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The Cockfight
is considered as the most popular story in the Kashmiri literature. It has been translated into many Indian languages and has appeared in English translation in anthologies such as Indian Short Stories 1900-2000 edited by I. Vi. Ramakrishan; Contemporary Kashmiri Short Stories edited by Hriday Kaul Bharati, Neerja Mattoo; Contemporary Indian Short Stories Vol 3 all published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. The Cockfight is precribed in the school and university curriculum in Jammu and Kashmir. It has also appeared in Best Loved Indian Stories of the Century published by Penguin India.

Read in the original Kashmiri.
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The Cock-fight
Amin Kamil

The moment Shahmal spied Ghulam Khan entering the compound with the bird in his hands, she was up on her feet. She even forgot to wash her pheran which had been soiled by her six-month-old baby. She felt as if she had found a treasure and cried to her husband instantly, "So you have brought it! I was apprehensive that you would come empty-handed even today."

She almost snatched the cock from her husband's hands and began to stroke its feathers and comb. 'Four-and-a-half rupees I paid for it,' Ghulam Khan stressed the word 'rupees', as though to convince Shahmal that the cock was not a poor weakling.

Shahmal did not seem interested in the price he had paid; she had an eye only for the rooster, and joy bubbled within her at the sight of it. She placed it on the ground and cast a glance at the window of the adjacent house, raising and arching her brows. Then she addressed her husband again in a slightly louder tone, "This is the type of cock I was looking for. Of course the markets are flooded day and night with scavenger cocks, which the whole neighbourhood has bought."

Ghulam Khan made no comment and walked off indoors. The cock's legs were tied together with a bit or string (and he hopped about with difficulty. He pecked at the string that bound him, throwing glances upwards as if to size up his surroundings.

Shahmal already owned two hens. They were, in the meantime, burrowing for food in the heap of refuse in the compound. When the rooster's crow fell on their ears, they stood stunned and looked at him suspiciously; or were they trying to evaluate the demeanour and nature of this newcomer? One of the hens moved towards him swaying her body gracefully, in a seemingly disinterested manner, as if strolling about just for her own pleasure. The other hen, who was all the while clawing at the heap of refuse, raised a cloud of dust around her and bathed herself in it. "Ugh? I thought it was someone worthwhile. What is it to me? Let him be, whoever he is?"

Shahmal fetched a handful of rice and sprinkled it before the cock. He fell upon it hungrily and went on stuffing his crop with huge mouthfuls as if he had been starving for days.

When the hens saw this special favour done to the cock, they ran and pecked hastily at the scattered rice grains.

Shahmal cast another glance towards the window of the adjacent house. Seeing no one there, she shouted loudly at the hens, "Shoo, shoo? A plague on you? The poor hungry fellow? You won't let him feed in peace. One would think you had had nothing to eat for days?"

The hens ran away, clucking loudly. They knew for whom Shahmal's reproof was intended. Why, otherwise, would they have run for their lives? But, at a safe distance, they still pecked nervously at the stray grains of rice scattered around the cock.

"Congratulations!" Jani the Skinny leaned out of her window and called to Shahmal. "When did this cock come?"

Shahmal had been waiting for this call ever since the rooster was brought, and the instant it came, she struck up an attitude, lifted up her head, smoothed out the imaginary creases in her pheran and, flourishing her silver earrings, said, "My husband has just bought it. Four-and-a-half rupees he paid for it." Shahmal stressed the word 'rupees' more than her husband had done a short while back.

"Must be from the countryside," Jani the Skinny expressed her opinion quite innocently. "Yes, so it seems. A good cock."

"And just imagine, it is only seven months old," Shahmal fixed the age of the cock arbitrarily. "It is of a special breed, not usually brought to the town. And so expensive! Who would buy them?" After a pause she added in contemptuous tone, "People here would want only those scavenger cockerels!"

This remark set Jani's heart on fire. She knew that she herself was the target of these contemptuous words. Flushing scarlet, she moved away from the window, crying, "I have something on the frying pan. You feed him as best you can."
Shahmal chuckled at the empty window and scolded the hens with pursed lips, "Shoo! Shoo! May a blight fall upon you!" Again she turned towards the rooster with pride and joy.

The truth was that Shahmal had wanted this cock out :of spite for Jani the Skinny. While Jani had five hens and one cock, Shahmal had only two hens. She had had three, in fact, but one had died of sickness along with her five chicks.

