The streets of Jodhpur are like a something out of a nightmare. Vehicles rush frenetically in all directions, producing an unbearable din of horns and engines. They spew vile fumes of exhaust that mix with the dust to form an atmosphere so noxious many people travel with handkerchiefs over their mouths. No rules govern the chaos, only a mess of instincts and insights that somehow prevent people from colliding into each other at every intersection. Worst of all, horned beasts wander freely into the path of traffic, callously endangering all who encounter them, and these lethal menaces are not only accepted by the general population but also considered sacred by the predominant religion.
The ubiquity of cows in India and their consecrated status in Hinduism are well-known aspects of this country, but what you don’t realize until you spend every day dealing with cows is that they’re incontrovertibly terrifying. They may seem docile, with their big brown eyes and their wet, dog-like noses, but they’re not cute at all. They are large, powerful animals, equipped with multiple defenses that could easily slaughter a human being, and the day they decide to turn on us, we’re all done for.
I know these cows far too well. My office is located in a neighborhood of Jodhpur called Milk Man Colony, which until I arrived I thought was named as a quaint throwback to an era when people got their milk from dairies down the street, delivered in-person by real-live actual milkmen. I soon learned that in Jodhpur, that era is now. Where I live, the milkman arrives every evening around 7 PM. He pulls up on a motorcycle, honks the horn, and shouts “Doodh! Doodh!” (the Hindi word for milk). He keeps the milk is in large metal cans, one on either side of his motorcycle, and pours it directly into whatever container the household provides for him. I’m not sure where he gets the milk, but it could very well come from Milk Man Colony. There are definitely enough cows for it. Every morning, when I ride my bicycle to the office, I need to swerve around them as they lounge in the road, and I try my best to avoid their copious manure, which when it’s fresh jams unpleasantly between the grooves of my tires.
Throughout the day, I can hear the cows mooing as I sit at my computer. I’ve come to the conclusion that “moo” is a highly inaccurate word to describe the sound they make. In fact, it’s one of the grossest onomatopoeic failures of the English language. The sound is not a silly yawn, as “moo” seems to suggest, but rather a low, guttural groan, a somber warning summoned from the larynx of a creature that could clearly inflict some damage. I think “uuunnggh” would be more appropriate, with the extra letters always included. “The cow goes uuunnggh” might make for an unwieldy line in a children’s book, but it would teach kids a valuable lesson: don’t mess with cows.
Every time I pass a cow on the street, the same thought goes through my head—this animal could kill me if it wanted to. It could gore me with its sharp horns, it could crush me with its thick hooves, or it could just thrash me around for a while and see what happens. If I get by the creature unscathed, I consider myself lucky. Sure, I’ve heard that cows are generally not aggressive, but how can we really know what a creature like that is thinking or feeling? Maybe they’re highly aggressive, but they’ve learned how to mask their anger in order to co-exist with humans, kind of like the Hulk but maintaining their Hulk strength all the time. Cows are very muscular animals. That’s what keeps the steak and hamburger industries in business.
Of course, there’s not much of a steak or hamburger industry in India. Due to the whole holiness thing, beef is both literally and figuratively off the table. As far as keeping cows in check, I’m not sure which strategy is better: Indian reverence or American hostility. In India, people treat cows with the utmost respect, giving them little reason to do any harm. In America, on the other hand, we relegate our cows to sparsely populated areas, confine them to factory farms, and kill them by the millions. On the down side, there’s not much respect involved, but on the up side, this system keeps them off the streets, where there’s no risk that they’ll hurt us. At least not while they’re alive. We still have to worry about growth hormones, heart disease, and superbugs, but that’s a low price to pay for security, isn’t it?