‘Where is the bull?’ asked the photographer.
‘Bull?’ the assistant replied.
‘Where is the cow? And the calves?’
‘Ohhhhh.’ The assistant scratched his head.
‘Did I not tell you yesterday to get the cattle ready?’
‘Sorry. I’ll get them tomorrow.’
‘Not tomorrow, today. By lunchtime. In the studio.’
‘Cattle? In our photography studio?’ the assistant mumbled, fitting the camera on the tripod. ‘I thought he was drunk when he asked yesterday,’
The cashier looked up in surprise. ‘Cattle? Really? he asked.
‘Yes, that’s what he wants,’ the assistant yelled. ‘Now, come with me.’
‘But I cannot leave the bill counter.’
‘Ask the accountant to sit there,’ the assistant said.
In the car park, they noticed the cleaning lady approaching. The cashier beckoned to her to join them. They set out together to look for stray cattle.
Bustling Chennai was a far cry from the haphazard roads of the past. The streets were paved and traffic rules were strict, so the sight of a stray cow was rare. Roaring motorbikes competed with cars, rickshaws, and government buses that never followed traffic rules, shaking pedestrians so badly that few ventured out to walk in the city. Intuitive and intelligent animals, including dogs, never strayed beyond their territories. But the trio still went searching.
An hour later, ‘Let’s check inside a milk man’s cattle shed,’ the assistant said.
From the main road, the three wound their way onto narrow streets and reached a small, nondescript house. A thatched shed stood beside it.
‘Is anybody home?’ The cashier shouted.
A woman peeked through the window. After about a minute, she opened the door.
‘We’re from the photography studio on the main road. You may have seen it – Kodak Photos?’ the assistant said with a wide grin.
‘What do you want?’ she asked.
‘We need to borrow your cattle,’ the cashier said.
‘What for?’ The woman frowned.
‘Wait, I’ll explain.’ The cleaning lady stepped forward, blocking the two men’s view. They, in turn, cocked their heads to look past her so they could stare at the woman.
‘It’s like this, Amma, we need a bull, a cow, and two or three calves to pose for photos. We can pay you.’
The woman giggled. ‘But we do not have any,’ she said.
The cleaning lady turned around and spoke in whispers to the men, ‘I think she has already started haggling.’ She turned back to the woman. ‘We can pay you well.’
‘There are no cattle. We sold them a long time ago,’ the woman said.
‘Can you tell me whether there are any other milkmen around here with cattle?’
‘Nowadays, no one has cattle. The production of milk has been taken over by government cooperatives. It is very rare for milkmen to still have cattle.’
‘Oh,’ said all the three in unison, disappointed.
It was nearing noon, but the misty December weather blunted their sense of time, the blue-gray sky and the sleepy sun subduing them completely. They were lost – lost for ideas.
‘Nevertheless, please tell us where to find any other milkmen,’ they chorused.
‘You can ask the Aavin milk booth man there.’ She pointed vaguely.
Another hour later, despite their desperate search – more narrow streets, enquiries of shopmen, entering temples, asking priests and talking to milk booth men – no cattle were found, not even a single cow. It was one o’clock – lunchtime. The three returned to the studio.
‘Where are the cattle?’ the photographer shouted, standing outside the shop, hands on his fat hips.
‘Sorry, sir. We searched high and low. We asked all the milkmen, the Aavin booth men, trawled the narrow streets and all, for stray cattle, but we were not able to lay our hands on any,’ the assistant said.
‘We went to temples too to check on the cattle sheds there,’ said the cleaning lady, chewing betel leaves.
‘What am I to tell Bull Times?’ yelled the photographer.
‘Sir, why not ask them to provide the cattle? After all, Bull Times is also an animal rights group, it it not?’ the cleaning lady said, spitting drops of red juice all over the photographer’s white shirt.
‘Yes, why not?’ The other two chorused.
‘Hmm,’ said the photographer.
The cleaning lady beamed.
The photographer picked up the phone and put it on loudspeaker as he addressed the woman at Bull Times. ‘Madam, you asked us to take a photo of cattle, but we can’t find any.’
‘Well, that is not my problem,’ the lady on the other end said, rolling her r’s.
‘Why is she talking like an American? “Prablem” and not “problem”? Is she not an Indian?’ the cashier whispered.
‘But, madam, we’ve signed a contract to provide photos,’ the photographer said.
‘Why don’t you go to one of the villages? You’ll probably come across cattle, a whole herd of them.’ She laughed out the last few words.
‘But, madam, that’ll take a long time and, since you’re also an animal rights activist, I wondered whether you might have some cattle. I could come over and take a snap.’
‘Hahaha. Funny,’ she laughed. ‘Bull Times doesn’t keep animals, we just fight for their rights.’
‘Then what to do, madam?’
‘Hmm.’ There was a pause. ‘You could go to the government’s Animal Welfare building and arrange a photography session. Do it soon. We need the campaign posters to be ready before Pongal, the Tamil harvest festival, in January.’
