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A full professor of the English language and literature at a national institute of higher education, it was highly unlikely Krishna would get garden soil under his nails or calluses on his hands, which were accustomed to turning pages of books and guiding the sweep of a fountain pen. Krishna never thought he would take an interest in raising a kitchen garden. He believed the most sensible thing to do in this ready-made age was to buy vegetables at the market. Purchasing fruits and vegetables also provided a purpose for his evening stroll. Grown into a daily ritual, he would amble through the vegetable market just outside the campus wall, even when he did not intend to buy anything. Yet he would always buy, often the very item already plentifully stocked in his refrigerator at home. Then, sheepishly sneaking into the kitchen with an armload of vegetables, he would endure a scolding from his wife.
Far from mending Krishna's ways his wife's lectures, if anything, made his weakness worse. He had read somewhere that constant criticism only reinforced character flaws, but he did not consider himself simply another cipher in this psychological process. It was obviously beneath his dignity to be caught conforming to such pedestrian psychology. Nonetheless, his resolve never withstood the allure of a mango or even a dull quince, nor the poetry of vendors praising the delights of their fruit as they would the virtues of their daughters. He always bought.
Krishna's interest in a kitchen garden had tangled roots, having something to do with his dislike of snakes. Despite his south Indian heritage, Krishna had no love for nagas. He doubted that even an encounter with Coleridge's Ancient Mariner would improve his opinion on the topic of snakes. Thus he reasoned that if the patch of land at the back of his house was left to itself, a jungle would soon come up, making a perfect home for these disagreeable creatures. This thought entered his mind on the same day he was considering how to deal with his wife's nagging. A solution, allowing Krishna to escape both creatures, was growing but had not quite broken through the surface to flower in consciousness when his wife said that everyone had a kitchen garden except them. Were they so destitute as not to be able to afford a tiny garden? Was he so lazy and improvident, and so thoughtless of his reputation among the neighbours, and careless of the health of his children, that he could not grow even an onion?
Krishna retorted that he could raise an entire garden of vegetables in a day, if he wished. To this came her usual reply: a military about-face, and with her back to him, a wave of the hand and something between a grunt and a laugh. Its effect was to reduce Krishna himself from a human to a vegetable.
In that vegetable state of simply enduring the moment--like enduring the inescapable pre-monsoon heat which no one can do anything about--Krishna suddenly recalled that a colleague, on leave for a year, had chosen him as the safest custodian for his garden implements. This recollection fell on fertile ground. For it was Krishna's habit to turn on the television set well in advance of the evening news broadcast, so as not to miss the lead story. Consequently, he regularly watched the ending of the preceding program, one intended for farmers.
Thus with an extensive theoretical knowledge of farming gleaned from years of TV commentary, with untried implements at hand, being freshly inspired by his wife, and worried about the throngs of snakes that he knew were moving into the growing jungle surrounding his house, Krishna decided to eradicate the creatures who had recently become too bold and impudent to tolerate. The snakes would leave; the garden would be a refuge from his house in the evenings; the neighbours would find a new respect for him; and what could his wife say when presented with an abundance of garden fresh vegetables? The idea of a garden seemed perfect.
Within a few weeks, Krishna grew a kitchen garden which was the envy of the entire campus. Couples strolled by in the evenings to marvel. He had rows and rows of beans, carrots, cabbages, beets, potatoes, brinjals, lady's fingers, onions, garlic, mustard, and a dozen other things. His garden was the greenest spot on the campus. His colleagues, who often tasted the bounty of his garden's surplus, deferred to him at faculty meetings and cordially greeted him on the street. Neighbouring children treated his children better. And in the blush of this new status, Krishna wrote to the Lucknow television station, which aired the farmer's programs, to thank them for helping him find himself, for helping him to become a true Indian, a son of the soil, a farmer.
