I remember watching an American science show on TV when I was a kid – I think it was “Bill Nye – The Science Guy”. There was once a segment on a show where they asked kids if they’d seen various animals. When someone asked a little boy if he had seen a cow, he said, “On TV!”. Another little guy said “At the zoo!”. I was shocked because growing up in India I was used to seeing a variety of animals on the streets but the animal I definitely saw the most was the Holy Cow. In fact, just last week I was at the bank early before the doors opened so I would escape the rush and of course, there was a cow standing happily outside the front door. A group of us who waited for the bank’s doors to open awkwardly glanced at each other and the cow who didn’t really seem to mind that we had invaded her space. Finally one man gently shooed the cow away outside after which we all went about our day. As odd as this may sound to a person not accustomed to seeing cows on a daily basis, its very common in India to see a cow at common public places or holding up traffic or sitting content at a traffic junction.
A couple of days ago I was at my in-laws’ house flipping through magazines and saw this picture in Outlook magazine that made me quietly chuckle and remember my favorite cow anecdote. You see, most Indians have their set of cow stories like the time a cow attacked someone (my mom) or tried to eat their handbag (thanks for this one R! Please elaborate in comments below!)
This incident happened, I think, in middle school (I think it was in Grade 5 or 6). We were required to study three languages as part of our curriculum and one of them was Hindi, the national language of India. Our Hindi teacher, Mrs. B, a middle aged Punjabi lady with old school values decided to make us copy down an essay that she dictated to us. The title of the essay was “Gai Hamari Mata Hai” (which translates to Cow is Our Mother). This sentiment is not an uncommon one – Cows are treated as maternal figures by many Hindus owing to the fact that we rely so heavily on them. So Mrs. B read out this soppy, sentiment filled ode to a cow that we dutifully copied down in our notebooks without challenging any of the tall statements in her essay. About a week later we had a new English teacher, Mrs. P who was a tall, brusque, no-nonsense lady who I may be scared of even today. She decided to ask us to write a short précis on either of two topics – Cows or Dreams. I picked dreams because it was more fun to write about but a poor classmate of mine, J made the costly mistake of writing about cows. Excitedly he began to recall the Hindi essay Mrs B made us write and wrote a précis which was basically a translation of the Hindi essay. He must have been pretty proud of himself that day. Little did he know the next day Mrs. P would bellow at him, “What is the meaning of this J – The cow is your mother? What does your real mother think of this I’d like to know”. She went on to read his précis to the entire class while we rolled in laughter. J had a mortified expression on his face but he also seemed shocked – It seemed to me that he thought it was perfectly normal to call the cow his mother. I will never know how this experience shaped J’s views towards cows or if he even remembers it but I assume many kids like him must struggle to balance these and other strong traditional sentiments that many adults pass on to them along with their scientific education that espouses rational thinking and logic.
Earlier this month, I went to a “Gau Shala” (Cow Shelter) in Prateek’s dad’s hometown. Very large donations have been made to construct this facility and while it is an admirable initiative I wonder if the money could have been used towards a general animal shelter. I find that people are very conveniently very sympathetic to a cow but will gladly treat street dogs and cats with utmost cruelty. So in closing I will say this to these people:
For God’s sake extend your cow-specific compassion to other animals that cross your path – don’t kick the street dog to the curb or throw water on stray kittens (I had a cruel neighbor who did this once) – all life is holy and deserves our respect.