Although this happened in December, I only wrote it now mostly because I wanted to do it right– for my heroine, as well.  The good news is that someone has written to me offering to buy her another cow.

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Sarala needs a cow. She tells me this when I chide her for giving me less milk that morning. It is 7am. The school buses have left. I am standing outside the army cantonment opposite my Bangalore home, waiting in line for fresh cow’s milk. Sarala’s son, Selva, squats nearby, milking her favourite cow, Chellalakshmi.

I have known Sarala for five years. I see her everyday when I cross the road to buy milk from her.

A line of hawk-eyed customers stand beside me, bearing stainless steel milk cans in designs that would make Subodh Gupta salivate. Mumtaz, wearing a purple hijab, tells Sarala that her son didn’t like Chellalakshmi’s milk. She wants milk from her “usual cow”, Dhanalakshmi, who stands a few yards away, placidly chewing cucumber peels.

I stare at the six-year-old lad doubtfully. Clad in his blue and white Kendriya Vidyalaya uniform, with neatly parted oiled hair and limpid eyes, he seems too young to have a palate, let alone one that can differentiate between the milk of two Jersey cows.

Can he tell the difference, I ask.

Milky way: Sarala’s son Selva milking Dhanalakshmi, who likes cucumber peels. Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Milky way: Sarala’s son Selva milking Dhanalakshmi, who likes cucumber peels. Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Mumtaz views me with pity. Of course, she says with a toss of her hijab. Can’t you? Apparently, Dhanalakshmi’s milk is more alkaline, given her fondness for cucumber peels. Chellalakshmi’s milk has more “gas”, and acid, because she has been gorging on mango peels, plentiful in the season. It occurs to me that I am hearing a new solution to lactose intolerance: Change your cow.The milk squirts into the large iron bucket. Bubbles hive the top. Selva brings the bucket to the culvert. We crowd around like bees. Rookies inkhaki half-pants and white banians (vests) show up from nowhere. They thrust their cans to the front of the line. A fight threatens to break out. Sarala soothes everyone, speaking in Telugu, Kannada, Tamil and Hindi by turn. She pours out 1 litre for me but doesn’t give me the complimentary extra “kosuru” that she usually does. That’s when I complain about less milk.

“What to do, ma?” she says in Tamil. “One of my cows got hit by a corporation lorry.”

Once again, the casual tone in which she describes mortal tragedies shocks me. How will the happiness studies that put India low on their lists explain the resilient matter-of-factness of India’s poor? Take Shafi, the flower man who delivers strings of jasmine every day. He is always smiling. He was smiling when he told me that he couldn’t deliver flowers for a week because his brother died. Was that a reflex; or is that his nature? Or Sarala, for that matter. It is clear to me that Sarala loves her cow. Yet, the way she deals with her cow (and livelihood) getting hit by a corporation lorry is very different from the long period of mourning that I went through following my pet’s death. Is grief a luxury that the Indian poor cannot afford?

I ask how it happened. It was a month ago, she says. I had not known. I had talked and laughed with her. Life had gone on. On that fateful day, as always, the cows had made their way from their cowshed near Ulsoor Lake to the spot where they were to be milked. A corporation lorry swerved around a slow bus, did not see the cow and hit it. The army guys pulled the fallen, bleeding cow to the side of the road and called Sarala.

The army ladies tell me how upset Sarala was when she heard about her cow. “What to do, Amma?” asks Sarala. “We shouldn’t have left our cow there. Who can we blame if the corporation driver came too fast early in the morning and ran into our cow? Our time is not right.”

They tried to revive the cow, she says. Took it to the hospital. But nothing could be done. The cow’s leg was gone. How to keep an animal without legs? That would be cruel. After a few days, “We let her go.”

I make clucking noises, borrowed from the rooster nearby. You must be feeling terrible, I tell Sarala.

She nods. “My mind is all bejaar (messed up).”

Sarala has a round face, soft eyes, and a beautiful smile. She looks like the cows she cares for but I can’t tell her that. I know that her brother has a deaf and mute daughter about my children’s age because she asks for their old clothes. I know that she is looking for a bride for two of her four sons. One is in the army in Kashmir and the other works for an IT company. She wants an educated daughter-in-law. “At least MA,” she says, for her 34- and 30-year-old boys. Her eldest, Senthil, is married, and has a son. Sarala wants a granddaughter. After four sons, she is fed up of boys. “Girls take care of us in our old age,” she says.

We talk daily, Sarala and I, about brides and recipes; cows and corporation lorries; babies and bath water, in no particular order. On that Monday morning, Sarala approaches me with a proposition. She wants me to buy a cow for her. She is not sure of the cost but it would at least be Rs. 40,000. She has it all worked out. She will repay my loan through a monthly supply of milk and some cash to supplement it. Within a year, the loan will be repaid. “I need you to buy me more cows,” she says in explanation. “How will you do that if I don’t repay your loan?”

When I look doubtful, she lays it on thick. “You know, the Marwari family next door wanted to buy a cow for us. They like to do that, these Jains. But it didn’t work out. You are lucky. Else, why would I approach you instead of them when I need a cow?”

It is compelling logic. I agree. Next week, we plan to buy a cow.

Shoba Narayan took Sarala and Selva’s permission to write the cow chronicles, the first in a four-part series. Although this incident happened in December, it’s written in present tense for writerly effect. Write to her at [email protected]

Subscribe to my newsletter