By Chitra Gopalakrishnan
I stumble upon the goat woman in the ghost-grey rhythm of the August rain. This happens on the deserted Mandi road, near Juanapur village, a kilometer away from my home on the outskirts of New Delhi.
I am on a solo walk in the rain.
As a teasing drizzle builds up into steady rain-ribbons at forenoon, I step out by design to immerse in these rivulets, rain-runnels as I call them in my mind. While I walk briskly to try and infuse rain-vitality into the blank spaces in my life, I watch the deluge flay the skin of the earth and sink my unseen truths.
Of late, stilling my soul traumas, in this peculiar and rather dramatic manner, has become an instinctual need. It is an expectation I don’t restrain as it restores my physical body to a sort of balance and wellness.
With the arrival of this year’s monsoon, I have been repeatedly allured outdoors. By the translucent colours…cyan, lime green and mild mustard. By the shadow play of clouds that shift from plasma-blue to gravel-gray to tar-black. By the delicate water-air-earth scent infusions. By the whistling birds who cannot contain their joy. And by my necessity to purge.
Today, as the silvery chains of water turn into my second skin and its sounds blur into a long, whirring noise, like that of a million angry bees, I am one with the downpour. As I am with the abraded ground beneath. One that gets saturated as much by rain as by my untold stories, its lingering wet earth smell freeing me of my burden.
Post my ritualistic cleansing, the plinking and puckering mud puddles are the only giveaways of my buried confidences. They bear the mild aftershocks of my experience as they struggle to pull my stories in.
As long as I have been rain-walking this season, I have never known anyone to look at such hollows with intent. Or me without embarrassment.
That is until I meet Noori, the goat woman of Mandi road. And her crew of nimble goats and an insolent dog. I come upon this cabal in my wet condition and see them survey me and the effervescent puddles around me, unblinkingly, without emotion.
Noori is a surreal sight, moving like a mirage. Clothed in a full-sleeved, startlingly white salwar kamez, that covers her from head to toe, an equally white duppata that she wears on her head, neck and shoulders and armed with a thick, long, menacing wooden cattle prod, which she holds firmly on her side, she looks a cross between a saint and a mobster.
The few concessions she makes to her femininity are her red and gold glass bangles, which line up the small portion of her wrists left uncovered by her sleeves, silver hoops in her ears and a thin silver band on her finger.
Her dog who is at her heels is mangy but alert. A shaft of sunshine that has filtered through the rain dapples on the stripes of his back. He stares at me intently.
Her nanny goats, who cluster around her, are bearded, even-toed and straight-horned with slant eyes and horizontal pupils. As I examine the horizontal slits within the eyes of the goats in a nervous yet mesmerized fascination, the smelly, fidgety animals begin to lose interest in me.
I watch them rotate their eyes and bow their heads to chow down the rain-rumpled grass, weeds and even bushes. They keep their eye slits parallel to the grass at all times and I see that no matter what the position of their heads they have a preys’ eye view of the world as they feed. This is their understory. This is how they deftly avoid accidentally feeding on a wriggly mass of centipede worms and being attacked by them.
When I turn to face Noori, I see her looking at me with unabashed curiosity. With a singular expression, one that holds comprehension and compassion. She has a look that says she understands me, my brokenness, my need to ritualistically rinse myself of my pain.
How many of my secrets will this troop uncover, I wonder?
How can a goat herder understand a lone, urban woman, in Delhi’s toniest part of the city, who chooses to rain-walk? How can she relate to my subtle madness? How can she feel a sense of recognition and familiarity with me, removed as we are by degrees of socio-economic hierarchies?
I am protected by privileges.
This recent compulsion of mine to be a flâneur, a wanderer of the boulevards and wilds, in equal measure, has been frowned upon as a “hedonistic indulgence” by many in my circle. With arched eyebrows, lifted eyelids and in no uncertain terms, I have been told of my acts being “unsafe”, “attention-seeking”, “fit only for the deranged and damaged”, “vulgar callings of the spoilt, rich and entitled” and “in need of immediate attention by a psychiatrist.”
I have seen Noori several times at a distance before but I have never directly crossed her path until today. She, too, probably has had glimpses of me through the slits of my side gate having my Saturday soirees, with trays of cocktail delicacies and fluted champagne glasses set on my porch, and has perhaps even heard the buzz of weekend conversations and tinkling laughter.
