Translated from original Bengali by
Barodababu was just leaving for his grocery shopping after breakfast, when Jogenbabu arrived. Jogenbabu looked very concerned. So concerned that his glasses slipped almost to the tip of his nose, his moustache hung limply down and his shirt was worn inside out.
—Hello Barodababu, I had to come so early in the morning, I am in big trouble.
Jogenbabu was new to this region, well, not really new. He was originally from these parts but in between had spent thirty years in Bihar. Recently, he returned to settle permanently.
He was Barodababu’s neighbor and a very nice gentleman.
Barodababu was the reputed wise man of the area. Everyone sought his advice. It was said that he could divine a person’s innermost thoughts simply by looking at him. Listening to Jogenbabu, he smiled calmly and said,
—It seems the milkman failed to deliver milk today?
—No, no he did.
—Okay, then your maid must have taken the day off!
—No, she did not.
—Hmm, then did the kids from Sheetala Puja Committee demand 100 rupees as contribution?
—No Sir, I gave them just five rupees.
—Well, does your wife have a toothache?
—Not really. I just saw her chewing chalbhaja. No, it’s something else. What I really want to know is, you must have heard the proverb, ‘An empty barn is better than one with an unruly cow’? Is it really true? Shouldn’t one prefer an unruly cow to an empty barn?
—Come on, what is the problem here? An empty barn is indeed better than having an unruly cow. There are many issues with owning an unruly cow. She can gore, escape, break through other people’s fences and refuse to give milk. But you don’t even own a cow, so why are you worried?
—Well, I am not really thinking about the cow but about the proverb. Just a few days ago, I heard another one, ‘A blind uncle is better than not having an uncle at all’. Tell me, is this true too? Or should it be, ‘Having no uncle is preferable to a blind uncle’?
—That is simple. Rather than having no uncle, it is better to have an uncle who is blind or lame or even mad; after all, he is still an uncle, isn’t he? And you can also go to this uncle’s house, and have a person to lovingly call uncle. There may be other advantages too, I can surely think about them later.
—But isn’t this contradictory reasoning Barodababu? First we say, ‘an empty barn is better than one with an unruly cow.’ Then we say, ‘a blind uncle is better than having no uncle.’ Just think for a moment, isn’t the implication of the two proverbs totally different?
—Hmmm, I have not really thought about that.
—That is exactly why I am here so early in the morning.
—Okay, but tell me Jogenbabu, why are you so concerned about uncles and cows in the morning?
—My uncle Kanai suddenly arrived with a cow this morning. He said, ‘I was feeling awful that your barn is lying empty, so I brought you a cow. It cost only 5,000 rupees but you can give me 50 less. A cow is very useful. It is bad for a household not to have a cow.’ That’s why I thought of asking you. Isn’t having no uncle preferable to a blind one? Or is an unruly cow preferable to an empty barn?
Barodababu sounded tired, ‘It seems cows and uncles are complicated issues, I have to ponder a bit more on these.’
But Jogenbabu was not satisfied at that, ‘You know the problem with people Barodababu? They say things without due consideration. First they say, ‘blind uncle is better than no uncle.’ Then they say, ‘having no cow is better than having an unruly one’. First they say it is better to have, then they say it is better not to have. I am so confused, what should I follow?’
Barodababu thought for a while, then said,
—In the proverb, we are talking about blind uncles. It does not mention uncles with normal eyesight, but certainly mentions blind uncle. This means it is fine not to have a normal, healthy uncle but one should definitely have a blind uncle. Is your uncle blind?
—Of course not. My Uncle Kanai, a towering personality, is certainly not blind. He was a police officer once. Thieves and robbers used to despair whenever he was posted nearby. They would quit cooking in frustration, march in processions to express their griefs, even designate a day to curse him. Failing to steal anything, some of them had to commit suicide. Some took to social services as their new career, others donated their blood while some even organized drawing competitions to while away the time. To this day, no one dare look him in the eye and speak. Whatever he commands has to be instantly carried out. People lovingly called him ‘Kanai Daroga, The Terrible’.
—Wow! Your uncle seems dangerous.
