Short Story: The Cow in his Throat by Vishwas R. Gaitonde

by:  Vishwas R. Gaitonde


During my last visit to Theni, my hometown in the deep south of India, I got together with some of my former classmates one evening. It was something of a feat; they were working people, busy people, with little spare time. They brought along a stranger, a wiry fellow with frizzled hair who kept giving nervous little coughs.

“This is Thiru. Short for Thirugnanasambandam.”

Thiru grasped my hand jovially, pumping it up and down as he drawled in slow and peculiarly accented English, “Halloo, you creep, how are you?”

The others barely bothered to hide their smiles as I, clearly caught flat-footed, stammered, “I’m fine. How are you?”

“ I’m fine too,” Thiru said warmly, as he released my hand. “I’m just swell, sucker!”

“Who’s this freak? From which nut house did you pick him up?” I whispered to my friend Ramanan, who, between fits of laughter, drew me away from the crowd.

“He’s a recent medical graduate. He’s planning to go to America for his residency and we thought he should meet you, seeing that you live there now.” 

“But he speaks like he’s stuffed up to his ears with marijuana! Or something worse.”

“He’s a country lad. He studied at a village school and it’s made him very conscious of his English. One of his strategies is to see as many English movies as he can to pick up the language. He loves Westerns, especially the Clint Eastwood movies. So we call him Eastwood. It’s easier than Thirugnanasambandam, that’s for sure.”

“But the language of American Westerns is not the language spoken in American hospitals. That’s not the way to speak to patients. He should see the right movies.”

“Too boring. He wants the boom-boom bang-bang stuff,” said Ramanan and called across the room, “Aday, Eastwood! Do your Bill Munny imitation.”

Eastwood cleared his throat, scowled and ponderously recited, “That’s right. I’ve killed women and children. I killed just about anything that’s walked at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you, Little Bill.”

Ramanan gave me a gentle punch punctuated by a mischievous smile. “How’s that delivery for an American hospital?”

“You fellows are cruel.”

“Now hold on, hold on” Ramanan said. “Eastwood will be concentrating on his English for a few months, taking private tuition from a retired English teacher. He’ll talk normally soon. But as long as he speaks like an American, the rest of us can have fun. And we intend to.”

Eastwood walked up to them with a broad smile. “Wanna come to a movie tonight, pardners? An old movie but they are running it again on the big screen. ‘Mackenna’s Gold.’  No Clint in it, but man, Omar Sharif and Giri-Giri Peck are not bad, not bad at all.”

We looked undecided until Eastwood said, “Go ahead, make my day.”

I learned more about Eastwood over the next few days. Eastwood, I was told, was a wizard in medicine who saw examinations as assorted pieces of cakes and pastries (“He knows more than the examiners do. He can make them feel like they’re the students – not always a good thing.”). Getting through the U.S. medical examinations for licensing and residency purposes was not as much a concern to him as his ability to communicate effectively in English.

On a recent visit to the village where he grew up and where his grandparents still lived, when Eastwood announced that he had not only become a doctor but had set his sights on America, he became an instant hero. Movie celebrities,  accustomed to superficial glorification, would have shriveled to see the depth of the adulation he received from the villagers. He became a legend in the villagers’ minds and they made him a legend in his. But in the midst of all the gaiety and exaltation, Eastwood heard the knell of warning. The English teachers at his school confessed to him that he had never heard the language spoken by a native speaker. What they had taught Eastwood might have helped him get by in his little corner of southern India. He could not guarantee the same would hold good for America.

“You’re all right, Eastwood, you’re okay. Don’t worry too much,” I assured him despite my doubts. “You’ll be understood in America.”

“You think so?” He looked doubtful, gave a few of his little coughs, and then said apologetically, “Sorry, but I have a cow in my throat.”

“What?”  I was not sure of whether I had heard correctly.

“How do you pronounce b-o-u-g-h?” he asked.

“Bow. Rhyming with ‘Now.’”

“So I have a c-o-u-g-h, a cow in my throat,” he said. “And much more than that, I’ve just about had e-n-o-u-g-h.”

Eastwood was also worried about the length of his name.

“We don’t have surnames here so we use our father’s name as our surname when we go to places where a surname’s required, right?” he said, speaking in Tamil. “I just found out that it is called a  patronymic, and it’s common all over Russia.Well, my honorable father’s name is Sivasubramaniamoorthy. That makes me Thirugnanasambandam Sivasubramaniamoorthy. Can you see the Americans saying that? Can you see even one American say that?”

“That’s more than a mouthful even for Indians. The Yanks have a challenge on their hands.”

“Well, I don’t think the Yanks will get the chance. It’s too long to fit into my application forms ― there aren’t enough of those little squares.”

And Eastwood had shortened his name to Sambandam Moorthy. But many of his certificates and documents bore the original lengthy version of his name. Now he had to get legal affidavits and all kinds of official papers to prove that the two names belonged to the same person. Oh, the things that one had to do to cross the shoreline of America!

