In India, the cow is a political animal. In her delightful, The Cows of Bangalore: How I Came To Own One, Shoba Narayan (Published by Simon & Schuster India, Pages 282, Price 350), however, domesticates the cow. She is the much-opinionated cow mother, ready to be milked 17 litres a day and offering copious amounts of curative urine and bless the new homes with freshly laid dung.
Narayan’s politics, however, is subtle and sublime even though she, in a disclaimer, refers to the existence of a non-Hindu version of the cow inaccessible to her, admitting in a way that the cow is a vegetarian Hindu.
The cow is such a commonplace creature in India (according to Narayan’s account India has 300 million bovines) that people had stopped caring for it till the anti-minority politics around the animal made her more than a steak in the democratic ritual.
The Cows of Bangalore is ought to be a best-seller and I strongly recommend Narayan’s book for all who can find beauty in ordinary things—and in common men and women.
Narayan is a life-long vegetarian and animal lover but I would not say that a beef-eater would not have shown similar empathy to cows the way she does. The Cows of Bangalore is a funny book, and it is spiritual, too, showing us the many ways in which the cows touch and nourish human lives.
Narayan’s narrative skills are supreme. From a reluctant believer in the virtues of udder milk compared with packet milk to consecrating her new flat with freshly laid cow dung to buying a cow as a spiritual and religious act, and then donating it, Narayan walks the whole hog with the cow—although not with the desi cow, but a Holstein-Friesian version.
Even for someone who has grown up watching cows of all colours—red, black and white—on streets as well as at home and sleeping on mud floors spattered with cow dung, with or without anti-nuke, anti-bacterial properties, Cows of Bangalore remains a riveting read. The care, diligence and empathy Narayan shows in chronicling cows in Bangalore is commendable.
The social picture that Narayan sketches here goes beyond the cow. In delineating the life of her milk seller, Sarala, and her manipulative power over the urbane elite such as the author, Narayan succeeds as a perceptive writer in reminding us how tough life is for the less-fortunate in India’s cities, who have moved from verdant villages seeking the big pie.
In finding and realizing stories from her own backyard, Narayan points towards the possibilities for an author, with her ears to the ground.
Although the tribe of gau rakshkaks is increasing Narayan finds out that there are very few takers for desi cows owing to their poor yield. As Narayan’s cow whisperer Sarala says although the milk from native cows is special the problem is that they give less milk than Holstein-Friesian cows, forcing her to settle on a 17 litre a day variety when the time comes for the purchase. And how much does a cow cost for Narayan? Rs 75,000. Yesterday, I checked with my fresh cow milk supplier in a village in Kerala, and he has bought one for Rs 38,000. Everything costs more in Bangalore, no doubt.
The Cows of Bangalore is remarkable for the Hindu romance for cows, for realizing all virtues in her but stopping short of taking her to the bedroom, unlike dogs. All cows are contemplative, we are told, not least the traffic-stopper cow. This one passage should make you admire both Narayan and her cow. “A cow is a different breed altogether. A cow’s sense of time is vast, extending to millennia. A cow is of leisurely gait. She ambles—most of the time. Her needs are not as urgent; not predicated upon human intervention. More than any other domesticate, a cow gives of herself; or so Indians believe. Her biological destiny is linked with her innate generosity.” This should be the new text for our times.
Narayan is both a chronicler and lover and that makes The Cows of Bangalore a delightful read. In her explorations, first in search of fresh, trustworthy milk, and then for the cow itself, Narayan chances upon different slices of life—especially that of urban strugglers and villagers who put practical concerns over spiritual niceties. It is important to note that Narayan does not keep her Ananda Lakshmi at home; she only partakes the spiritual equity not merely because unlike dogs, cows are political.
But the ever-generous Narayan leaves us with ample cud to chew over—the new generation does not wish to milk the cow, it wants to make the transformation from udder to Uber. Ask Selva.