Aishwarya’s Men


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We named the baby cow Aishwarya because she was doe-eyed and aloof like her Bollywood namesake. For years she faithfully produced milk and pushed out babies, but when we would try to scratch her head, she would always shake her horns.

“Just give me my feed and move on. Is this the way to treat a great cow, like I’m some sort of pet?”

Life wasn’t easy for Aishwarya. She developed chronic, draining abscesses over her knees. No injections, salves or surgical procedures would help. Every step was painful. Lying down and hauling her lumpy body up to a standing position was murder.  We gave her special VIP privileges, allowing her to wander about our campus without restriction, to bed down at night in the soft dirt near the cowshed.

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Aishwarya developed a staph infection that destroyed a quarter of her udder. Fortunately after the pain subsided, she could still produce more milk on three cylinders than most other cows.

When I would feed the cows at night, I’d say: “All rise, Judge Bruce DeJong presiding.” The entire courtroom would stand on cue, making me feel very important. Aishwarya was the only one who wouldn’t rise, so I would give her a little midnight treat in bed.

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Last month, an epidemic of hoof and mouth disease swept through our village, killing twelve of the local cows.  We didn’t think much of it when teen-aged Anita began to drool, but then Packiam, Saraswathy, Raasi, Karthika, Anaikili, and Amarawathy became ill. Soon all the cows were dumbly standing there, stinking strings of saliva hanging from their mouths. Flies were buzzing their snouts and eyes. Even the little ones Poongodi, Anita, Carli, and Anandi became sick. They couldn’t drink their favorite salted peanut/millet slush, much less rise for Judge Bruce DeJong. Many of the cows stopped chewing on grass and rice straw all together. Only Kuttachi and Rajni remained healthy.

Aishwarya was not spared. She too stopped eating and drinking and lay down in her manure, too weak to flick away the flies and shake off the crows. One day the usual shouts and prods couldn’t make her stand for milking. Without removing the milk, her udder would surely become infected again.

“You need to beat her,” the milkman said. “It sounds cruel, but if she doesn’t get up, that’s it for her. She’s finished.”

Paavam,” our cow man Suruli said. “She’s so weak and in so much pain. We just can’t hit her. Wait, I have an idea.”

He grabbed a massive coconut branch and dragged it towards her. When he raised it and shook the branch like a gorilla, Aishwarya’s eyes went big. She sucked in her gut and struggled to her feet, her spindly legs were wobbling like a newborn’s. I felt like crying, seeing how miserable and skeletal she had become.

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The next day, we found that her hooves had become infected with maggot-filled ulcers. The crows took advantage of her weakness and pecked at her back, opening up a bloody gash in the leather.  Aishwarya refused to drink. We called Dr. Petchimuthu who poured several bottles of IV fluids into her jugular vein. He administered several injections and by the next morning, she began to drink. And pee. And make a little manure.

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Suruli came in on his day off to cut choice shoots of sweet sorghum for her. She nibbled them as best as she could without rising from the ground. He bathed her infected hooves with warm water and turmeric, then packed the abscess cavities with a mixture of crushed mothballs and neem oil. The maggots fled. He doused the hooves with kerosene to discourage the flies from alighting and laying more eggs.

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Aishwarya began to improve. Suruli mixed a special slurry of green cumbu for her that was said to be “cooling”. The other hired man Murugan bought dried fish heads from the bazaar as prescribed by the milkman. He burned them in a flat metal chetti and circled the smoke around her face and feet  to drive away the evil eye.

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By now Aishwarya’s ankles were swollen and infected. She also developed a gaping ulcer in her right nostril.

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The milk man told us of an Ayurvedic salve that he had used when working on a water buffalo farm in Kerala.

“Himax works like magic,” he said. “The flies run away. The wounds dry out quickly.”

Murugan cycled to town and finally located the salve in City Medical opposite the Thiruvalluvar statue in Bodi. I looked at the ingredients: turmeric, pongamia tree oil, and cedar oil. The men applied the salve. We were amazed how the flies disappeared and how quickly the pus and swelling subsided.

After ten days of painstaking care, the cows began to recover. One night when I walked to the cowshed to say, “All rise”, I found that Aiswarya was already chewing on the fresh cow grass she had sneaked from the main pile. I fed the other animals, then I paused in the starry darkness of a winter’s night, fireflies scintillating in the silk cotton trees.  I breathed a prayer of thanks for health and for the attentive men of Betweenpatti.

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Aishwarya lets me scratch her head now. She even seems to like it.

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About the Author

Bruce DeJong

I am an Indian of American parentage who practices medicine in rural Tamil Nadu. After years of getting to know the local people, they have begun to open up their lives, allowing me to paint a portrait of their village one story at a time.

  • Andryma

    This Pongal must have been a lovely one, filled with thanks for their recovery. I’m sad to have missed it!

  • Bruce DeJong

    It was really wonderful to see the cows eating sweet rice pongal and sugar cane after being so sick. Raasi, Kutachi, and Rajni really like it. Karthika couldn’t care less. The calves took a little nibble but didn’t dare try the sweet. It was too weird for them.