(winner of the 2022 Boston Review Aura Estrada Short Story Contest)
Gaitonde’s second month at the asylum began ominously. Overnight, Nandi’s mud idol had transformed into a mound. No one knew who had made the idol, and it remained untouched at the corner where the residential section met the courtyard. Footprints were found but the most basic question—did they belong to an idolater or an iconoclast?—remained unanswered. Everyone knew that the act was done in the middle of the night and if the muddy spread was a sign, it was done in the throes of passion.
Administrative duties had changed. Dr. Ghose was doing the morning rounds, Dr. Mani, the evening. Still, Dr. Ghose retained his hobby. In broad daylight, he could be seen walking around with a “dirty” novel hidden in brown paper, making it appear like an innocent notebook. The miniature size, the aged papers, the crumpled edges, the end of a dry leaf sticking out from the middle, and his mischievous chuckles that pulled his upper lip down and his thin mustache up were a giveaway.
The novel couldn’t survive Gaitonde’s panoptic vision, and he took its illegal presence as an invitation to approach Dr. Ghose and mention to him that, despite being a patient in the asylum, he was a noted scholar who used to routinely research at the Asiatic Library.
“Where are you assigned?” Dr. Ghose asked, cutting him off.
“Nowhere yet . . . I will be happy to work in the library or in a suitable position.”
“Where is this library?” the doctor smirked.
Gaitonde chewed on his nails.
At 10:00 a.m., the thin attendant in thick overalls came up to Gaitonde and asked him to join the queue meant for the inmates assigned to the occupational therapy program. Gaitonde followed the queue out of the building.
“This group, farm two, weeding,” Dr. Ghose said, herding the men.
At noon, when the sun was up and burning, Gaitonde found himself in the middle of the tiny asylum farm uprooting unnamed plants and shrubs.
An hour later, when Gaitonde was famished, Ghose arrived and signaled to the attendant who ran down to Gaitonde and pulled him out.
“You will read a newspaper to a patient in the European section, an English patient. The first two pages, every other day, at nine in the morning. Do you understand? I will take you there myself. It’s on the other side of the asylum. You start on Monday,” Ghose said.
“Put this on,” Ghose said, handing Gaitonde a coarse but clean cotton shirt and pants. Usually, all inmates wore cotton dhotis, a vest, and chappals. Gaitonde, with Dr. Ghose by his side, walked past the wrought iron gate chipped with age that connected the paying and the non-paying patients, through the work shed, and finally to a similar gate that separated the European section. He handed Gaitonde to the medical officer. The inmates called the medical officer of the European section the Clark Gable of India. He wore a trimmed flat mustache, pomade hair pressed to the right, and a linen shirt folded at the sleeves. He tried to match up but officially he was still Dr. J. Johnson, raised in Darjeeling in a devout Presbyterian family from Edinburgh.
“You must be careful. Don’t annoy him. Read the paper and leave. If he says he is Churchill, say yes, but don’t believe him.”
They turned to the residential section and walked through a sun-bleached corridor with rooms on either side. Johnson stopped at No. 105, knocked, and stepped in. Gaitonde followed. The room was large and airy, white-washed like the corridor outside. It was an austere setup—a wooden cot with a once-blue but now discolored mosquito net, a table covered with a flower-embroidered cloth, two wooden rattan wicker armchairs, a veranda looking out to the yard, and light curtains playing with the breeze. Gaitonde stepped in. A man in an army uniform, baldish, was sitting behind the table looking out of the window toward a green yard shaded by a Gulmohar tree at the peak of its blossom. His legs were stretched onto the windowsill. He twirled a pencil. There was no paper.
“Hello long ears,” the man said without turning.
“Hello young man,” Johnson responded. “You asked for—”
“Want to hear a joke?” he asked.
“Yes,” Gaitonde said.
“Once, I, Stalin, and Roosevelt were in a car that stopped in the middle of the road. We rolled down the window to find a huge bull standing in our path. I stepped out, walked to the bull, and asked him to move. He did not. Then Roosevelt got out, walked to the bull, and asked him to move. He did not. Finally, Stalin got out, walked to the bull, and whispered something in the bull’s ear. The bull rose instantly and sprinted away. ‘What did you tell him?’ we asked. ‘Nothing much,’ Stalin responded, ‘I told him that if you don’t move, we will send you to a collective farm.’”
The man stood, turned, and laughed, his face round, red, and clean-shaven. Most of the hair from his forehead was long gone. His neck wasn’t visible. He could have been forty. He wore a military uniform, khaki, with medals dangling from the chest. Johnson mentioned that he was a foot shorter than the real Winston Churchill. His attendant, Johny, called him Chota Churchill. Johny sat outside the door in a starched white shirt and pants, doused in strong cologne. Many in the asylum community would have recognized that Johny had overcompensated for the smell of alcohol. It was a problem all too common among the staff.
“I will have to take your leave now but before that, well, you asked for a reader, and here—”
“Him!” Churchill looked at Gaitonde.
“I promise he can read—”
“It’s wartime, we must sacrifice I see.”
“I am the world’s first cow psychologist, Mr. Churchill,” Gaitonde stammered.
“And you are here? Hasn’t the world milked me enough?” Churchill laughed.
“Either you are in the wrong hospital, or I am in the wrong animal.”
“Are you Hindou?”
“An idolatrous religion, isn’t it? You worship cows and have become a detective to hide it.”
“Does it matter? Here it’s all the same. Can the cow speak English?”
“If you train—”
“You know that I hate brown bread, don’t you?” He laughed heartily. Gaitonde had begun to sweat profusely.
“He rarely stops. But let that not be your problem. You will read the first two pages from the beginning to the end, then leave. If he is violent call the attendant. He will be outside,” Clark Gable said, pointing to Johny.
“Newspaper?” Gaitonde asked.
“Ah, newspaper. Yes, here it is,” Dr. Johnson said. “The Bombay Chronicle. He thinks he runs the Times of India. Last month he forced the reader to call the editor. ‘Hello, Churchill speaking.’ The editor thought it was a call from Mr. Churchill himself. He made some changes. This calling business became routine until the newspaper found out that the calls were made from the Asylum, and it wasn’t some wartime camouflage. The readers never found out though. Then there’s the Free Press Journal. He doesn’t like that one at all. Brown money he says.”
“Of course,” Gaitonde said.
“Watch.” Dr. Johnson prodded Little Churchill, “Sir! Sir! You are no longer the PM. It is Attlee now.”
“How dare you, you bastard. Don’t you see? We have planned this to avert a Russian attack. I am here, Attlee, or whoever he is, is there. I am being protected. Can’t you see the guards, you fool? Now call that naked fakir,” Churchill responded.
“The Russians fought on your side, Mr. Churchill.”
“A mouse will fight on the side with the cheese.”
“Anyways Gaitonde, we keep him. It’s a thankless job . . . and this shell shock business . . . at least we should entertain ourselves. Take care. Keep it light,” Johnson waved and left. There was something breezy about him, but also fatalistic—like he was at a picnic, it had rained, and he was trying to make the most of it.
Gaitonde picked up the newspaper. When he turned, Little Churchill was standing right next to him with a cane in his hand.
“Yes boy, you think you can read.”
Gaitonde tried to say something. He couldn’t. His hands shook. He darted under the cot.
“Come out you swine,” Churchill said. Gaitonde began to pull the bedsheet from the cot.
Johny rushed in.
“Room five,” he called out.
Johnson returned. Churchill was on his chair, legs on the sill, looking out. Johny and Johnson grabbed the shivering Gaitonde from underneath the cot and put him in a wheelchair. Johnson wheeled him to the gate. Ghose was already waiting for him.
Gaitonde couldn’t read a line since he had arrived some forty minutes ago in Little Churchill’s room.
“. . . then Roosevelt said, ‘a beautiful thing about America is that we have freedom of speech. Anybody can stand in front of the White House and say, ‘Roosevelt is a piece of shit,’ and nobody would pay any attention.’ Then Stalin said, ‘We too have freedom of speech in the Soviet Union. Anybody can stand in front of the Kremlin and say, ‘Roosevelt is a piece of shit,’ and no one would say anything.’” Churchill laughed until his cheeks turned red.
“Stalin had a stock of jokes I tell you. He would go on and on, vodka, cigar, and jokes. I am sure that the KGB wrote them for him to make him popular. Whatever he is, the man knows how to fight. That’s why I like him. He’s not like Gandhi. Give me Bose over Gandhi any time, he’s a worthy opponent. If I were an Indian, I would have shot the first Englishman in the face. If Britain had Gandhi, she would have been overrun by everyone, the French, the Germans, the Russians. Give me Dhingra. Now, that man is a true patriot. Assassinating the English in their own lair. Do you know what Dhingra said during the trial before he was dangling on the rope, ‘If it is patriotic for an Englishman to fight the German, then it is patriotic for an Indian to fight the English.’ Do you know what Gandhi said in response, ‘The analogy is fallacious. If the Germans were to invade the Britishers, the British would only kill the invaders.’ So Gandhi agrees that the English are not invaders, doesn’t he? This is the kind of infantile man who negotiates for India. We bloody destroyed half the world in a war.”
Little Churchill rose and banged his fists against the table. The pile of papers and files jumped and fell to the floor. Amid the scatter, a letter addressed from father to son took flight. Its weight delivered it under the cot where Gaitonde too had run for cover. The letter and Gaitonde met for a fleeting moment, exchanging glances, before Churchill grabbed the letter—
“You should be ashamed of your slovenly, happy-go-lucky, harum-scarum style of work. . . .
You are always behind. . . .
The teachers complain incessantly about you. . . .
You are a failure. . . .
You will degenerate into a shabby, unhappy, and futile existence.”
Dr. Ghose diagnosed Gaitonde with cow mania. However, he did not settle on a treatment plan.
“Two and a half million Indians served in the British Army. They fought the Azad Hind Sena. Eight million Indians took part in the war effort. Indians diverted all their cloth and shoe production to the war to support us. They listened to me, not to Gandhi. They love me more than they love Gandhi. Do you hear me! I taught the Indians to be brave. I created the Indian nation.”
Johny and Dr. Johnson entered the room to find Churchill screaming at the top of his lungs.
“What did you do?” Johnson looked at Gaitonde, grabbing a shaking Churchill and laying him on the bed. Johny pinned Churchill’s hands to the cot. Another attendant held his legs. Johnson returned with a syringe and pushed the needed through Churchill’s arm, before turning to Gaitonde. “What are you standing here for? Leave.”
Churchill sat up again and continued his drowsy barrage. “Do you know how many men we lost because of one Archduke, a million. . . . Do you know how many men we lost in the second world war to stop one German man, our own cousin? Half a million. We value death, valor, bravery, not a puny man in rags. Pacifism is for the weak. . . . We shall fight. We shall never surrender. We don’t fight for what is right. That we fight, makes it right. We fight for us. That makes it right.” He banged his fists on the table. “You put me on enemy grounds. I am not going to climb the steps. I am going to shoot them. That is the difference between me and Gandhi. You can’t colonize a race led by me.” Churchill slurred, fell sideways on the cot, then screamed.
Johnson pressed his own ears.
“Stuff his mouth,” Gaitonde said.
“How dare you,” Johnson responded, then sighed, “How can I? After all he is Churchill.”
Churchill’s eyes shut and he began to murmur.
“We need a new treatment,” Johnson muttered on his way out.
The new electrotherapy apparatus was placed in a cold grey room in the basement below the toolshed where a damp smell of urine permeated. A few days of training and testing helped the staff develop a five-step guide.
1. Strap the patient to the bed.
2. Stuff a ball of cotton into the mouth to prevent the patient from biting his tongue off.
3. Plug the headphone to the temple.
4. Shock one. Shock two. Done.
5. Clean up.
Gaitonde knocked. Little Churchill did not respond. Gaitonde pushed the door open. Churchill was lying on the cot face down, crying. Gaitonde sat on the chair. He coughed. Churchill turned.
“Did you take my watch?” Churchill asked.
“No.” Gaitonde looked at him petrified.
“Do you know how much that watch matters to me? It has been with me since I was ten. Do you understand? It’s my father’s. It’s gold.”
“I have never seen it, sir.”
“You have no idea how far I can go for it. I can give my life. . . . When I was at Sandhurst, it fell in a stream, six feet deep. I plunged in and searched for it for hours. I couldn’t find it. I got the entire area dredged. I still couldn’t find it. I got two dozen soldiers. Ordered them to dig a new course for the stream. I had them re-route the entire stream. Do you hear me? I still did not find it. I sent a policeman to the local fire station, ordered them to bring a large pump. A dozen firemen. They drained the entire pond. There it was. At the bottom. My gold watch. My father’s gold watch. Now it is gone again. I will find it no matter what. I will blow this entire place with dynamite. Do you hear me?”
Gaitonde began to sweat. He couldn’t get a word out of his mouth.
“Do you understand?”
“He has asked that question to everyone, don’t worry,” Johny called from outside the door. “The watch doesn’t exist.”
Gaitonde stepped out, ran to the toilet, vomited, washed his face, rubbed his palms together to gather warmth. He was still short of breath when he returned to the corridor.
Churchill stepped out of the room. He looked at Johny and Gaitonde with furious implicating eyes, then turned to the narrow path with a hedge on either side that led to the backyard and walked headlong into a brown cow with white spots. She was usually there in the morning hours demanding stale chapati and salt. Churchill stood angry and confounded. He plopped to the ground. Tears gushed down his face. The cow looked at him, came closer, and licked his face a few times. Churchill sat blubbering while the cow stood still. Suddenly he embraced her. She let him as if it was routine in her life to be hugged by teary old men.
Johny, too, had tears in his eyes.
Midnight. The moon is missing. Owls are hooting. Crickets are pursuing their communal rhythms. Gaitonde is sitting in his dream world. It is a memory from more than two decades ago.
Wooden floors, shelves of leather-bound books, the sun shining through the windows, chairs occupied, a murmuring public room at the Royal Asiatic Society Library, and Guy Cowley delivering a lecture from the podium.
“The Western infant tends towards castration anxiety, which is normal. He protects what he has. In the East, it is the cow that animalizes the man. Hence, the native occupies this intermediate space between man and beast, which we term ‘savage.’ The cow is on all fours. Milking must be done on all fours. Picking cow dung and playing with it is done on all fours. The West gave up all these tasks as uncivilized. The negative olfactory experience contributed to this speedy dissociation. The Eastern association with the cow led to the abnormal retention of lower-order sensory perceptions such as taste, smell, and touch and prevented the emergence of vision as the dominant sense. Verticality and vision are the origins of civilizational progress. Both are more delayed among the natives and the cow is indeed responsible. For this reason of perpetual horizontality, the Hindu cannot conquer. It is the cow that transforms the Hindu to docility in contrast to the ingrained spirit of domination, vision, and verticality that forms part of the Western psyche. It is for this reason that the West has never been a subject race.”
Gaitonde woke with the words, “Verticality hypothesis! Verticality hypothesis! Verticality hypothesis!” receding to the background like it was a chant that filled the whole library, and he was walking away from it—not simply walking away, but being led away with thick iron chains on his feet and a black cloth tied over his face.
Little Churchill remained hidden in a cloud of melancholy for the entire week. He would stare absentmindedly toward the tree in the yard. Gaitonde would read his pages. At the end of his reading, he would clear his throat. Churchill would rise from his stupor and raise his hand. Gaitonde would leave with a nod.
A new day of a new month. Gaitonde sat in Churchill’s room following his weekly ritual. He read the first page, stopped. Churchill looked at him. Gaitonde stuttered, “Have you considered a cow?”
“In my diet?” Churchill asked.
“No, to feel better.”
“I had a dog . . . he was my best friend,” Churchill began to tear up again. He covered his face with his palms, sniffling persistently. A few minutes passed. Gaitonde stepped closer to Churchill, then some more, and finally, with some trepidation, he placed his palm on Churchill’s back. Churchill put his arm around Gaitonde’s waist and wept. Gaitonde saw Johny at the door, gave him a long look, and Johny took off. Five minutes later, he walked back with the spotted brown cow. Churchill sat on the chair scratching the cow’s neck.
“All I wanted was love.”
“What do you mean Mr. Churchill?”
They shifted to the stairs that led to the backyard. The cow sat next to Churchill.
“I spent my childhood in boarding schools. My parents didn’t want me.” His eyes glistened.
“Weren’t you close to your father?”
“He wouldn’t visit. Once I had pneumonia. I was as close to death as a dry leaf. He didn’t come, not even then. He would bark at me all the time. He thought I was a fool. He didn’t come to see me even when he was in the same city as I was, in Brighton.”
This gathering—Little Churchill, the spotted brown cow, Gaitonde, and Johny—became a ritual, a place for revelation.
“I would marry her if I could.”
“I was a machine for them, not even a cow, a machine.”
“A cow doesn’t belong in an asylum,” an agitated Clark Gable said one morning. The four remained seated. Clark Gable came closer. The cow rose. He held her horn to push her away. She turned, lifted her hind leg, kicked him in the groin. He fell to the ground. She stood, simply stood, neither sat nor left, then turned her face to the wall. Moments later, Johny took her rope, led her to the gate, and dropped her outside.
The brown cow wasn’t seen in the European section again. Little Churchill returned to his white tablets. The old temperament returned to Little Churchill. Shortly after the cow’s departure, he had leaped on Gaitonde with a piece of beef Wellington on his fork. He ran after him all around the room, laughing.
“I saved the world. I stood against the fascists. I stood against the Communists. I brought civilization to the East. Do you understand?”
“I brought food to the colonies. Do you hear me? Tell that to Roosevelt. Who controls India? The landlords! The oppressive industrialists! Does Roosevelt know that Gandhi is their stooge . . . thoroughly evil, our main enemy? He’s feeding millions of hungry mouths with a spindle wheel like some old Russian witch.”
Churchill’s voice boomed into the courtyard.
“Workers will be the victims of the capitalists. Farmers will be the victims of the money lenders. I say to Roosevelt, let America manage half of India, let me manage the other half, we see who wins. I bet my title. Tell that Roosevelt, I am ready to wager my life. I am standing here, go tell him.”
Gaitonde’s cow pursuits traveled with laughter to the rest of the asylum. They reached Dr. Ghose’s ears. Apathy receded; earnestness took over.
At 4 p.m., Gaitonde was strapped to the bed.
At 4:05 p.m., he closed his eyes to moments of excruciating pain. His body turned limp. His tongue hung loose. He looked around to see if the doctor was present. It was all blurry. He slurred, again tried to say something, drooled, and drifted to sleep.