Fiction: Knacker

B S Tyagi

B. S. Tyagi

‘Chandu! O, Chandu!’
No response.
‘Are you in, bastard?’ Balbir Chaudhary shouted beating the door with the bamboo stick.
Banging brought the lady of the house out. She stood half hidden behind the door covering face with her veil. She was in her late thirties though a bit flabby but looked pretty.
‘Not at home, master’ said she in a tremulous voice.
‘He was sent for two hours before. Where, is he gone dead?’ demanded Chaudhary in his harsh voice staring her down.
‘…gone to Dinkarpur-the neighboring village.’
‘Send him as soon as he is back.’
Achchha mai baap…’ She murmured nodding her head.
Usha had a sigh of relief as he stalked off. She shut the wobbly door, without a latch. Balbir knew that Chandu was in demand as after the death of Kaalu, he was the only one in the village- Dineshpur to dispose of the dead animals. At times he had to go to the neighboring villages for this purpose.
    Chandu returned at noon after disposing of the old bull that had died in the early morning. He took time to take it to the knackers. Then he skinned it off without least cuts or scratches on it. Actually, he got right price for such a clean skin in the market. As soon as he reached the knackers with the carcass, several vultures could be seen wheeling over his head and dogs following him were ready to pounce upon it. Chandu had become familiar with the big birds’ habits and behavior, even with their language of love and anger when they scooped the carrion. He slashed a few pieces of flesh and threw to the waiting dogs that growled and fought among themselves over them. The big birds hardly touch these pieces. They like to pluck flesh from the carcass. Blood drip down their hooked beaks and they scream hopping in joy. Mothers help their fledglings. The old ones wait for their turn. Sometimes they are helped by the young ones. They make the way for these venerable fellows. In case they quarrel, these grey feathered birds step in and Chandu was surprised to notice the warring vultures give themselves to their hard look or hoarse scream. They raise their beaks as if to strike them. Actually it was their feast day. Chandu did not allow them to come near the carcass until he finished skinning off. After the vultures had feasted upon it, a few dogs picked bones and enjoyed them all day. Small birds like kites and crows satisfied themselves with the scattered pieces of carrion all over the place. Then millions of worms are born in the rotting dung and consume the smallest particles of the remains for several days altogether. Then there grasses the place over again with brilliant yellow glistening leaves. No trace of stinking or ugly things.
    Then Chandu rolled the skin into a sack and reached the nullah on the outskirts of the village. He stood in knee-deep water and washed it clean there- splash, splash. Water turned red. He would come home and laid out the skin to dry in the small yard of his house. His hands smelled but now he began to like it. You might say that he had become used to it. In the beginning he wrinkled his nose in disgust and washed his hands with ashes twice or thrice. But he felt the smell for two or so days. His wife took time to bear with it. She did not like the job at all.
‘Why don’t you take up any other job?’
‘…other job but why?’
‘It’s not good. The whole house reeked of dirty skin. Moreover, I don’t want my child…’
‘Let the child come first. Then I’ll see.’
With these words he went out muttering to himself. She pouted her lips but kept silent. Otherwise he would create a scene like a drunkard.
    Actually, in the beginning Chandu too did not like the job. He was ready to do anything but that. He was disgusted at carrying the carcass and taking its skin off and then washing it in the stinking nullah. The red color of the water frightened him. He had a guilty conscience. But his father who was a furious man with big moustaches forced him to take the job up.
‘Son of a pig, never think to give it up otherwise…’roared he
‘Otherwise what?’
‘…starved, fool starved.’
‘Why?’
‘It is the village of landlords and they want us…’
‘Why?’
‘Don’t ask why. We are born for this job.’
‘We’re born…’
‘Yes, if we don’t do it, we’ll have to leave the village.’
Chandu kept silent looking to the ground, a bit flabbergasted.
‘Understood?’
The man went out in a huff.
    Chandu learnt the skill of the trade from his father. The old man was happy to see that his only son had followed the trade with all dexterity. As time rolled by Chandu began to love and like it so much that he waited for the day when someone would call him to pick the dead animal. If a week or so passed, he would feel uneasy within but did not breathe a word even by mistake.
      In the morning and evening Chandu spent an hour with Kalpi- he called the cow so, lovingly. One evening Paltu-his father had walked home with a small cow-calf. No one knew from where he had brought her.