Lo and behold! One fine morning as he was sipping coffee on his veranda and surveying his orderly domain with rare pleasure, an entire TV crew descended on the garden. They intended to make a documentary of his efforts, portraying him as a model farmer. Like every Indian, Krishna could easily see himself as a movie star. So he was happy to show his white teeth, smiling, as they filmed him digging, planting, picking, even talking to the plants. His professional cant and demeanour served him well. It was a good film.
In the days after the filming, Krishna's relatives, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances were duly informed of the forthcoming program. Cyclostyled posters appeared around campus announcing the upcoming program. A few were even posted in the city. He began receiving letters from other gardeners asking him technical questions about agriculture. It was as though a public address system exhorted people to watch the program. Excitement grew throughout the campus. Children dogged Krishna's steps as if he already rivalled Shashi Kapoor. More than once, Krishna caught himself offering agricultural advice to the malis who maintained the campus grounds. Everyone awaited the broadcast which the producer said would be titled, "A Program for Independence and Self-Realisation: A Professor's Garden for Life." Krishna's wife grew harried preparing snacks for the large gathering expected at the viewing. On the afternoon of the airing, Krishna quietly filled his fountain pen with turquoise green ink, just in case anyone should ask for his autograph.
* * *
It was a mystery to Krishna how five campus water buffaloes got wind of all this and started visiting the garden. They came in the dead of night, but their munching and crunching woke Krishna. He thought himself in the throes of a nightmare when he looked out his bedroom window and indistinctly saw the immense creatures, black as the night, trampling and devouring his fragile, and now famous, plants. His initial impulse was to attack them in defence of the garden, and he nearly rushed into the garden despite the cold and his bare feet. But he had not become a full professor through impetuosity. On second thought he saw the danger, the cold apart. Who knows, this might be a diversion instigated by some burglar planning to ransack his house while he was busy driving off the buffaloes. In fact this was a well known dacoit trick. So, in anguish for his plants, he screamed at the buffaloes and beat a shoe against the wall--all to little effect. At first the animals raised their heads to stare at him and assess their danger. Assured of their safety, they complacently returned to browsing. Thwarted, grown hoarse and exhausted with fruitless effort, Krishna finally returned to bed, near tears.
There he thought of other tactics to drive the buffaloes away. If only he had a shotgun! An artillery barrage would be just the thing. Then he recalled that he had a few leftover fire crackers from Diwali. Stubbing a toe, he finally found them after rummaging through a trunk. He wrapped several together with the fuse taken from one, lit the bunch from his candle, and threw the lot through the window. This proved more effective than his voice. The buffaloes ran helter-skelter for their lives as Krishna smiled in appreciation of his cleverness.
Krishna was dropping off to richly deserved sleep and momentarily thought he could feel the webs of another nightmare snaring him when he heard shrill whistles and rustling about his house. Security guards! The fireworks no doubt woke them from their drowsy rounds and put the fear of God in them. The house was surrounded by guards, many of them tramping through the garden in search of well-armed dacoits. Krishna, chagrined to have caused all this commotion, refrained from lighting a candle and anxiously waited in the dark, hoping the security staff would leave without knocking on his door, chasing phantom dacoits or mischievous students. Certainly, they would not suspect a professor of pulling such a prank. After a time they did leave, cursing their fate, the moonless night, and above all, students who had nothing better to do than run about making such mischief.
Next morning, the chief of the security staff came be Krishna's office to ask casually if he had heard firing last night near his house. Krishna hoped his humor did not appear as forced as it was. He laughed, saying he was a bad one to ask because he slept so soundly.
Later in the day, Krishna discovered a rumor floating about campus. He learned of a fierce battle fought last night between the intrepid campus security staff and a gang of cut-throat dacoits. A couple of the dacoits were killed in the encounter! However, their bodies were recovered by their criminal comrades, in a furious assault, lest the living be identified as associates of the dead. People were being warned of a dacoit counterattack tonight to revenge the relatives. A clamour arose for police protection. the campus would be sealed off. Classes would be suspended. The army would be called in. By the time a delegation assembled to confront the Director of the institute with demands for protection, saner voices were prevailing, saying the incident of last night was only some boys harassing a professor for his heavy-handed grading by throwing fire crackers in his garden.
