouldn’t care whether hay was there or not before me. While carrying away the hay that those oxen had left uneaten which was trampled under their feet to the manure pit, he would drop a few blades of grass before me. Being aged and not able to get up if I lie down, he would, while going, kick me with his leg as though to tell, “get up to eat.” What would he lose, if he let me get up on my own!

If you ask me if this is how he treated me always, the answer would be “No”. There were days when he had caressed me as affectionately as he is currently tending those oxen. I was then at the prime of my youth. I was in a position to work for my master day and night strenuously. In those days, he had treated us better than his own children. When he purchased me and my co-ox for the yoke, he owned a farm of 10 acres. By the time he retired us from work, he could become a farmer of 20 acres. Who would believe today even if I say that he could purchase those 10 acres because of us?

My co-ox and I were not born in the yard of our master. In his passion for us, he bought us from another village paying a hefty sum. I still remember that day vividly. Seeing us both in his yard, how proud he felt! Suffice to say he had gone mad.

Applying turmeric powder on our faces, putting vermilion powder on our forehead, and decorating our horns, he took us around the village in procession. He had thrown a feast to the whole village. It was indeed a day of festival for the village.  No sooner had we reached the house, than our master’s wife performed the ritual of “driving away the evil spirits”—the traditional dishti[1]and led us into the yard. It was so much of an honor for us that we could not believe it ourselves.

That evening, all the villagers came to my master and to test our strength, suggested that he load a cart with puttedu[2] bags of paddy, and get it hauled by us through the tank from this side to that side and back. Our master, too, was then like us in the prime of life. He had immense faith in our strength and abilities. Despite his father saying, “Why trouble them, however strong they might be, how can a pair of oxen draw puttedu paddy through that slush?” our master conceded to.

That evening, the whole village assembled at the tank bund. Men, women, children, indeed, the whole village was there. Seeing them we felt very excited. In that excitement and amidst cheers we easily hauled the bags from this side to that side.

My co-ox was brought under the yoke two years back. He had strength and manliness. But didn’t know the technique. Hence, as we reached the middle of the tank, being not able to haul the cart, he stood. My master lost the color of his face. Tweaking his tail, he whipped him with his hunter. Even then he didn’t move. Simply gave it up.  He became obstinate. People shouted in ridicule. My master became crazy. He hit him repeatedly but he didn’t move. I doubted in another two or three minutes he might lie down. What a disgrace it would be! There would be no bigger shame in our lives than to lie down when the cart’s yoke is on our neck. My master would no longer be able to walk in the village with his head held high. Villagers would ridicule my master for the rest of his life by commenting: “So and so farmer has bought an ox by paying a hefty sum that tends to lie down while drawing a loaded cart”. It would be an unbearable insult for a farmer. Would it make any difference whether it is an insult to my master or me? Pulling up all my energies, I had pulled the cart along with my co-ox in one stroke to the other bund of the tank.

We have somehow kept up the prestige of our master. Won laurels too, from the villagers. But in that haul, my co-ox’s heart got damaged. It was however not visible from outside. He became very weak from within. Hence whenever a heavy weight was put on the cart I used to pull the cart tactfully in such a fashion that not much weight fell on him. What does it matter who pulls whose weight? We carried out our dharma [3]honorably.

Normally, drawing water from the well with the help of a huge leather pouch is in itself a heavy task. It’s a heartbreaking labor. My master had a small orchard. To irrigate it, we used to draw water from the well. Usually farmers would have another pair of cattle to lift water from the well. Cattle meant for ploughing the land are not suitable for drawing water from the well; similarly cattle meant for drawing water are not good for ploughing. But we were doing all the work. I had no regret that I had done all that work. After all we were born only to serve farmers. But shouldn’t masters too think of us! Besides helping them, we too have our own personal lives! If our masters don’t take the responsibility of ensuring that our personal lives pass off peacefully, what would be our fate!      

My co-ox died with that heart problem. I felt sad about it then. But now I think he was the luckiest. Later my master bought another ox to be my partner. I worked with him too for sometime.

