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Monday, May 18, 2009

"You cow!" "Actually, I'm eight of them"

When I sailed to Kiniwata, an island in the Pacific, I took along a notebook. After I got back it was filled with descriptions of flora and fauna, native customs and costumes. But the only note that still interests me is the one that says: “Johnny Lingo gave eight cows to Sarita’s father.” And I don’t need to have it in writing. I’m reminded of it every time I see a woman belittling her husband or a wife withering under her husband’s scorn. I want to say to them, “You should know why Johnny Lingo paid eight cows for his wife.”

Johnny Lingo wasn’t exactly his name. But that’s what Shenkin, the manager of the guest house on Kiniwata called him. Shenkin was from Chicago and had a habit of Americanizing the names of the islanders. But Johnny was mentioned by many people in many connections. If I wanted to spend a few days on the neighboring island of Nurabandi, Johnny Lingo could put me up. If I wanted to fish, he could show me where the biting was best. If it was pearls I sought, he would bring me the best buys. The people of Kiniwata all spoke highly of Johnny Lingo. Yet when they spoke they smiled, and the smiles were slightly mocking.

“Get Johnny Lingo to help you find what you want and let him do the bargaining,” advised Shenkin. “Johnny knows how to make a deal.”

“Johnny Lingo!” A boy seated nearby hooted the name and rocked with laughter.

“What goes on?” I demanded. “Everybody tells me to get in touch with Johnny Lingo and then breaks up. Let me in on the Joke.”

“Oh the people love to laugh,” Shenkin said, shrugging. “Johnny’s the brightest, the strongest young man in the islands. And for his age, the richest.”

“But if he’s all you say, what is there to laugh about?”

“Only one thing. Five months ago, at fall festival, Johnny came to Kiniwata and found himself a wife. He paid her father eight cows!”

I knew enough about island customs to be impressed. Two or three cows would buy a fair-to-middling wife, four of five a highly satisfactory one.

“Good Lord!” I said, “Eight cows! She must have beauty that takes your breath away.”

“She’s not ugly,” he conceded, and smiled a little. “But the kindest could only call Sarita plain. Sam Karoo, her father, was afraid she’d be left on his hands.”

“But then he got eight cows for her? Isn’t that extraordinary?”

“Never been paid before.”

“Yet you call Johnny’s wife plain?”

“I said it would be kindness to call her plain. She was skinny. She walked with her shoulders hunched and her head ducked. She was scared of her own shadow.”

“Well, I said, “I guess there’s no accounting for love.”

“True enough,” agreed the man. “And that’s why the villagers grin when they talk about Johnny. They get special satisfaction from the fact that the sharpest trader in the islands was bested by dull old Sam Karoo.”

“But how?”

“No one knows and everyone wonders. All the cousins were urging Sam to ask for three cows and hold for two until he was sure Johnny’d pay only one. Then Johnny came to Sam Karoo and said ‘Father of Sarita, I offer eight cows for your daughter.’”

“Eight cows,” I murmured. “I’d like to meet this Johnny Lingo.”

I wanted fish. I wanted pearls. So the next afternoon I beached my boat at Nurabandi. And I noticed as I asked directions to Johnny’s house that his name brought no sly smile to the lips of his fellow Nurabandians. And when I met the slim, serious young man, when he welcomed me with grace to his home, I was glad that from his own people he had respect unmingled with mockery. We sat in his house and talked. Then he asked “You come here from Kiniwata?”

“Yes.”

“They speak of me on that island?”

“They say there’s nothing I might want that you can’t help me get.”

He smiled gently. “My wife is from Kiniwata.”

“Yes, I know.”

“They speak of her.”

“A little.”

“What do they say.”

“Why, just….” The question caught me off balance. “They told me you were married at festival time.”

“Nothing more?” The curve of his eyebrows told me he knew there had to be more.

“They also say the marriage settlement was eight cows.” I paused. “They wonder why.”

“They ask that?” His eyes lighted with pleasure. “Everyone in Kiniwata knows about the eight cows?”

I nodded.

“And in Nurabandi everyone knows it too.” His chest expanded with satisfaction. “Always and forever, when they speak of marriage settlements, it will be remembered that Johnny Lingo paid eight cows for Sarita.”

So that’s the answer, I thought: vanity.

And then I saw her. I watched her enter the room to place flowers on the table. She stood a moment to smile at the young man beside me. Then she went swiftly out again. She was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. The lift of her shoulders, the tilt of her chin, the sparkle of here eyes all spelled a pride to which no one could deny her the right.

I turned back to Johnny Lingo and found him looking at me. “You admire her?” he murmured.

“She…she’s glorious. But she’s not Sarita from Kiniwata,” I said.

“There’s only one Sarita. Perhaps she does not look the way they say she looked in Kiniwata.”

“She doesn’t. I heard she was homely. They all make fun of you because you let yourself be cheated by Sam Karoo.”

“You think eight cows were too many?” A smile slid over his lips.

“No. But how can she be so different?”

“Do you ever think,” he asked, “what it must mean to a woman to know that her husband has settled on the lowest price for which she can be bought? An then later, when the women talk, the boast of what their husbands paid for them. One says four cows, another maybe six. How does she feel, the woman who was sold for one or two? This could not happen to my Sarita.”

“Then you did this just to make your wife happy?”

“I wanted Sarita to be happy, yes. But I wanted more than that. You say she is different. This is true. Many things can change a woman. Things happen inside, things happen outside. But the thing that matters most is what she thinks of herself. In Kiniwata, Sarita believed she was worth nothing. Now she knows she is worth more than any other woman in the islands.”

“Then you wanted–”

“I wanted to marry Sarita. I loved her and no other woman.”

“But–” I was close to understanding.