Jani the Skinny's cock would hop up from its compound to the wall which separated the two houses and from there it would hop down to Shahmal's compound. Having no male bird of her own, she welcomed these visits as providential, but disliked them intensely when she left the paddy or corn to dry in the sun. He would cling to her courtyard like a parasite. No amount of chasing could restrain him from coming back to eat and scatter the corn. Shahmal was afraid to leave anything to dry in the sun. When at last her patience was exhausted, her pent-up wrath burst out and she released a volley of abuse on the cock. Jani the Skinny heard her and, leaning out of her window, retorted mockingly, "You should buy a cock of your own, do you hear? You welcome him on certain occasions, do you not? Yet the loss of a few grains of rice pinches you."

Shahmal was cut to the quick by this remark. From that very moment, she was after her husband to get a cock. Jani the Skinny also took all possible care not to let her cock reach the other side of the wall.

Ghulam Khan evaded his wife for about a fortnight with one excuse or another; but it was impossible to put her off any longer. He had to buy the cock from a dealer in Maisuma Bazar for three rupees, though he added a rupee and a half to its actual price to impress his wife, so that she might not say in her characteristic tone, "Ugh,| what a stinking cock you have bought! Were there nof better ones to be had anywhere?"

Jani the Skinny's cock was red, dotted with black here and there; Shahmal's new one was snowy white and dazzlingly fair. His gait also was more impressive than that of Jani the Skinny's rooster. But the latter looked stronger with his sturdy limbs. This was the only distinction; otherwise they were both of the same breed and almost the same price.

Night fell. Everyone went to bed. Shahmal propped up her elbow on the pillow and resting her cheek on the palm of her hand, the baby at her breast, thought of the new cock. "How the sight of the cock must have set the Skinny's heart on fire! Can I ever forget her pointed, poisoned words? Let her cock just venture towards this side of the wall. If I don't break his leg, don't call me Shahmal!"

With this decision, she chanced to look at her husband's face. He seemed indescribably handsome and a flush came to her face. She slid her elbow away and was laying her head on the pillow when there was a sudden crowing from the pen. "Cock-a-doodle-doo ...!" Shahmal was stunned. She raised her head and listened intently, thinking that perhaps it was her fancy playing tricks on her. But there was another unmistakable crowing: "Cock-a-doodle-doo . . . !" And Shahmal felt as if her neck had been twisted and broken. She sat up in bed and cried, "Oh, listen! Do you hear? Do get up and see."

"Why, what's happened?" Ghulam Khan woke up with a start. "Did you call me?"

"Didn't you hear? The cock. He is crowing now. At the fall of the night!" Shahmal's voice was a wail. "What a creature of ill-omen to bring home!"

"Crowing?" Ghulam Khan puckered up his face. "What then? Are we to wake up for the Ramadan fast that the timing might delude us?"

"See what nonsense he talks!" Shahmal retorted angrily. "Get up quickly and kill him. Don't you know that a cock who crows at the fall of the night should be killed immediately? It is a creature of ill-omen."

"Oh, bother the ill-omen! Go to sleep and forget those old wives' tales and Ghulam Khan pulled the quilt over his head and ears. Shahmal persisted for some time but she could not persuade him to utter another word. He fell into a deep, undisturbed sleep and woke up at seven in the morning as usual.

Shahmal was not so worried by the cock's crowing as by the fact that Jani the Skinny had heard it. It would certainly stir her sharp tongue into action. Her sarcastic remarks would bore holes into Shahmal's skin: "Was this why you were saying that you wanted such an excellent cock? Cocks all over the world announce the arrival of dawn and light, but look at this ill-omened wretch; how Satan enters his nose soon after dusk!"

Shahmal did not go out to the compound after opening the door of the pen for fear of Jani the Skinny. This was very hard on her because she had hoped to answer Jani the Skinny's spiteful words by more spiteful remarks addressed, as it were, to the walls and windows but obliquely meant for the next-door neighbour.

Shahmal was crushed and stayed indoors while the hens frisked about the compound with the cock. She felt her heart turn upside down with aversion at the sight of the cock. And the cock, unaware of all this, stretched his wings and danced round the hens one by one, fanning them politely. But the hens fled away as if saying, "What's happened to you? Is it proper? You don't seem to look about you."

Then they looked towards the door of the kitchen wondering, "Why is she nowhere to be seen today? Wish she would throw us some grains to peck at!" They ran towards the kitchen. The cock read their thoughts and followed them.

Shahmal's glance chanced to fall on his legs. They seemed to her, from the claws to the top, the two ugliest cock legs she had ever seen. Her repugnance deepened. But she dared not shoo the hens away because she did not want Jani the Skinny to show herself at the window at her words. She quickly took out a handful of rice and threw it to the birds from a distance. She would not have thrown any to the cock, but what could she do to the hens? The poor things could not be starved for the whole day.

When Jani the Skinny's cock heard the unfamiliar crowing from the other side of the wall, he stiffened his neck and stretched his chest; his body became tense, all his nerves taut. 'Koota-katak-kootak he crowed at the top of his voice as if calling out to the other compound.

"Koota-koot-koot-kootak," Shahmal's cock also stiffened his neck, as if in answer. "I am the fair one. I wish you would come here and see for yourself. Why do you show me your fist from the other side?"

Shahmal did not like this noise. She wished the cock would choke and be stricken dumb, so that Jani the Skinny would not hear him and be glued to the window.

Instead of shooing him away, she picked up a lump of earth and threw it angrily at the cock, aiming at his head. It missed him, but he was startled and started crowing loudly and Jani the Skinny leaned out of her window, "Why are you angry so early in the morning? What has the poor thing done?" she asked.

Shahmal felt like a thief caught in the act of stealing. All her body exuded sweat. The careful steps she had taken to avoid this encounter were of no avail. Jani the Skinny's words confirmed her suspicion that the woman had heard that cock crow at nightfall and her words were disguised mockery. She mustered up courage and said, "Why should I be angry? He doesn't let the poor hens come near the grain. That's why I scared him away."

"Newly come he is, that's why. Just wait and see him feeding them himself from tomorrow," laughed Jani the Skinny.

"Yes, but that would be true only if we had to keep the bird. He has been brought for meat." Shahmal felt she should not leave Jani a chance to taunt her afterwards. "We would have killed the bird yesterday itself. But we decided to wait till the morning."

"But why? Why will you kill him?" Jani perhaps thought that if they kept him/ her own cock would be left alone. "See how handsome he is! And his voice too is impressive."

Shahmal turned. She has heard it after all, why else would she praise his voice? But she preferred to ignore the jibe in her reply.

"Oh, you think I would care to keep these filthy, stinking cockerels which literally flood the markets? We cannot find the breed we want. But someone has promised to get it for us."

Jani the Skinny could make nothing of those words. She wondered at Shahmal's new coldness. Hadn't she been praising the rooster to the skies? But then perhaps Shahmal's words were meant for her—that she was keeping a scavenger cock. She was about to make a sharp retort when Shahmal walked off indoors. Jani had to swallow her anger.

Blowing into the samovar Shahmal was still deep in thought about the problem created by the cock. She would make her husband kill him; and if he did not agree, she would have the bird killed by Samad the slaughterer. "Let me see how he protests when the dish is brought before him at dinner."

When Ghulam Khan came home from the mosque, Shahmal poured him a cup of tea and spoke sternly. "Drink up your tea and then get rid of the cock. What will the neighbours say? Don't we have to live amongst them?"

'What have the neighbours got to do with it?' demanded Ghulam Khan, munching a piece of bread. "It's not the month of Ramadan that confusion would arise about the dawn."

"Hunh! You only know how to talk and argue!" She added after a while, "If you don't want to, don't. I myself shall have him killed by Samad, the slaughterer. Do you think that I'll fatten this monster of ill-omen?"

"Do as you like," Ghulam Khan ended the discussion. "Only don't ask me to buy a cock again."

"I won't. As if there were a famine of cocks in town!" Shahmal blew fiercely into the samovar. "And then, Jani the Skinny's poor cock hangs about the courtyard the whole day; what do we need another cock for?"

Shahmal wanted to be rid of the cock by any means. She was filled with a profound disgust for him. She saw Jani's white teeth grinning at her. The flutter of the cock's wings sounded like Jani's chuckle to her ears. He seemed to her to be the sole cause of all her shame and humiliation.

