I have known Sarala the milk lady for six years now. When I first moved to Bangalore, I watched the milking routine with a mix of joy and trepidation. The thought of getting organic milk with zero carbon footprint appealed to me. My family was dead against it and took a year to convert. To this day, I am the only person in my 70-apartment complex who buys milk from Sarala. The rest buy Nandini milk in plastic packets.
After Sarala asked me to buy her a cow, my main concern was whether she would consider me a sucker—an easy touch for “advances”, as loans are called here.
When I first moved into my building, I made loud announcements about how I wouldn’t give advances. That lasted about a week. Today, I have given advances of varying sizes to the ironing man, vegetable vendor, staff, and now, my milk lady. You know what I’d like to do? I’d like to unleash a behavioural economist to figure out Indian advances, because you know what? There is no model that can be applied here on how to give advances and get them back. One size doesn’t fit all. What is true is that loans will be sought. The size will vary based on need, circumstance, length of employment and ability to repay. The cynic in me thinks that each person you hire susses you out and asks you for the maximum that they can get away with. The optimist believes that they intend to pay it back. Except that shit happens and they have to leave town.
I can afford to give Sarala a Rs 40,000 loan but I don’t want her to think that I can. I don’t want her to view me as her sugar daddy, or mummy in this case. So I exaggerate existing alibis: home loans, defaulting payments, ageing relatives. “You have your jewels with the pawnbroker. I have a home loan that is hanging like a noose around my head,” I say.
Bovine bargain: Sarala, who is looking to buy a cow, has help from her son Selva, who rarely smiles but is a kind soul. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
She smiles sympathetically. “Everybody has problems,” she says. “You have bungalow-size problems. I have hut-size problems.”
A week later, Selva, the son, approaches me. This continuous back-and-forth was “not setting” for them, he says. Would I or wouldn’t I buy them a cow? “Set” is a word I hear frequently among the people who energize and lubricate my life. When I refer a driver to a neighbour for a job, he will report back after a week saying that the job “did not set”. Setting, or not setting, is a complaint; a failure; an impasse. It can mean that the employer was too strict; or too stingy; or merely that they didn’t get along. It can mean that complex negotiations with a carpenter are on the verge of a breakdown for mysterious, unarticulated reasons that may have to do with tone of voice, the price of raw teakwood or the fact that the carpenter’s assistant has just gotten engaged and is demanding higher wages. Any or all of these factors can cause negotiations not to “set”. When Selva tells me that our discussions are not “setting”, he means that I need to decide. I can no longer hide behind husband’s permission. I tell him that I will buy his cow.
We set out in an autorickshaw— Sarala, Selva and I. Sarala wants us to make this trip on an auspicious day, preferably Tuesday or Thursday, but she doesn’t want to add an astrological complication to an already volatile situation. Selva and I have been bickering for days because he springs trips on me first thing in the morning. “Shall we go today?” he will ask as I collect milk. I need notice, I say. I can’t just drop everything to go cow-shopping. Then, he says that he will go on his bike to scout out potential cows and take me in the end—to pay the money and seal the deal. I insist that I want to be involved from the very beginning. If I am putting up Rs 50,000 (by now, the amount has crept up), I want to make darn sure that it is a good cow. We go back and forth, Selva and I, squabbling like children.
Selva has a surly demeanour. He rarely smiles and doesn’t encourage conversation. He is, in fact, a kind soul. When Mint’s photographer comes over to take his photo, he frowns the whole time. Yet, when the session is over, Selva is the one who offers the photographer some fresh milk; insists that he take it home for his child. Unlike Sarala, Selva is hard to figure out.
Some evenings, I follow Sarala into the army compound where she cuts fresh grass for her cows with a scythe. She pulls out greens for me to cook and shares recipes. A Brahminy kite flies low. Sarala says it is looking for snakes; that a raptor’s eyes are like binoculars. I am remarkably relaxed.
Finally one morning, they summon their friend, Kuppa, who owns an autorickshaw. We drive to Thanisandra village near the airport, where a cow is on sale for Rs 55,000. Selva walks the cow around, peers into its mouth, and discusses how much milk it would give. Muniappa, the seller, clad in a white dhoti, shirt and turban, first says 20 litres and then modifies it to 17 litres per day. This, I know, is a barefaced lie. The average Indian cow gives 10 litres per day. The cow wags its tail. “That shows it is relaxed,” says Sarala. But it is an Indian breed: a red Sindhi cow. Selva is bent on buying a Holstein-Friesian, or HF, cow, valued for its milk fat. They cost more but they give more milk. That is the assumption anyway. I try arguing with Selva that Indian breeds are more hardy but our discussions don’t “set”. Muniappa offers us milk. Sarala says that we must accept or he would feel bad. So we drink piping hot cow’s milk—which I, as a lactose- intolerant person, hate and how ironic is that—and take our leave.
At the last minute, Muniappa jumps into the auto. He knows someone nearby who is selling cows, he says. If he could not be our seller, he wants to at least be our broker. Muniappa rides with Kuppa in the driver’s seat while the three of us bounce around in the back.
Next week, we meet a cow valued at Rs 85,000 and there go all my notions about strict advances specified in, ahem...advance.
Shoba Narayan took Sarala and Selva’s permission to write the four-part cow chronicles—this is the second in the series. Although this incident happened in December, it’s written in present tense for writerly effect. Write to her at email@example.com
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns