Friday, January 07, 2005

The Cow

I have spent much of this morning waiting for an Internet connection. I am sitting outside Krishnammal’s Kremlin under a trellis covered in red and bright fuchsia bourgainvilla, two fat chickens doing what it is chickens do in their own (limited?) spirit of inquiry.
About 50 feet from me must be the world’s most beautiful cow. I have traveled 8,000 miles to see this cow. It is standing under a group of palm trees, by the side of a lean-to, with Indian striped squirrels (Aliyah convinces me they can’t be chipmunks, which are burrowing animals) playing tag on the roof, the trees waving their greetings in the breeze.
The world’s most beautiful cow has one crooked horn and one straight. She has a white muzzle above a black nose, large propeller-like ears, and a fawn-brown, almost peach-fuzz like color and texture covering the rest of her body. A black and grey crow is sitting on her back – she doesn’t seem to mind.
She is a perfectly designed machine. She recycles the remains of last night’s dinner, orange peels, leaves, and the rice-straw left over after the rice itself is removed, into milk. Bring to a boil, add a little Nescafe powder or ground tulasi leaves (tulasi is a sacred medicinal plant), pour into thin stainless steel tumblers, and we have the Indian equivalent of a Starbucks latte. Krishnammal tells us that this cow was purchased at Gandhigram for around 4,000 rupees ($95), and has already had five calves.
The pattern of Indian agriculture (and fishing) has existed for thousands of years. They have proven themselves to be environmentally sustainable, even if given to occasional failure in the normal cyclical patterns of drought and flood. Distribution of their bounty has always been a problem, but it is a problem rooted in abundance rather than scarcity, and one that is essentially solvable, given the requisite political will. An entire culture of harvesting practices, festivals, religion, art and music has grown up around these traditional patterns, revealing both a strength and a multiplicity of thought and emotion next to which my own seems rather threadbare.
In less than one generation, multinational trading patterns, the World Bank, and the WTO have stripped the land and the sea of their vitality, and much of the culture of its inner strength. It is hard to see how these will be revived. The prawn farms have taken arable land and turned them into chemically laden wastes, produced massive unemployment, and caused the price of food staples to skyrocket. Now that many have been destroyed, it would not be surprising to see this leprosy of the land spread its misery still further.
I am not simply trying to preach politics here. I have seen with my own eyes the hundreds of smashed boats at Nagapattinam, boats that would have escaped damage entirely had they been at sea, as they would have been even 15 years earlier, before the fish breeding habitats and mangroves were destroyed. With their livelihoods intact, the fisher folks would have sustained horrific losses, but at least had ways to rebuild their own lives. This is the way it has always been, but may never be again.
Now they will be housed in camps for displaced persons, dependent on government hand-outs and retraining schemes (which around here have always been somewhat of a bad joke.) The good years will not follow the bad one. The process of immiseration will likely continue on its course. These are proud people, not sanguine about the possibilities of living forever on government handouts, or the crumbs left behind by the international charities. And they are as depressed by this prospect as by memories of the wave itself. They have started to drink….
Krishnammal has put her tailoring unit to work. "We are going to make petticoats," she says. It is one of those "Ah-hah" moments. The charities have been dumping old sarees by the side of the road. But no self-respecting Indian woman wears a saree without a petticoat, or at least without loss of status, and self-identity. To do so would be to turn herself into a pauper, the loss of pride accompanying the tangible losses sustained. "The women will not return to normal without petticoats," she says. Nor without sambar powder for the relief agencies’ rice; nor without a school that has new desks and chairs, and a whitewashed front.
She just has this knack born of being a mother who really knows her children, in the hundreds of thousands. I am proud to be one of them.


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