It reminded me of the days when ships full of European immigrants would dock at Ellis Island, the gateway to America. The seafarers would shuffle up deferentially to the immigration officers who christened them with Yankee versions of their names. As they shuffled away from the officers clutching their papers, Matuschanskavasky was now plain old Matt, Rysiukiewicz had been threshed into Rice and Candilieretella’s face flickered as brightly as her new name, Candle.

Several months later, I was on my way to Quincy Market in the heart of Boston, walking at a brisk pace in the chill December air, hoping to get there before the mealtime crowds took over the eateries.  A finger dug into the small of my back and a voice trumpeted into my ear canal, “Halloo, you creep! How are you?”

Eastwood! He had arrived in style, both guns blazing, to conquer America. I spun around and lunged at him, but he neatly sidestepped the parry. Eastwood had a wide and healthy grin that was contagious and I found myself laughing as I said, “I was okay until a minute ago. Now I’ve become deaf in one ear.”

“Deaf, my foot,” said Eastwood, his teeth dancing along with his eyes. “Stop acting, else I surely and totally deaf you in your other ear.”

I kept smiling although I was slightly shocked. I had not expected Eastwood to speak this way. What had happened to all the English lessons? 

“So you’re officially Sambandam Moorthy now?”

“Sam,” he said, gesturing at his coat, hat, and muffler with a sweep of his gloved hand. “Sam Moorthy. Even so, some co-workers find it easier to say Sam Murphy.”

“Tell them your name is Eastwood.”

He had started his residency in a hospital in New Hampshire, he said, and had come up to Boston to see the holiday decorations. He knew I worked in Boston but had misplaced my telephone number and had not known how to get in touch. 

It was cold, and the wind nipped maliciously at every bit of exposed flesh. While the street decorations were lovely and Faneuil Hall looked magnificent in the deep orange floodlights, my stomach had become their competitor for my attention.

“Let’s get something to eat. Something nice and steaming hot,” I suggested. “There’s a food stall in the Quincy Market that sells super-duper calzones. Do you like calzones?”  Then, seeing his uncomprehending look, I said, “They are – a kind of an American version of samosas.”

His eyes brightened at the prospect of trying something different. As we walked to the building a street busker strummed his guitar and sang in a reedy but melodious voice:

On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
A partridge in a pear tree.

The partridge in the pear tree reminded me of something. 

“How’s that cow in your throat?”

“At this rate,” Eastwood said, waving his hand at the slate gray sky and clenching and unclenching his gloved fingers in the damp air, “At this rate I’m gonna end up with a herd of cattle in my throat. I’ll be a better cowboy than Clint Eastwood.”

As we wolfed down the hot calzones, Eastwood told me about his trip to America. Ellis Island had now given way to airports, but his problem was not with immigration but with the airlines. He had flown from Madras to Bombay to connect to the international flight there. It was his first time in an airplane and everything was new to him, including seatbelts. He just could not unbuckle his belt and was strapped into his seat for the duration of the flight.

“Fortunately I had a window seat. It would have been so awkward if anybody wanted to get past me and I could not rise. We landed in Bombay, everybody was getting off and I was still stuck. Suddenly I was the only one on board, trapped in my seat. I must have sat there for ages. Then I heard snickering behind me. The stewardesses were there, all of them bunched by the door. I knew they were laughing at me. I became angry and confused, not knowing whether to call out or not. Then one of them approached me with a stupid grin on her pink, powdered face. The silly clowns!
“I didn’t want to be trapped like that on the long international flight – one needs to go the toilet after a while. So I didn’t fasten my belt at all, not at take-off, not at landing, not at any time. I had a blanket across my lap to fool the flight attendants. I traveled halfway across the world without buckling my seat belt.”

But it wasn’t his story that caught my attention. It was his speech. It was good. It couldn’t have been any better. Then I understood.  The erstwhile village lad had pulled a fast one on me. Deaf you in your other ear, indeed!

“So how do you find speaking to the Americans?” I asked.

“It’s no different than speaking in English to other Indians,” he replied, and as I arched my eyebrows questioningly, he explained. “The people from North India say Twink-lay Twink-lay Litt-lay Star. The Andhra guy goes Twinkulu Twinkulu Littulu Staru. From Kerala comes this gem, Dwingle Dwingle Liddle Sdar. But we know they’re all reciting Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

“The Americans aren’t any different. Some of them flatten their words with a hammer. Some drawl, elongating each word until they’re satisfied it has been sufficiently tortured. Others roll their words into little balls and spit them out of their mouths. I understand them all. But I’m not sure if they understand each other.”

“So!”  I laughed, “all that time you put into polishing up your English was in vain.”

He looked a little discomfited but then said brightly, “No, it was not. I saw all the Clint Eastwood movies, including those I otherwise may never have seen.”



Vishwas R. Gaitonde spent his formative years in India and has lived in Britain and the United States. He has been published in all three of those countries and elsewhere. His writings have appeared or are forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Santa Monica Review, The Journal, Gargoyle, and several other publications. Distinctions include fellowships to The Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, Minnesota, and the Hawthornden Castle International Writers Residency, Scotland.