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A Fortunate Milkman

by Hareendran Kallinkeel

Selling milk at one hundred rupees a liter was far-fetched fiction for milkmen in Taliparamba. In this small town on Kerala’s coastal belt, where sprouts of urbanization had begun to choke the coconut groves and paddy fields, cattle farming was not considered as a lucrative occupation.

Not until Krishnan commercialized it.

When Krishnan brought up the idea, his mother was dumbfounded. “Ayye!” she said, placing an index finger on her nose, in the typical Keralite manner of showing disapproval. “Do you have any idea what the people will say?”

Educated boys from upper-middle class families didn’t indulge in milk trading. The family’s reputation would be at stake.

“Mamma, why worry about people?” He patted her cheeks. “Let them say what they want. They’ll tire themselves soon enough and leave me alone.”

She had never seen him so enthusiastic — not even when he received his Master’s Degree in Commerce. She realized he was determined and thought it wiser to let him be.

Thus Krishnan began the spadework. He built a spacious stable with provision for adequate water, light and ventilation. He wanted his cattle to be comfortable and healthy. He hired a boy to tend his cattle and bought two hybrid cows.

Krishnan had a Brahmin priest perform a puja — a prayer ritual that preceded all auspicious events in a traditional Hindu family — before the cows were inducted into business. While the ceremony was in progress, Uncle Kanaran arrived. Sparkling rays of anger seemed to bounce off his shiny walking stick that looked more like an artifact — a lion’s head at the top for the handle, and its stalk tapering down to form its paws.

Krishnan could almost see the fumes of his uncle’s fury overshadow the fragrant smoke emanating from the ceremonial fire.

“Is this what they taught you in the university?” Kanaran shook the walking stick. “I can’t believe someone would spend two hundred thousand rupees for a couple of cows and a shed!”

“Uncle, please relax.” Krishnan took a cautious step forward. “Let me explain.”

“I won’t listen to your stupid theories. You could’ve joined the family business if you thought things were that bad for you.” Kanaran stood, feet apart, fists closed on the handle of the walking stick, body erect, as if he were waiting for the right opportunity to take a swing.

Krishnan swallowed. “Uncle, I will recoup the investment within six months,” he said in a composed voice. “Be assured of that.”

Kanaran didn’t blink. His anger suddenly ebbed. His arched eyebrows dropped. The dark sacks below his eyes sagged. When he spoke, his tone was mild and the voice, sad: “My child, I didn’t know you were so serious about it. Unfortunate!” He turned and started to walk away but paused in front of his sister who stood in the doorway.

She saw the red sting of wetness in his eyes. His voice choked when he said, “I am sorry sister. I didn’t realize things were this bad. He is insane.”

She watched her brother walk away and then wrapped her face in her palms. A bout of sobs jolted her body.

Krishnan watched bewildered as his uncle slumped out through the gates like a rag doll. The priest, unperturbed, carried on with the ritual. Krishnan inhaled the exotic aroma that lingered in the air and hoped it would stay till his guests arrived.

* * *

The idea of dairy farming was Mammu Hajji’s brainchild.

Krishnan always listened to Mammu Hajji, whom he addressed as ‘Mammuka’, the equivalent of ‘elder brother Mammu’. He considered Mammu Hajji a vast treasure of knowledge and ideas. Others didn’t. They saw in him a grocery merchant. Nothing more. How unfortunate for them.

Krishnan cherished the long walks and engaging conversations with Mammucka. It was during one such walk that Mammucka told him about the ‘Siddha Ashram’ at the top of a hillock on the outskirts of the city.

“A lot of foreigners visit there for ayurvedic treatment,” Mammucka said. “This traditional system of medicine that the Hindus practiced since the first century A.D. is becoming popular overseas, especially for its using combinations of herbs, purgatives, rubbing oil etc, rather than chemicals in treating diseases. At any given time you will find over a dozen tourists lodged there.” Mammucka spread the statistics in the air between them.

