We were headed to a small town close to the foothills of western ghats, in search of a person who keeps native cows. Now why would anyone make a big effort to search for something native to that region? That is a different story, told several times by many people, one version of it is here (https://naturalfarmerskerala.com/cock-and-bull-story-of-keralas-cattle-development-policy/). After travelling about fifty kilometres, we reach the outskirts of the small town. My cousin asked for the native cattle guy. The guy who responded lighted up, he said his house is down the street from a certain tea shop. Anyone should be able to point out his house, once you get near it. The guy is reasonable, and can get some calves for a good price. He also gives the name of the cattle guy, for this story we’ll call him Mr. Madasami.
So we drive further into the town, and get to the tea shop. This chaiwala was a little grumpy, and said you can’t meet Mr. Madasami now, will have to wait until evening. So we decide to ask some other folks, who direct us to a narrow street, with old style buildings being replaced by concrete houses. As we walk down this street, we ask one last person for confirmation, lets call him Mr. Murugan. This person knows who Madasami is, and points to the exact house a few hundred feet down the street. We walk there, the house itself is small and narrow, built with walls shared with the neighbors. We knock, and out steps a well-built man, past middle age, sporting a large moustache. When we tell him the purpose of the visit, he is surprised. Surprised that people have come from afar for the native cows. He gets talking. Of a past where he had lots of cows, hundreds of them, perhaps a thousand. That grazed in the nearby forests, rich in grasses, herbs and shrubs. Now he doesn’t own any. But he knows people who keep them.
We said we were looking for calves, weaned, about a year old. He said there were a couple of calves a few months back, but there are none now. He can’t sell the very young ones, even if they are cheaper, because they won’t thrive. And people who buy the very young calves won’t come back.
Now why did the famed Mr. Madasami not keep native cows. The cows were kept for a different purpose, which we’ll see later in the story. There were practical reasons that Mr. Madasami, past middle age, had to give up on his cows. They were like his children he says. These cows have to graze in the forests adjacent to the town. Today permits to graze in the forests, are hard to get. Then there is the new found fancy for western breeds the Jerseys and Holsteins, or their mixed cousins, that provide “milk”, buckets of them. But more importantly, profits are not much with the native cows, and the next generation, won’t go anywhere near cattle rearing.
Mr. Madasami, takes us to a trader, who he promises will get us the calves. His house is on the same street, a few hundred feet away. But unfortunately the trader is not there, we step inside his house, which was open, and wait. A few minutes the trader’s wife shows up, and we gather chairs and stools to sit. The house is cool, but unlighted. On one corner of the room, sesame seeds are piled up. As we wait, we continue chatting up with Mr. Madasami. After half-an-hour’s wait, Mr Murugan turns up, yes the same guy who gave directions to Mr. Madasami’s house.
We give Murugan our requirements, two calves, one male and one female. He then mentions a certain breed of cow, black in color, which he says, he bought for his own use. He can get those, for about 12K rupees each. Now we just wanted two calves, for 10K or so, and didn’t want to go for the high priced cow. He said he didn’t have any, but after some prodding and discussion with Mr. Madasami, he said they have a cow, with a month old calf, that could be worked out cheaper.
These cattle are raised differently. They run around free, are not tied down with ropes. At the end of the day, these are penned inside a field, and the dung from them restores fertility, and soil life. They were used for an ecological purpose. Even as they grazed inside the forests, they provided vitality to the forests, making it richer in ways unknown.
These cows are also easily spooked, by strangers, by the leopards, and tigers in the forest. Mr. Madasami spoke of a time, when his cattle got spooked, and ran. Ending up fifty kilometers away, in another end of the forest.
These cattle also sometimes remain in the forest for days together, with the herdsmen staying with them. Occasionally a leopard might take a calf or two. This was accepted as part of life. But once, a leopard, kept killing calves, lots of them, over several days, without eating any. Mr. Madasami, as he reminsced about this, his moustache twitched in anger. He narrated, how they killed the leopard, and strung it up a tree, all ten feet of it. After all, the cattle were like his children. And loyal like dogs. Once they get used to their new owner, they’ll follow the owner, and if the owner jumps into a well, they’ll jump right after him. They have a good sense of smell too.
Anyway this new deal, of getting a cow and calf, instead of two calves, was a big challenge, but bigger than we realized at that time. These cattle are not domesticated. The person from the farm, wanted to get nose rope on the cow, to make it easier to handle. Mr Murugan said that they will put the nose rope, tie the legs of the cow, and load it into the truck. So we said yes.
Mr. Murugan’s wife served us coffee, strong, and with surprisingly thick milk. We drank that, and go to locate the herd. On the way, one more person joins us, lets call him Raja. We ride the car, a few kilometers, stop it next to a stream, and enter some cultivated fields. Rice and sesame had been harvested a few weeks earlier. As we walk, someone points to a distant herd. They are back from grazing, it was a big herd. The guy accompanying us, says it is about two thousand strong. Another smaller herd goes by a little closer to us. After some time, we locate our herdsman, who then leads us to the herd. The cattle watch us warily. Mr Madasami directs us to go closer, and we follow him. Avoiding the sharp rubble of sesame plants. And the damp edges of the rice fields.
