Istarted drinking milk again three years ago, Maneka Gandhi notwithstanding. Partly for the calcium, and partly because the milk is so clean here in Akathethara.
It doesn’t come to my house in packets. My neighbours and I meet at the corner to wait for the man from the milk cooperative, some of us to buy and some to sell. He measures out the milk, does spot checks with his viscosity meter, and rejects watery milk.
When I go to pick up milk, I also get a stack of letters from Joey, who owns a cement shop near the bus stop a kilometre away. The elderly postman, who has a sprawling area to cover, has had a bypass, so no one expects him to cycle uphill into our neighbourhood. I pull out my letters from the stack and take the others to Shanti, who keeps hers and sends the rest on to Sebastian saar.
At the milk ‘blog’, we find out who died, who got a new goat, and whose daughter got into nursing school. We watch the new house being built and debate whether it is cheaper to build with laterite blocks or brick. Chandran, the milkman, who has cycled past the hot quarry, tells us the sins of humanity are responsible for the heatwave. What did we do, ask the milk sellers. He says, not you and me, those greedy companies that cut down all the trees at one go.
Last month, a visitor from Bangalore glibly advised me to get a cow. To keep myself occupied, no doubt. I was furious for a week, and then I looked into the logistics, for argument’s sake and to understand how the women around me manage their cows.
Kanaka is my favourite milk seller, not least because of the sparkling smile that lights up her slender frame. I usually manoeuvre my place in the cluster so that I get the milk straight from her can. It is clean and rich and I get more butter from it than I should be cooking with. She has two milch cows, two juveniles, and a newborn calf. She’s up at four in the morning to milk them and in the afternoons, till dark, she grazes them on public lands and unfenced and unoccupied private lands. She cuts fodder from a neighbour’s house, when there is any. She spends Rs1,000 per month per cow on cattle feed, the only thing, she says, that ensures thick milk. She supplies about nine litres a day in summer, and more in the rainy season.
Cow owners can pay a one-time membership fee of Rs11.50 to join the milk cooperative. The cooperative channels bank loans for up to Rs30,000, the cost of a pair of cows. A person buys two cows so that, during the nine months one cow is gestating, the milk from the other can pay for the cost of feed. Members get subsidized feed for calves up to three years and help with life insurance premiums, for self and cow. Dr Mini P.K., the panchayat veterinarian, says her staff go around seasonally to vaccinate cows, charging Rs2 a shot. The Rs35 cost of insemination is presently being waived in Palakkad district, in view of the high farmer suicide rates. Akathethara and the neighbouring Malampuzha panchayat together have over 600 active suppliers and 2,200 members on the books.
As members supply milk, their loan repayments, insurance premiums and cost of feed are deducted from their income. Kanaka put her two boys in an English-medium school but had to shift the younger one to the cheaper Malayalam-medium one nearby. They are a bit too young to help with the cows, and her carpenter husband never seems to be around, so she works on her own.
I asked whether she thought of buying more cows and she said she was more likely to sell some off because of all the work. But then she has been managing buffaloes and cows since she was a child. In the pouring rain she won’t wear a rain hat because it scares her cows. Whenever we meet, she tells cow stories. Somehow, I can’t see her selling them off.
(This is the second column in a continuing series of notes on life in Akathethara in Kerala.)
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