Krishnan was amused. “Of all the f...” He suddenly held the reins to his tongue. Mammucka didn’t relish the ‘f’ word. Veiling his embarrassment with a broad grin, he resumed, “Well Mammucka, it isn’t a degree in Ayurvedic Medicines that I possess.”

Thockintulleeckeri bedi beckandiri pahaya,” Mammucka protested. It was his cliché meaning ‘Don’t interrupt and rush things.’

“You know, ayurveda insists on the purity of things. Food grown and produced in natural environments,” Mammucka said.

“That’s interesting. But how does that benefit me?” Krishnan asked.

“Again at it, eh?” A flash of mock anger played in Mammucka’s eyes.

“Sorry. Not again.” Krishnan did not want to offend him.

“They do grow vegetables there. But they want to avoid cattle farming inside the Ashram. Maybe the foreigners didn’t like the stench of cow dung. Well... you Hindus consider it sacred.”

“After all, Mammucka, you aren’t suggesting that I start cattle farming?” Krishnan said, laughing.

Thanneda hamucke. I suggest exactly that.” Mammucka patted Krishnan’s shoulders and continued, “A couple of hybrid cows and you will get a minimum of twenty liters of milk a day. The inmates of the ashram are ready to pay one hundred rupees a liter — approximately two U.S. dollars. That leaves you with two thousand rupees a day. Not bad, eh?” Mammucka paused to take a deep breath.

Krishnan stood contemplating.

Mammucka ran his fingers through the gray scant hair on his head, then through his white beard. He was prepared to come up with the tough part of the story. “The entire responsibility for the farm, the risks involved, will be that of the person who runs it. A minimum consumption of twenty liters a day is guaranteed...”

“But how could you expect me to...” Krishnan interrupted.

“Let me finish first.” Mammucka held a hand up. “They insist that the cows will not be fed any artificial cattle feed. They have to be bathed twice a day. The stable and surroundings will be kept hygienic and sterile. The cows will be taken to the ashram for milking, the man running the farm should invariably accompany them. That’s about it.”

“I don’t think I can manage it.” Krishnan shrugged.

“Well... You can. Perhaps only you can. You have all the credentials. Background. Education. Your vast agricultural byproducts are free resources. Above all, you have the nonchalance that can withstand crude public reaction,” Mammucka said. He cast a determined look at Krishnan. “And two grand a day means something to you, I suppose?”

“But Mammucka, I can’t imagine guiding cows through the roads of this city to milk them in an ashram. What an absurd idea!” Krishnan shook his head.

“Ever read western fiction? Watched the movies? Some of the cowboys are living legends. Taliparamba needs a denim-clad lad tending cows and fulfilling the big-buck dream. You are on the threshold of creating history,” Mammu Hajji said.

Krishnan thought of the days they had spent together surfing the crazy waves of the Arabian Sea, Mammucka’s long white beard flapping in the wind. And the few occasions, they shared drinks. “This is haram for a Muslim. A sin.” Mammucka once said, holding the glass up. “But when it begins working inside, I forget everything about sins.”

“So what does our hero say?” Mammucka snapped his fingers near Krishnan’s ears.

Krishnan returned from the reverie. The jeans-clad cowboy creating history now appealed to him. Mammu Hajji had just hit the bull’s eye.

Krishnan looked at Mammucka and smiled. Mammu Hajji saw the new dawn in his eyes. “You won’t regret it.” Hajji placed his palms over Krishnan’s head like a Hindu saint blessing his disciple.

* * *

The guests came at the appointed time. The fragrance in the air remained. The Ashram authorities were satisfied. “Excellent. The set up is perfect to our tastes. You can go ahead with it.”

Krishnan was happy. He was determined to keep this reputation forever. He vowed to keep his customers satisfied. Quality of product and service was the key to good business relationships. His mother found solace that ultimately it was not a case of insanity, as her brother had feared.

Kanaran listened as his sister narrated the details. “We must wait and watch,” he said and then, as an after thought, added, “No matter how much money he makes, the disgrace would remain a stigma.”

