The Cow Story

Stray cows are a common sight in Delhi. They pervade the whole city - the roads, the gardens, the bylanes, the garbage dumps. And the surprising thing is that these cows are not actually "stray", they belong to people who milk them dry every morning and evening.

The owners, of course, are least bothered about the health of the cows. They roam around eating whatever trash they can find, harming themselves and those who drink their milk, but the owners care two hoots as long as the cows give milk which they sell.
-- Times of India

THE NEWSPAPER ARTICLE hit me two ways. First, in a country where no amount of human suffering seemed objectionable, it struck me as odd that a reporter would be so concerned about the cows. And second, it made me realize that after two months in India I had stopped seeing them.

This was to be expected, I suppose. The typical visitor reacts to India's cows the same way an adult reacts to children at a grownups' party: leaning down upon arrival to grin and say hello, and then promptly forgetting about them. At first it had seemed fantastic to see cows lounging on hotel steps or strolling through markets with the bored air of practiced shoppers; but after three days they had become invisible.

Now, as I stepped off the train in New Delhi, I began to renotice them - everywhere: lolling in the shade of trees, plotting in huddles outside restaurants, nosing at my pack while I stood waiting to cross a street. But they seemed to answer to no one. Rarely had I seen one tethered, and never had I actually seen one being milked. Did they really have owners?

AFTER BREAKFAST I found a two-dollar flophouse near the railroad station, left my pack and walked out into the street. A cow was shambling down the center of Main Bazaar Road, metronomically switching her tail at the flies riding her dung-streaked flanks. She was a full-grown, dirty-white cow, but her clipped horns were testimony that somewhere she had an owner. I fell into step three paces behind her. She passed the Leema Restaurant, the Verma Eye Clinic, and Crazyland Video Games, swiveling her head and shoulders like a gun turret to inspect both gutters for food. She veered around an army jeep parked in front of the Rubia Matching Center, where a sign in the store window said "Colour Matching Specialists." At a busy intersection a policeman smacked her rump with his lahti.

When I walk behind a person, imitating his or her exact speed, posture, and gait, I begin to imagine myself picking up his or her thoughts. Now as we passed the Free Legal Aid Cell I caught something about a "class action suit." My cow's thought? Maybe she too had read the newspaper article? Obviously she was literate; here she was slowing to consider the roster of excursions posted on a signboard outside the Hotel Bright, and seeming particularly interested in the monthly special - AGRA: SEE TAJ ON FULL MOON LIGHT - RS. 500. She stopped a foot away (was she nearsighted?) and read it several times, then suddenly whirled smartly on her hooves and headed back down Main Bazaar Road. Maybe she had a friend who should be alerted to this outing?

Half a block later my cow made a hard right in front of a scooter taxi ("KWEEH-KWEEH!") and lumbered down an alley. She noted the sign - "Masala Dosa Specially, Rs. 6.00" - in front of the South Cafe ("...must come back for lunch..."); glanced at a jade necklace displayed in the window of J.R. Bros. Jewellers ("...would look good on me..."); snorted at the crowds filling the Raj Central Store ("...always crowded, that place..."); and turned up her nose at the offerings of Ajay Tailors and Drapers, Specialists in Gents Suits ("...nothing for me there...").

She passed a single green bean, turned and inhaled it off the alley floor, and shot me a look from one brown-marble eye - "Are you following me, creep?" At a wellside trough she stopped to drink. A boy rinsing purple trousers in a bucket punched her left flank. It didn't, to me, seem such a severe blow, but my cow immediately turned and headed straight for the Shartah Clinical Laboratory - "Routine Tests: Blood, Sputum, Urine, Semen, Stool, Etc." I thought she was going to enter the front door, but instead she passed it right by and headed down the alley toward a boy pushing a cart of sweetmeats. The boy seemed distracted by the presence of a stranger, me, in the small alley, and now my cow took quick advantage, snatching a sweetmeat off the cart without breaking stride. The boy screamed, but already she was three smug strides past him, flexing her neck. "...Chump..."

SEVERAL ALLEYS converged at the Pancholi Medical Centre, and here, underneath the sign of Dr. (Mrs.) M. Krishna—MBBS, MD, DGO, Gynaecologist (sic)—four cows were gossiping. My cow stopped, sniffed the butt of one, mentioned the Taj tour to a second, and into the ear of a third whispered something ugly about me. Unfortunately, my cow's arrival had completed the blocking of the alley, and now a boy wearing a school uniform kicked her in the ankle, on purpose, with a heavy black shoe.

She pretended to ignore this ("...never let 'em see you suffer..."), but moved quickly down the alley. She sniffed a string of discarded marigolds, a parked bicycle seat, a mound of fresh dung, and glanced back over her shoulder ("...creep's still following me..."), then hit a run of luck: fresh parsley scraps strewn beside a power pole; cabbage leafs dumped in the trash bin in front of a chai shop; and half a chapati lying next to a communal well. Between the Modern Haircutters Saloon and the Cozy Travels Tourist Info. Center she nosed in on a smaller cow nuzzling a whole pile of greenbeans.

Two men pushing a cartload of pork cuts stopped. "What?" one asked, nodding at my notebook. "Writing essay?"
"Yes," I said.
"Scholar," he informed his companion.
I asked, "Do you know who owns this cow?"

Maybe I sounded like trouble. The man's eyes bugged; he nodded at his partner, and they both put their shoulders to the cart and pushed it away.

Green beans devoured, my cow was off again—backtracking past the Modern Haircutters Saloon, and passing beneath a Campa Cola Lite sign ("...have to try that"). She didn't even flinch when the aggrieved sweetmeat boy cracked her rump with a stick. Sacred? Throughout this country I'd seen people poking at cows, slapping them, pulling their tails. Now, in half an hour, I'd seen four people hit this one. In comparison, right up until the moment we knock them on the head and make them into hamburger, we treat our cattle like royalty. What might a Third World cow make of America?

MY COW STOPPED at an intersection and sniffed the breeze. She took a moment to scan a newspaper lying at her hooves, then ambled off down the alley, back toward Main Bazaar Road. I bent over and was copying down the headlines—"IRAN REAFFIRMS FATWAH ON RUSHDIE'." "P.M. PROMISES GOVERNMENT HELP FOR FLOOD VICTIMS." "SOCCER RIOTS!"—when something suddenly knocked me two steps sideways. My cow! She'd set me up—doubled back when I wasn't looking and butted my right hip with her forehead.

I took two quick steps farther away and looked back at her, shocked. Until just now I had not fully appreciated her actual size. Thank God she'd bumped, and not charged right through me. Thank God she did have an owner, and thank God that person had clipped her horns. She lowered her head and glanced threateningly at my kneecaps, then rolled both brown eyes up to my face. "Coulda laid you out, chump."

She turned and sauntered off. I stayed put until she disappeared around the edge of the next building, then hustled to the corner and watched her disappear, swallowed up among the jalopies, beggars, rubbish heaps, hawkers, rats, urchins and two-dollar flophouses along Main Bazaar Road.

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