The Good Life | Shoba Narayan
Posted: Fri, Jul 13 2012. 10:59 PM IST
Amateurs can massage the teats of a Murrah buffalo for half an hour before the animal lets down milk. Many dairy farmers get the calves to suckle for a few minutes and then continue milking themselves. Or they tie the calf in front so that the mother can lick and fondle the calf during the milking process.
The cow comes home: The cow comes home from left) Narayan (Sarala’s husband), Sarala and Selva with Anandalakshmi. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
This too is fraught with danger for calf mortality is high on many rural farms and can reach 60-70%. A grieving Murrah buffalo that is used to fondling her calf can withhold milk for the entire lactation cycle (about 300 days) which, given that most milch animals live for only about 15 lactation cycles, is a significant chunk of income. Dairy farmers are acutely aware of—and palliate—a cow’s mood. They frequently refer to the animal as “sensitive” or “delicate”. Sarala mixes home-cookedsambar “for taste” in the feed of one of her cows, simply because she knows that the animal likes it. Taking care of a cow’s moods is both an economic necessity and a spiritual calling for these farmers. In India, we have an advantage as even mercenary dairy farmers have an inherent aversion to ill-treating these animals because they have been raised to think of the cow as the ultimate mother: “Go-matha”.
Selva is an expert milker. Then again, his cows are cross-bred Holstein-Friesian (HF) cows, which readily let down the milk and even moo for Selva if he is late. Indian dairy farmers are a savvy lot even though many of them are uneducated. The reason Selva turned down Muniappa’s cow, valued at Rs. 55,000, was because it was a native breed—Bos indicus as opposed to Bos taurus. But when he talked to Muniappa, you could tell that both he and Muniappa admire desi breeds—Gir, Red Sindhi, Sahiwal—for their hardiness. Desi cows have more sebaceous glands and are able to withstand hot Indian temperatures. They don’t get mastitis, common in HF cows, and their feed-to-milk ratio is quite high. But ultimately Selva turned down Muniappa’s cow because of low yields. The average desi cow gives 8-10 litres maximum per day, whereas HF cows give 20 litres.
By the second week, Selva and I are a bit desperate. We have visited dozens of urban farmers who live in flats that house cows instead of people. A dozen cows sit in the living room. A fan whirrs above. “See how comfortable they are,” says Sarala admiringly. “Imagine how tasty their milk will be.”
Finally, we decide to go outside the city. Varthur village lies beyond the gated communities of Whitefield with names suggesting palm meadows, vistas, gardens and sunshine. Today, Senthil (Sarala’s oldest son) is also with us. He rides shotgun with Kuppa, getting off at every traffic signal to avoid getting fined by the police.
The cowshed we are visiting belongs to a man called Rajashekar Reddy. He has sold Sarala’s family cows in the past, and they are hoping that they will be lucky this time around as well.
Reddy is tall and imposing. He welcomes us with the cordiality of a man who is about to see good money, and shows us his cows. There are four of them in the paddock, feeding on hay. As always, Sarala is all admiration—for the cows, the setting and Reddy. Her husband is not with her so she can be free with her compliments.
“See how strong he is,” she nods towards Reddy. “Drinking fresh milk daily, breathing this eucalyptus-scented air, eating home-grown vegetables harvested from this red earth. What’s not to like about this life?”
In her voice, I hear longing.
Selva and Senthil examine the four cows in the paddock. The animals grunt and stamp when the boys approach them. “Hai, hai,” they say, shushing the cows. They open the cows’ mouths, smell their saliva, lift their tails, peer into their rectums, and look at their legs for sores or wounds.
Reddy wants Rs. 75,000 for the cow that we like. He seems unwilling to bargain. He bought it for Rs. 85,000 a couple of years ago, he says. It is a good milker.
Selva comes to me and says that it will be hard to beat this deal. “You saw how it is,” he says. “People won’t reduce their price just like that.”
I ask him to negotiate down to Rs. 60,000. That’s all the money I have.
We go back and forth for a while. Our language is flowery, yet laced with insults.
“I am getting the good fortune of buying a cow for the first time. Why don’t you let me have that good karma by lowering your price?” I ask Reddy. “Why must you fleece me?”
“What do people who read computers know about cows?” asks Reddy in reply. “Why would I cheat you? Only if you patronize cows will this country succeed.”
I don’t see the connection between cows and this country’s success but I let it go.
“Reduce the price by Rs. 10,000,” I say, coming straight to the point like these people do.
“No can’t do,” replies Reddy.
Stalemate. We agree that I will pay Rs. 60,000 now and the rest later.
I take out the money. Reddy brings out a brass plate with betel leaves, betel nuts, a broken coconut and a few bananas—all symbols of fertility and auspiciousness. Selva, Sarala and I stand on one side and hold the brass plate. Reddy and his cow stand on the other. Senthil takes photos on his mobile phone. The deal is concluded.
Reddy ceremoniously leads us to his house—a beautiful one-room dwelling, sparsely furnished, with electric blue walls and a black concrete floor. We sit on chairs. Reddy’s daughter-in-law brings out hot milk, tea, biscuits, peanuts and sev. Reddy urges us to eat. Sarala does her eyebrow-raised half-smile gesture of habitual admiration—for his house, hospitality or cow, I know not which.
We chew on peanuts and exchange gossip. I could tell you all the interesting stuff we talked about but I’ve run out of space.
Selva loads up the cow in a van and we all ride back together to Bangalore. The ride costs Rs. 600. I get home and give them the remaining Rs. 8,000 for the cow.
“Why don’t you buy us the first feed? That will give you some extra good fortune,” says Sarala. “Plus, we can make it a round figure of Rs.75,000.”
We go to a shop near my house and buy cow feed. The typical ratio is crushed whole maize (30%), cotton seed extract cakes (20%), milled pulses like horse gram, soya, black-eyed bean (15%), milled wheat (15%), salt, mineral and vitamin mix for the remainder. It comes to Rs.10,000 for the first month’s feed. I pay Rs. 7,000.
We walk my cow ceremoniously back to her cowshed and do a little naming ceremony. I get naming rights, except that the name has to end with “Lakshmi”. Otherwise, the name won’t set, says Sarala. OK, I say, let’s call her Rajalakshmi. That’s taken. What about Dhanalakshmi? Taken too. Gajalakshmi? Taken. All the Ashtalakshmi are taken up by her herd, to the point where they have named her last cow Chellalakshmi or “Sweet-lakshmi”. More like a pet name. It can end with Gowri too, says Sarala, as a compromise.
My husband wants to name the cow after his sister: a younger brother’s mischief. I am aghast. I call his sister in the US and ask permission. Sure, she says. Her full name is Anantha Lakshmi but she is called Anu.
How about Ananthalakshmi, I ask Sarala. Is that taken too?
She hesitates. I wonder why. Okay, she says finally. Let’s call her Anandalakshmi.
I like it. We call my cow Anandalakshmi.
Months later—just a couple of weeks ago, in fact, when the Mintphotographer came to take their photographs—I ask Sarala, during one of our morning conversations what the name of the cow that got hit by the corporation lorry was.
“Her name was Anandalakshmi,” says Sarala. “Same name as your cow.”
Anandalakshmi supplies milk to the Narayan family every day. Shoba Narayan took Sarala and Selva’s permission to write the four-part cow chronicles—this is the last in the series. Although this incident happened in December, it’s written in present tense for writerly effect. Write to her at email@example.com
Also Read |Shoba Narayan’s previous Lounge columns