The panic passed as quickly as it had come, leaving Krishna stunned. He had wanted to confess the truth, but everyone was shouting. No one listened to anyone. Whom could he tell? It was a confused turmoil. The right moment never arrived to set things straight. Then it was over.
* * *
The buffaloes continued to invade Krishna's garden, night after night; and he was powerless to do anything, fearing more trouble like that he had already caused. He could not sleep. He lay in bed listening to mosquitoes, to the munching, and to the heavy plodding steps of buffaloes implacably eating their way through what the television interviewer had called, "the neatest kitchen garden in western Uttar Pradesh."
In the morning he surveyed the crushed and mangled plants as though they were the bodies of his children. The garden looked like a battlefield. At school, he mumbled through lectures preoccupied with the war. He glowered at the milkman, suspecting that the buffaloes might be his; and he said nothing to his wife when she taunted him about his ineffectiveness: "I knew you could not grow even an onion! Our children will starve! We will become beggars! How can I meet the women in the neighborhood? They laughed at me! Mr. Professor Television Farmer, the movie star! Harruph!" The turn, the wave of the arm . . . Krishna took it all. What was it compared to five huge buffaloes that came into the garden every night like a nightmare?
He had to do something. So he began touring the entire campus, poking into sections he had never before explored, asking every likely animal owner if he let out his buffaloes at night to graze. He discovered a whole new world occupying the same space as the campus he formerly knew. He found so many cows, buffaloes, goats, and other animals, that he began to wonder if he was teaching at an agricultural or veterinary college. Since keeping cows or buffaloes inside the campus grounds was illegal, few admitted to keeping them. Those who could not readily deny their animals, expressed great shock over the misconduct of the antisocial owner, whoever it was, who allowed buffaloes to roam freely at night, and swore they would never think of doing such a thing themselves. Krishna remained sceptical, knowing these were mostly milkmen who had a lifetime's experience in swearing they never added water to the milk they sold.
The best Krishna could do was inform these men that their animals might be escaping from theirs sheds at night to roam about. He lamented the great loss to their owners if they should fail to return in the morning, stolen by some enterprising fellow abroad at night--he reminded them of the recent mysterious dacoit attack--and offered a more direct threat to the buffaloes that plundered his kitchen garden. He disclaimed any responsibility for what might happen to these apparently ownerless buffaloes.
After classes, in the afternoons and evenings, Krishna could be seen investigating the quarters of the staff and workers. It was rumoured that he was a spy for the Director of the institute who felt he had finally consolidated his power over the faculty and staff to the point where he would dare to enforce the ban on cows, turning them all outside the wall and dismissing anyone who dared claim them or attempt to bring them back. This caused a kind of religious revival. People talked of the Pinjrapole Goshalas of Gujarat which shelter old and dried-up cows; and the Pushti Marq sect of Krishna worshippers, who are intensely dedicated to the sacred cow ideal, went from door to door soliciting collections for the protection of cows. On the other side, a couple of agents from the Central Council of Goshamvardhana--the Central Council of Cattle Improvement--found their way to the campus. They distributed copies of their journal, Goshamvardhana, talked of optimum production levels, artificial insemination, and generally seemed to have some sly purpose in mind, which the people could not discern. But they knew these were not "pro-cow" men, nor devotees of the gopasthtami cow festival. It was said there was also a family planning agent about.
Krishna began to wonder if snakes, which as far as he knew did not inspire such devotion to their nurture, might not be preferable to buffaloes. Although he seemed to inadvertently inspire others, his efforts in regard to his immediate purpose of stopping the depredations of the cows--or buffaloes--failed to bear fruit. The animals continued their nocturnal visits.
Krishna could watch his kitchen garden despoiled no longer. That night wrapped in a khadi blanket and armed with a stout stick, he waited for the visitors. As it got darker and darker he saw dacoits behind every bush. The dew fell and the moon rose, and Krishna nodded off occasionally, until looking up, he saw the miscreants. Krishna struggled with his cold limbs to stand up and staggered towards the buffaloes, screaming "jao" and waving his club like Hanuman swinging his gada at demons. The animals stopped eating, looking up in surprise. Realising he meant business, they marched out in file, as orderly as reprimanded students. Krishna gave chase for a good mile, thinking this would teach them a good lesson.