As soon as Ghulam Khan left for work, Shahmal went to Samad to see whether he was in. He lived two or three houses away; and killing the cocks of the neighbourhood was his speciality. There were others too who knew the craft but his reputation for the expert slaughter of fowl had somehow been established.

Samad was at home. He saw her from his window and, guessing her business, said, "Go and bring him here. I'll kill him right now. But remember, I'll come to you for dinner. Don't imagine that only the two of you will share the feast!"

"You are welcome," said Shahmal.

She came back home with a light heart, a smile on her lips. She was happy that she could now hold her head high; no longer would she have to listen to Jani's piercing taunts day in and day out. But a strange sight met her eyes when she stepped into her compound. The hens had retreated to a corner. Jani's cock and her own were struggling desperately with each other, raising clouds of dust around them. Jani the Skinny was enjoying the cock-fight from her window. Shahmal discerned a flush of Joy on her face. She was apparently sure of her cock's victory, perhaps because his comb was smaller but thicker, his wattle clung to his throat, and his sturdy limbs made him look a thorough fighter. He had trounced all the other cocks of the neighbourhood in fight.

The colour drained from Shahmal's face and her heart beat violently. The feathers on the cocks' necks stood erect in perfect circles. Their heads trembled and shook with rage. This shaking seemed to have electrified their feathers. Their bodies seemed elongated and the tail-feathers swollen. They glowered at each other and stretching their trembling necks, transmitted messages of fire and rage. Recklessly they attacked each other, peeking and tearing sharply with their beaks.

When Jani the Skinny saw Shahmal entering the courtyard, she sat confidently and conspicuously on her window sill.
"What chance does my weakling of a cock stand against your four-and-a-half-rupee rooster? But who can prevent an ass from running risks? Will he have a sense of shame?"

Reducing her sarcasm, she added, "But let me warn you. He will chase your cock away. As a matter of fact, he has already trounced all the other cocks in the neighbourhood."

Shahmal's heart sank. But what could she say? She was stunned by the course events had taken. The suspicion rose in her mind that the Skinny had deliberately sent her cock to her compound. She was filled with an overwhelming desire to rise and strangle Jani's cock. But she repressed it and started to defend her position before she could be mocked.

"The foreign cock chasing the native cock away! Don't you know the old saying? Besides, mine is not the one for fights. He is of a different breed, you know. That's why he is so expensive."

The cocks raised hell, struggling furiously. They plucked each other's feathers till blood streamed forth.

Jani the Skinny gripped the window sill tightly and her head jerked, her face grew flushed with every movement of the cocks.

Shahmal too was taut with suspense. She was also devastated, sunk in misery at what was happening. The sight of Jani's cock inspired such horror in her that she abused him under her breath, "May your beak fall in pieces! May your legs be stricken with palsy!"

Blood did not show so much on Jani's cock because of his red and black colouring. But Shahmal's spotlessly white cock seemed bathed in blood. Seeing this, she could no longer restrain herself and burst out, "May all calamities fall on the wretch! May palsy strike his sharp beak!"

"Take care, Shahmal; don't go too far," said Jani the Skinny, pretending to smile. "Just watch when one makes the other run for his life. What did you expect?" she added mockingly, "Stinking cockerels are not as cheap as all that."

Shahmal was in utter desperation. All sorts of misfortunes had befallen her one after another since this cock arrived. She would have answered Jani back in the same bitter tone, which the latter wouldn't have gulped down, because she was not a whit less talented than Shahmal in her power of sharp retort. This would have led on to a sharp exchange of abuse, a battle of tongues, had not one of the cocks all of a sudden run in flight. It was Jani the Skinny's cock, and Shahmal's cock started chasing it round and round the compound.

Shahmal saw that Jani the Skinny was dripping with sweat and her face was the colour of the sooty side of a pan. But she also saw that Jani pretended that she was not in the least interested in the outcome of the fight.

"Are you going to kill this cock?" said Jani, propping her chin up on her hand. "Will you listen; and not slaughter him?"

"Did you take my word seriously?" said Shahmal, flourishing her silver earrings with a jerk of the head. "A cock of mine may have a thousand vices, he may even crow at the fall of the night, these are of no account in my eyes if he has the proper fighting mettle. This was the type of cock I wanted. Otherwise, is not the market flooded with innumerable stinking, scavenger cocks?"

Translated from the Kashmiri by Neerja Maitra

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