The Cow by Firdaus Haider, Translated from Urdu by Nighat M. Gandhi

She raised her hennaed hands and inhaled the perfume of jasmine garlands on her wrist; she fingered the silver dust in the parting of her hair. The silver dust and the flame-coloured henna, and the embrace-famished fragrance of the jasmine garlands made her restless. The henna glowed impatiently, the silver dust longed for dampness of kisses, the half-open buds of her lips ached to bloom.


Yet, nothing happened.


Night held its breath. Frightened, speaking in hushed whispers, it lay buried under the weight of its own anguish. This night had come after endless nights of waiting – it made her perfumed body yearn, turning it into an ear straining to hear the summons of love. Moments slipped away. Each moment turned into a century and many such centuries passed. And her silence, her loneliness, her restlessness only grew.


People looked out of their windows and doors, stared listlessly out of their surprised, tired, hopeless, unhappy faces at the cow. Only unmarried women, and those who were separated from their lovers, those who knew longing, knew that the cow was about to run away and meet her mate. Envy's tiny droplets stood in the women's eyes. They agreed that union was the cow's right, a right she would never attain if she stayed tethered. The cow that remains tethered never gets her rights. Her oppression ends only when she gains the strength to break free of her fetters, and this strength is born when the crucible of creativity churns the spirit within.


That night, the mother of all nights, from whose womb are conceived moments, and buds of companionship bloom, and the fragrance of surrender unfolds – when that night began to slip away, she raised her lowered eyes and looked up.


And saw him.


He stood there with his body, strident with certitude, but though present, he was absent. And in spite of belief, she lacked belief. She lowered her eyes. Desire had been trammelled from its zenith into an abyss. She had to surrender to him though he was not the companion of her choice. Her family had chosen him and she was forced to accept their choice. She wanted to accept everything, wanted to believe in everything, and yet her lowered gaze trembled. Night's maternal, nurturing spirit was smothered. The moments waiting to spring from night's womb were stifled. The moments waiting to be created between her loins remained buried.


He stood before her, bereft of the strength to create. He stood before her, bent upon being called her God. Justice, injustice, piety, impiety – false commandments. He stood before her, awaiting proof of that which he didn't possess: 'You shall love me and prostrate yourself before me. There is wealth for you in this house and I offer you shelter and protection from extremes of weather. Eat, drink, belch, but remain tethered to my post.'


She listened. She tried to follow his decree. But in place of food and shelter, she could not demean herself. Surrender happens in the heart, and radiates out from one's being like rays of light. But inside her, all was emptiness, lonely and desolate, stretching from her outer to inner self. How could such a heart be persuaded to submit?


Submission in exchange for shelter, martyrdom in exchange for protection? This was gross abuse. It was pure injustice. Against her desires, she had been tied to a post where all comforts were available, but not that which her heart most yearned for. Her eyes were covered with a gilded curtain, her feet bound with colourful, musical anklets; she was made to bow before his wishes.


When that first night, the mother of all nights, and many more such nights passed uneventfully, the conch of womanhood buried deep within her began to open up. When pearls were denied her, the oyster within her wept. Each pore of her being was scorched with thwarted, unmet desires.


But the man who had been declared her demi-god, the man unable to grant her wishes was bent upon maintaining his rule. Under the guise of his manliness, his towering strength, his strong arms, he wanted to maintain the façade to hide the void within. He demanded she should kneel before him. He was unjust, cruel, selfish. He wanted to prove to the world his supremacy over her.


She tried to respect this rock that was powerless to create, but she couldn't. She wanted to worship him but her inherent truthfulness would not allow her to bow. He was indignation, not compassion; he was wrathful, not beneficent. Her God had to have the attributes of complete humanity to be worshipped.


She remained tethered to the post. Her body burned slowly. She was compelled to lead this conscienceless life. Her inner eye opened deeper as the lava of her essence kept melting away. Only then did her soul hear a voice that drowned all other voices, a voice that propelled her as the drop is propelled towards the ocean:


Listen to the tale the flute has to tell
She speaks of the pain of separation1


The restlessness of her soul grew more intense. Like the flute separated from its reed bed, she found solace in the cries of her own music. Only when the pain crossed its limits, the moment she was waiting for would arrive. This faith kept lamps of hope lit within her. It was this belief that finally made her victorious, that assuaged her longing.


