(Written for the 5th anniversary of Navayana in November 2008)
Yesterday I received a mail from a well-wisher in London who had recently ordered the entire Navayana backlist. He asked me, ‘I was just curious about what your logo stands for.’ His guesses: ‘Is it two goats (or cows/buffaloes) facing each other? Or is it two bulls charging in opposite directions? Or is it something else? And what does it signify?’ This is not the first time I had been asked this. One of our authors, historian Dilip Menon, had wondered if we actually were the Gay Goats Press! But seriously, telling someone what the logo means listening to a story. And a story about the story.
In 2003, I was helping Dalit Media Network in Chennai (the publishers of the Dalit Murasu in Tamil, one of the most important, best-designed, longest running little magazines in India) put together a short-lived journal in English called The Dalit, which was subsequently edited by Meena Kandasamy. For the April 2003 issue, I had commissioned an excerpt from Aravinda Malagatti’s Kannada autobiography, Government Brahmana, considered a contemporary classic. (This work is now available as a book from Orient Longman, available on order from SwB.)
The excerpt we carried was a superbly told tale about how the ideology of caste does not allow a dalit-owned she-buffalo in heat to mate a he-buffalo owned by a landlord. Aravinda’s grandma recounts the tale, and the author wonders how a society that does not let even animals make love naturally will give a chance to human lovers. However, in the story, the ‘dalit’ she-buffalo does manage to seduce a ‘brahmin’ he-buffalo (just by her smell!) and elopes with him, thus holding out hope for subverting the caste system. Caste indeed is a lot of bull. The story is excerpted below, but this still does not explain the logo.
With this delightful story in hand, I was looking for an artistic interpretation. I approached the brilliant and maverick artist Chandru, notorious for not delivering commissioned work. In the backyard of his sculpture department in the Government College of Arts and Crafts, we drank sweet chai and smoked chinna (small) Goldflake as he gave me my first lesson in art appreciation. I appreciated for an hour, and then became restless. We had to send The Dalit to press, and Chandru’s work was to go on the cover. Then we went to his worktable and he asked me narrate the story in Tamil. Excited and animated, I did. As I spoke, he interpreted the story. In 15 minutes, he was done.
Subsequently, Chandru became a good friend and I now own three original works by him. His work also adorns two Navayana covers—Meera Nanda’s Postmodernism and Religious Fundamentalism and S. Viswanathan’s Dalits in Dravidian Land. Chandru today heads the Government College of Arts, Chennai. As you can see, from the above work, we used only the top section—the buffaloes defiantly kissing, challenging the diktats of the caste system.
I thought today being Navayana’s fifth anniversary—we launched our first four titles at Chennai’s Landmark store on 5 November 2003, with Narendra Jadhav reading from his just published memoir—it was time to share with Navayana’s readers what the logo was all about. Most times, not having the time to narrate the story, I would say the logo signified nothing. Now read on and enjoy Aravinda’s story.
Isn’t it said that crow, owl, dog, ass, sheep, and buffalo etc., are sage Vishwamitra’s creations, while pigeon, horse, cow etc., are sage Vasishta’s creations? It seems the brahmin sage Vasishta could create pure, white, sweet-voiced, sweet-tempered, mild, beautiful animals and birds, and sage Vishwamitra could create only those with opposite qualities. Having been a king once, the non-brahmin sage Vishwamitra could never rise to the status of Brahamarshi, a supreme sage like Vasishta, despite his hard penance. Doesn’t this myth indicate that it is natural for a non-brahmin to be denied the status of Brahmarshi? Such myths have remained etched on the minds of the people….
I was perhaps then a boy of nine or ten. My granny told us the only she-buffalo in our lane belonged to our house. It was the offspring of the she-buffalo that was sent as a gift to my granny by her parents. Granny was thus proud of owning the only she-buffalo in the lane. Naturally, she used to boast:
‘I was born after my seven brothers.
My parents brought me up like a boy
feeding milk, curds, butter, and ghee in abundance.
There lies the secret of my strength
As if… your grandpa was strong —
Used to pant, to carry a pot of water!
I used to carry water in a double-sized pot over my head
And one-and-half times bigger pot on the waist,
People who saw this would say –
‘Ye Ellavva, one should bear a girl like you if one is lucky.’
To this, my grandmother would add:
‘The reason for my present being is this.
I was brought up with all varieties of food.
That’s why my mother had sent the she-buffalo.
So that I would be happy in my in-laws house too.
When I came here what was there in this house?
Everything was hanging like the bell around the buffalo’s neck.’
Thus my granny opened her bundle of memories. Her narration was like a kaudi. Just like a kaudi, a rug made by stitching old and torn clothes, she was making up a story quilting various incidents over different periods. Her stories related to the she-buffalo-the gift from her parents.
I don’t know what had happened to the she-buffalo that day. It was mooing continuously since morning as if its throat would tear. My mother took it for grazing in that state. She came back grumbling—
‘It ran all over, and made me run around too.
My feet hurt running behind that bloody animal.
May the devil take it away.’
She wanted granny to hear her grumble. Granny had noticed instantly that the restless behaviour of the she-buffalo meant that it was in heat.
