Venu and the buffaloes*

The Society of the Divine Word

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By Julie Rattey


It was nearly dusk in the forests of Andhra Pradesh, India, and Venu, 10, watched eagerly as the shadows of the brown buff aloes he was tending grew longer and longer on the grass. “Time to go!” he crowed, springing to his feet. One lone buffalo turned its head, the spread of horns, dark eyes, and large snout expressing world-weary disdain.

“That’s enough grazing for you,” Venu teased. He herded his 20 stout charges toward the house of his employer, a family of a higher caste than his own that lived in the neighboring village. As he walked, he hummed a tune popular among his tribe of the Gothi Koya. He remembered singing that same song five years ago, while walking with tired feet alongside his parents, brothers and sisters, and all their animals from the forests of the state of Chattisgarh to their new home in Andhra Pradesh, where they, along with others, hoped to start a better life away from fighting between Maoist extremists and the civil government.

Animals have it a lot easier than people, Venu thought, resting his hand on the warm flank of one of the buff aloes as he walked. Unlike Venu’s family, the animals had not had to learn a new language in Andhra Pradesh, or look for jobs in the nearby villages. If they were hungry, there was grass to eat; Venu was lucky if he ate three meals a day. If the animals got sick, Venu would tend to them; if Venu fell ill, he would have to be carried for miles on a cot to the nearest doctor. And animals didn’t have to work like Venu. The family that employed Venu was not unkind, but Venu didn’t enjoy pending all his days as a domestic servant.

Was there anything more out there? Venu had begun to think that there might be. The Divine Word Missionaries and their friends had persuaded his family to allow one of their children to attend a school run by the missionaries in Bayyaram, 18 miles away. His parents had chosen his sister Naveena, 7, to attend, and Venu began to wonder what school would be like. It sounded a lot more exciting than watching buff aloes chew grass all day.

***

“Venu!”

Venu blinked in confusion as he saw the very sister he was thinking of walking toward him.

“Naveena! What are you doing here?” Naveena’s delight at finding her brother turned quickly to embarrassment. “I ran away,” she said. “After lunch a group of us left and walked all day to return to the village.” She fell silently into step with her brother. “They’re nice to us, Venu, but I don’t like living away from home.”

“There aren’t any other schools nearby, Naveena,” Venu said gently. “How will you learn?”

“I don’t have to,” Naveena said, sticking out her lower lip a little like she used to when she was a baby. “Like Mama and Papa say, it won’t matter when I am married. Besides, I like helping out with the animals.”

“You want to do that for the rest of your life?” “Maybe. Mama and Papa do.”

They didn’t have the choice of going to school like we do.” “You sound just like Father Luke, our teacher,” complained Naveena. “Stop talking about school. Aren’t you glad to see me?”

“Of course I am.”

“Then no more school talk. If you like it so much, why don’t you go instead?”

 

***

 

A few months later, after having taken his sister’s place in Bayyaram, Venu found himself wondering whether he mightn’t prefer tending buff aloes after all. As Naveena had said, the people at school were friendly, but he was homesick for his stick-and-mud hut and for his family. After lunch one day, he swallowed his pride and joined a small group of boys leaving for the village. The following day, he was back tending buff aloes.

The familiarity of the task was comforting at first, but he quickly found himself more restless than ever. When his teacher Father Luke arrived a few days later on his motorbike, with dust in his salt-and-pepper hair and words of encouragement on his lips for the homesick children who had run away, Venu began wondering if he’d made the right
choice.

“We are always happy to have you if you wish to return,” Father Luke had said gently to them all. “You are always welcome.”

Those words seemed to fill the air around Venu now, as he sat once again on the grass with the buff aloes, willing the shadows to lengthen and yet anticipating a strange kind of emptiness in the evening ahead. If I do not return to school, he thought, this will always be my world. Venu tried to imagine himself as a teenager, then a young father, then an old man in this place, grazing buff aloes and watching a succession of seasons pass before his eyes. The thought sent a shiver of disquiet through his body. If he stayed at home, he would never learn more about art — a talent he had discovered at school — or have the chance to transform his love of sports and knack for helping other children into the first career he had ever thought of exploring — teaching physical education. That night, he decided, he would tell his parents he was returning to Bayyaram.

 

***

 

“Venu, that is the third time you have nearly dropped that bowl,” sighed Venu’s father as
the family was washing dishes one Saturday morning.

“I’m sorry, Father,” Venu mumbled.

“I can only hope Father Luke arrives before all our dishes end up broken on the floor,” his mother teased, dipping her plate into the bucket of water from the nearby stream.

Venu was now 14, and his first few years of hard study had brought him to an important turning point. He had just finished taking the exam that would determine whether or not he would attend high school — and be able to pursue his desired career. Venu had found the exam difficult; since his return home he had hardly been able to think of anything but whether he had passed. His parents, though understanding, were beginning to grow a little weary of Venu’s habit of jumping whenever he thought he heard Father Luke’s motorbike. Twice already his mother had had to rescue a cup or plate from his trembling grip.

When the sound of wheels on dirt finally announced the priest’s arrival, Venu nearly stumbled in his haste to dart outside and greet his teacher. Father Luke, not wishing to prolong his anxiety, smiled and handed him a piece of paper from the pocket of his trousers. It was a list of names. Venu’s eyes raced down the paper until he found his own.

“I passed!” he said wondrously.

“So,” Father Luke said, “what new challenges have you set aside for yourself this summer?”

Venu thought for a moment, then grinned. “I think it’s time my sisters came to school, don’t you?” CD

* Based on the story of Gundi Venu. Research for this story was conducted with the assistance of Father Luke Mundackal, SVD.

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.