‘Cow’s milk is ever good for child,’ said he to his wife
‘Cow!’
She looked at him in utter surprise.
‘Yes, take care of her.’
‘I’ll, I’ll…’
‘After four years she’ll provide milk. Our Chandu will drink milk like the children of landlords.’
Paltu’s eyes shone as he spoke these words. For a moment his thoughts went to his father Bhima who had nourished the dream of owning a cow. He would go to the cattle fair on Saturdays but returned empty-handed every time. His savings failed to buy a cow. He cursed himself. His dream appeared come true today. Paltu’s eyes grew moistened. He blinked back his tears in vainly.
     His wife Sona understood his love of Chandu who was born after a long prayer and wait. They had gone to Pir baba for years together. At last their wish was granted. At this thought her eyes became wet. Hardly two years had passed when her husband brought the cow home, he passed away. Now Chandu had to look after her at the age of twelve. She had become an essential part of his life. Both understood each other. So it seemed.
Chandu took all care of Kalpi. His devotion was that of a worshipper. She was honored as gau-mata. He would rub her whole body with a cotton cloth. At that time she would stretch her long neck and close her big dark round eyes in sheer pleasure. Then she was bathed and fed. She looked pure white. Not a speck of dust on her body. Then he would milk her lovingly. In the evening of summer he would produce smoke out of dry neem leaves and twigs in the shed to keep off gad-flies and mosquitoes.
    Chandu remembered clearly when her bull-calf died three months back, she remained grieved for several days. Anybody could tell that something was wrong with Kalpi. Her look grew hard and worn. Her eloquent eyes were dull. He himself was so woebegone that he did not touch even a morsel for two days. He would sit by her patting her neck.
‘What’d I do, Kalpi? I’m so sorry. It’s God’s will. I’m helpless.’
He murmured caressing her. Her pitiable condition pained him. It seemed that she understood his tormented soul. After a week she lowed looking at him sitting sad under the thatch resting chin on his knees. He stood up at once and patted her lovingly and felt that she was normal enough. Then he picked the pail to milk her. As if she had permitted him. He became emotional and tears stood in his eyes while caressing her pink teats sticking out of her large udder. She was not hard-teated. As he began milking her, she closed her eyes like earlier days. He did not know whether she had closed eyes in joy or grief. As his fingers gripped the teats, milk began squirting into the pail. He enjoyed rhythm of squirt. He felt that she had dried up a bit but soon she would return to her full yield. Earlier she would caress her bull-calf with her tongue continuously till Chandu finished off. And the bull-calf raised his tail like a flag. Both mother and son were so happy.
‘Thank God!’
He muttered looking skyward. Then he gave two pats on her back. She looked at him. As if asking if he was satisfied.
    Whenever Chandu found himself in moments of grief or gloom, he would sit nearby and poured out his heart to her, putting her neck in his lap. He would question and answer himself. That night he would sleep in the shed. And seemingly she listened to him. One thing was sure that afterwards he felt light. As though he had put down heavy weight he had been carrying on his head. He had found his soul-mate in her.
     Chandu was often busy with his work. He would dry the skin well and then tan it. He kept rubbing it with a round pebble till it felt smooth. He would touch it with a feel before rolling it into a bundle. Now it was fine leather ready to be sold in the town. On Saturdays he would go to Shahapur-nearby town and sold it to the shopkeeper who had employed two shoe-makers. Without haggling he stuffed money into his pocket. But later he began to haggle over the cow’s leather as the shoes made of it, lasted long. It helped him earn a bit more money. The shop owner was pleased to buy leather of different animals from him as his honesty was unquestionable. If he gave him cow-leather, it was that. Not of any other animal. Horse-leather also fetched him good money. He never kept his customers in the dark.
‘Trust me. I never lie. God above sees all.’
‘So it is.’
They nodded. Due to the durability of the shoes, the shopkeeper had permanent customers. They bought shoes for their relatives and friends living far. This way the shopkeeper did a brisk business. But Chandu remained from hand to mouth. His work was more demanding. But he was satisfied. When he had no leather to sell, he had to work in the fields of the farmers or sometimes worked as kiln baker. It was seasonal work.
    Sometimes the shoemaker called on Chandu in his village when he had run out of leather.