The world simply belittled her desires and her convictions as nothing more than mental distress. But within herself, she felt she was becoming an indefatigable strength. Her worldly lord, angered by her growing strength tightened his grip on her. He began forcing strong and bitter drugs upon her. Under no condition was he prepared to give up the Cow. She was the symbol of his power, the proof of his towering grandeur.


Love can split a mountain and blacksmiths can smash iron bars. But no tool can rip out creative desire nor can one repress the ecstasy borne of such desire. In such ecstasy she realised that no hovel was too small, no castle too large. No diamond was too precious, no pebble totally worthless. She knew that the despot could become dejected, and the lord could become a helpless slave. She saw before her a mountain like Mount Sinai. Then, like lightening, came the voice of revelation, and self-knowledge. God's will was revealed to a mere droplet.


She, a mere droplet became the ocean of oceans; a rare pearl too invaluable to be bought or sold; she became earth and time and space. The flute's lament turned sharper, its melody and her anguish becoming one. When pride and desire embraced, earth and sky lowered themselves before her. She knew the much-awaited moment had arrived for which she had smouldered in the cauldron of anguish. She rose and tore off her golden veils and iron chains.


People tried to snatch that moment of self-knowledge from her. They were ignorant of the nature of that pain from which springs an ascetic's ecstasy. Her oppressors tried to stone her to death but the chains imprisoning her had already been snapped. She had set herself free. Towards her goal she now walked and even ran, though her detractors did everything to hold her back.


She had become so powerful she wanted to merge with another power – to create, to give birth; a deed that seemed most natural, most elemental. Her suffering had reached its zenith. That moment of conception known as the Mother moment – who can deny the reality of that moment? It needs no confessions or proclamations. We all stand subdued before its power.


When those who wanted to stone her reached the place where she stood strong with the force of her determination, they beheld a light. The light was emanating, spreading, and flowing from her being. They saw her kneeling before a greater power that enveloped her, holding her safe. The temple bells of her heart rang to confess the supremacy of that power. People only saw a canopy of light beneath which her being flowed like a silvery liquid.


At moments the silver turned into the red henna of her palms, at others it changed into her petal-like lips, and yet at others it became the fragrance of her wrist-garlands. Her lips no longer remained lips, the henna no longer henna, the flowers no longer flowers. Everything had become One. Beneath the canopy of light, and beyond it, in the far reaches of heavens, in the depths of the earth, in the vastness of space, in the waves of oceans - all traces of duality disappeared. Only her being flowed, which had become fluid silver, submerging all in its wake. All of creation, every speck in it was flowing with her. She was no longer afraid of those who wanted to stone her for she had become a power in herself.


And then —


The weary, unhappy people had retired behind their closed doors and half-closed windows, content to rest in the darkness of ignorance and backwardness. That night the tethered cow who had escaped, returned and announced that she had been impregnated.




1. The first couplet from Rumi's Mathnavi




From the short story collection, Raaste Mein Shaam [Sunset on the Path], first published in Urdu in 1982.



Translator's Note: This allegorical short story is bold not only because it affirms female desire as a normal, natural and a spiritual quest, but also because it was written in the early 80's, when Pakistan was under the dictatorship of the military ruler, Zia-ul-Haq, whose misogynistic interpretation of Islamic sharia laws stalled the steady progress Pakistani women were making socially and economically. In translating it I have attempted to retain the lyrical beauty and suggestive ambiguity of the original Urdu prose.



Firdaus Haider was born in 1940 in the small town of Gujranwala in Punjab, Pakistan into a well-respected family of sufi teachers. She studied Persian and Urdu literature and started writing while she was still in college. She has published several short story collections, travelogues, memoirs and novellas. She has also written plays for television and anchored radio talk shows on sufi music and spirituality. Reiki healing is her other calling. She lives in Karachi. A more detailed bio of Firdaus is available at this link


Nighat M Gandhi is a writer and professional mental health counsellor. She spent her formative years in Dhaka and Karachi. After college in the USA, she married and moved to Allahabad, where she raised her two daughters, and became a member of Stree Adhikar Sangathan, a feminist women's group.

She writes on women's and human rights issues for newspapers such as The Hindu and Dawn. Ghalib at Dusk (Tranquebar, Delhi, 2009) is her first collection of short stories. What I am Today, I Won't Remain Tomorrow: Conversations with survivors of Abuse (Yoda Press, Delhi, 2010) is her second book. She is currently working on her third book about Love in the Lives of Muslim women of the subcontinent. This is her first effort at translating Urdu fiction.