Thursday, September 18, 2014

Prem Chand's short story 'Do Baillon Ki Katha'/A Tale of Two Oxen

Read my translation of Prem Chand's  another short story.

A Tale of Two Oxen

(दो बैलों की कथा)

The donkey is considered to be the most stupid among animals. Whenever we want to call someone a fool of the first water we call him a donkey. However, it is not possible to determine whether the donkey is really stupid, or it is his naivety and stony patience that has earned him this honour. A cow uses her horns, and a calved cow naturally transforms into a tigress. The dog too is a very lowly animal, but he too loses patience sometimes. But we have never seen or heard a donkey lose his temper. You may thrash the poor fellow as much as you like, serve him the most rotten grass, and yet you would never see any sign of disaffection on his face. He might occasionally bray in pleasure in the month of Baisakh, but I have never seen a donkey in a state of happiness. A look of melancholy remains permanently etched on his face, which never changes in good or bad times. All the virtues that belong to the rishis and munis have touched their peak in him, and yet people call him stupid. We have never seen such a debasement of merit. May be simplicity is not something to be valued in this world. See, why the Indians are ill-treated in South Africa, and are not allowed to enter America! The poor fellows don’t drink, save   a few coins for bad times, work very hard, don’t fight but instead keep quiet after uttering a few words. And yet they are maligned. It is said they have lowered the standards of living. Perhaps if they had learnt to hit back with a greater force, they would have been called civilized. Japan’s example is before us. Just one victory has catapulted her into the class of civilized nations.

But the donkey has a younger brother, who is only slightly less donkeyish; and he is the ox. The sense in which we use the word ‘donkey’, we also use the phrase ‘she-calf’s great uncle’. Some people might call the ox is the first in stupidity, but I don’t think that is so. The ox is sometimes aggressive, and sometimes he is headstrong. And he shows his resentment in many different ways. Therefore, to that extent, his status is lower than that of a donkey.

Jhuri, of the vegetable growers’ caste, had two oxen, named Heera and Moti. Both belonged to the ‘Pachchai’ breed tall, handsome and sturdy. They had become friends. Both of them, sitting face to face or closeby, talked to each other in a sign language. How they understood each other we cannot say. Perhaps they possessed a special faculty which is denied to man, who claims to be the crown of the living world. Both expressed their love for each other by licking and smelling. Sometimes they locked their horns, not out of hostility but fun; like two friends engaged in a friendly combat, without which friendship would have looked dull and unreal, and not very trustworthy. Whenever both of them were yoked to the plough or a cart, they moved shaking their necks as if trying to take the maximum weight on their own necks. And when after the day’s work they were unyoked, they relieved their weariness by licking each other. And when their fodder was put into the manger they stood up to eat together and when one stopped the other stopped too.

It so happened that one day Jhuri sent the pair to his in-laws. How could the oxen know why they had been sent away? They thought they had been sold. We cannot say whether or not the pair liked having been sold, but Jhuri’s brother-in-law sweated between his teeth driving them homewards. If he goaded them from behind the two ran left or right, if he pulled them by their nose strap they pushed backwards. If he whipped them they lowered their horns and bellowed. If God had given them speech, they would have asked Jhuri, ‘Why are we being driven out? We have served you with all our devotion. If you had told us we were not working hard enough we could have worked harder. We were willing to die, serving you. We never complained about what you fed us. Ate whatever you gave us, with our heads down. And still you sold us to this cruel man.’

By the evening the pair reached their new destination. They had been hungry since morning, yet they did not lower their mouths into the manger. They were broken-hearted. What they thought was their home had been left behind. This new place, this new village, these new people – everything looked strange.

Both conferred in their sign language, looked at each other with slanted eyes, and lay down. When the village had gone to sleep, they broke their tether and made their way back home.

When Jhuri woke up in the morning he found both the oxen standing at the manger with the broken pieces of tether hanging round their necks. Their legs up to the knees were soiled with mud and both of them looked at Jhuri with an affectionate defiance.

Jhuri’s heart was filled with love. He ran towards them and embraced them. This scene of embracing and kissing was a wonderful sight.

The family and the villagers came and stood around them clapping their hands in welcome. Although not something extraordinary, it was still a very special event in the village, and the boys of the village decided to honour the two animal heroes. One brought rotis, another gur, another seed cake and yet another fodder. 

One of them said, ‘These oxen are unique.’

Another agreed, ‘They returned from so far unaided.’

The third said, ‘They are not oxen. They were human beings in their previous life.’

No one dared refute this.

However, when Jhuri’s wife saw them at the door, she became red with anger. She said, ‘They are so ungrateful. Didn’t work there even for a day and bolted.’