For generations the people here have managed large herds. Utilizing them for enriching the fields with dung. Long before there were cowboys in the American West. It was this ecological purpose, that Mr Subhash Palekar of Zero Budget Natural farming revived. Something that got lost with reductionistic science. When these cattle occasionally ate the cultivated crops, no one got angry. As Mr. Madasami said, they are our cows, no one gets angry. It was a life in flow, like the clear stream that we just crossed, not fragmented, boxed and fenced.
The trader realized that we were buying the cows for natural farming, and was pleased. He kept saying that he’s happy that we are not buying for beef. Even outside of Hindu religion beef was not preferred. Yes people did eat beef. My dad used to say beef makes one’s mind dull. This was before anyone heard about mad cow disease or Alzheimer’s. In spite of one’s religion or food preferences, the world is not neatly divided into pro-cow and anti-cow camps. Like much of life, today it is these beef eaters of Kerala, that sustain these cow herds. That is a fact of life. The first time I ate beef, at a Kerala colleague’s insistence, was opposite the railway station in Trivandrum in a small daba. Very tasty, my friend insisted. Beef like all meats is an acquired taste. I did eat beef a handful of times, before finally deciding, not to go anywhere near it.
The trader was pleased that we are not raising cows for beef. He said few more people have come for the native cows, who want to use them for natural farming. They were willing to pay higher prices. Yet the natural farming enthusiasts were unlikely to provide much revenue for him. It is a hard world out there, and he has to sell the cows for meat. Perhaps he keeps his conscience, by not selling them directly to the beef traders.
The cattle are actually owned by various folks in the town. They leave it to the herdsmen to manage them. These cows are branded, and their ears clipped.
As we walk toward the herd, a couple of young boys, drive a cow, and a month old calf toward us. The cow, tall, with lean legs, dark grey, runs around. We stay far off, to avoid spooking the herd. The rest of the herd watch us, standing still and wary. The cattle here have a small hump, not the prominent ones in many native breeds. They grow wild, will give birth in the wild. It might take an hour to give birth, and the calf is up and moving, in another hour. Not half a day like the jerseys, and holsteins. They also have less milk, perhaps a liter or less. The cows are unvaccinated, although for the government records, a couple in a herd of hundreds might get vaccinated, by the local veterinarian.
Having seen the cow and calf, we walk back. Cross the clear stream, get into the car and drive to town. We stop a little away from the tea shop, to begin the negotiations. The person who accompanied us, Raja, says the cow is a good selection. We don’t want to disappoint you, we want you to come back, he says. Now Murugan is the one who quotes the price on behalf of the owners who we never meet. He doubles the expected price to 20K. That put us in a spot, but after some negotiations, we settle for 12K. Plus some very small commissions to Mr. Madasami, and Mr. Raja. Mr. Murugan says, he’ll arrange a truck, put the nose rope for the cow, and get them loaded. Another thousand for transport.
We go to the tea shop, have tea and snacks. Money is handed over. Mr Madasami wants the person from the farm to stay and take the cow and calf the next day, early morning. But the person wants to take it as soon as possible. While he waits for the herd to come back we leave, with Mr. Murugan joining us in the car. He says we’ll be happy with the cows. The milk is very good. It will be only half a liter, but thick. The yoghurt from it will be so thick, that we can take it in hand and throw it at a wall, and it will stick to it. We drop him off after a few kilometers.
The herd returns late in the evening, and it takes another hour or so to get the ropes around its nose, and neck. But there is no sign of the truck. The designated truck doesn’t turn up, so another one is sent in its place, costing an additional thousand rupees. It comes around 10 PM, and it is past midnight when the cow and calf get transported to the house of the person who manages the farm. Tired, shackled, amidst strangers, the cow is angry, and tries to knock down the people handling it. And the calf, vanishes into the night, never to be seen again. Even if it joined some local herd, it is unlikely to survive, being just a month old. The cow strangely doesn’t call for its calf. It stays with a few other cows. After a couple of months, a small calf was purchased, and the cow was brought to the farm.
It stays in a thatched shed, under a neem tree. When I visit it the first time, it is broken, yet aggressive, thin, with the rib cage visible and udder shrunk. The next time a few months later, it has fed itself well on the abundant grass. It sniffs the air, and flits its ears more rapidly than a wild hare sensing danger. It shakes its head, and pulls back. It would be useless to tell the complete story of this cow or its herd, even if I knew it. For in a world of eunuchy simplicity and transparency, of rules, and regulations, of straight lines, of working and talking within the bounds of the system, and of men and forests separated by fences, the context to the story can never be understood.