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47 minutes

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Rain tapped on the cheap translucent shed that extended out just a couple feet from where Sharda sat on a bench outside the lawyer’s office. She had been waiting for about an hour when the receptionist slash assistant lawyer slash the sharply dressed lady who had already asked her to be patient twice, came out and called out for a Mr. Shyam. A burly man who had been sitting two places ahead of Sharda on the wobbly bench suddenly got up and started stuffing the fifty odd loose papers he had brought into a folder. Sharda almost started with a snide remark but decided she was too exhausted to taunt the man. Instead, she let out an audible sigh and smacked her dry lips the way her mother did when her father would come home drunk in the middle of the night and ask for tea. She thought of her father, what he would’ve thought had he seen her here today, trying to keep her husband out of jail. He would have reminded her that her place was in the kitchen making rotis, not in a Muslim lawyer’s courtyard fighting for a husband who deserves to be in jail for what he did.

Sharda and Prasad grew up in the same chawl in Byculla east. Prasad had first asked her to marry him when they were in class 9, on their way to the government school on N.M Joshi Marg. She had blushed and said no but later in the night had thought about it. They were the same caste, so baba won’t mind. Also, a love marriage meant less cash dowry, and she would literally move next door. All Prasad had to do was get a decent job and a haircut that didn’t make him look like a gang member and it could actually work. Over the years, through her BA and his BBA, they spoke of getting married, his job, a 1BHK in Ghatkopar, 2 kids and trips to Kullu Manali. In the last months of his college, when companies came for placements, she prayed every night that he get a job good enough for baba. And he did. A multinational company was setting up in India for the first time and they hired Prasad as a junior associate. 

“It pays 15000, Sharda!”, Prasad exclaimed when they met that evening in the park close to home.

“…I can finally talk to your baba about our marriage. I know he doesn’t like me, but this job will convince him. I am sure.” He held her hand and caught her straining to keep a tear from leaving her eye and rolling down her flushed cheek

“You know I don’t like this boy, Sharda. He’s a closeted Muslim, always hanging out with the butcher’s son, Ashfaq. So what he got job, haan? I have raised you alone after your mother decided to die on me. And now you want to get married to this Jihad enabler who doesn’t even go near a temple? Is this how you pay me back?”

The thunder in baba’s voice shook the foundation of the 78 year old chawl.

Sharda’s lips were sealed with hot glue. Prasad whispered “Asim”

“What did you say boy?”

“The butcher’s son’s name is Asim, uncle.”

Sharda saw blood flood her father’s eyes and drain from her own. The next hour passed in a blur and all she could remember of it in the evening was her father almost hitting Prasad, Prasad calming him down first with secularist logic and finally with vague promises of being a good Hindu, him and her father shaking hands when it was over. She distinctly remembers the look he gave her as he left her house. He had won but also lost.

For the longest time, even after being married for two years, she didn’t understand that look.

Now, as she sat in the corridor of a Muslim lawyer, the only one who was willing to help her keep Prasad out of jail, she finally understood.

They moved into a MHADA apartment 8 months after they got married. It was closer to Prasad’s office and the rent was controlled. He was part of the product launch and offline promotions team and would proudly announce it at every family gathering. Sharda had no idea what product launch offline promotions meant, but she would constantly hype him up by asking questions about his job. 

“How was today?” She’d ask while unpacking his tiffin bag, putting away his clothes in the wash bucket and laying out dishes for dinner.

“You wouldn’t believe what Mr. Mehra said to me today Sharda. He said I am an asset to the team. This launch is going to be big. Do you know people from the head office in America are going to come? Mr. Mehra’s told me he has complete autonomy for this launch and that he is going to use me extensively. You hear that, Sharda? Extensively!”

“I am so happy for you. Come on now, dinner is ready. I made kheer today.”

He would then put on the news on their second hand Onida TV and they’d have dinner together. Initially she would serve him first and then eat alone like a good wife is supposed to but he called it insane, just like he called her reluctance to invite the next door Christian family for tea insane. She sometimes thought he was complicated, unlike her father, the only other man she’d known closely. Her father had a potbelly and loud opinions. He read just one newspaper and watched a single news channel. He discussed politics with his friends while Sharda make pakoras for them. She never really understood politics. “Girls have no use of politics”, her father used to say. She had asked him one time about women politician and he had laughed.