—And that is exactly why I want to know if my Uncle Kanai is preferable to not having an uncle?
—Hmmm, indeed a very reasonable question! I think it is better to have no uncle instead of a bad, angry one. No uncle, no problem.
—Well there is another problem.
—And what is that again?
—Do you know what Ramkhelaon, the milkman whispered in my ear when he delivered milk this morning? He said, ‘Sir, be careful when you buy cows. The cow that your uncle brought, is blind. It has cataracts in both eyes, it will definitely give you lots of problems.’
—What are you saying now! A blind cow!
—Yes, and because of that I want to know if a blind cow is preferable to an empty barn? Is there anything said on this topic to your knowledge?
Barodababu looked troubled, ‘There is a lot said about unruly cows but nothing regarding blind cows. However, I see you have created a complicated problem early in the morning, with your bad uncles and blind cows!
—Indeed, but there is another proverb, where an uncle and nephew get together, no danger can ever appear. Correct?
—That is correct.
—These proverbs are not untrue. I have several uncles, Uncle Shibu, Uncle Chitto, Uncle Ram, Uncle Raghu, Uncle Niru, Uncle Jishnu, Uncle Jyoti. But none of them try to sell me a blind cow early in the morning. And none of them is ill tempered or a police officer. But I see you are the one trying to make complex problems out of simple things.
—Why are you getting upset with me Barodababu? How am I creating problems? Jogenbabu asked helplessly.
—Aren’t you? Creating problems is your habit. We have heard of bad cows and blind uncles. Now, with your bringing blind cows and bad uncles into the discussion, you have created such a mess that it is making my head spin. I have completely forgotten what I was supposed to buy at the grocery store. When my temper rises I lose appetite and cannot sleep. Just day before yesterday you arrived in the morning and suddenly asked me to explain the difference between the ragas Tilak-Kamod and Pilu. Won’t such questions give a person a heart attack? I have not yet gotten over my anger over that and now you bring more questions about bad uncles and blind cows.
—Calm down. You are a wise man, that’s why people come to you with their questions. Just the day before you answered my question so easily. You said the difference between Pilu and Tilak-Kamod was like the difference between squash and okra, or boyal and chitol fish or a bear and a gorilla. Didn’t you say so?
—Yes I did.
—And you also said, if Pilu were the be all and end all of all ragas, there would be no need for Tilak-Kamod. If mankind were not satisfied with Tilak-Kamod only, they would occasionally listen to Pilu, right?
—Guess I did say that.
—And then you said, if Pilu were to be Tilak-Kamod then Pilu would not have the unique Pillu-ness, and if Tilak-Kamod were to be Pilu then it too would lose its own Tilak-Kamod flavor, correct?
—Perhaps I did, Barodababu sounded tired.
—Your explanation made that crystal clear to me and so I was in high spirits the whole day. Pilu and Tilak-Kamod have settled down, there are no more fights between them and that’s precisely why I have come to you. After considering my present situation, do you think the saying ‘Where uncle and nephew are together, no danger can ever appear’, is correct? Some people do say the opposite.
—What do they say?
—They say, Yama, son-in-law and nephew can never be truly yours.
—That they do, I agree.
—Should folks be saying such diametrically opposite things? This is how the very adorable uncle-nephew relationship got poisoned through the ages. And isn’t the terrible state of our country directly a consequence of such poisonous relationships? All around us we see lawlessness, thievery and falsehood; it is obviously caused by these confusing proverbs. And this has been going on since the ancient times.
—Jogenbabu, my head is spinning and I feel faint.
—Yes, I was feeling just like that a short while back. Uncle Kanai is having his breakfast with milk and flattened rice. Soon he would leave with the payment for the cow. Which is why I have come running to you. Barodababu, if you could lend me 5000 rupees, I will be indebted to you, forever.
Chalbhaja: fried grains of uncooked rice
Daroga: a police officer
Boyal and chitol: types of fish found in the rivers of Bengal
Nephew, in this case refers to sister’s son
Yama: the Lord of deathPublished in Parabaas, May 2016
Illustrated by Ananya Das. Author of several books and an illustrator, Ananya Das is based in Pennsylvania.