“Why do you always wear white?” I ask, without preamble, more on account of my nervousness about being caught drenched and burying my secrets, than a need to ask her anything. I don’t expect a cogent answer in return. “I wear it as it is the purest of colours, one that means simplicity and more so because it keeps me away from the confident flat colours of self-indulgence,” she says.
It occurs to me at this very moment, in my extremely damp and sodden state, that here is a woman from the nomadic herding community, the bakarwals, who has the freedoms and the insights denied to me. She has a quiet, unsaid story I want to know
I ask her if what I think is true.
“You are perceptive,” she says, in answer to my question. “Yes, as a goat woman, I have privileges that few women have. As being alone is a big part of my free-roaming vocation, I choose my lifestyle, make my own decisions and give in to my desire to wander alone in searing heat and cold. I can keep goats as companions and live lightly off the land in balance with natural resources. Saying it like this, I see that it is indeed a lot of freedom.”
She pauses to look down in wonder at the enormous artistic patterns of ant nests and their efforts to raise their sand anthills to repel the showering rain before she continues. “No one has had the right to tell me what to believe or what to do and I have given no one that right over me, either. You may perhaps understand now that my name Noori (meaning light) that I acquired after my marriage is not so much a coincidence.”
We talk as we walk along leisurely on the mud tracks on the side of Mandi road. This road leads to plush farmhouses. I live in one such place, barricaded from the world with tall walls and iron fences, wires of tough tensile strength.
As we amble along, her hircine friends totter along with us in an unruly clamour of hooves, horns and bleats. Their ears never stop wriggling and many of them uncaringly poop along the road leaving behind mounds of perfectly rounded black pellets. Her dog wildly crisscrosses our squelchy, mud path, one that has turned from a dusty brown to a deep shade of mahogany on account the rains. His speed is so dizzying that he makes me stumble over him and step into puddles and thick vegetation on several occasions. I almost get run over by a car as I try to sidestep him and walk on the road.
Does she mind not being seen as a soft woman? A woman from the community? A woman of her home? She giggles at my uncontained curiosity, displaying her white teeth. Pursing her lips that are startlingly pink, she says, “I know that many see me as an eccentric figure living on the edge of society and reason. As a woman leading a life that is not for the faint of heart, weak of the bicep or slow of the tongue. I am sure my life must seem like a grand absurdity, sort of like I am a woman only in part. It must be strange to them that I hold my own, don’t yield to pressure to give up my vocation and that my goats are dearer to me than my own five children. That they understand me more intimately, intuitively and tenderly than my children do.”
She pulls me to the side. “See a mere tilt of my head or hand and they know what I mean. Notice how they respond to the noises I make,” she says. I see it is true. In a chorus of bleats, the goats respond to her nod and the clacking of her tongue, every exhalation of theirs emerging as visible wisps of vapour.
“We have an unshakeable bond. We are together from 9 am till 5 pm on this road and then we head home two kilometres away. They know that I will never sell their milk nor give them away and that there is no question of their being killed for their meat,” she adds.
Does the physicality of the job bother her? Noori is swift with her answer. “It is something I take for granted. I would say my strength comes from a happy coupling of a rugged upbringing and formidable female role models in my family. I look upon women relatives in my maternal village for courage as they were made of steel. All of them have passed on but they live on in my heart.”
“The story of one aunt, in particular, who is no more, has helped me keep my faith,” she explains. “Her father ordered her to not let the cows go past her. This was a herd of 50 big, restless, belligerent animals being moved from one area to another. My aunt told me that her father expected her to manage them singlehandedly as a man would. So she had to do it. She told me that she found it in herself to make it happen and not let being a woman hold her back. I have held on to the same spirit. I steamroll people if I feel they’re holding me back . . . like my aunt did and my goats do!” she adds.
How does she deal with hostility, which as a lone, wandering woman on the road, must be a natural consequence? I know this road to be a lonely one, a stretch prone to car hijackings, abductions and a variety of unspeakable crimes. “My dog, Raavan, named after the ten-headed king who fought Rama in an epic battle, chases men who pester me and bites them even.”
“What scares me though is the violence I see towards animals,” she admits. “Some years ago about twelve injured horses from a military camp were shot before my very eyes on this very road, right here. This image haunts me till date. It took me a long while to settle within myself.”
“I cannot bear to see male goats being led to the slaughter side either. This happens regularly where I live. The goats strain at their leash as they smell death. Even though they are handled gently and given the least pain possible, I wince when their heads are twisted till their neck snaps and their windpipes slit. I cannot hold back my tears when I see their brick-red blood drench the dull leaves on the ground. The worst comes when the men sling the goat between two trees, slice open the hide on its hind legs and later its body to let its bulging entrails drop.”