As a teacher, he should have known better than to overestimate the capacity of buffaloes to learn their lesson from one lecture, so to speak. So, he was disappointed more than surprised to discover the buffaloes in his garden on subsequent nights. He gave chase but without conviction.
* * *
Losing weight, lethargic from a lack of sleep, and testy with his colleagues and students, Krishna decided things could not go on like this. He decided that the only solution was to have the animals impounded. He also knew that if the buffaloes were to be imprisoned, he would have to accomplish the task himself. That night he attempted to herd the buffaloes into the cattle pound. Krishna's premonition was confirmed. The animals went in every possible direction except the desired one that would lead to the pound. How could they know what Krishna intended? Why did they remember that spot and avoid it, and not remember his kitchen garden and avoid that? It did not matter, he was determined to round up these creatures and be rid of them.
Over the next few nights he learned to know these animals almost as well as his children. He learned their tricks and escape routes. He found, for example, that it was not necessary to drive all of them together in a group. If he concentrated on one, and moved it in the proper direction, the others sooner or later followed the missing one. But it was impossible to get even that one into the pound. And when the early light of the approaching dawn began to glow, Krishna was too worn out to discover where the animals would go. With a groan, he would realise his failure of that night and think about teaching the classes he had failed to prepare for. At least he had kept the miserable creatures out of the garden that night.
Napping in his office that afternoon, Krishna suffered bloody dreams of Durga on her lion slaying Mahisa the Buffalo-Demon. Awaking, he resolved that, come hell or high water, he would impound the buffaloes that very night, an auspicious night of the new moon. That evening he took his meal early and then began to prepare for the ultimate contest between man and beast. He found his American overcoat and winter cap, put a muffler around his neck, and double-tied his tennis shoes. (He had discovered that chappals would not do to chase buffaloes.) He then took his stick--which had become as familiar to him now, after all these nights of running around with it, as his fountain pen--securely locked the house, and emerged in the garden to meet the animals as by appointment when they promptly appeared on the scene at midnight.
By now the animals were as familiar with Krishna as with their owner, perhaps more so, since Krishna no doubt spent more time with them. They looked at him in mild surprise, continuing to chew, waiting for him to act. Krishna had a strange thought. He wondered if, like small children, the buffaloes might not be happy to see him. For Krishna, when everyone else was asleep, braved the cold to play tag with them. If so, things would be different this night. No more playing. Krishna nearly wept, longing for power. If he had a gun he would shoot them dead though he would suffer in hell for a kalpa. But there was no time to reflect if he was really prepared to suffer hellfire, for all five animals started the familiar game of tag, slipping through the hedge, trotting down the street toward the lecture halls.
Krishna ran after them as fast as he could in his bundled-up condition. The buffaloes obligingly stopped after a time, turning back to see how he was progressing or if he selected one of them to chase. When they found him progressing very well, they swung their heads to the fore and took to their heels again. They sought to confuse Krishna by threatening to go separate ways, but regrouped, moving in some strange mandala pattern over the grounds of the campus.
But this night, instead of giving in to fatigue, Krishna's determination grew with every turn and twist and evasion. His passion grew. The amused look of the animals turned to bewilderment, increasing Krishna's anger. Chasing through thorny hedges, mucking through a marsh, stumbling over stony ground, winding through black narrow passages, Krishna shed his overcoat, cap, muffler, and threw the heavy stick toward the animals. He was sweating, his chest heaved like a marathon runner's. He was in tatters, covered with mud. He bled in places and he was tired beyond description. But he would not give up. He would expire in the cause. Better to die now than be plagued night after night by the complacent buffaloes.
