This is a story about humanity wriggling out of fetish ambitions, vying to preclude self- destruction in an ordain to confront urbane realism. It is about the feelings of love without the traces of embellishness, unspoken, ab intra, solemn and true. It is about sacrifice and about the evaluation of sacrifice.
In that little light the contours slowly moved and stopped. There were six of them.
Between the light and the lightlessness there was a very thin line of solemnity, deep signs of mourning perhaps or may be lamentation in an otherwise quiet dawn waiting to announce. The air was fragile with screens of damp vapour, invisible from the light and the darkness leaving the bloated traces in unfamiliar odours. Softly the breeze blew it around till its presence became overwhelmingly expansive ,rarified enough to loose its identity . But in that stillness of things, the odour came back unmistakably as if it lived there on its own like a living creature walking aimlessly on his own chosen fields. It was surprising that it did not come from smoke or from travelling winds but it stayed there on its own right almost.
Ahmed looked at the dying night slowly turning against the ashen frame. Although he had seen this transfer and felt every small bit of the change cajoling him, this time it was not the same.
The dirt road widened out as it reached the fences and the brier as live creepers were waiting for an ambush .The dirt was soft and spread beside the gravel and the rocks. It spread out with unevenness as if to pose as a speed breaker, as if to slow down the entry that was so well timed always.
The wheels gently stopped but the lights still lit up the entrance. The gate moved on the rails and Ahmed could hear the rusted wheels till the very end. And then he counted the six of them. The numbers were always the same, every morning, every time that Ahmed had been counting for the last couple of years. This number was important to him since it was the first entry to his gate computer.
Ahmed looked at his watch. It was 4.30 a.m.
He signalled the first truck to move to the weighbridge while he keyed on the truck number. The weight blinked on the electronic scale and after a couple of changes around the decimal, it became stable and static. The weight had to be keyed in on his P.C. This had to be repeated for every truck although the weights hardly varied.
There were six of them in each truck and all of them looked identical in shape, size and girth. They were like the Chiquita bananas waiting to be despatched to the next link of the chain.
As the first truck moved out of the weighbridge, there was a slow movement in the backside of the truck and Ahmed noticed it. Even in that darkness he could see the contours through the grills –
Half-closed eyes , ensconced , restive , slowly chewing the cud. He could almost see their sleepy eyes, sad, waiting brows moaning in the dark. He remembered how different they looked in the farm, in the warmth of humanity waiting to serve , feed , clean , to touch at every opportunity with a gently pat.
The entourage reached the “ unloading bay” while Ahmed keyed the details of entry of the morning consignment. He still had an hour for the next one as he looked at his watch.
It was 5.00 a.m.
* * *
The unloading bay required supervision and Ali had pointed this out a number of times, but in vain. And this time he had a really strong case.
The trucks touched the walls of the bay by taking the incline in the reverse gear. As the truck body touched the wall the hydraulics moved the grills by two rams on each end of the back- side. The sound of the cylinders awakened the animals and Ali could see one or two of them start moving in their small compartments inside the truck. The ears fanned, the eyes blinked, the tongue came out , the whole head jerked slowly. Each expression was known. They were hardly different but Ali watched it with curiosity every time. While Ali was waiting near the first truck the accident took place.
The third truck smashed against the walls when it was sliding in the slope and the grills broke in the impact. The animals in the front row jerked in the impact with the grills and two of them fell out of the truck, badly wounded in the neck. The other animals at the back pushed the ones in the front and within seconds there was a terrible commotion.
Ali quickly stopped the movement of the hydraulic ram and rushed to the third truck. Five animals had already jerked out of the truck with half of their bodies roped in with the rails of their compartment. The ropes tore down the flesh and held taut in that acclivity while the animals cried out in pain.
The sound was piercing and Ali detested this. He was nervous with animal cry. He put the “alarm” on.
Some years back Ali had been at the farm .He remembered an incident that had shaken him. It had been a learning for him that he never shared with anyone. Secrets like this had stayed with him until other events had made him unlearn.
Living with animals had taught him to be proactive and instinctive.
The two badly wounded buffaloes lay in the large tray almost immobile. They had been brought to the “Pathology centre” with a lot of difficulty and Ali had mobilised this activity with his customary expugnation . He had assembled six of the wash boys within minutes. And they had tugged and pushed to move the wounded animals. Ali had almost forced the lab assistant to put the double dose of morphine.
Ali could not stand the animal cry. He looked at the dripping blood at the neck area, getting collected in the white tray. He wondered whether it was a neck fracture coupled with an internal haemorrhage. He shivered at the idea and picked up the intercom.
“ Doc. this is an emergency. Sorry to wake you up at this hour. I’m Ali from the Path. Centre. Can you come over?” He did not wait for a reply. At times he was authoritative like this. Asim knew that.
Dr. Asim Narliker was with ‘Dear Food’ for the last two years. He had moved over from the farm just a few months back and had made changes at the Pathological Centre. Doctorate from the State University of Animal Health, Asim was doing basic research in the area of entomological diseases in animals. He required test data and sample surveys for a large population of animals and therefore accepted this job as the Head of the Pathological centre at ‘Dear Food’. He was 36, tall, smart and jovial, but his objectives were very clear. He knew what kept him there.
There was no other place in the country where he could get test samples of two hundred fifty buffaloes every day.
When Asim reached the ‘Emergency Room’ there was only Ali, squatting on the haunches beside the large tray, pushing the cotton wool against the neck. The buffalo seemed lifeless with the tongue sticking out, drenched in a pool of blood. There was slow movement of air through the nostrils – blowing like hot air through the peepholes of a furnace. Asim took charge from there.
