A strange dream, perhaps at the hour before dawn: The house seemed to quake in its foundations, shaken by what seemed like a freight train rolling right overhead. Rushing toward the courtyard and the sound, I climbed atop the high wall overlooking the narrow lane between the twin row of houses. It was a sight out of Kevin Costner’s epic Western, Dances with Wolves – particularly the scene where the prairies reverberated to the beat of thousands of hooves beating down on the shaken earth as the great herds of ‘buffalo’ thundered into the Sioux hunting grounds. Here below me, for as far as the eye could spy, charging through the narrow lanes of this south Delhi block where I live were cows, hundreds, maybe thousands of them, running, jostling and mooing, black and white, brown and grey, running away from a great force that seemed to usher them on toward their destiny. For what seemed like eternity, this great herd crashed through this narrow lane, sending vibrations up the wall and through my very soul, as I clutched at the ledge, in fear and wonder until the beasts had passed. ‘Twas then that I saw the straggler – a beautiful cow, in the prime of her life, or perhaps just past. Unlike those before her, she was not charging down but seemed to be looking for something. She lowered her head and tried to butt open the door of the house opposite. The lock held firm. The animal moved next door. I could see the sharp point of the left horn strike the aluminium sheet of the door repeatedly and leave it looking like a legionnaire’s battle weary shield that had seen its last bit of jousting. Thwarted by the barrier, the animal, now almost desperate, trotted ahead, stopped, swung in the opposite direction and rushed toward our gate – a flimsy wooden portal that just about managed to keep up a barely respectable appearance. I knew it would give way in no time to the cow’s persuasions and so I jumped down the wall, bolted across the yard into the house and closed the heavy iron door. I could feel the sharp horns poking at the door on the other side. Through the narrow space between the heavy door and the hinges, a musky bovine odour wafted in and I could catch the glint of a moist eye, surprisingly gentle, peering in. She kept poking for a while. Then she looked at me through the gap and in a gentle, human voice, said “Don’t let them take me away. They’re taking me away!” Stunned…, I asked where?, almost in disbelief. She said “To Kolkata!” Kolkata?! Memories came flooding back. As a child, at my grand uncle’s place on Linton street in Kolkata, I remember looking through the window one evening at cattle being herded along the road, goaded along by their minders. My eyes followed the large herd, trotting away into a smog obscured sunset, alongside hand-pulled rickshaws, yellow cabs and the odd tram. “Kaat teh niye jachhe, khoka! (Taking them to be slaughtered, kid!)”, the maid had said, even as I woke up.
The previous day, Elke, an exchange student from Austria had asked an awkward question. An outright activist, she was appalled about the manner we seemed to treat our ‘holy cows’, having seen them on the streets, eating garbage and worse, carrying ugly scars from battles with rush hour traffic. I recounted a story by the delightful James Herriot about a small-time farmer whose favorite milch cow had become too old for yielding another drop of milk. After the tradition of the day and borough, the farmer, though loathe to do so, sold his cow to the butcher. On the appointed day, the butcher took the old dame away. The disconsolate farmer watched his dear Daisy (or some such name he called her by) on her way toward becoming some stranger’s steak and the shoes of his children. The sad farmer was pining the evening away, when he heard a noise, like that of wood being dragged over the gravel path that led to his farm. As he approached the gate, in burst Daisy, a wooden stake dangling from the rope around her neck. The butcher, unamused, came in the next day and took her away. But come evening, Daisy is back again. With tears in his eyes and a smile on his lips, our farmer returns the money to the butcher, now crimson with consternation and Daisy lives out the rest of her days in peace. I told Elke that while the English farmer was an exception that proved the European rule, many if not most Indian farmers who are far poorer, would do the same. The only reason our streets double up as bovine country clubs is because other farmers, though unwilling to tend to a commercially worthless animal, forego the opportunity to make one last buck off their animals and turn them loose instead. Which option is more cruel to the animal is debateable, but it is undeniable that an Indian farmer, though poorer than his European counterpart, for reasons of faith if not compassion, refuses to profit from the death of an animal that served him for most of its adult life.
The moral, if I may say however isn’t about not eating beef or about worshipping cows. Such matters are and should remain, matters of personal choice. Yet, is it too much to ask of a civilized race that we take care of those who take care of us, be they parents, pets, retainers or perhaps even a creature that has carried the yoke of civilization on its shoulders or nourished it with her life-blood flowing through her udders, especially in their hour of need. “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” said a wise old man from Porbandar. The world hasn’t ever been riper for all and more of this wise old man’s words.