The CEO of Mercy Milk sat on a high-backed chair and, leaning back, crossed his legs in style. ‘We’re going to price our milk at less than the local Aavin in Tamilnadu. So…’ His blond hair falling over his forehead, he whirled his pen.
‘But our campaigns have been expensive,’ said Ms. Malathi, the head of Animal Protection and Interests Taskforce. ‘I just spoke to our Chennai head. She said they’re finding it difficult to locate cattle to pose for the posters.’
‘Hmm?’ said the CEO, still twirling his pen.
‘She publishes Bull Times, a magazine about the cruelty meted out by human beings to animals. She was unable to get any cattle for the campaign posters or for pictures for the magazine.’
‘Well, that’s odd because you can get cattle here in Mumbai. Go to Dharavi,’ the CEO said, shrugging his shoulders.
‘You don’t understand. These are special native bulls with long horns and big humps – you can only get them locally. The cows also have horns and humps. We need to show the local breed,’ she said.
‘But you are the head of APIT for India. You can get all kinds of animals at a snap of your fingers.’
‘Haha,’ she said, looking pleased. ‘But APIT’s Chennai presence is quite weak.’
‘Don’t you have the ban on Jallikattu already in place? How long has it been – three years now?’
‘You’re right. The Supreme Court did ban Jallikattu – the bullfight game – but local events have been happening while the state administration looks the other way. So there is always some unrest and we have to be on our toes.’
‘I can give you a donation, but what are you going to do about it?’
‘Sir, we’ve campaigned against Jallikattu as a form of animal cruelty. The locals claim that they use the game to test the fitness of the native bull breeds, that is, “according to their tradition”.’ She widened her eyes. ‘If they are fit,’ she continued, ‘they inseminate the cows. If not, they are castrated and used for work. They claim that the ban will vanquish these breeds – Kangeyam, Bargur, and so on. You can import as many high milk-yielding Jersey cows as you want.
‘Good, a shipment of 400 Jersey cows arrived yesterday,’ the CEO said.
‘I need to get more APIT members signed up in Chennai. That’ll strengthen our voice,’ she murmured.
‘Ms. Malathi, haven’t your campaigns against Jallikattu in London and other European cities, not to mention New York and California, paid off? That must have put considerable pressure on the government. Why do you need a local presence in Chennai?’
‘The Tamils will not give in to the ban and the campaigns. They have a unique culture and a centuries-old language, and they are proud. I have heard that they continue with Jallikattu covertly. There are also rumors of local uprisings.
‘What can a few local groups do?’ The CEO shrugged.
‘True, very true, we’re on top of things.’ She gave him a thumbs-up.
‘Here you are,’ said the CEO handing over a fat envelope. ‘Good luck. Round up a large team at Chennai. That’ll teach the locals a lesson.’ Twirl, whirl, whirl…the CEO spun his pen.
The assistant pulled at the cow’s tail. With her hind legs, she kicked him. Then she lifted her tail and released urine onto the cracked floor – a burbling at first and then a heavy pounding. When she was satisfied, she turned towards the tripod, terrifying the photographer with her horns and hump. She sauntered towards it and licked the camera, scratching her short horns on the handle. The tripod toppled over.
When the cashier arrived, it was dusk. The Department of Animal Welfare, known for strict timings – stricter when it came to leaving the premises – was empty, except for one feeble old watchman. The photographer and his assistant were sitting outside.
‘What happened?’ the cashier asked.
‘The camera lens is shattered. The glass pieces are lying everywhere. My tripod is broken,’ said the photographer in a choked voice.
‘A stubborn cow here did not like the Kangeyam bull standing next to it with its long, curvy, pointy horns. It got scared and kept running all over the cattle shed in the office building.’
‘Send APIT a bill for the damage.’
‘Oh, that I will. But it was my favourite camera. Many a prize-winning photo had I snapped with it. Oh, God!’ the photographer said. He sat, dazed, with his hand over his head. ‘Call that Bull Times editor and update her,’ he shouted. ‘Not just update, ask her to buy me the same camera and tripod. Give her all the specifications.’
His assistant picked up the phone.
The next day, the photographer and his assistant, dressed in ironed shirts and blue jeans, entered the cattle shed with renewed enthusiasm. In the middle, the cow sat flicking her tail, warding off flies and mosquitoes and chewing hay.
The assistant walked up to it and gave it a kick. ‘Get up, you stinking animal. We don’t have all day.’
His foot landed in slippery dung and he fell. The cow rose and trotted, like a princess, nose in the air, towards the shed. Her calves raised their eyes in admiration. She looked at the assistant on the floor, locking eyes with him for an instant. Then she turned away as if she didn’t care.
‘Let’s try another way,’ the photographer said.
‘Which way?’ asked the assistant wiping dung from his backside.
‘Get the bull here, in the shed, and make it sit with the cow and its calves. It’ll be a photo of the family, leisurely chewing the cud.’
The assistant ran across the street to buy grass. The other two went to fetch the bull.
The cow’s neck straightened. She looked up and mooed loudly, protecting her calves. She refused to allow the bull anywhere near her.
