To celebrate 10 years of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize we are inviting previous winners to share something new with us—it might be a story, a podcast, an interview or a blog. Here 2016 Prize winner Parashar Kulkarni shares chapter one from his new novel GANGA.
A church has risen from the ashes of the British Chewing Gum Company that was burnt to the ground in a cow-protection riot. Outside the church, sat Ganga, the most famous living cow in the country, white with red horns. A new priest arrives in Bombay to infuse new spirit in the mission. He wants to convert the cow. He has also taken charge as a teacher of a patron’s daughter. The priest is gored to death. Bashir Ali, the police superintendent, and Gaitonde, the cow psychologist, investigate. The novel is part of a larger interdisciplinary project (across forms) that engages with colonial institutions (company, court, church) as evolving and emotive social spaces. The first story under this project, ‘Cow and Company’, won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2016.
To read Parashar Kulkarni’s prizewinning story, ‘Cow and Company’, click here.
GANGA – Chapter One
by Parashar Kulkarni
Midnight. The cow, white with red horns, sat alone on a patch of wild grass at least a hundred meters away from the edge of the church’s courtyard. Pastor Martin’s body lay outside the white iron gate, covered with a white cloth with a large spread of blood at its center. Bashir Ali, the Police Superintendent, stood next to the body, issuing orders, directing an investigation. A photographer was at the gate, examining it, next to him an assistant with a stool and a lamp. An elderly churchman in black robes and the Police Commissioner, both English, sat on the rugged wrought iron chairs in the courtyard. The solitary gas-lit streetlight and some other sources of ‘enlightenment’ in the church, flickering candles mostly, proved inadequate. Several lantern-bearing men lit dark corners, revealing a small but disciplined lawn segregated from an orange tree by perforated red bricks. A Gulmohar tree loomed over, asleep, but surely employed to protect this world from the sun. A thin but curious crowd stood next to a white-uniformed constable guarding the cordoned off area. At least a dozen constables were on duty.
Gaitonde, the cow psychologist, who ran ‘Gaitonde and Company: Cow Detectives’ walked toward the scene. Before he arrived at a state of rest, the constable threw a line at him,
‘Gaitonde Sir, I will be able to let you through if you have a badge?’
Gaitonde presented an official letter that confirmed his assignment for the Bombay Cow-protection Riot case that concluded several months ago.
‘Sorry Sir, this will not do. I have strict orders,’ the constable said. Gaitonde pointed to Bashir Ali but the constable did not budge, instead looked elsewhere. Gaitonde stepped away from the scene to a spot closer to the cow. From there he saw her looking straight at him. He turned away, then dropped to the ground. He sat cross-legged covering his face with his palms. Then he muttered repeatedly, ‘I can’t believe it.’ After a while, he mustered the courage to turn toward her again. There she was, holding the space for him, like she always did, looking at him with eyes like deep wells. What would become of her?
The first lithograph placed her on a patch of grass underneath a banyan tree. She was painted white with red horns, the way she was. She was also painted petite, the way she wasn’t. To suit whose preferences, no one quite knew. The painter added a garland of marigolds around her neck though she had never been garlanded. She would have eaten those marigolds; even humans find them delicious.
The second lithograph was more radical. The painter arranged Hindu gods (including the Hindu trinity) and goddesses inside the cow’s body. Below the udders, a cowherd poured milk into bowls held by one Muslim, two Christians and two Hindus, efficiently typecast with clothes and facial hair. Above the cow, a Guru-like figure was suspended in mid-air, showering blessings on everyone. In front of the cow, the painter placed a demon with a raised sword, saying, ‘I come from Kalayuga where cows are delicious.’ Obstructing the demon, stood a Hindu priest with arms in the air, pleading, ‘Don’t kill the holy cow. She gives life.’ The texts were simple, far from poetic. Surely, no literary coalition was behind all this. The lithograph was printed in six native newspapers. It made a slow but steady appearance on the walls of some school buildings. These schools were run by Hindu charitable trusts; the government could hardly afford to allow such bovine imagination to infiltrate their Macaulian schools. They were right. She had become the rallying cry for home rule. The reasons for that were well known. She had fought against the British Chewing Gum Company, the Company that boiled cows, and bought about its end, and with such valor! The employees of the Company had found her outside the temple. They had dragged her to their building. She had refused to budge.
