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Holy Cow: images of eastern India

by Chaitali Banerjee

Chaitali lives in upstate New York. She writes travel essays, fiction and short poems.

It is six-thirty in the morning in a mid-sized town in eastern India. I recline on a lounge chair in the verandah, sipping hot tea - supplemented with creamy buffalo milk, a heaping spoonful of sugar, and spiced with freshly grated ginger, ground cloves and cardamom. The air is heavy with the fragrance of gardenia. On the roof of a neighboring house sits a hanuman langur monkey, holding a tiny baby, keeping an eye on the surroundings. Few men on bicycles, a couple of women on foot, tea-seller opening his shack door – a typical summer morning. I watch a feral cat gingerly step across a high wall to access the neighbor’s garden. A red Japanese lantern hibiscus sways gently in the breeze.

“Hut, hut, hut.” I look towards the source of the sound. A bare-footed shirtless young boy, switch in hand, his skinny sunburnt body glistening with sweat, navigates a tan-colored half-grown cow down the street. This street meets a busy road in a couple of blocks. Buses, trucks, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, cycle-rickshaws flow in a steady stream from early morning to late night. A cacophony of honking horns, dark belches of exhaust, the smell of diesel in the air.

Boy steers the young cow towards the road.

“Hey young man,” I say, beckoning, “where are you taking her?”

“To graze,” says the boy, grinning.

“Where? There is not a patch of grass anywhere near the main road,” I say.

“Sure there is - grass, leaves, if you know where to find it,” says the boy, laughing.

I want to find his source of greenery, so I jump up from my chair and walk with him. I find out that he works as a dishwasher and errand-runner at the teashop while his cow grazes in town. He thinks he is eleven. Every morning, he walks three miles from his village, steering the cow. His family does not allow her to graze near the village; she might get into rice fields or someone’s vegetable plot. He brings the animal to town and lets it loose to find its own food. At dusk, they return home.

I watch the boy lead the cow into traffic without hesitation. Everything around them stalls for a few moments. Large trucks slow down and stop, a minibus screeches its brakes, a motorbike swerves. No one honks. A narrow path appears as vehicles part to make way. The boy marches forward and crosses the road - shoulders straight, cow in tow, expression nonchalant. I wait for the “walk” signal to go across the busy road, fearing every moment that an errant vehicle might run me over.

Three blocks from the road, I find the duo in a quiet residential neighborhood. Each home and garden is enclosed within cement walls. Outside each enclosure lay a patch of no-man’s land - a ten-foot strip between the wall and the street, covered in patches of grass and vegetation. Trees from the gardens spread branches that topple over the walls onto this side. The boy slaps the cow’s rump. She eats a mouthful of grass, then tears a few leaves off a hanging branch of an ornamental tree and starts walking towards the street.

Although this is a quiet street, there are a few cars and occasional buses driving around, and she is untied.

“Are you not afraid that a car might hit her?” I ask.

“He, he, he, he” he laughs, “you are funny! She has the right of way. Didn’t you see how everyone at the main road stopped to let her pass? She is holy, you see. Hitting a cow is a huge sin. Everyone is careful around her.”

As I walk back with him, I turn my head to look at the holy cow. She is about to sit down right in the middle of the street to chew her cud. A bus hurtling down the street slows down, carefully circumvents the cow, then speeds up again.

I know she will be safe. As we stand staring at the crazy traffic, waiting to cross the road, my knees tremble a bit. I wish we had the cow with us.

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