Man and animals trotted around and around the campus, through the Central School playground, around the soccer field, over the commons surrounded by the lecture halls, and among the maintenance buildings. Krishna thought himself in a nightmare or perhaps already consigned to hell. He wondered who was chasing whom? He recalled bits of a Jim Corbett story about wild African buffaloes turning on a hunter to stomp him into jelly. He prayed to Durga to slay these buffaloes also. In the light of early dawn he persisted, disregarding whatever milkmen and other early risers might think. In his exhaustion everything looked topsy-turvy in the grey light. The whole landscape with trees, buildings, street lamps, even the ground on which he stood, and, of course, the looming black beasts--all spun in a whirlpool. Krishna thought of samudramathana, the churning of the ocean, and wondered if a white cow would appear. Then a great pain blossomed from the pit of his empty stomach and radiated down his arms.
Ah, the terrible sorrow and grinding anguish of this lonely and desperate life! Karma, Samsara. Round and round we spin, chasing phantoms. And for what? The garden and the television show seemed parts of another life now. Karma! Mara! Madhava! Martha!
Mumbling of life, love, and death, Krishna wilted, clutching the grass where he fell. The buffaloes swung their heads to look back at him; as always looking puzzled. Krishna took a handful of grass and offered it to the buffalo. Bewildered again. A new game? What did this strange man want now? Slowly and suspiciously, the lead animal came towards him. After all he had played with them so long and never hurt them, why not trust his offer? The others trailed behind this lead. Then, stretching its neck and head to the utmost, the animal put out its tongue and gingerly took the grass from Krishna's hand as though it was the most ordinary of occurrences.
The pain welled up again, shattering the man, tearing him apart. Darkness enveloped him. He felt himself falling into a black well. The light of love and life was going out. Killed by a slow witted and slower moving buffalo. Naught, all the yearning, pining, daring, sacrifice, need. Naught his professorship. Zero, zero, multiplied by two or twenty or two hundred or a crore. Nihil. Sunya. The Veda said, words turn back from this . . . whatever it is or is not. Black as the hide of a buffalo. Enigmatic as the face of a buffalo.
The buffaloes were now licking Krishna, licking the sweat and salt from his shoulders, hair, legs, neck, ears, hands, chest, and face. Noisily licking. Licking him over and over, stretching their necks. curling their tongues, reaching this corner and that. Adrift in an ocean of pain, Krishna dimly perceived the caress of big lips and moist mouths. They rocked him like waves. And as though from a great distance, he heard sonorous breathing. Was it his breath? He struggled to open his eyes and through the tears and the glint of the early morning light, he saw five white cows.
At about 8 a.m. the malis discovered the professor collapsed on the soccer field, dressed in torn and muddy kurta and pyjamas, being licked by five buffaloes. No doubt they suspected the presence of dacoits again. But, in any case, they informed the security office. The report reached the chief of security who authorised his secretary to call the campus hospital. In due course, the old rattletrap ambulance was dispatched. The professor was loaded into it as a number of spectators watched.
During the lengthy convalescence after his heart attack, Krishna reviewed the entire incident of the cows or buffaloes. He finally came to see that they had been sent. He could not decide if they had been emissaries from Durga or Krishna. But he gravitated toward his namesake even though, technically, they were water buffaloes rather than cows. And on that morning when the great pain ripped the curtains of habit, did he not see Surabhi?
He asked one of his concerned students to locate a book
in the library for him, a biography of Vallabhacharya, the founder of the Pushti
Marq sect of Krishna dedicated to the ideals symbolised by the cow. He read Raja Rao's
story, "The Cow of the Barricades," and thought long on it. He thought of Gauri
and Nandi, how they embodied the proper attitude toward God, and decided to invite
a member of the Pushti Marq sect to his hospital room to tell him more about the
sacred cow. He asked his wife to make a donation to the Pinjrapole Goshala fund. He
saw the fruit of himsa (violence) and resolved to read through the ocean of Gandhiji's works.
Finally, he saw that he was called by God to renounce his kitchen garden, like all
attachments. Thus it was that he vowed to buy all future fruits and vegetables from
vendors in the market.