“But,” he finished softly, “I wanted an eight-cow wife.”


I read this story a long time ago in Reader's Digest and loved it to bits. Even today, Johhny Lingo beats any of the other heroes I've read about hands down.

Googling for the story today, I found that a short film had been made too ... not too much to talk about apropos the picture quality and definitely doesn't compare to the prose, worth a watch still... there's even a very recent version made!

It almost makes me wish that system was still around. Hell, in keeping with my 'men must be wooed too' pratigya I'd pay eight cows for the man I loved!!!

Although, if the experience of one gentleman were anything to go by, it's not a good idea. He says:

I called my wife an eight cow woman and.. no dinner.

25 comments:

  1. erm... wouldn't giving eight cows for a guy be looked upon as dowry?

    also, if you gave him cows... who'd look after them???? u'd have to be living on a farm! :D

    but yes... nice thought... and i loved the story! :D

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  2. loved the story...
    agree with Raysh abt the whole giving eight cows thingy! :D

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  3. very nice story. :-)

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  4. What happened to my comment?!

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  5. That was just so beautiful! Have to call my husband an eight cow man to see his reaction :)

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  6. @Rayshma: Naah. In the age old tradition of all pets (if cows can be called "pets"), his parents would be taking care of them.

    @DDD: Nice one. Although I won't dare call my wife "8 cow woman". If she misses a word or two... bull and china shop come to mind ;)

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  7. hey DDD, lovely story! thoroughly enjoyed reading it :) thanks for sharing it with us!

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  8. Don't we just love RD and its heart-warming stories! Nice one, this.

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  9. amey: yeah.. but she'll be living with his parents also na?
    in that case, difficult to distinguish between cows and her! HAHAHAHA!!!
    and yes, you shouldn't EVER refer to ur wife as cow anything. if you ever speak to vin - my hubby - he'll vouch for it.

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  10. I was having a rough day and you made it all fine for me :) Thank you for sharing this BEAUTIFUL story!I'll remember Johny Lingo and his glorious wife for a long time to come..

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  12. @Rayshma: Ask your hubby? Oh, you mean once he gets out of doghouse for calling you old and not calling you. BTW, DDD is going to be a ghar-bahu?

    @All: How about this: "Will you be my eight cow girl?" (TM)

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  13. Great! Fantastic!! All these years spent learning how to treat a girl right, and now they tell me it's all about cows!! Damn :P!!

    How the hell do I procure said heifers now?? This raises a whole new smorgasbord of questions to worry about:

    Are desi cows good enough??
    How much do they cost anyway??
    Am I even rich enough to afford and maintain that many?? What about infrastructure and setup costs??


    This gives a whole new meaning to "I'll dance with you until the cows come home." No wait... make that "The cows are here. Can we dance now??" :P

    Damn those blasted dairy farmers! Lucky bastards :P.

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  14. Johnny Lingo was a indeed a smart man; aced at marriage-front too with a win-win play.

    He should visit Kiniwita soon. Folks there would agree that he really deserved an eight cow wife. Funny way of ranking though :).

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  15. Lovely...Thanks for sharing this wonderful story here, D...

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  16. i lauve you SO much!!!!

    @ amey: my pati doesn't live in the doghouse. he lives in his lab. arre we're going by age-old traditions na? nuclear families is not an age-old concept. hence, the ghar-bahu reference.
    DDDs wedding is kaafi door ki baat yet! ;)

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  17. You have an interesting blog. :) I really like the layout!

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  18. Glad you all liked the story!

    Catty: Yeah it is dowry of sorts... which is why I said 'almost wished'. You're calling me a cow?! Hmpfh... go I sulk... katti :P are you and Amey going to be doing my wedding arrangements? Dono bahut interest se discuss kar rahe ho :P

    Pixie: Blogger is comment hungry so it ate the comment :P I'd put on moderation temporarily.

    Smitha: Did you? What did he say? :D

    Amey: So you won't call your wife a cow because then you'd have to call her a bull? :D Talk about gender equality! :P And 'eight cow girl'? I can see this happening...

    "You're my eight cow girl!"

    "Really?! You're my eighth cow boy too! Oh thank god, I was a bit worried as to how I'd explain all the previous boyfriends" :P

    Someone: I now! talk about red herrings! Too many questions... ask Amey for help, he's good with this stuff :D

    Brown Phantom: hello and welcome :) I'm sure Johnny Lingo was a legend aroud the pacific islands...

    Sindhu: Hi there! Welcome... glad you liked what you saw :)

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  19. if i adopt u, tumhari shaadi mujhe hi karvaani padegi na!? why do u think i keep asking you to elope! :D
    when did i call u a cow, eh?

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  20. If I call her cow, I wouldn't have to say anything more. She would act as a bull to my china shop on her own.

    And I was proposing that as a proposal: "Will you be my eight-cow girl?" NOT eight"h" cow girl. That would be another china shop moment.

    @Rayshma: Oh, the old traditions. Then DDD would get to keep the cows and eat the cream too :D

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  21. Lovely story, except that this should apply to men also, they also deserve to be "eight cow men" :)(Now that shouldn't become an excuse for extra dowry!)
    Just kidding I understand that the basic message of the story is simply to create self worth in a person, and a supportive husband can go a long way in doing that!
    I too read this Reader's Digest and I had loved it...

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  22. Catty: amey: yeah.. but she'll be living with his parents also na? in that case, difficult to distinguish between cows and her! HAHAHAHA!!! Who said this huh? Tumhara bhooth? :P Arre I'm all for eloping... koi chinta nahi ;)

    Amey: Hee hee, twisting words is such fun :D Chalo I won't bug you anymore

    IHM: Yeah exactly :)

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  23. Great story! Thanks for posting.

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