A recurring dream sequence was born during a professional assignment in India. It relates to cows, which may not seem as fascinating as they these domesticated beasts turn out to be up close and personal, in India. We all know that Indians, at least the Hindu Indians, revere cows and hold them as sacred. So basic is this belief that Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “If someone were to ask me what the most important outward manifestation of Hinduism was, I would suggest that it was the idea of cow protection.” It may have started with Krishna, who appeared thousands of years ago as a cowherd, but dozens of references in religious texts and myths support and sustain the notion. Milk from those same cows is the fluid that nourishes the world and serves as an essential element in many Hindu rituals. Yet, the stark reality of the o omnipresence of cows propels benevolent bovines from the temple and onto the street. That in your face, in your space actuality means that cows are everywhere, always. So woven into culture are these large, lumpy, lumbering beasts that no one bothers with a “Cow Rock!” bumper sticker or a “Cows Rule” hand gesture.
March, 2007 – There were 18 cows on the bridge today. No, it wasn’t a stampede. It was nap time. In groups of 3 or 4 they lounged on the walkway along the bridge’s entire width and length, not more than a city block or so. The cows and bulls took up their individual posts on the side facing the sun, a few almost leaning against the balustrade, just like I pile up pillows against the headboard to read at a comfortable angle. That day, when I passed in a rickshaw at the usual sedate speed, I observed several of them twitching in a spurious attempt to loosen flies from their perch along the spinal-hide runway done up in white, brown or egg shell. I wish I could draw, because the following cartoon series came to mind:
A newly born calf drops from its mother’s womb and, after struggling to its feet, looks warily up at her, and then all around, finally spotting a Hindu temple not far away, its fence strung with marigold garlands in bright yellow-orange and crimson. “Thank, God. That’s a relief”, says the calf, droplets of sweat falling from its new-born wrinkled brow. Mother cow looks down inquiringly. “Well, this time I’ve come back as a cow in India. Last time, I was a Republican.“
Traffic simply bends or halts and waits when a cow or bull chooses to enter the crush of vehicles that litter Lucknow’s roadways. This is supposed to be a small city, yet, it provides refuge for over 2 million people. It often seems that there are an equal number of wheeled forms of transportation: bicycles, motorbikes, motor rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, small business vehicles that look like a half a toaster on wheels, buses, vans, semis, pickups, police on horseback, cars, SUVs, and carts pulled by donkeys or oxen. (In Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal, the carts are pulled by camels.) There goes a family of five on a motorbike. Yes, of course, it is against the law, but what is a family of Mom, Dad, and three kids supposed to do? Off they go with Dad at the helm, the two older kids book-ended between the parents and a third strapped onto Mom’s back. As the sun shifts in the heavens, the cows rise, not in unison but with single-minded irregularity. Their legs look too spindly to raise any but the youngest and least massive of the group. The bulls and larger cows can weigh up to 1000 pounds. That’s a lot of hamburger. Ooops, my McDonald’s heritage is showing. They lumber to their feet by throwing their weight from side to side, like a fat man lifts himself from a lawn chair, awkwardly and with enough teetering that one worries about gravity.
As a newcomer, I initially wondered what the cows ate since grazing in an urban environment is haphazard at best. Soon though, their source of food became clear, aromatically obvious. Cows are fed on vegetable and fruit garbage; every day, tens of thousands of tons of it is strewn in the gutters, along roads, and into spaces between parked vehicles to await the cows pleasure. The cows dine on leftovers and rejected bits of every meal served in the city. Not meat, for half the population is Hindu. The Muslim vendors and housewives know the rules, though, so they, too, only dispose of compost matter in the street. The rest awaits the erratic pickup of the municipal garbage service.
Despite this 24 hour Indian buffet, the cattle in Lucknow were dying…of starvation. They came, they ate, they died. Those who observed them noted that they were shrinking down to nothing in spite of the largess offered daily. In due course, several cows in the Lucknow herd were taken to a vet, put to sleep (as in anesthetized, not euthanized), and examined, …uh, internally. They discovered that the cows were also eating plastic bags, the plastic bags newly come into use throughout India. Folks were putting cattle feed in plastic bags and throwing out the lot. Though cows have four stomachs, the the food wasn’t being turned into nutrition because of plastic blockages throughout the system. Thus, eating made no difference.
The cows had to be saved, so laws were written to require thicker bags. The theory was that thicker bags would be more valuable to those who make a living going through garbage. The dump scroungers would save the bags for reuse and keep them away from the cows. The idea was sound. The result was nil. No manufacturer really wanted to make the thicker bags, government officialdom evinced no desire to monitor the manufactures, and no shop owner could tell the difference between a thick or thin bag and so, thin still rules. Some people have become more careful about putting out scraps without bags. Others continue to fill the bags with mealtime refuse , stems, and rinds and drop them into the gutter. Not surprisingly, cows still die of starvation on streets of plenty. It would appear that sacred has its limits.