January 19, 2006

Because cows don't talk

They made for quite a sight not that anyone bothered looking at them in the busy street. People using the inside road that branched off the Cawasji Patel street were those who knew their way about the place, knew why they were there, and went about their daily way with minimum fuss. The unlikely couple at the street corner appeared to be a permanent fixture on the narrow pavement that turns off the Cawasji Patel street into Nadirsha Sukhia street, a narrow lane that joins the DN Road near the Khadi Bhavan chowk, a short distance off Flora Fountain in Fort.

At the turn where the narrow pavement runs past a shop selling suits, jodhpuris, and sherwanis, an old lady in a green, cotton sari sat cross-legged on the pavement, her back to the wall showcasing colourful suits and sherwanis in a glass display behind her. To her right, stacked lengthwise were grass stems in a small bunch, whittled down to its current size by passers-by buying it off the old lady to feed her genial cow tethered in front of her, now regarding its surroundings with a timeless calm that few other animals are capable of, with the possible exception of ruminating buffaloes. And the only buffaloes I’ve seen in my time in Bombay are at tabelas (shelters for milking cattle) I pass on my way to SEEPZ on the Jogeshwari link road. But cows can be found in Powai, by the side of the road that leads past Hiranandani. I cannot remember seeing untended buffaloes on the roads.

Like most Jerseys, this one too is a mix of black and white spots, and big liquid eyes. I cannot resist touching a cow when I see one. It could be that the reverence for the animal stems from growing up in a hindu household. I patted the cow’s face and trailed my finger along the outside curve of the horn before bending down toward the old woman, and pointing to the grass stacked by her side, I said, “Give me for two rupees,” offering her a two rupee coin. Eager to make the extra rupee before leaving for home now that her stock of cattle-feed was almost over, she said, “For three rupees you can have the whole lot.” I gave her the extra rupee and collected the small bundle from her before dropping it in front of the cow.

It was nearing half-past two in the afternoon. I imagine the old lady and the cow took their places at the street corner early in the morning. The stack of cattle-feed must have been sizeable when they started out early in the day. Watching the cow bend to chomp on the feed I’d just placed before it, I wondered if the cow knew what was expected of it when offered the feed by anyone buying it from the old lady, for, if it were to ignore it from being full from eating such offerings through the day, the old lady would lose business. She counted on people buying cattle-feed from her to feed her cow. It helped that people revered cows and considered it poonya to feed one.

In villages, even small towns, stray cows visit homes and wait to be fed before visiting the next one. By the end of the day their foreheads are heavily coloured with kumkum and haldi powder that women adorn the cows’ forehead with before offering them food, usually rice, gram, and the like, sometimes leftovers from chopping vegetables. The scene repeats each day at the same time. I suppose if a cow can read time without having to look at a clock, it can surely understand what it needs to do to keep it’s ‘owner’ in business, for, I’ve never seen them refuse any such offering made, even those that I’ve seen from the bus along LBS marg in Mulund, and the one before a temple past Asalfa in Ghatkoper on my way to the office. Each one is tended by a lady. The Mulund one has two cows tied near barbed wire fencing.

In three minutes, Sita, that’s what Dhondi, the old woman, said her cow’s name was, finished off the fresh feed. I looked at Sita. She looked back at me, ears still. We said nothing to each other. She did not blink nor move her face away when I stretched my hand to pat her snout. I wondered what she made of me. I can only wonder because cows don’t talk.

Then I wandered off into the lane, reading name boards as I went. Flavours and Aromatics, Sheet Exporters, Chemicals.

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