Jhuri could not stand this accusation and said, ‘Why’re they ungrateful? They were not fed properly. So they came back.’

The wife retorted, ‘You alone know how to feed them, and others make them live on water.’
Jhuri hit back, ‘Had they been fed they wouldn’t have run back.’

The wife said, ‘They ran back because people don’t foolishly pamper their animals like you do. If they feed they make them work too. These two are shirkers, so they ran back. I will see how they get seed cake and wheat husk. I’ll feed them only dry fodder, let them eat or not.’

And that is what happened. The attendant was strictly instructed to feed them only dry fodder.

When the oxen put their mouths into the manger to eat, they found the feed tasteless. No oil, no seedcake. What to eat! They looked at the door with expectant eyes.

Jhuri said to the attendant, ‘Why don’t you add some seed cake?’

Malkin would kill me.’

‘Do it without her knowing.’

‘No, dada, later on you will throw the blame on me.’


The next day Jhuri’s brother-in-law, Gaya, came again and took the oxen away, this time yoking them to a cart.

Once or twice Moti tried to drive the cart into a ditch, but Heera pulled back. He was more forbearing.

 In the evening when Gaya reached home he tethered them with a thick rope and thrashed them for their yesterday’s escapade. He fed them only dry fodder, where to his own oxen he fed the usual diet including seed cake and pieces of dry rotis.

The duo had never been insulted like this. Jhuri had never touched them even with the lightest stick. Both of them would fly off merely at the click of his tongue. And here they had been thrashed. And this dry fodder now added insult to injury.

They didn’t even look at the manger.

Next day Gaya yoked them to the plough. They refused to move even one step. Gaya thrashed them until he was tired. When Gaya hit repeatedly at Heera’s muzzle, Moti became furious and broke loose and ran away with the plough. The plough, the rope and all the strappings were broken. Had there been no ropes round their necks, the two wouldn’t have been caught.

Heera said in their sign language, ‘No use running.’

Moti said, ‘He nearly killed you. Now you’ll get a big beating.’

‘So what! Born an ox, you can’t escape thrashing.’

Gaya was hurrying towards them with two men carrying lathis.

Moti said, ‘Should I give him a taste of his own medicine? He’s coming here with lathis’

“No, brother, stop now.’

‘If he thrashes me, I shall bring them down.’

‘No, this is against our dharma.’

Moti was forced to restrain himself. Gaya came there and caught both of them and drove them back. Fortunately this time he did not resort to beating, otherwise Moti would have retaliated. Observing his mood, Gaya and his companions thought it wiser to be discrete.

Once again the two were served dry fodder. Both stood still. The family were eating their evening meal. Just then a small girl came out with two rotis and pushed them into their mouths. This did not alleviate their hunger, yet their hearts seemed satiated. Here too there was someone who was kind-hearted. The girl was Gaya’s daughter. Her own mother was dead and the stepmother ill-treated her. That’s why perhaps she had developed a soft corner for them. 

Now both were yoked the whole day, beaten, but defiant. In the evening they were tethered to a stake. And the same little girl would come and feed them two rotis. As a result of this token of affection the two, in spite of the dry fodder they were fed, did not lose their strength. But their eyes, their hearts remained suffused with revolt.

One day Moti said, ‘Heera, it’s no longer possible to go on.’

‘What do you want?’

‘I’ll toss one of them upon my horns.’

‘But do you know that the sweet girl who feeds us with rotis is the owner’s daughter. She would be orphaned.’

‘Should I then toss up the wife? It is she who beats the girl.’

‘But don’t you know it’s wrong to use violence against women?’

‘But you don’t show any way out. Should we break loose?’

‘Yes, but how shall we cut this thick rope?’

‘There’s a way. Let’s chew the rope first. Then it will snap with one jerk.’

At night, when the girl had fed them the two rotis, they began to chew their ropes. But the ropes were too thick to catch in the mouths. Poor fellows tried again and again but failed.

Suddenly the door opened and the same girl came out. Both of them began licking her hands, and raised their tails up. She patted their faces and said, ‘I will untie you. Just run away from here, or these people will kill you. Today they are planning to put a halter through your noses.’

She untethered them. But the two stood still.

Moti asked, ‘Why don’t you move?’

Heera said that if they did, hell would be let loose on this girl. All would suspect her. Suddenly the girl began to shout, ‘Oh dada, both the oxen are running away. Come, come quickly.’

Gaya came out in great confusion. The two oxen ran, chased by Gaya. Then Gaya returned to get some more villagers to help. This gave the pair a start and the two ran straight without knowing where they were going. They lost their way and now they found themselves in strange places. Then both of them stood at the edge of a field wondering what to do.

Heera said, ‘Looks we have lost our way.’

