It all started when my grandmother, Paati, couldn’t tolerate the cowherd Aandi Muthu’s lazy and dictatorial tendencies and she withdrew her cow from his charge and hired the dhobi’s young son as his replacement.
Aandi Muthu held reign for many years in the village. Every morning he would mark his entry to the village at 9 a.m. calling out, “Unleash your cows,” to the villagers as he walked by.
With his unkempt, long, dry hair, his bulging eyes reddened by the previous night’s liquor, and wielding a cane, the scene in no way reminded anyone of the cowherd, Krishna. On the contrary, had Aandi Muthu mounted a buffalo and had a mace replaced the cane, he would have passed for Yama Raj on a morning shift for a hurricane cattle sweep.
Accustomed to his drinking habits, impatience and short-temper, the moment my Paati heard his voice, she suspended her kitchen activities, rushed to the cowshed and released her cow Lakshmi before he could go past our house. Aandi Muthu never looked back to check if the household had released its cattle. And we couldn’t afford to keep Lakshmi cooped up, for a cow that gets exercise is a cow that is more bountiful. Besides the food for the cows was out there in the meadows and fields. Paati, like the other village ladies managed her domestic needs with the help of Lakshmi and sold the surplus in the form of milk, butter, or ghee. It was my grandmother’s source of input to the family kitty. So, we could ill afford any harm to our cash crop.
Aandi Muthu’s routine was well known. Everyday, he herded the forty or fifty cattle to a vast meadow past the village. The cattle were no problem. Either they knew, too well, his nature or were eager to enjoy the temporary freedom from the cooped up life in the cowshed.
Muthu allowed them to graze happily as he reshaped his shoulder towel into a pillow for a nap under the shade of a bush to get over his hangover. Occasionally a passerby accidently stepping on him, a snake hissing past his legs, the grunting among the cattle for territorial grazing rights, or the oppressive sun would wake him up from his siesta. He would then look up at the sun for the approximate time. If there were still some moments left, he would light a bidi and smoke it to its last puff—or till his fingers felt the burn. Around 3:30 p.m., he would herd the cattle back to their homes.
This went on regularly for years until his dedication deteriorated. He began bringing the cattle back at 2 p.m., then 1 p.m., 12 noon, and finally at 11.30 a.m. This gave a totally different twist to the adage “till the cows come home.” Paati found this unacceptable. Surely, sunset couldn’t commence at 11.30 in the morning, she argued. But Aandi Muthu had his own explanation: “Dry ground. No grass to graze. Subjecting the cattle unnecessarily to the scorching sun could impact the milk output.” Paati feared that if she argued with Muthu, he would stop taking Lakshmi. So besides grumbling and gossiping with the village ladies, she tolerated his lack of dedication for a while. Some village ladies pointed to a possible second marriage as a strong reason for his poor work ethic and others blamed his worsening drinking habits.
Paati finally replaced Aandi Muthu with the dhobi’s son. In time, more and more villagers followed suit. Besides herding cattle to the fields and watching over their grazing, the boy gave the cattle a bath in the canal, as well.
This new trend did disturb Aandi Muthu’s peace of mind and he was heard complaining frequently about the new cowherd.
Then one evening, it was past 4 p.m. and there was no trace of our cow, Lakshmi. The milking time was 5 p.m. Paati got worried. Enquiries with the ladies who entrusted their cattle to the same boy revealed that their cattle had returned, but unaccompanied by the boy.
Paati sent me on a search mission. I ran to all the possible places; I could not locate Lakshmi. No trace of her. I got worried. I asked passersby if they had seen a white cow grazing. One man said that he had noticed an animal lying near the village cremation ground. Elders had prohibited children from going near the cremation ground. So I went just up to two hundred yards from the place and saw a white cow lying motionless. I called out to her, “Lakshmi, Lakshmi,” but she did not raise her head. For once I violated the instructions and went close to the cremation ground. Yes, it was Lakshmi, lying with her right front leg broken and hanging, and tears rolling from her eyes in pain.
I sped home and informed Paati. She mobilized manpower and had Lakshmi loaded onto a cart drawn by two oxen. The Government Veterinary Hospital was closed for the day since it was 6 p.m. in the evening. But I knew where the veterinarian lived. I persuaded him to come home. After a thorough examination, he opined that it was not any vehicle accident but a deliberate act of malice that had caused this. He said he would fix a cast for some weeks and if things didn’t improve, the leg would be amputated.
Two months of vigorous attempts to naturally join the bones did not help. There were clear indications of pus formation. The leg was amputated. In course of time Lakshmi managed to move around, one leg short. But Paati did not want to send her out again for grazing. My grandfather’s client had a huge agricultural land in his village twenty miles away. He volunteered to have her taken there so that she could lead a peaceful rest of her life. Eight or nine months later we got the news that Lakshmi had passed away.
The usual practice was to replace a cow or buffalo once the milk yield declined or stopped. But from the time I could remember till Lakshmi’s leg got broken, she was part of our house—milk or no milk. So the news of her passing away was no less than the loss of a member of the family.
For Paati it was still worse, for while she milked Lakshmi, I would hear her talk to Lakshmi, direct her not to move her legs or to postpone her excreta disposal till she had finished with the milking, plead with her if the yield fell short of her daily commitments to customers, or sing songs to persuade her as I sat at a permissible distance enthusiastically watching the proceedings, with occasional pleas to Paati to let me milk Lakshmi. Lakshmi’s loss cut deeply. The loss of a pet is always tough. But, sharing memories can help celebrate the life of the animal lost. This is my way of coping.
V.V. Sundaram retired from a U.N. organization managing their publications programme. He taught Sales and Marketing for a book publishing course and, as a hobby contributed to Hindustan Times and Times of India.