‘How about some grass for her? And the calves?’ The photographer said. ‘Go get some more grass,’ he told his assistant.
The assistant ran back across the street.
‘Twenty rupees,’ an old woman selling flowers and grass opposite the building said, her eyes glittering.
‘You just gave it to me ten minutes back for ten rupees,’ the assistant said.
‘That was grass from yesterday. Just now, fresh grass has arrived.’
‘Old woman, don’t lie,’ he said. ‘Fifteen, take it or leave it.’
‘Twenty. It’s fresh grass and I have a whole day to sell.’
‘By noon, the grass will dry up like your face,’ he said, giving in.
They tried everything: tempting her with fresh grass, patting her, kicking her, even whacking her with a stick. All morning they struggled to pull her into position to pose with the bull, but to no avail.
Later, after lunch, ‘Are there any other cows?’ the photographer asked the officer at the Department of Animal Welfare.
‘This is the only one. We will get a few more after Pongal,’ he replied.
‘That’ll be too late. We need a bull and a cow posing with a few calves. Basically, it is to promote a healthy cattle poster.’
‘Are there any other native cows?’ The assistant asked, still stinking of cow dung.
‘There are some Jersey cows,’ the officer said. ‘They arrived all the way from Switzerland a few days ago. They are tame, well-bred, healthy – they will make good photos.’ His eyes gleamed.
‘But we need native cows,’ the photographer said. ‘The Jersey cows are much fatter.’
The officer scratched his head. ‘There are some cows which are brown – or less white. Take the photo at an angle to make it look slim.’ He spoke ingratiatingly. ‘The general public doesn’t notice these things.’
‘Well then, get the slimmest one,’ the photographer said.
The officer left with a fat wallet.
The vet was waiting at the offices of Bull Times for the second time that day. APIT was his primary client and he needed their business, but the money owed him was mounting and the Chennai APIT lady kept dodging. As soon as a puppy or kitten needed rescuing, they demanded his services, but payments were constantly delayed. At this rate, he’d have to go scouting around the pet shop doors to make any money.
‘The editor is not in,’ said the receptionist, although he had seen a faint shadow silhouetting the window.
The vet waited.
‘She is travelling,’ said the receptionist.
The vet hesitated, uncertain. After a while, he walked out without leaving any message or saying goodbye.
Pongal came and went. There was no Jallikattu, no injuries, and definitely no services required from the vet. The following week, he saw a poster near Chennai Marina Beach with the caption: ‘A healthy and happy family’. It depicted a bull, a cow, and two calves.
‘What a joke,’ he thought. At the bottom, he read: ‘We want healthy families. Support the ban on Jallikattu.’
‘That cow looks fat, doesn’t it?’ a bystander said.
‘It has no hump and no horns,’ muttered the vet.
‘It is not brown or black,’ another person said.
‘And the parts that are white are very white, not like our cows’ dull-white,’ observed another smartie-pants.
An instant later, somebody yelled, ‘That’s a Jersey cow!’
‘They’ve insulted our mother cow, our Go Maata! What impertinence!’
‘Not only that, don’t you see the devious angle of the photograph?’ said a morning walker.
‘Our bull with a foreign cow and calves! They’re mixing our cattle, forming hybrids!’
‘Soon, our breeds will vanish,’ the vet added.
‘They are substituting our cows’ milk with a foreign breed’s milk!’
‘I read in the newspaper that only last month 400 Jersey cows were imported.’
‘They’re taking over our milk industry completely,’ said the tea vendor.
‘Now we know why they banned Jallikattu!’ said the morning walker.
‘What can we do? Poor Indians, poorer Tamils,’ someone said.
‘Protest! Protest to save Jallikattu, save Tamil culture, save our milk industry, and save our farmers,’ said the morning walker.
‘We want Jallikattu!’ The group began to chant.
That afternoon, a large crowd gathered at Marina Beach. Tamils from all over the state began pouring in. Social media was abuzz with tweets and WhatsApp messages about Jallikattu, its history, APIT, the ban, Jersey cows, and even Jersey semen import. Tamils from around the world raised their voices in support. Wave after wave of Tamil youngsters from colleges and IT companies converged on the beach. TV news channels blared snippets, interviews, and debates. People sat on the beach in protest day and night. When the police switched off the streetlights to persuade them to leave, they waved the torches on their mobile phones. The uprising was covered on all Indian and foreign news channels all day long. There were demands for the Chennai APIT lady to withdraw from the campaign. A week later, the country legalised Jallikattu by amending the laws pertaining to animal cruelty.
On her way to the airport while fleeing Chennai, the Chennai APIT lady saw that moustaches had been drawn on the bulls and cows on some of the APIT campaign posters – most of them torn – and that the Bull Times posters lying on the footpaths had been shredded to pieces.
Far from Marina Beach and away from the busy traffic, the cow sat in the government building shed with her calves. She reclined cozily on the thick hay, chewing fresh green grass, a contented look in her eyes.
Padmaja Sriam has been published in Annapurna magazine, print and online: https://annapurnamagazine.com/