* * *
ABOUT MATTER AND EARTH
The Plant Manager’s office was in the commercial centre and it was quite a distance. Asim crossed the ‘Wash House’ where the activity was at full swing. All the water pumps were running except the standby pumps and Ali looked at the return water basin. By the colour of the water Ali could guess that it would take another quarter of an hour before the next shift starts. Ali looked at the pipeline with the red line, which started from the basin to the filtration station and from there to the entrance of the ‘wash house’.
Ali missed those faces enlivened by the cool, refreshing wash devoid of earthly dirt and excreta. This time he would have been directing a crowd out of the ‘wash house’ towards the ‘Inspection & Test’ area. He would have been gently stroking their sides feeling their body heat come down by a few degrees after the wash. He would have been walking with them just to be with them talking on his own about unrelated things.
Mr. Sam Gazdar looked up to the twosome intrusion to his otherwise quiet office room with wonder. It was 10 a.m. as he looked at the wall clock and he hardly entertained visitors at this hour. But he couldn’t dare show his annoyance to Asim .He always remembered that the foreign visitors categorically remarked that the brightest spot of ‘Dear Food’ was the Pathological Centre. And this noteworthy appreciation had been skilfully marketed by him to get the export ‘edge’ in the Middle East.
Orders were already booked for the next six months.
Sam could not dare ignore Asim.
“ I’m afraid we have a problem, Sam. Those wounded ones require treatment and have to be moved out immediately. I do not see any recovery before a month”, said Asim.
“ What madness is this?”
Asim sat down while Ali took out the hands from his pocket and kept the “gate pass” in front of Sam. Asim adjusted the glasses and slowly looked up.
“Mr. Sam I get paid for certifying that the animals are healthy , devoid of any disease or ailment. I cannot allow animals that are sick or wounded or suffering from ailments. I have an approved budget for treating these cases. Any problem?”
“How many are involved ?”
“Two are really bad at the neck and another three have broken ankles”, Asim finished off as Sam directed his secretary to call Hameed.
Hameed was at ‘Cold Storage Room 20’ when his mobile phone rang. It was minus thirty degrees centigrade inside, frosted with smoke screens. The cladded Aluminium walls at the far end of the rooms were hardly visible. Stacks of frozen food packs lay segregated by the size of the pack, type of meat and destination. There were sign boards marking these destinations – Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Quatar, etc. Hameed was inspecting a packed case where the inspector had observed some stain marks when the phone rang.
Hameed was the chief of the Production Area, a Mechanical Engineer. A man known to be target oriented, professional to the core , but humble. He answered the call while coming out of the cold storage area. The outside was minus five and Hameed felt comfortable in that. As he walked past the packaging area he looked at the rows of lifeless animals hanging from the steel hooks, bare without skin , each row identical , a symmetry which Hameed liked. He always liked this room to be full so that it would mean a good work-in-progress for the meat section.
As Hameed reached the outside he saw the truck with the barrels leaving the place. These barrels were meant for the ‘Blood Powder’ factory. Twenty-five barrels a day was the daily movement.
When Hameed reached the Plant Manager’s office, Ali had gone. Asim was quietly reading the morning paper while Sam was looking at the laptop.
“ Hameed, we have to allow Asim nurse the wounded animals for the time being.”
“ To me it means that I’ll be five short of the target. Who’ll be accountable ? Surely not me, ..” Hameed was slow but sharp in his reaction.
“ I’m not part of this discussions and I’m not going to answer such questions. These five animals have to leave this plant right now. Either way they have no place in this plant. They are rejects, Hameed that I cannot ‘pass’.”
TEMPORAL AND AFTER
Ali had just returned from the trip to the city. It was a long and tiring experience.
He kept on reminding himself that all temporary matters have little meaning. But his mind kept on wriggling about the present and on the needs thereof. It stood on the edge but firm, almost steadfast at the idea of serving the very present.
He had a fairly good idea of the road ahead but it did not matter. When he signed the register at the hospital and the animals were taken in from the vans he felt happy .He was relieved to know that it would take another month before the wound would heal.
He was tired and hungry. But his body ached with pain. He opened the refrigerator for a bottle of Pepsi and found one. While he was about to retire to his customary divan, he noticed the envelope on the side table. Picking up the envelope he noticed the familiar writing .Ali remembered those initial years he had struggled with the ‘cursive writing’ lessons. He smiled at the writing.
His son was at the hostel in Central School and the last time that Ali had met the Principal the feedback was quite pleasant to hear. At the sixth standard Shakeel was doing well .He was a quite boy but very precocious and for that reason Ali decided to shift him to the Hostel when he was just six. He had not wanted him to be part of ‘Dear Food’.
In a life besought with constant combat – this was lesser sacrifice, too insignificant in comparison. But somewhere it ached, as Ali opened the envelope .He realised as he went through the letter that he had made the right decision. He stopped twice at the passage which went deep inside him and the words kept dancing in the air ………
“ Dad, I still remember the farm when I left it six years back. I remember those huge animals. I remember some of the names that you gave them. But they were always moving and each time I saw them they were not the same.
“ I know it must be hurting you Dad. But I know it now Dad and I know how you feel.
“ I pray to god for you Dad….”
Ali hardly slept that night. And every time he opened his eyes he remembered those humble faces, weak, tortured, slowly moving eyes.
He kept on thinking about the animals.
Procyon Mukherjee 1.08.00.