‘Is cow-leather ready?’
‘No.’
‘Why?’
‘Cows don’t die so frequently.’
‘…not die.’
‘Yes. They’re holy animals. Don’t be so surprised,’ said Chandu looking at Kalpi, ‘You won’t understand it.’
The shoemaker looked desperate. He stood staring nowhere.
‘I need young cow- leather. I’ll pay you more than others.’
‘It’s not in my hand.’
‘Do something.’
‘Nothing.’ Chandu glared at him as if he had read his sinister mind.
‘Ask your master not to think this or that.’
The shoemaker felt a bit embarrassed and walked out without a word further.
‘…young cow-leather, pay more…,’ Chandu muttered angrily pouting his lips in disgust. He saw him go till he took the turn in the narrow street.
    Chandu reached Balbir’s house at the other end of the village in the dusk. The carcass was partially covered with a white chador.
‘Have you got time?’ Balbir asked looking hard.
Chandu did not speak a word and wore a long face looking at crumpled animal.
‘It’s spotted one…?’
Chandu knew the cow well. He bathed and fed her many times. She had large milk bag and was a good yielder. It was of a fine breed.
‘Yes.’
Chandu kept looking at her dolefully for a while. Then he lifted the chador gently. Chaudhary had a last look at her and touched her lovingly as a sign of farewell.
‘How did she…,’ breathed Chandu touching her long ears and short horns
‘…not know,’ Chaudhary shook his head painfully.
‘She served you long.’
‘Yes, about ten years.’
‘Perhaps , more.’
‘May be.’
   Chandu tied her legs tightly. Then he slipped a bamboo stick under them and lifted its fore part. But it slipped and fell with a thud.
‘Ah-ah.’ Chaudhary let out in pain as if she were hurt.
Now he slipped the stick between the legs carefully and pushed the neck into the cart. Then he pulled her up. After ten or twenty minutes, he was able to secure her to the stump in the cart. He noticed a spasm of pain on Chaudhary’s face. Chandu drove out with long face. He was happy in his mind to get cow after several months. It was neither too young nor old. It was a quite healthy animal with a large body. He unloaded the cart in the knackers. It was getting inky and the place had an abominable silence with foul smell. In the light of the oil lamp he began his work carefully. The skill acquired during the past so many years assured him of clean work. Even then he took extra care today lest he should damage the skin in dark. He chased away the dogs that had followed him. They barked furiously as if they were annoyed with him. Vultures were not seen around. He took out his long sharp knife and began to peel off the skin. He seemed like a man with no heart. He looked quite different from that man who was at Chaudhary’s house a while ago-emotional and concerned. Now he looked like a seasoned butcher. He enjoyed the sound of the ripping skin as he moved his knife slowly but steadily. It was like a slow and soothing music to a forlorn heart. Stars began to appear in the sky one by one. After some time he felt comfortable in the moon-lit night. He was so lost in his work that he did not know when the lamp was blown out. His deft hands were moving mechanically. It took him much time today to finish off. Then he went to the nullah and washed the skin clean. The splash broke the stillness of the night. He did not mind otherwise he ever cared for others’ rest. Moreover, the nullah was quite away from the village. In the moon light he could see water turning red and small pieces of flesh going down slowly. He was surprised to see the Moon a little red in water.
‘Don’t you feel anything while peeling the skin...,’ asked his wife
‘Yes, I do’, said Chandu looking up
‘What…?’
‘How to do my work neatly?’
‘No pity or sorrow?’
‘No. I forget everything.’
‘Then they are right when they call you a butcher.’
‘I care for only one thing.’
She looked at him enquiringly.
‘The shoe-maker should not complain.’
She did not speak and stood up to go inside. He knew what her silence meant. He hardly bothered about her agreement over certain issues otherwise he liked and loved her. She was loving and a good home-maker.
    Whenever some epidemic broke out among the animals in the village, he was awfully busy. After the death of his friend Kalu, it was a tiring job. Both of them did the job together like good business partners. Now he missed him much, especially on such occasion. He had to work all alone. He would return home at odd hours. Sometimes as he lay down to have a rest, he was called out and he had to get up reluctantly cursing his luck.
O God! Save my village.’ He closed eyes in silent prayer.