“Women who enter politics are loose, Sharda. They think they know more than men because they have read books written by western women. The same women who roam around in pants so short you would be embarrassed for them. And our women want to follow their steps. We had a woman in charge once, you remember I told you how she ruined the country right? ”

“Yes baba.”

Prasad was different. He would make her sit through news debates and ask her to read books by Ambedkar and Marx. She tried, but those books made her feel like she was cheating on something she couldn’t quite put a finger on, so she stopped reading them. He once told her what left-centre-right ideologies were and she jumped with pride as she told him she understood and thought that they were right wing family. He was silent for a while.

“I am happy you finally know your inclination. But I am not a right wing person.”

“Is this because of your friends?”

“Of course not, Sharda. I am not friends with them because of their religion or caste. I am friends with them and they happen to be of a particular religion or caste.”

“But you don’t have to be. Don’t you know how terrible they are? Baba told me they made a mosque by demolishing our temple. All terrorists are Muslims. All they want to do is make babies and increase their numbers so they can fight us. Did you know Priya’s brother didn’t get admission because someone used reservation to steal his seat? These people think they can boss us around, but they are wrong.”

Prasad had never seen her so defensive. He went up to her and touched her shoulder.

“This is your father’s propaganda newspapers talking through you, darling. I recommend you form your own opinions and then we’ll have a good debate. Now have some water.”

A month and half before the launch, Prasad started staying late at the office, helping Mr. Mehra and team. Sharda would wait till he came home to have dinner, no matter how many times he asked her to eat. He was overworked and tired but every night at dinner he would tell Sharda every little detail of the launch, as she struggled to keep her eyes open.

“Today was a tough day, Sharda. Mr. Mehra has been struggling for a long time to decide on a brand ambassador for the product. You remember, I had told you we rejected 4 superstars because Mr. Mehra didn’t think they could sell our revolutionary product to the masses? He really wants something so unique that taps right into the vein of our country. He is eager to please the American bosses. So are we. Mr. Mehra’s win is our win.”

“We did it, Darling. Mr. Das came up with a brilliant idea for the ambassador. Can you guess? You won’t be able to even if I gave you a million chances, it’s that path-breaking- yes that’s the word Mr. Mehra used when Mr. Das presented it. Okay okay I am rambling. It’s a cow! The ambassador for our product is going to be a cow. Yes, even I was shocked at first but Mr. Das showed us the research. The cow has been everywhere- from the parliament to common households. The cow trends on twitter more than any of the superstars we were looking at. The cow holds amazing recall power, and masses are thoroughly polarized for the cow. Even if people don’t like our product, no one will ban or boycott it. Even the ruling party will help us secure land at good rates for our factories and better trade deals. If you think about it, the plan is perfect.”

“I am a bit worried about using the cow as an ambassador Sharda. Pandering to the emotions of the masses, especially on such a controversial topic goes against my ideologies. I was excited at first because we got an answer after struggling for so long, but the more I thought about it, the more I feel the company comes off as insensitive and casual. I don’t think bosses in America would like it. Maybe not even the people.”

“I spoke to Mr. Mehra today, and he told me they will be going ahead with the plan and it isn’t my job to worry. My job is to execute and that’s what I will do Sharda. I will treat this as just a job.”

And he did. Prasad was good at keeping the personal out of the professional. He would occasionally ask Sharda for her opinion on this and she would say that she would say that all she hopes is that they treat mother cow with respect. Eventually he stopped asking her what she felt. “I hate to put you on the spot like this, Sharda. I am sorry.” 

One day Prasad came home looking worried. She opened his tiffin and saw that he hadn’t touched the mutter paneer. She handed him a glass of orange soda and sat next to him. 

“What’s the matter Prasad? You look worried. Has Mr. Mehra said anything?”

“I don’t know what to do. Today Mr. Das came up with a last minute PR addition. He said the event would blow up if we could get a real cow to stand next to the big cut out of the product logo. He said the press would lap it up and the bosses would love the extra layer of branding the India team came up with. Mr.Mehra agreed almost instantly and announced to the whole room ‘Prasad will get the cow’. The event is tomorrow at 5pm. I told Mr. Mehra that there is no way I can arrange for a cow in such short notice but he told me this kind of negativity can cost me my job. How can I get a cow, Sharda?”

Sharda was dumbfounded. Mr. Mehra was an MBA. It didn’t take an MBA to know this might not be a good idea. She rested her head on her husband’s shoulder and told him to not overthink and do what the job demanded. “It is a job, not a revolution, Prasad.”

