February 08, 2018
A cow stands inside, angled diagonally to fit. It doesn’t look uncomfortable, merely impatient.
I reflexively move forward, and then stop, trying not to gape.
“It is for the housewarming ceremony on the third floor,” explains the woman who stands behind the cow, holding it loosely with a rope. She has the sheepish look of a person caught in a strange situation who is trying to act as normal as possible.
“Hey, hey,” she shushes, as the cow fidgets. “Don’t worry, the cow and I will get off on the third floor and send the elevator down.” She smiles reassuringly.
The door closes. I pull out bug spray from my handbag, stare at it for a moment, and then put it back in. Does bug spray work against bovine germs?
I shake my head and suppress a grin. It is good to be back.
Although I grew up in India—in Chennai, or Madras, as it was then called—I left for undergraduate studies in the U.S. and didn’t come back for close to twenty years. Returning to India was a long cherished dream. Living here is like being in a dream.
Like encountering a cow in an elevator.
Outside the apartment building, a large, red moving truck is parked near the curb. Two burly men are unloading cardboard boxes labeled “Crown Relocation.” My husband stands on the sidewalk, checking off boxes from the list he carries: bedroom, kitchen, toys, and so on.
“You will never guess what I saw inside the elevator,” I say.
There is no response.
Now he looks up, my husband.
“You should ask that lady to bring her cow through your home as well,” says one of the movers. “After all, the cow is already in your building. She will give you a discount.”
I glance at my husband. Before he says anything, before he protests, I turn and walk back into the building. I ride up the elevator to the third floor.
Outside the apartment stands the slightly fidgety cow with the woman beside her.
A woman in a beautiful sari comes forward. She is clearly the mistress, beaming with pride for her new home.
“Please come,” she says. “It is our housewarming. You are moving in upstairs, aren’t you?”
I nod and smile.
“We are so lucky to have found a cow,” she says, folding her palms prayerfully. “Now it is as if all the gods have come home.”
“That is why I came. I was wondering if I could hire the cow to walk through my home as well. After you are finished with her, of course.”
The woman pauses and frowns slightly. I know what she is thinking. Will sharing the cow dilute the good luck that she hopes to accumulate?
“You could ask the cow’s owner, I suppose,” she says finally. “She sells milk to this neighborhood apparently.”
I don’t know my neighbor’s name but we are already sharing cows. Our sojourn in Bangalore is off to a swimming start.
I nod at the milk woman. Her cow moos in response. Her name, I am told, is Sarala. The cow, too, has a name, but we haven’t yet been introduced. Can she come up to the fifth floor and parade the cow through my apartment as well?
“Normally, they give me one thousand rupees [about fifteen dollars] for this, but since we are already here, you can pay us seven hundred,” Sarala says.
We have a deal. I run up two flights of stairs while the cow and accomplice take the elevator. I feel that I ought to welcome the cow properly but there is little at hand in my empty apartment. I think about allowing it to lick my cellphone instead of a banana but decide against it.
“Welcome to the cow,” I say formally as they come out of the elevator. My floor thankfully is not marble. It is red oxide and therefore rougher. The cow walks through my empty apartment, somewhat bemused and a little impatient.
“At some point, you should buy her some bananas as a thank you,” says Sarala as she pockets the 700 and leads the cow outside. “Just as a gesture.”
“That’s why I gave you the money,” I reply.
“Yes, but cows can’t eat money,” she replies.
“Cows eat paper in India,” I say. “I have seen them.”
“Those are poor homeless cows, Madam,” she sniffs. “Not my cows. My cows like bananas.”
“So why don’t you buy her some bananas with my money?” I have to ask.
“I will, but it has to come from your hand. Cows remember that sort of thing. The scent of your hand giving bananas will please her.”
“Does the cow know the scent of my hands?” I can’t help myself.
“Oh sure,” she replies. “A cow’s memory is second only to an elephant’s. It remembers everything and everyone.”
I am not sure if that is a good thing, but say nothing.
“Help me push her into the elevator, will you?” Sarala asks.
I nervously follow the lady and the cow to the elevator. She asks me to put my hand on the cow’s rear and gently push.
“But what if she poops on me?” I ask.
“That is a good sign for your house,” she replies. “Do you know how many people give me a bonus to get the cow to poop in their construction sites? But what can I do? I cannot make her poop on demand. I have even tried feeding her extra sugarcane on the day before a housewarming. Sugarcane has lots of fiber, you see, but sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. Just pray that she poops before she leaves. I won’t charge you extra.”
The elevator comes. I put both hands on the cow’s rear and push.
“Don’t touch its tail,” Sarala says.
The startled animal sort of jogs into the elevator. It does not poop.
The doors close.
SHOBA NARAYAN is the author of The Milk Lady of Bangalore: An Unexpected Adventure. She writes about food, travel, and culture for Condé Nast Traveler, Financial Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Saveur. Her commentaries have aired on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Narayan is also the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes, which was a finalist for a James Beard Award, and her essay “The God of Small Feasts” won the James Beard Foundation’s MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award. Visit shobanarayan.com.
Excerpted from The Milk Lady of Bangalore: An Unexpected Adventure by Shoba Narayan © 2018 by Shoba Narayan. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.