Not that he did not have time to dispose of dead animals but he had great love of them. The news of the death of an animal, deeply pained him. And at the death of young animal especially cow he writhed helplessly. His heart went out for its owner. People hardly understood his heart filled with tender feelings. He was more humane than these landlords. On several occasions his heart bubbled over with sympathy to see an injured animal. It was very painful to him that the villagers hardly got an impression of him of being kind and pitiful. He looked hard only after he had picked his knife. He himself was amazed at this sudden change though for a short while.
    He was happy that five years had passed since epidemic spelled havoc on the animals in the village. Many suffered a great loss. They took time to come to themselves. Perhaps, it was because the priest had performed a special pooja at the temple of the village-goddess.
‘Now, no need to worry,’ said the priest in the morning to the villagers standing in the courtyard
‘Is it so?’
‘Yes, the goddess is pleased and she will…’
They returned home happy and content. Such was their faith in divine blessing.
    One afternoon as Chandu returned from fields of Balbir Chaudhary, he noticed that Kalpi had not touched her fodder. She drank water only. He touched her tiny drooped ears. She had fever. He wasted no time. He made a mixture of some herbs and boiled it well. Then he poured it into a big pan to cool it down. He made her drink it. He knew that its effect would be seen in an hour or so. He had treated many animals earlier also in the village. He had learnt a few medicines from his father who was understood to have been blessed with some mysterious power. As he touched the ears of an animal and gave mixture, he showed sign of improvement within an hour.
Chandu waited for the effect of the mixture on Kalpi. He was quite hopeful because it had worked six months ago. After two hours she drank water. He brought handful leaves of green grass of her like and put before her. She had a fleeting glance at it. He took them near her mouth.
‘Eat it, beta. You’ll be all right.’
He patted her neck but she did not touch them.
    After sudden death of several animals in the village, people feared that epidemic had broken out. They got panicky. Of course, vet was there. But he failed to treat them. He could not diagnose the disease. They were frothing at the mouth and after five minutes their tongue hung out. Then they crumpled aside with a long deep groan.  Within ten to twenty minutes all was over. Chandu had to run from this house to that. He returned home late. He saw Kalpi sitting sad and sullen. She had stretched her neck on the ground. Her eyes were losing luster. He lifted her head lovingly and put it in his lap. He caressed her and patted but she did not respond as she used to.
‘What’s it, Kalpi?’
He murmured touching her ears gently.
‘… got fever? Yes, yes, fever…Don’t worry.’
He got up and brought herbs and prepared a high dose.
‘Drink it, dear,’ said he putting the pan before her.
‘Drink it soon. Not bitter. Open your eyes.’
Tears stood in Chandu’s eyes. He felt miserable.
‘Isn’t she drinking…?’ asked Usha                                       
‘No…’ Chandu felt choked shaking head.
‘Drink…Kalpi,’ said she patting her neck
    Kalpi stretched her hind legs as if she were tired of sitting so long in the same posture. Chandu was rubbing her body with tearful eyes. Usha was looking at her gloomily. She showed no sign of response. Strange!
‘Forgive me if I’ve…Open eyes and drink,’ Chandu uttered tearfully.
Silence. Chandu’s heart was in his mouth.
‘Chandu!’
‘Again someone…’ He mumbled and pretended not to hear.
‘Chandu!’
He recognized the caller by the voice- coarse and domineering. It was Jaggu Chaudhary who had obliged him at the time of his father’s death. He bought him shroud for the dead and allowed him to take fodder from his fields as he was not able to take Kalpi out to graze for three days. Though he worked in his fields. But for Chandu it was an obligation.
Chandu got up trying to work off his tension and came out.
‘Have you gone deaf?’ Jaggu looked hard.
‘Chandu’s face went pale. He stood with bowed head.
‘Our calf is dead. Come with me.’
‘I’ll come later,’ said he imploringly
‘Why?’
‘kalpi is…’ He felt a lump in his throat. His lips quivered.
Is she dead?’
‘Oh! No, no…’ said he shaking his head in anguish. Two big drops of tear rolled down his cheeks.
‘Then? Come along straight away.’
Now Chandu had no courage to defy him. He knew the consequences if he did. So, he followed him silently. The calf was newly born so he had not to face much difficulty. He lifted it on his shoulders and within minutes left in the knackers for dogs and vultures.