The day of the launch is etched on Sharda’s brain like a bad tattoo. Prasad left early in the morning to visit all cowsheds nearby to convince them to loan him a cow for the evening. She waited for his call all morning, sitting near the small temple in her house. He called little past noon and told her he reeked of manure because he steeped in it four times, but he did get a cow on rent. He had to go to five different cowsheds and the owners mostly laughed him off. They thought he was part of some elaborate con to steal their cows. He had to convince them, even beg them to let him take a cow for the evening. The first four refused outright but the fifth one agreed for 7000 rupees and wanted to come with him to the launch. Sharda smiled and asked him if he had eaten anything. 

“I had chai a while back.” Then he said a little louder so the owner could hear, “I’ll have lunch with Mr. Ghanshyam now. He’s lovely.”

Sharda let out a laugh and hung up.

Right at 5Pm she put on the news channel her father loved watching to catch the live broadcast of the launch. She tried to spot Prasad in the frame but she couldn’t find him, now she could see the cow. She waited, reading the headlines.

“Multinational company begins India operations with a bang!”

“Much anticipated launch underway. Event graced by Local MLA and top executives from USA”

“Our experts predict what this hugely secretive launch might be.”

“EXCLUSIVE: Cow spotted on the red carpet.”

“MLA and management look shocked as cow struts the red carpet with an employee”

“Unveiling of logo stopped abruptly and media asked to leave.”

“Our experts decode the cow fiasco. Did the multinational insult our mother?”

“Company spokesperson said cow has got nothing to do with the launch.”

“Was the cow the revenge of a disgruntled employee? Stay tuned to find out.”

“Company releases statement that an employee named Prasad Rane is responsible for the cow fiasco”

“Prasad Rane is a leftist. See posts from his social media page here”

“Prasad Rane mocks the ruling party by insulting mother cow.”

“Latest repost says Prasad Rane fired. Criminal case probable.”

Sharda was stunned. She wanted to turn the TV off but she couldn’t. She looked at the clock., 5:47pm. Everything happened in exactly 47 minutes. Her whole world changed, in 47 minutes. She frantically picked up the phone and dialed Prasad’s number. He didn’t answer. She ran out of her house not knowing where to go or what to do. She banged the neighbor’s door and begged them to try calling Prasad. She went and stood at the gate of the MHADA complex and tried finding Prasad in every auto rickshaw and taxi. Exhausted, she collapsed on the footpath and the watchman had to take her home.

Around 9 pm, Prasad came home with a dupatta on his face. He looked like he had been through hell. Sharda wanted to ask him a hundred questions as soon as he set foot in the house but when he walked in he hugged her and wept like a baby and she couldn’t say a word. They held each other and wept for hours.

The next morning Prasad saw a horde of journalists storming the gates of his complex and he almost fainted. Sharda ran to hold him and told him that it was too dangerous for him to go out to find lawyers. She would do it for him. She made a list of all the lawyers she knew, got dressed and covered her face with a dupatta. She made him ginger tea, pulled the cable wire from the TV and left.

Sharda made her way through the reporters with great difficulty and began walking towards the offices of Sharma uncle, her father’s lawyer friend. All she really wanted to do was hug Prasad and cry but she had to be strong for him. Sharma uncle saw her at the door and refused to open. He folded his hands in a Namaste and said he would not fight for a cow-hater. Sharda didn’t say a word and proceeded to Dubey uncle’s offices. 

After being rejected by 6 lawyers, she finally found herself at the doorstep of Mr. Quereshi. His assistant heard her case and told her Mr. Quereshi would be happy to take it. Sharda sat down on the stairs and wept. It started raining then and she felt like her mother wept with her, that November afternoon.

As she now sat on the bench, the next person in line, she thought of her father, and then of her husband. On the wall behind her a washed out quote read:

पहले वो मेरे शहर में आये, लोगों को मारने लगे, मैंने कुछ नहीं कहा, फिर वो मेरे मोहल्ले में आये, मैं चुप रहा, वो मेरी गली में आये, मैंने आँखें बन्द कर लीं, जब वो मेरे घर में आये तब मुझे बचाने वाला कोई नहीं था.

(First they came to my city, started killing people, I did not say anything, then they came to my neighborhood, I kept quiet, they came to my street, I closed my eyes, when they came to my house, there was no one left to protect me.)

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