The Cow Economy

Middle Sister-in-Law had been busy all morning carrying loads of hay. She is the wife of the older brother of Gautam, a character in my current film. Her husband is the middle of three children, so she is Gautam’s Middle Sister-in-Law. I’ve never heard her name. She and her husband had done ten trips each bringing about a fifty cubic foot load of hay each time from a mile away. A nearby farmer had finished threshing his harvest of rice and was giving a good deal on the leftover hay. The same could not be said of the operators of tricycle carts, hence the trips on foot. The clay path was too slippery for her flip flops with the heavy load; the paved highway had been hard on her bare feet.

The hay was for their two cows and one calf; maybe that was what made her so voluble on the subject of their cows. I was lying down after lunch on the bed used by her son when he visits home from the nearby boarding school, and she needed little invitation to start talking about the cows. The hay will be good for the coming months, but now with the winter cauliflower crop, the cows can eat the leaves, which have to be boiled, or else the cows get sick. They get a bath every two or three days. Cows get sick like people, you know, she said, like they can have strokes. One of her cows had broken a leg, and the nearby veterinarian had suggested amputating it. They got a doctor from town who charged five hundred rupees to take a look, and had the animal hanging from a sling for months to let the leg heal. It was Middle Sister-in-Law’s job to apply medicine over the raw wound; ever since, she can’t eat meat.

The cows’ stall shares a wall with the house, an electric light burns there all night, so anyone getting up at night can take a quick peek at the animals. Gautam’s mother can check on them through the window without leaving her bed. The light keeps the animals from bumping into each other and getting into fights.

The calf will be sold when it gets a little bigger; the cows give them milk for most of the year. They drink some, sell some. They rarely need to buy fuel; the caked dung is good for cooking. The next calf will likely go out on loan; the borrower has to raise it, and bring it back after its first calf. In return, he gets to keep that calf.

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