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Sat, May 11 2013. 12 48 PM IST
The cow chronicles: why mother matters
Pregnant women are feted and fussed over; made to feel good. Feeding a pregnant woman is good karma
Sarala feeds Ananda Lakshmi bananas. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
My cow is pregnant. Sarala announces this one November morning in the matter-of-fact tone that she uses to ask if I want extra milk. I am delighted. Maybe this will resolve all her health issues; regulate her uterus; make her feel better.
Over the next few months, we ply the cow with goodies: watermelon rinds, pineapple peels, mango seeds, fresh greens, grains, jaggery water—all of which do for bovines, what pop-tarts and pizzas do for children. We want to make Ananda Lakshmi (AL) feel good before her delivery.
This is an Indian tradition. Pregnant women are feted and fussed over; made to feel good. Feeding a pregnant woman is good karma. Maybe this is why India is overpopulated.
Sarala and I examine AL every day. Sarala says the cow’s face has softened; acquired a maternal character. I want to see the cow deliver. Sarala agrees but cannot guarantee it.
“Some cows will deliver at night, Ma,” she says. “Even I won’t be present. They’ll undergo all the labour pain and deliver the baby calf by themselves, poor things.”
Sure enough, that’s what happens. One morning, Sarala and her team depart after the morning milking. Sarala leads the pregnant cow into the army enclave. Grazing the fresh grass inside will “relax” her, she says. At around 10.30am that day, AL delivers a sprightly healthy calf right on the main road. The whole process takes about 30 minutes, say bystanders. AL stands, then sits, then pushes. She takes a break, then pushes some more. The calf arrives swathed in membrane. It lies on the ground. Two minutes later, it lifts its head. AL licks the calf all over to remove the protective sheath and clean her. Ten minutes later, the calf hobbles up. Mother and calf nuzzle and bond.
The guards telephone Sarala and her husband Naidu. They rush to the scene with gunny sacks, clean up the area with cow-dung water, scoop up the newborn calf in the sack, and walk the tired new mother to her cowshed. We all admire the beautiful white and black markings. There is just one problem. The calf is male. In the dairy community, males aren’t valued, a refreshing change from the rest of India. Male cows don’t give milk. For a dairy farmer, they are useless, a liability.
Sarala gives the new mother pathiya saapad, or a specific healing diet, for three days. She mixes jaggery water with grains and corn stalks. The mixture will cool her uterus and remove all the remaining placenta, she says. She sends her son Selva to a farm 2 hours outside Bangalore to bring the corn stalks. It will mean that their income for the day will go down, but Sarala thinks the new mother needs the extra nutrition.
“Does the cow have a mouth to tell you its pain?” asks Sarala. “After all, we are women too. It is up to us to take care of them.”
The affection that Sarala feels for her cattle is genuine and is part of the reason why I find her, and her ecosystem, compelling. Urban encounters with nature are usually fleeting, optional and impersonal. We go birdwatching; visit the zoo; and grow vegetables in the garden. These encounters are just that: encounters. One-off situations without any sense of the continuum that exists in nature.
Nature—through birdwatching, for instance—can become a passion. But such passions don’t help us develop a relationship with one or a few birds. Having a pet alleviates that somewhat, but having a pet is a luxury. It feeds our whims and fancies; our notion of what nature is. Most such encounters are pleasant. They have emotional risks but not (usually) economic ones. Nature opens its doors to us through these experiences, but not fully.
In order to experience nature in an immersive fashion, you have to travel far to rural areas. There you will see farmers battle with pests to save their crops; worry about the weather and its impact on their harvest. This, to me, is an authentic relationship with nature because you are meeting her on her terms as well as yours. The balance is somewhat equal. Urban dairy farmers allow me to get a glimpse of such a relationship without having to leave the city, or even my neighbourhood. They allow me to witness the intersection between nature and the economy.
Does Sarala view her cows as a gift of nature or a gravy train? The answer is both. She juggles both perspectives on a daily, almost minute-to-minute basis.
As livelihoods go, being a dairy farmer isn’t easy. An average cow gives about 3 litres of urine per day and 30kg of dung. Selva and Naidu clean this up, wash the cows and milk them. Every single day. No Sundays off. They all work incredibly hard, quite literally from dawn to midnight.
AL’s son is a glorious specimen of the Holstein-Friesian (HF) breeds that today’s dairy farmers value. His snout is broad with flared nostrils and a beautiful curve. His face is well-proportioned and his black and white coat is silky, with distinctive patterns.
“Look at the heart-shape on its forehead,” says Naidu. “It is perfect for people to touch and pray.”
Auto drivers do this. They pass by a cow, touch its forehead and press a finger prayerfully to their hearts. The Indian version of Eat Pray Love.
Had it been female, the newborn calf would have made a great addition to the herd. Instead, everyone commiserates with Sarala.
“What a waste of effort,” they say, clicking their tongues. “Pity it is male.”
Two days later, I go to visit the calf in its cowshed. It lies beside its mother, Ananda Lakshmi, who is chewing the cud meditatively and staring at visitors.
“She is worried,” Sarala says. “She is wondering, ‘Why are they here? Are they going to remove my calf?’”
They are, in fact, going to remove the male calf.
But that’s the next story.
Shoba Narayan named the newborn calf Alfie. She shouldn’t have named him. You’ll know why next week, in the second part of this series.
Also Read | The earlier, four-part cow chronicles