“How much worse must the bestiality be when people attack one another,” she says quietly.
We walk in silence for a while, the savagery of her images still playing in my mind. We have crossed three miles already. As we reach a ramshackle hut, she invites me to tea. She says she eats a frugal meal here every day and washes it down with sweet, milky tea.
The withered and wrinkled tea vendor greets her warmly but looks at me oddly. I realise my clothes are still wet and that I don’t belong to his world of marginality, to the world of his customers who are mostly marginal labourers. In contrast, Noori’s goats are at ease and settle down in the corner of the hut, some in comfortable positions with their legs tucked beneath, others in ungainly angles. Raavan uses this time to sleep, grunting, snorting and snoring.
Noori notices my unease. She orders tea for both of us to dismiss my anxiousness and allows her story to cover the strain. “I have endured abuse as well,” she says. “My memories keep my past, violent history alive. My maternal home is in Palwal district of Haryana. My family members are part of the panchayat (lawmakers). I had a happy childhood to begin with but my late father remarried even as my mother was alive. In fact, he bartered the very copper utensils that my mother came upon while burrowing for mud to make pots, for another wife. My mother died of grief and my stepmother, who never sent me school, would often beat me with the wooden crush used to restrain animals. She got me married when I was thirteen to a cattle herder. In her devious mind, she probably imagined I would live a life of jeopardy, struggling to survive in the face of a wandering migratory lifestyle and the active hostility of people around.”
The tea vendor interrupts us. He is over his shock of a strange, out-of-his-class, unaccompanied woman, with a different diction, sitting in wet attire at his hut. Between puffs of smoke that spiral from his ill-smelling beedi, he says to me, “Her husband is a rare soul. He understands her fierce independence and has let her take on his life while he has chosen the sedate environs of a government office. For all the time that I have known them, I would say for around forty three years, he has had his office and she has had her goats. And he is indulgent of her peculiar lifestyle, one that is neither remunerative nor acceptable to his family or our community members. I have never seen him stop her from doing what she does.”
Noori insists on paying him for our strong, sweet tea that corrodes my insides and causes an insurrection of sorts. I think to myself that ours has almost become a picaresque journey with an assortment of odd co-travellers, human, not-so-human and dead ancestors.
When we proceed on the last leg of our walk, I venture to ask her what I really want to know. What happens to one when one’s story collapses? She looks directly at me, a smile playing on her lips. “A certain silence will remain. A certain restlessness will endure. Don’t be in a rush to fill it. Or to fix imperfections. Drench yourself in rain. Feel the strength of the earth. Revel in the vigour of this space. If you let this space be still and widen, you will come upon a spaciousness where there is no ill will, blame or self-pity. You can call it bliss or just love. This space is endless yet calls for you to be alone in it.”
I persist and ask her if she is in this space. “As a female vagabond, I have occupied this space for a while. I have discarded the need to gather material things, to confirm, to please others, to form attachments based on expectations, to be heard, and to leave a legacy. I am dispossessed in the true sense yet possess everything if you understand what I am saying.”
I realise hers is a hard-won inner balance. I will try and earn mine.
No more images of ‘lost dreams’ and ‘faded hopes’. I will work towards the clarity she has and learn to trust my story even though I don’t understand it completely or have faith in its characters. How wonderful it will be to look at my story, my life and my ageing as she does. I imagine it will be freeing rather than alarming. Handling my story in her off-the-page manner won’t be easy or perhaps possible to the extent she suggests but it is certainly worth a try.
This discovery of mine plays out against sharp thunderclaps. Against veiled lightning, shoals of frothy, mysterious and vagrant clouds that rumble and roil and a light playful drizzle that sets in.
I ready myself to once again receive the steady and soft drops falling from the sky that now looks like shiny white velvet. This time with the raindrops I aim to gather the sweet serenity of a loving, quiet purpose to rebuild my story. In a kind of frugality that Noori recommends. It is not so much deprivation or hardship as it is about investing in what truly matters.
I thank Noori in my heart for the steadiness she has brought to my soul. For the quiet, reassuring imprint she has left behind in my life.
I raise my hand to her in gratitude and tilt my face towards the sky. I feel water and sunshine together in my being as I head home.
I marvel at how this five-mile walk over an hour has evolved into a journey of a lifetime for me.