‘You ran like the mad. You should have brought him down.’

‘If we had done that the people would have blamed us. If they don’t follow their dharma, should we also do the same?’

Both were terribly hungry. They saw peas growing in the field and began to feed on them, wary of any danger.

When they had their fill, they felt they were free and began to frolic around. First they belched, then joined their horns and began to push one another. Moti pushed Heera so much that he fell into a ditch. Heera became angry, got up and recovered his balance and advanced towards Moti. When Moti saw that their frolic was leading to a fight he stepped aside.


Suddenly they saw a bull, bellowing and advancing towards them. Both the friends looked at him. He looked like an elephant. Fighting him was like inviting death, but not fighting was equally hazardous. He looked so terrible!

Moti said, ‘We’re in great danger. Think of a way out.’

Heera replied, ‘He’s drunk with pride. He won’t listen to our entreaties.’

‘Shouldn’t we run away?’

‘That would be cowardice.’

‘Then die here. I’m going.’

‘And if he chases you?’

‘Then, think of a way out quickly.’

‘The only way is for us to attack him together, I from front and you from rear. He won’t be able to stand this two-prong attack. If he attacks me, you push your horns into his side. This is dangerous, but there’s no other way.’

Both the friends attacked, risking their lives. The bull had no experience of fighting against two animals together. As he ran towards Heera, Moti attacked him from rear. When the bull turned towards Moti, Heera attacked him from the other side. The bull wanted to take them on one by one, but these two fought cleverly and did not give him that opportunity. When the bull made a decisive move to bring Heera down, Moti pushed his horn into his side.When he turned to attack Moti, Heera pushed his horn into the other flank. Wounded, the bull ran. The two now chased him and the poor fellow fell down, gasping for breath. Then the two let him go.

Both the friends were walking, relishing their victory.

Moti said in their sign language, ‘I wanted to kill the fellow.’

Heera retorted, ‘It’s unfair to attack a fallen enemy.’

‘This is hypocrisy. The enemy should be so hit that he can’t rise again.’

‘Think, how to reach home now?’

‘Let’s first eat something.’

The pea crop was right there. Moti entered the field against Heera’s advice. They had just begun to eat when two men carrying lathis came running and closed on them. Heera was just on the edge and escaped. Moti could not run because his feet were caught in the soft soil that had been watered only recently. He was caught. When Heera saw this he came back to surrender. Both the oxen were now caught.

In the morning both the friends were locked up in the municipal yard for stray cattle, the Kanjihauz.


This was the first time ever in their lives that they did not get anything to eat for the whole day. They could not figure out the character of their new owner. Gaya was certainly better. There were buffaloes, sheep and goats, horses and donkeys here, but no one was being fed and all were lying half dead. A few had gone so weak they could hardly stand on their feet. The whole day the two friends kept staring at the gate, but they saw no trace of fodder. Then the two began to lick the salty mud on the walls, but this could not allay their hunger.

And when they did not get anything to eat, Heera became rebellious. He said to Moti, ‘Now, I can’t stand it anymore.’

Moti said, hanging his head down in dejection, ‘It looks we are going to die.’

‘Don’t lose heart so soon. Think of a way to escape from here.’

‘Come, let’s bring down the wall.

‘I won’t be able to do anything now.’

‘So this is all the toughness you have!’

‘That’s all gone.’

The wall of the municipal yard was built of mud. Heera rammed his horns into the wall and pushed. A piece of mud broke loose. This encouraged him. He ran again and again to the wall and drove his horns into it, and every time some chunks of mud came off the wall.

At that very time the chowkidar came there with a lantern, to count the animals. Observing Heera’s wild behavior he squarely thrashed him with his lathi and then tethered him with a rope.

Moti said, ‘So you got beaten up after all. What did you get?’

‘But I applied all my strength.’

‘What use was it? And now you’re bound.’

‘I’ll keep doing it, in spite of all the ropes.’

‘You will lose your life.’

‘Who cares? We’re going to die anyway. Just imagine if the wall had come down, so many lives would have been saved. So many are locked up here! All are almost lifeless. If this continues for some more days, they will die.’

‘That is true. All right, I’ll join you.’

Moti also thrust his horns into the same place. A chunk of mud came off. Encouraged, he began to dig his horns into the wall with all his force. He persisted and after about two hours half  the wall came down.
As soon as the wall collapsed, all the half-dead animals suddenly came alive. The three mares were the first to bolt; then the goats, and then the buffaloes. But the donkeys stayed put.

Heera asked, ‘Why don’t you run away?’

One of the donkeys said, ‘What if we’re caught again?’

‘So what? Now you have a chance to escape.’

‘We’re afraid. We shall keep lying here.’

