Another Livestock Sighting

Most people know that cows roam free on the streets of India. Even though I've lived in Delhi for more than three years and I see it all the time, it's still a novelty for me. I grew up on a farm in Canada where I was taught that cows belonged behind fences. If ever they broke free it was a major ordeal. So there's definitely something strange and fun about watching cows here at ease in the urban sprawl. 

I kicked myself yesterday for not having my camera on hand for this one. But I also appreciated the challenge, self-imposed, to capture the moment in writing.

I was waiting for a friend, seated by the window in a coffee shop, Costa Coffee, to be specific. It's a British chain whose outlets are popping up all over Delhi. They have good espresso-based coffee in a very nice clean setting, always a step up from the surroundings outside their doors. This was no exception.

I was in the bustling heart of Nehru Place, looking out over a vast courtyard filled with people, busy people, coming and going, some shopping, some rushing to the office, some pausing to feed the cows. The cows? Yes, a small herd, four of them to be exact, two standing, two lying down. There they were, together, in the midst of the people and the shops and banks and towering office buildings. This expansive shopping plaza is the hub of Nehru Place, known especially for its computer shops, mostly for hardware but also software. As well, there is a wide variety of other shops for electronics, office supplies, stationery, textiles and then numerous banks. Just a few steps to the north of where I sit stands the new Satyam Cinema complex, a plush new movie theatre equipped with McDonalds and TGIFridays. Across the street is the Eros Intercontinental, a swanky five-star hotel. From my vantage point, I can see across the busy courtyard to the shiny new sign of the Kotak Mahindra Bank and to another coffee shop, the brightly-coloured and awkwardly-named Café Coffee Day, a popular Indian chain. But the physical condition of the plaza itself is generally not so polished. In classic Indian fashion, there is a perplexing mixture of shit and shine. As I look at the ground on which people are treading I can see not only broken stone slabs and cracked concrete but strewn garbage and dog feces and the splattered stain of beetle juice. (If I look long enough I will doubtless catch sight of someone in the very act of spitting up the foul stuff onto the ground. It's a filthy habit, not unlike smoking, in my opinion.)

The mixture of people is equally impressive, everyone from beggars in tattered clothes to businessmen in Armani suits. This is typical South Delhi. Though they live in different neighborhoods, here in the plaza the rich and poor share the same space with each other, and with the cows.

Of course, no one in the crowd seems to think twice about the cows, or look twice. Everyone is going about their business and letting the cows be. Then someone stops and pulls a piece of roti (flatbread) from a bag and gives it to the mouth of one of the reclining cows. The bovine nonchalantly partakes of the gift. It’s an easy bite to eat. The man, probably a Hindu who has been required by his pandit (priest) to do this good deed, moves on but reaches out to touch the back of the cow as he passes. The same hand then moves to his chest, his heart, as if to perfect the deed. As the pious man walks away, the holy cow has already finished her snack. For Hindus, of course, cows are considered to be sacred. Apparently, they have attained their goddess status simply due to their abiding generosity in supplying milk to the masses.

Soon a group of tourists arrives on the scene. From a distance, they look to be either Japanese or Korean. They notice the cows. One man in the group even pulls out a camera to take a photo of the amusing scene. The irony of it is that some of the locals in the crowd now start to notice the tourists noticing the cows. They look at the tourists like they’re the strange ones making a big deal about cows in the courtyard. In this context, of course, the tourists are out of place. The cows, after all, are locals.

Stuff like this doesn't shock me like it used to, but it still makes me smile. Somehow it's comforting to know that the New India is still India. And the cows in South Delhi are a good reminder to me of that.


1 comment:

Paul Wicki said...

Great description of the scene which played out in front of you...normal, yes in some contexts, abnormal in the British Columbia, for sure. I also grew up on farm. In the country is where cows are supposed to be; however, the mixing of cows and armani suits and shots of espresso certainly does bring a new flavor to your day.
Your story reminds me of how often I think I know the ideal way for our culture, people part of our church, or people in another country to act. The way we grow up, so often conditions us to think we know the best way (not that I appreciate walking through dog crap or doing laundry by hand - as in other cultures).
For me the continued struggle is to not be arrogant as I move into a new culture (even here in Port Alberni), but treat others with humility.

As a mentor once told me, "Always approach a culture and be a learner."

Thanks for sharing your experiences Mark.