Initially people mocked Krishnan, clad in denim and guiding cows. He reminded them that this was India, where Gandhi preached the dignity of labor. As people learned more about his business and the money pouring in, they grew silent.

Uncle Kanaran finally called off the ‘wait and watch’ policy when Krishnan presented him with the accounts, which showed a return well over the investment, by the end of the fifth month.

* * *

During the sixth month, a conflict confronted Krishnan. One of the cows started behaving in an erratic manner. Initially it wouldn’t move. Krishnan overcame the problem with a push or a tug at its tail.

On occasions he failed to deliver milk in time. The ashram authorities understood that animals could be unstable. But they expected Krishnan to handle the situation.

Krishnan understood. One more delay, and his business was finished. Now that cattle farming had turned lucrative, there were other youngsters eager to take over. He needed to revamp his services to remain in business.

But the very next day, calamity struck. Half way to the ashram, the cow refused to move. Krishnan tried all his usual tactics. But the cow wouldn’t budge.

Finally he sent the cow-tender ahead with the other cow, so that he could attempt to persuade the ‘problem cow’ and join him at the ashram later.

Krishnan spent half an hour persuading it. He rotated its tail and twisted. It peed, shat, but didn’t yield. He gave a final kick on the cow’s hind. Maybe, Mammucka could offer a solution. His shop was just a block away. Krishnan ran to the shop.

Mammu Hajji listened to his problem and said, “No big deal. The cow is tired of the too frequent baths and odor of sandalwood. The way you keep them, they miss their natural environment.”

Krishnan was perplexed. “How could that be? You know I keep them in congenial conditions.”

Mammucka laughed. “Congenial! A relative term. What is congenial to you need not be so to me. We are talking about cows.”

“But then, the other cow never had a problem.” Krishnan said.

“Resistance in animals differs. It may sustain the harassment for a few weeks more,” Mammucka said smiling.

“You mean to say...”

“Never mind. I have the solution to your problem. Wait here. I’ll take a couple of minutes.” Mammucka went out.

When he returned, he handed Krishnan a small envelope. He surveyed the customers crowding his shop and did not want them eavesdropping. He whispered his solution into Krishnan’s ears.

As Mammu Hajji spoke, Krishnan’s eyes grew wider and wider. When he was finished, he patted Krishnan on his cheeks.

“Trust me.” Mammu Hajji did not mind that his patrons heard this part of the dialogue.

* * *

Krishnan found the cow in the same position as he had left it. He patted the envelope and said to the cow, “Come on baby, you’re gonna have a slice of real life.”

He opened the envelope and fished out two chilies. One green. One red.

Mammucka’s whisper rang in his ears, “The green chilli should do the trick. Break it into two. Squeeze the tips with your fingers. Stuff it up its ass. It should move like it’s on fire. The red chilli is just an extra caution, in case the green one doesn’t work. But that won’t be the case, the green one should spice things up fast enough.”

The cow did not pay any attention to Krishnan’s hand approaching its rear end. It scowled at his face and he almost heard, “Turn my tail the other way around in 360 degrees if you want, and I still won’t budge!”

In the next second, as the chilli pieces sank in, the cow gave out a loud moo and bolted. A cloud of dust rose from where the cow kicked its hooves in its frantic thrust forward, veiling his view for a moment. When his vision cleared, a trail of dust running up the road was all he saw.

Krishnan’s heart sank. How could he ever catch up? If he failed to deliver for the second consecutive day, his business was finished.

Suddenly an idea sparkled in his brain.

Krishnan broke the red chilli, gave its ends a squeeze with his thumb and forefinger. With the bravado of a true cowboy, he opened the zipper of his jeans and pulled it down.

He shot forward even as his fingers approached his rear.

* * *

Stories raced around the town of a cow that bolted like an arrow and a man who whizzed like a bullet and caught up with it.

Krishnan delivered the milk in time, and stayed in business.

The cow never again demonstrated an unwillingness to move.

Nevertheless, Krishnan still carried two chilies, a green one and a red one, with him always. Just in case...

Copyright © 2006 by Hareendran Kallinkeel

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