To ensure the unflagging progress of the ox, Kishan beat the animal fiercely and often. The stick rose and fell with a resounding smack at regular intervals of minutes. The rhythm of those heavy blows was punctuated by sharp jabs at the animal’s flanks with the nail attached to the end of the stick. Each thrust penetrated the thick hide, and raised a little tuft of cream brown fur. The ox didn’t react to those assaults, other than to continue its lumbering, drag-footed advance along the path. Nevertheless, I suffered for the beast. Each blow and jab accumulated within my sympathy until it was more than I could bear. ‘Prabu, do me a favour, please ask your father to stop hitting the animal.’ ‘Stop … stop hitting?’ ‘Yeah. Ask him to stop hitting the ox, please.’ ‘No, it is not possible, Lin,’ he replied, laughing. The stick slammed into the broad back of the ox, and was followed by two quick jabs of the nail. ‘I mean it, Prabu. Please ask him to stop.’ ‘But, Lin …’ I flinched, as the stick came down again, and my expression pleaded with him to intervene. Reluctantly, Prabaker passed on my request to his father. Kishan listened intently, and then laughed helplessly in a fit of giggles. After a time, he perceived his son’s distress, however, and the laughter subsided, and finally died, in a flurry of questions. Prabaker did his best to answer them, but at last he turned his increasingly forlorn expression to me once more. ‘My father, Lin, he wants to know why you want him to stop using the stick.’ ‘I don’t want him to hurt the ox.’ This time Prabaker laughed, and when he was able to translate my words for his father, they both laughed. They talked for a while, still laughing, and then Prabaker addressed me again. ‘My father is asking, is it true that in your country people are eating cows?’ ‘Well, yes, it’s true. But …’ ‘How many of the cows do you eat there?’ ‘We … well … we export them from my country. We don’t eat them all ourselves.’ ‘How many?’ ‘Oh, hundreds of thousands of them. Maybe millions, if you count the sheep. But we use humane methods, and we don’t believe in unnecessarily hurting them.’ ‘My father is saying, he thinks it is very hard to eat one of these big animals, without hurting it.’ He then sought to explain my nature to his father by recounting for him the story of how I’d given up my seat, on the train journey, to allow an elderly man to sit, how I shared my fruit and other food with my fellow passengers, and how I often gave to beggars on the streets of Bombay. Kishan pulled the cart to a sudden stop, and jumped down from the wooden yoke. He fired a stream of commands at Prabaker, who finally turned to me to translate. ‘My father wants to know if we have it any presents with us, from Bombay, for him and the family. I told him we did. Now he wants us to give it those presents to him here, and in this place, before we go any more along the road.’ ‘He wants us to go through our bags, here, on this track?’ ‘Yes. He is afraid that when we get to Sunder village, you will have a good hearts, and give it away all those presents to other people, and he will not get his presents. He wants it all his presents now.’ So we did. Under the indigo banner of early-evening sky, on the scratch of track between fields of undulant maize and millet, we spread out the colours of India, the yellows and reds and peacock blues of shirts and lungi wraps and saris. Then we repacked them, with fragrant soaps and sewing needles, incense and safety pins, perfume and shampoo and massage oils, so that one full bag contained only those things we’d brought for Prabaker’s family. With that bag safely tucked behind him on the rails of the ox-cart harness, Kishan Mango Kharre launched us on the last leg of our journey by striking the dumbly patient ox more often, and with a good deal more vigour, than he’d done before I tried to intercede on its behalf.

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A quote saved on Nov. 5, 2015.


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