She was pushed two flights up with a baton: she had urinated on them all.
They had locked her up in a small dark filing room with no windows: she had spread her dung over their records.
They kept her hungry and thirsty: she had chewed their files.
They employed a photographer to blind her with his bright lights: she had rammed through him and destroyed his equipment.
Finally, like Hanuman, who burnt the Lanka with his tail, she set fire to the Company and jumped off from the second floor. She survived. The Company did not. All that remained of it was a half-burnt metal plate sunk in ash.
After this ordeal, she had returned to the temple. She sat in the courtyard next to the old woman who looked after her, or did the cow look after the old woman?
At the temple too, the Company sent two men to do her in. They arrived in the middle of the night but were forced to flee when a constable, doing the rounds, blew his whistle.
If that wasn’t enough, a week later, in broad daylight, two Company-sent goons poisoned her with cocaine. They acted like they were seeking her blessings, then slipped the powder in. One of them scratched her with a knife under her soft red cotton shawl, stitched so lovingly by the old woman. The drug seeped into her bloodstream.
At this stage, the cow must have called for divine intervention, for soon Krishna sent Gaitonde, the cow psychologist. To the cow psychologist, she narrated the entire history of the drug mafia in Bombay. He transcribed her words on paper and presented them in the court. She brought an end to the largest drug trafficking operation in the world; the police arrested nationals of fifty-two countries.
And what about the cocaine she had consumed? She released it like nectar. Her urine shone florescent orange and the queue for drinking it was long, long enough that the two men who took it upon themselves to distribute her urine substituted their tablespoon with a paint brush. Now everyone could have some. They also placed a collection box so devotees could drop coins.
‘The cow is Shiva,’ they said. When gods and demons joined hands to churn nectar from the sea, halahal (a poison) was released. Its fumes paralyzed everyone. They prayed to Shiva. Shiva consumed the poison. Parvati sealed it in Shiva’s neck; the poison didn’t reach his stomach. But his neck turned blue. The cow was no different. She too had consumed poison, saved the world, and released florescent orange nectar.
The third lithograph put all these stories together in a panel. Panel 1: the cow is sent to earth by Shiva. Panel 2: the cow sits outside the temple protecting the devotees. Panel 3: she is pulled by men wearing the union jack. Panel 4: she jumps out of the second floor while the building of the British Chewing Gum Company (Bombay) is on fire. Panel 5: two men are stabbing her with a knife; one of them holds a glowing powder labelled ‘cocaine.’ Panel 6: the cow has a halo around her while her devotee number one, the cow psychologist Gaitonde, transcribes her holy words. Panel 7: the cow is hovering above the court, blessing the judicial system. Prisoners are behind bars. Panel 8: the cow has returned to the temple. Hordes of devotees, palms together, seek her blessings. A panel in which the cow was urinating, surrounded by thirsty devotees, their palms forward, was removed. The printer insisted that he had no other reason except that lithographs with eight panels were more visually appealing than those with nine.
This tapestry became her hagiography.
 The cow had many names, Ganga for now, but also Amba. Only a few knew how these names came about. The old woman, who kept her company, called her Dulari, sometimes Lado. The cow didn’t speak. So, everyone saw in her whatever they wanted to, worse they also announced it to the world, for who was to correct them – mutiny of the mute, who’s heard of that?
 Ganga was not the only bovine deity in these mandapams (house temples), consecrated in the kitchen if the devotees were poor, in separate prayer rooms if they were middling, in the courtyard if they were well off, and in the village temple if they were landlords. At least two other commonly occurring bovine deities shared territory, a brass figurine of Shiva’s bull, Nandi, going solo, and a lithograph of Duttatreya’s cow, Kamadhenu, standing next to him in the company of four docile dogs.
Parashar Kulkarni is a writer and an academic at Yale-NUS College. He works at the intersection of culture and politics across disciplinary forms. His research interests include religion and politics in colonial and contemporary India and discourses on utopias. He received the British Academy Brian Barry Prize for his work on religion, property rights, and violence against women in colonial India (published in BJPS). He also received the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for his historical fiction set in colonial India (published in Granta). His recent text (fiction), Cow and Company, about the decline and fall of the British Chewing Gum Company, examines the interaction between mercantile capitalism and religion under colonialism (published by Penguin Random House in 2019). He has recently completed a text – GANGA, that interrogates the role of the church in colonial India.