It was past midnight. The donkeys were still undecided. Moti was busy cutting his friend’s rope. And when he failed, Heera said, ‘You go and leave me here. We might meet somewhere.’

Moti replied tearfully, ‘Do you think I am so selfish. We have been together for so long. And now you want me to leave you when you’re in trouble.’

Heera said, ’You will get a severe beating. They will think you are responsible for this.’

Moti replied with pride, ‘I don’t care if I am thrashed for what we have done. We have at least saved nine or ten lives. They will bless us.’

Saying this Moti drove the two donkeys out with his horns. Then he came and lay down close to his friend.

There is no need to describe the hullabaloo raised when the munshi, the chowkidar and other employees came there. Enough to say that Moti was given a sound beating and was bound with a rope like his friend.


For one full week the two friends remained bound in the kanjihauz. They were given nothing to eat, only water once a day. They had become so weak that their backbones had become prominent.

One day they heard a drum beat in front of the kanjihauz, and by the afternoon about fifty to sixty people had assembled there. Then the two friends were brought out. People came, looked at them and turned away uninterested. Who would buy such emaciated cattle?

Suddenly a bearded man, red-eyed and cruel looking, came there and started talking to the munshi, while prodding their haunches with his fingers. Both the friends were terrified at the very look of the man. They were in no doubt who he was and why he was interested in them. Both looked at each other and lowered their heads.

Heera said, ‘Why did we run awayfrom Gaya.? Now we would lose our lives.’

Moti said irreverently, ‘They say God is kind to all. Why doesn’t He take pity on us?’

‘For God it’s the same whether we live or die. It’s all right. We’ll stay with this man for sometime. Once God came to our rescue in the shape of that small girl, won’t he come again?’

‘This man will use his chopper on us. You’ll see.’

‘Why worry? Our flesh, our skin, our bones, our horns all would be of some use to people.’

Having been sold, the two friends went with the bearded man. They were shivering in every limb.They were unable to walk steadily, but they continued to move driven by fear. The moment they slowed down they were hit with a stick.

 On their way they saw a herd of cattle grazing in a green field. All the animals were happy, shiny skinned, quick-footed. One was jumping. Another sitting and leisurly chewing the cud.  What a peaceful life! But how selfish they were! They were unmindful that two of their brothers were in the clutches of an executioner.

Suddenly they realized that this route was familiar to them. Yes, this was the route Gaya had taken to drive them to his village. The same fields, the same garden, the same villages. Now they began to move faster. All their weariness was gone. Lo and be hold, it was their own village. This was the same well where they used to drive the water-wheel.

Moti said, ‘We’re close to our home.’

Heera said, ‘By God’s blessing.’

‘I’ll run home now.’

‘He won’t let you.’

‘I’ll push him down.’

‘No, no. Let’s run up to our pen.’

Both of them ran towards their fold jumping like calves. Both of them came and stood there. The stout man also came there chasing them.

Jhuri was basking in the sun. The moment he saw the oxen he ran towards them and embraced them one by one. Their eyes were filled with tears of joy. One of them was licking Jhuri’s hand.

The stout man came and caught the oxen by their ropes.

Jhuri said, ‘These’re my oxen.’

‘How? I bought them in an auction from the kanjihauz.’

‘I think you have stolen them. Just go away. These’re my oxen. They can be bought only if I sell them. No one has the right to sell my oxen.’

‘I’ll go and report to the police.’

‘These are my oxen. The proof is they have come to my doors.’

The bearded man tried to forcibly take away the oxen. At that very moment Moti advanced towards him lowering his horns. The man drew back. Moti chased him and the man began to run. Moti ran after him. Once outside the village the man stopped and started threatening, cursing and throwing stones. And Moti stood facing him. The villagers were having fun laughing at the show.

When the man had gone away, Moti returned in a triumphant mood.

Heera said, ‘I was afraid you would kill him.’

“If he had caught me, I would certainly have hit him.’

‘He won’t come now.’

‘If he comes, I’ll teach him a lesson.’

‘Suppose he gets you shot?’

‘I’ll die but won’t be of any use to him.’

‘No one values our lives.’

‘Just because we’re so simple!’

In a short while their manger was filled with fodder, seedcake and grain, and both of them began to eat.

Jhuri was standing there patting them, and dozens of boys were enjoying the sight. The whole village was in a state of excitement.

Just then Jhuri’s wife came and kissed their faces. 
                                                                 (Hindi, Hans, October 1931)


My Comments
The story is full of light-hearted humour and gentle irony, and volubility, all so typical of Prem Chand. The story is a fine delineation of man’s relationship with his cattle. But is it really only that? It reads more like a Panchatantra tale where animals talk like human beings and often behave like human beings.