Literary Animal: Reading India, Part II

Literary Animal: Reading India, Part II

Coinciding with the launch of our recent India case study, Veg or Non-Veg? India at a Crossroads, we are continuing our blog series examining where recent writings on a changing India intersect with Brighter Green’s interests in animal agriculture, food security and climate change.

Part II: The Cow Broker

In my visits to Indian dairies, when I asked what happens to the ‘spent’ cows and buffalo and unwanted male calves, I often heard about “the middleman,” who would come and take the cows away or sell them to slaughter. In the October 10, 2011 issue of the New Yorker, Akash Kapur writes about one such middleman, in his article “The Shandy: The Cost of Being a Cow Broker in Rural India.” Here we meet R. Ramadas, a cow broker in a shandy, or cow market in Tamil Nadu.

Kapur is interested in this new India where, “rice fields were giving way to highways, farmland to software complexes, and saris to pants.” While these changes are more pronounced in the big cities, Kapur examines the changes in a rural context. The shandies, he learned, were once big agricultural fairs, but now are dominated more by businessmen than farmers. Local produce used to be sold there, but now none can be found.

Kapur describes the scene at the market:

“The cows were tied together with thick ropes, and dragged around by their owners, their teats and mouths and vaginas examined by potential buyers.”

Ramadas scolded another man at the market who talked about punishing his daughters for not studying hard enough. “What were you thinking, tying them up and beating them?” Ramadas asked. “Did you think they were cows?”

Ramadas once sold 1500 cows in one month:

“He had sold the cows to a trader who shipped them to Kuwait, where they were slaughtered and eaten. Now there was no need to ship cows to slaughterhouses in the Gulf, he said; plenty of people in India ate beef’young people, city dwellers, even villagers.”

As a result of rising demand, prices rose. His career as a cow broker earned Ramadas enough money to send his children to college, but they will pursue other fields, and not go into the family business.

Kapur writes about the changing culture around eating beef: “Ramadas himself ate beef, and so did many of his friends, though he wouldn’t name them because they would be ashamed.” He further captures the social and religious complexity of this situation:

“Ramadas was a Dalit’a member of the “untouchable” caste’and, as I got to know him, I realized that his atheism had been shaped by the discrimination he had suffered and seen all his life.”

Ramadas’s wife and children were, however, deeply religious and didn’t approve of his work. His eldest child died in a traffic accident, and other relatives believed perhaps it was punishment for the work Ramadas did. Even his wife wondered: “I had to wonder, and sometimes I still wonder, if that’s why my son died.”

As for Ramadas, his family’s beliefs about his work, hurts him: “He pointed as his chest. ‘It pains me here. That’s how I feel.'”

“The Shandy” is an excerpt of Kapur’s forthcoming book, India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India, to be published in March 2012.

Check out the New Yorker podcast with Akash Kapur that discuses this article.

Click here to view Brighter Green’s videos on India’s diary and beef industries.

To read the other posts in this blog series, Literary Animal: Reading India, click here.