    Chandu hurried home and put Kalpi’s mouth in his lap. He began talking to her. Seemingly, Kalpi was all ears like a small child.
‘Kalpi, open eyes and see. Drink it. Accha, if you don’t want to drink the whole pan then drink a little. I won’t force… You’ll be all right… You’re not so. What’s happened today...my child?’
He fell silent looking nowhere. He grew pensive and shifted restlessly. Again he began:
‘Kalpi, I had to go…he’d be angry. You know these big people…I’m a small man…they won’t allow…fodder from their fields. They can beat me, abuse me and much more. They are sad. Their animals are lying dead. I’ve to dispose…’
‘My brave Kalpi. Earlier you had fever but didn’t behave like this. You know me well. Accha leave this… eat this chapatti.’
‘Chandu, are you dead?’ His neighbor sweeper said coming in.
‘Babu sarpanch has sent for you. His bull is…’
‘Tikku,  my Kalpi is ill. How can I…?’
‘She’ll be all right. First go there otherwise…’
   Chandu put her head on the ground lovingly. He went to Sarpanch’s house with his cart. Several people were sitting and praising the young bull for its strength and gentleness. He saw the bull with big black eyes open and blue tongue hanging out. Otherwise it looked well. He kept looking at it for a while habitually. Then he moved his hand over its body lovingly. The skin was smooth and soft. It took him half-day. He did not wash the skin. He stuffed the sack with it and kept under the tree outside the house and put a few brickbats on it so that the dogs could not tear it though he knew they would. All the time he remained restless. He returned home with tired look.
He saw Kalpi lying with closed eyes. She did not even move her neck as if she were left with no energy or sleeping peacefully. He patted her head putting it in his lap.
‘Kalpi, you’re sleeping? So long! It’s not good. Oh, now I… understood you’re angry…Dear, I had to…and dispose… otherwise he… Fever has come down. Now you can eat. Look! How fresh and green! I brought it for you. Forgive me Kalpi. I won’t go now whatsoever may…You’re not so haughty. Tell me what’s happened? Did Usha scold you? Now open eyes.’
‘She won’t…’ Usha said
‘What’re you saying?’
‘Yes, she is no…’
‘No…more.!’
    He kept sitting stunned. As if stupefied. Darkness fell before his eyes. He was oblivious to time. Dusk descended on the courtyard. The oil lamp flickered on the mantelpiece in the mud room. Usha lay without cooking evening meal. Someone called him outside. He was sitting like a statue.
    At last he came round and covered Kalpi’s face with his tattered lungi which he wrapped around his head. No one knew how he spent the night. As he got up early morning, his head was in a swirl.
‘Dispose your Kalpi,’ said Usha
‘…not feeling well.’
He went out without a word further. Usha understood his grief. In the evening he returned   and touched Kalpi’s ears.
‘Cold!…No  fever.’ He mumbled to himself.
‘Now dispose…,’ said she
He looked at her in stony silence.
‘Not in night. It is sin…’
With these words he lay in the bare cot. Usha felt his voice weak like a man with some chronic illness. Chandu shuddered at the thought of disposing of Kalpi. Skinning off… the flowing blood staining his hands, and colthes. Dogs and vultures will feed…Ah…No…no. I can’t…I can’t’.
He groaned and murmured in his sleep. He had bad night. He spent such night when his mother had died two years back. He wandered like a lost soul.
    In the morning he got up and sat with his head in both hands. Usha told him that Kalpi would begin to stink if she was not disposed today.
Accha, accha…’His voice was somewhat snappy.
‘You know knife has gone blunt. I’ve to get it sharpened.’
Usha saw him go out with knife in hand. She hoped that he would return in one or two hours to the maximum. But the whole day passed. She kept waiting. In the dusk he came back.
‘Remove her now. She has begun smelling…’
‘…smelling,’ mimicked he and grew angry at his own voice.
‘Don’t you know this simple thing…cow is not disposed after sunset?’
   Two days passed. Chandu could not pluck courage. Nor was he able to face Usha any longer. He was torn within. He lay awake. Even before the crack of dawn he got up and touched Kalpi softly with trembling hands and tiptoed to the door. He stopped in the middle of the courtyard and looked skywards and closed eyes muttering inaudibly and then looked back once and was out of the house in search of a knacker for his Kalpi.

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