There wasn’t a he-buffalo in our village for mating our she-buffalo. In two neighbouring villages, Kuntoji and Basarakod, there were two he-buffaloes. These buffaloes belonged to the village heads. Raising a he-buffalo is of no use in the hot plains. It wasn’t possible to use them for plowing because they lack the capacity to withstand the sun. So common people never rear he-buffalos. The heads of the villages considered it a matter of prestige to rear he-buffalos. (There is a proverb that goes: the chief’s buffalo neither jumped nor let others jump.) The work of this he-buffalo was to just jump on the she-buffalo in heat, and bellow. He was not just the king of the buffalo dames of our village, but also the emperor of she-buffaloes of the surrounding villages.
Usually he-buffaloes born in the village were killed in sacrifice to deities like Dyamavva, Durugavva, Murugavva etc. Buffaloes are slaughtered in oblation to these deities. The folk legend goes thus: an untouchable lied to be a brahmin and married the brahmin girl Maramma. As punishment for this sin he was cursed to be reborn as a buffalo. In revenge, the goddess Maramma swallows the buffalo. Hence, buffaloes are slaughtered ritually before Maramma. The rest of the buffaloes sing their last anthem near the doors of the butcher. Thus, the male offspring of the buffalo had no life at all! Since the he-buffalo is either sacrificed ritually or is sent to the slaughter-house, nobody else would rear a he-buffalo. Hence, the village chief’s he-buffalo was in great demand.
Kuntoji is closer to our place than Basarkod. My granny decided to drive the buffalo to Kuntoji. But it was already dusk. It would become completely dark before one reached Kuntoji. They wouldn’t let the he-buffalo mate with our she-buffalo in the night. So granny decided to start at dawn. I, who was listening to these discussions with curiosity, made up my mind to go to Kuntoji. And I started following my granny wherever she went.
While this was my worry, my granny had another. If the she-buffalo slept, she would come out of her heat, wouldn’t she? So one had to watch the she-buffalo through the night and prevent her from falling asleep. On the pretext of helping granny, I interfered.
‘Aayee, if you want to go somewhere you can go now.
I am ready to keep an eye on the she-buffalo.’
‘If she falls asleep, wake her up by beating.’
Saying this, my granny left. But the buffalo would not keep wake despite my ample beating. So we (my brothers also were with me) screamed, lest it should sleep, ‘Aayee, Eey Aayee-come soon.’
The buffalo, frightened by our bustle, would not rest even for a fraction of second. Granny watched and waited leaning against the pole of the cowshed-the whole night. I was restlessly roaming around, and finally slept holding the end of granny’s sari, for I was worried that she might leave me behind and start alone at dawn!
The journey started at dawn. Despite my granny’s objection, I made her consent to my presence-I was stubborn. Though the two villages were quite far, they were not new to us. The villages were quite famous for the fair and the Okuli, the festival celebrated by splashing coloured water. There was a feast during the fair. We never failed to attend the feast with our granny. I reminded her of all these instances and convinced her that I could walk to those villages.
There road to Kuntoji was tarred, but not the one to Basarkod. The road to Basarkod was wonderful. The regular traffic of bullock carts had grooved the road equally on both sides making it look like railway track. Fine powdered soil on the railway track! Walking on it was like walking on snow. With every step came the sound ‘psk’, and the buttery-soft soil slipped through the toes. Especially at dawn, it was immensely cool and pleasing.
Not choosing the nice Basarkod road and walking on the tar road was annoying. When I said, ‘Let’s go to Basarkod,’ so that we could enjoy the walk, perhaps even granny felt the same.
‘Yes, It’s better to go there – perhaps!
But what to do —
Who knows what that rascal might do…’
Muttering thus, she chose the road to Kuntoji. When we reached the tar road after passing our village, we saw a bullock cart starting to Kuntoji.
‘Yappa, Yey Yappa,
Small boy, can’t walk,
Comes behind me, though I say ‘no’,
He doesn’t listen to me.
Give him a lift please… Yappa…’
Thus she pleaded pitifully.
Whenever I went with my mother or granny somewhere, such words were common. On hearing these words, I used to sport an expression of being tired and worn out and pulled a forlorn face. While some, moved by the request, gave a ride in their cart, others who knew that we were untouchables and drove away fast. But it didn’t happen in this case. As soon as my granny asked the fellow, he let us into his cart. Chatting throughout the journey, we reached Kuntoji. Granny said:
‘God bless you child,
May god bestow upon you the luck
of seeing the grandchildren like I have seen.’
Blessing him in a brahminic style, she made me get down from the cart. By the time we reached the back door of the buffalo-owner’s house, the sun was scorching. I waited there watching the she-buffalo. The maid of the house was speaking to my granny.
‘Hey, old woman, have you brought
‘I have brought them Yavva.’
‘How much have you brought? Looks too little in your sari knot?’
‘No Yavva, it is two kilograms.’
‘Have you brought some men with you?
What is this? You have brought such a small boy!
Is he a hero to catch the buffalo?!’
‘No, Yavva…. how can he catch?
I’m there and I will hold the buffalo myself.
You need not come at all.