Now I have become pretty old. I cannot even advance two steps. Even getting up itself has become a great challenge. There is of course hunger. It may perhaps be there so long as the body is. But as the teeth have gone awry I cannot chew sufficient food to pacify the hunger. Cannot even bite the hay. Believing that it is a waste, my master won’t feed me with green grass. Once in a while, my master would throw the leftover legume stalks of the other cattle before me. How could I bite the legume stalks? As I couldn’t, I pick up a few here and there leaving the rest. That made my master angry. How could the poor master realize that I left it as I was unable to chew them? Guessing that I might have left them because they are stubbles, he scolds, “How arrogant you are” and would, you know, batter me with his shaft. See here I am waiting for my turn but he thinks I have acquired pride of flesh! It’s ok for him to say, for he was born to say that and we were born to bear them. But to bear his battering at this age has become a painful affair. Except cursing myself for having not kicked the bucket along with my co-ox and for being alive to this old age, what else can I do?

I became old. True, I cannot work any longer. However small the feed my master might give me, it is definitely a waste for him. True, but for all that I did here before for my master, and the profits that I earned for him, do I not have a right to live till my natural death? Shouldn’t he show kindness for the service I rendered? Either today or tomorrow I am anyway destined to quit. These few days, couldn’t he, putting a little grass before me, speak a few kind words? I am, perhaps, not destined for it. Even to aspire it is wrong. ’cause, how do I matter? Even when my master’s father too is in the same plight, what is there to talk about me?

My master’s father is a good man. He is an old timer. Before my coming to this house, he handed over the keys to his son. Since then he never interfered in any matter. After I was retired from the farm-work, and confined to this corner, he used to come once in a while and sit with me for sometime. Nobody else knew this agony of mine as much as he. ’cause, his current plight was as bad as that of mine. Nobody knew that we are alive. Nor do we.

Long back his wife died. He had one son and a daughter-in-law. They had four daughters and one son. His son did not bother about him. Daughter-in-law did not like him. For her, he appeared as a drag. She would not feed him in time. After feeding all and having had her lunch, she would call him for food. She would feed him with whatever was left out. He would eat whatever was fed and wash his hands. He would sit in a sagging cot pulling his legs close to his chest. When his plight was thus, why talk of mine?

We two have a very close friendship. Ensuring nobody is around, he would come and sit with me.  Our being together would always cause terrific anger to our master. Perhaps it might have reminded him that those who toiled strenuously for his benefit are not being taken care of the way in which they should be! He would chide his father: “What have you got to do here?”  He would slowly pull up himself up and walk away into the house with the support of his shaft. I would remain silently staring at him.

When no one is around, on seeing each other we used to shed tears. What else do we have to talk about? Stretching my neck forward I used to place it on his shoulder. For a while he would caress it. Not being able to die, we both are alive. Who would care for us? We are a burden to everybody. Why doesn’t god take us away! Of course he will do. But the earlier the better.

The old man is not to be seen for the last one week. Heard somebody saying that he was bedridden. Perhaps he too might become invisible!

Besides, I heard that someone had come to the village to buy the aged cattle and the cattle that are unfit for work. It seems they buy such cattle at a throwaway price and send them to the butcher. Knowing the fact, the farmers, as if they do not know of it, will sell them away. How unfair!

If it comes to that, I wonder if my master would hesitate to get rid of me one way or the other. Earlier, farmers were not behaving this unconcernedly towards our race. They used to treat our race, which had worked day and night for the benefit of farmers and entered old age, well. Without knowing our past, if children attempted to ridicule us, they used to praise the great deeds of our past, and saying, “What do you know of them? In his days……” would try to cultivate empathy for us among them. The mistress of the house would say, “It’s only after this ox entered our house everything turned into a success! Don’t say anything to him. God will not appreciate.”

Those days have gone. These are the days of using us so long as we are useful and thereafter dragging us to the burial ground. Even when the sons are doing like this to their parents, what about us—dumb creatures after all!

I don’t have any desire now. It’s enough if I can for once lay my head on the old man’s shoulder and shed a tear. It’s enough if he can for once caress my neck with his kind fingers. It’s enough if I can die before him.

There, have you seen, that crow, how it is coming this side flip-flopping! It keeps on pecking at the wound that’s on my spinal cord. How am I to stop her? Cannot even lift the tail!

It’s ok if my master could not apply medicine over it, at least can he not cover it with some old gunny rag! He will not. Why to spoil even that piece of rag? .... might think so.

Here, the crow is coming. 


[1] Disht – traditional practices meant for driving away ‘evil-spirits’ from a man, domesticated animal, etc.

[2] Puttedu-  an Indian measure equivalent to 10 bags of 100 kgs each.
[3] Dharma -  duty

[4] Abba- moaning



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