For the love of cows

For the love of cows

A book about cows of India in this day and age? That kind of subject can either be an inspired one or plain minefield-walking. However, Shoba Narayan in The Cows of Bangalore: And How I Came to Own One sticks to her set script and delivers an easy read that will delight cow-admirers as well as intrigue those who view the animal through a purely pragmatic lens.

Using a direct-to-reader style that is simultaneously frank as well as just a bit distant, Narayan piques our interest as she relates how a slight fondness for the bovine becomes a full-fledged love. She intersperses the account of her cow story with capsules of information about the historical, mythical, divine, important place cows hold in the Hindu pantheon.

When the author and her family relocate to Bengaluru from the US, it so happens that she sees a milk-woman selling milk fresh from a cow just across the road from where she lives, in the cantonment area of Bengaluru. In progressive leaps and bounds, Narayan gets a cow to come up to her fifth-floor apartment and bless the place, befriends the milk-woman Sarala, and is soon privy to much gau gyan. From personal knowledge, it’s one short step to deciding to donate a cow to Sarala on the occasion of the author’s father and father-in-law’s 80th birthdays, to roaming in recklessly driven autos to various places where the cows are.

The subject matter is not treated in a heavy-handed fashion at all and if the book often becomes a sort of reader on cows, it does so in a very readable manner.

Despite Narayan’s growing love for cows, the underlying impression is of someone who is still a bit of an outsider watching life go by in India, in Bengaluru to be specific, with a slightly raised eyebrow and a largely forgiving eye. One gets the distinct feeling that this book was written for the Western reader or for Indians not living in India. Things that appear redundant to most Indians are elaborated in the book. 

The story treads a winding road and there are side detours that involve advances requested by the domestic help, TamBrahm cultural traditions, the Indian’s reluctance to visit shrinks however dire the necessity, the garuda purana, ancestral villages, Inji the author’s dog, when to sheathe claws in the face of intrusive curiosity about your life/ your spouse/ your economic status, and when to get those claws out and match personal remark for personal remark (‘when people call you fat, you call them bald…with a smile and a hug of course’) and more.

There are charming cow stories, too. Like the one where the author’s great-grandmother had asarpa dosham (curse of the serpent) and the family cow was found making reparation by letting her milk flow into the holes where serpents lived. Like the bond between Sarala’s father and Kamala the cow. We read that cows, more than any other animal, can sense human feelings, thoughts and illnesses. That they are sensitive to their masters’ needs. That happy cows wag their tails, quite like dogs do. That cows meditate for hours in one spot, sitting or standing. That experienced dairy farmers know techniques to manage their cows’ moods.

The passage where the author and Sarala head out for a spot of cow-shopping is quite the best part of the book. They meet sundry owners who display more eccentricities than do their cows. They go to a cow santhe, cattle fair, and keenly scrutinise the whorls that appear on different parts of the cow, Narayan literally learning on the job! The women, Narayan and Sarala watch as their male intermediary does the hand press under a towel, which is the way sales are conducted. Which is why, Sarala tells the author pithily, women can’t go off and try to buy cows: ''Which man will take a woman’s hand under the towel and start pressing her palm? The woman’s husband will cut off the other man’s hand.''

Finally, Narayan buys and names a Holstein-Friesian cow Ananda Lakshmi, which is then ceremoniously handed over to Sarala. Eventually, Ananda gets pregnant and delivers a male calf, Alfie, which, of course, is to be given away, and that is quite a lump-in-the-throat moment for both the author and the reader.

Slowly the relationship between Sarala and Narayan deepens and soon the latter is going off to her milk-woman’s village in Tamil Nadu to ‘see’ a girl for Sarala’s son… and actually helping wash down and wipe the floor of the family dwelling with cow dung! Now, if that isn’t true cow-love, I wonder what is.