You just leave your buffalo.’
By that time, a man’s voice was heard. Granny started muttering to herself. The fellow who came out glanced at my granny and the maid, and went inside telling something to the maid. She followed him. After a while, he came out.
‘Namasgar ree… Yappa…’
My granny folded her hands in greeting.
‘Hey old woman, didn’t we tell you the last time,
we have got the buffalo castrated?
We don’t let it on the she-buffalo.
Didn’t we tell you that we use him now for drawing water from the well?’
My granny’s pleadings of all sorts turned futile.
My granny lost her patience. She seized the rope from my hand and banged the buffalo’s hump with the cudgel. The buffalo started mooing. ‘H-yam… H-yam…’ The he-buffalo inside responded: ‘I-yam, I-yam…’ The animals began a conversation. The fellow had closed the door and had gone inside already. Even the she-buffalo moved around, my granny held the rope tight so that it wouldn’t budge, and she banged once again on its hump. The she-buffalo started running at such speed that even granny had to run with it. The people who had reared that buffalo had come to the front door; they burst into laughter at Aayee’s running. Aayee’s voice synchronised with the bufflalo’s as she raced with the buffalo. Since she ran leaving me behind, I started crying out of fear. Aayee was running behind the buffalo and at the same time signaling me, waving her hands, to follow her.
When I reached the tar road, the pitch of Aayee’s voice and the buffalo’s pace both had gradually reduced. She started shouting angrily:
‘I told you not to come, did you listen?
You desperately run behind me
as if Aayee is rushing to eat laddu,
and would gobble that sweet delicious thing alone.
Come on, run faster, why simply cry?’
Later, she softened her voice and pacified me.
A different issue bothered Aayee now. If we return home and then go to Basarkod, it will ultimately cause more wandering. If we go to Basarkod straight from Kuntoji, what about our empty bellies? The scorching sun was right over our head. Though Aayee told me to go back home, I refused. I even assured her that I was not hungry and would be able to walk with her.
The journey continued. The hot tar road was burning our feet. We reached the road used by the carts. Aayee had given me her footwear. Sometimes there were unmatched chappals on Aayee’s feet-the chappal on her left foot was different from the one on the right. For instance, this time when I wore them, one was thick-soled and another was flat. Aayee’s feet were very large. My feet were not even half the size of hers. When I walked with those slippers they not only made a big ‘turr burr turr… burr…’ sound, but kicked up dust all around. I felt like a lame horse. It was not possible to walk with those chappals for a long time. It was not the first time I was wearing chappals like these. I would get to wear such chappals only while crossing the bunds in the field and in places where there were thorns. Otherwise, they would be in my hands.
On reaching Basarkod, we saw the cattle grazing in the barren fields and hills. Perhaps a buffalo among them welcomed our she-buffalo. Listening to it, our she-buffalo shook off and started running vigorously. Aayee was right behind it. I was quite far from her.
As Aayee went farther and farther, my cries peaked and grew audible enough. Because of the fear of losing Aayee, the chappals in my hand would not come to the feet even though there were thorns. The cry intensified when the thorns pricked. Aayee did not mind the she-buffalo sprinting, she only wished there had been a male buffalo in the herd. But she was disappointed.
We stood near the back door of Desai’s house with our she-buffalo. Perhaps there too the politics of ’servant¬¬¬-kings’ was too much. What happened in Kuntoji was repeated here. The local proverb ‘Banda daarige sunkavilla’ (’No profit, not even to pay tariff’) proved true. So we began our journey back home with our she-buffalo in tow. It seems somebody told Aayee something there. Our route took a turn towards Desai’s farm. We walked a little and waited there.
We spoke a little. The sunlight was dimming. Darkness was spreading quickly all around. The village cattle were homebound. Perhaps Desai’s cattle were starting from the farm towards their shed. Their cattle walked past us. The she buffalo’s agitation and disentangling had already begun. The he-buffalo among the cattle initiated the proposal. Our buffalo was trying hard to escape from the thick rope around its neck. Aayee started ‘boo-booing’. Our buffalo ran all of a sudden. Aayee’s voice reached a crescendo. The fellow grazing the cattle looked once at Aayee and again at his cattle. By then his buffalo had slipped out of his clutches.
Aayee took note of my weeping voice and started consoling me in a tone different from the earlier one. Aayee might have let go of the buffalo deliberately. The she-buffalo ran faster. The he-buffalo that escaped from the youth’s hand followed it at the same speed. Perhaps the cattle-herd had no mind to run behind it leaving the rest of the cattle. The fellow followed the he-buffalo for a while. When it became futile, he began staring at granny.
Though it was getting dark, we made several trips to Desai’s house and farm searching for our buffalo. We did not spot it, nor did we know where it went. Finally, we started towards home, dragging our feet. When we woke up the next morning, our buffalo was standing in our backyard with Desai’s he-buffalo.
How can a society that does not let even the creations of Vishwamitra make love naturally give a chance to ‘human lovers’ to meet? That is perhaps the reason for the story of Maramma and the buffalo having such a wide appeal.
(Translated by Janet Vucinich, Dharani Devi Malgatti, and N. Subramanya)