The Philosopher Milkman



milkman measuring tricks

Milkmen are very tricky fellows. Some are even professional rascals. Here are seven beginning level milkman tricks:

  1. Bring your own government-verified aluminum measures, but increase their volume by rounding out the bottom with a rice pounder.
  2. When you pour milk into the measure, pour till overflowing and if the customer complains, say that this is standard procedure, just ask anybody.
  3. Whenever possible, use 1 liter instead of 5 liter measures in order to enhance cumulative maximization potential.
  4. When the customer is not looking, pour some unmeasured milk into the Milk Co-op’s can.
  5. Tell jokes while measuring so that the customer will forget how many measures have gone into the can already.
  6. After measuring, remove 500 ml of milk, then rinse the milk bucket with 600 ml of fairly clean water and add this to the milk before pedaling off to the Milk Co-op. On the way, sell the 500 ml of pure milk to the tea shop man at a discount.
  7. Deduct 300 ml per 10 liters to compensate for “evaporation” and “shrinkage” during transport to the Milk Co-op. When the customer expresses doubt that warm milk in a sealed container can evaporate or shrink, tell them that this is a government-approved scientific fact, so no problem.

 

The milkmen who have worked for us come in various shapes and dispositions.  Vellaisamy (‘White God’) was an unkempt man who milked fast, smoked fast, and had no problem allowing flakes of manure and dead flies to float in the milk.

milkman kalidas

Kalidas (“Servant of Kali”) was engaging, sometimes drunk and agreeable, sometimes drunk and nasty, always drunk.

milkman kasi

Kasi (named after the holy city of Benares) was a shy man, thin, meticulous, sweet, and always running late.

milkman pandi

Pandi (named after the kings of Madurai) was tall and handsome, a man of few words. He who would lend our milk money to his neighbors at high interest for a few months before paying us. When confronted, he would say that Aavin Milk Corporation was late in sending him the funds, so what to do but wait,   money will come ‘soon’.

 

After clearing out Pandi, Kalidas,  and Vellaisamy, we joined the Bodi Milk Co-op which assigned us a new milkman.

milkman milking complete

Murugan was a stocky 45-year old with one shriveled leg and the other rippling like the thigh of a bull. At first he used to try various tricks, but after gently reminding him that we are very smart and won’t put up with such nonsense, he settled into our rhythms. And we into his.

milkman cowshed from above

Our cow shed is an open structure with a corrugated tin roof, shaded by silk cotton trees which grow thick and verdant as they drink in wash water and diluted cow urine.  Behind the shed are long haystacks. To the side are windrows of manure that emit the scent of black loam whenever it rains.

milkman cowshed from west

One morning after milking the last cow, Murugan was standing near the cistern scrubbing the manure from his calloused feet with a wad of coconut fiber. I was sitting on the edge of the cement feed trough between Raasi and Karthika. The rooster had just flown down from its sleeping tree and was scratching in the dirt.

“See that chicken over there?”Murugan said. “Did you know chickens come from dinoaurs? You’ve heard about dinosaurs, I assume. Scientists have figured out that these creatures were huge because they could make footprints in solid rock. Also, the prints are spaced far apart, proving that they were very tall.  What’s amazing is that their footprints look just like chicken prints.”

milkman chicken feet

“How could such large animals turn into something so small like a chicken?”

“Ahh,  because nature is so awesome. The way it happens is that if two dinosaurs mate, the resulting babies will be more or less the same as the parents. But if say two adults die before they are able to mate, the worms which form in their bodies will gain some of their powers but not all. When these worms mate, the resulting dinosaurs will be smaller. In this way step by step, dinosaurs turned into chickens.”

Karthika stretched out her blue gray tongue and licked my salty arm.

“What about people? Where did we come from?”

“Well, it is well known that our ancestors were giants. Just read the ancient puranas. For example in the holy city of Palani, there are two sacred hills. One is Palanimalai where Lord Murugan resides. The other is Kadambamalai where Idamban sami stays. Idamban was a giant who was carrying a mountain across South India on his shoulders. He became very thirsty, so he stopped at the Palani spring, set his mountain down, and took a long drink.

“When Lord Murugan saw this new mountain, it pleased him, so he took the form of  a very small man and sat upon the new peak. When the giant tried to continue on his way, he found that he couldn’t lift his mountain. ‘Will you get off?” he said to Murugan. ‘You’re making my mountain too heavy.’ The god refused. Idamban began to shout and Murugan shouted back. Eventually the fight became ferocious. Seeing that he was about to be killed, the giant gave up. ‘Fine, I’ll leave the mountain right here, just as you desire. In addition, I will live on this mountain and worship you till the end of time.’

“So this proves there were giants. Just like with dinosurs, sometimes after giants would die, the worms in their bodies would mate and the resulting baby giants were smaller. Not immediately, but slowly slowly. This is how we humans got our size.”

Murugan dried his hands on his blue work shirt.

“What time is it?”

“6:45.”

“Good another five minutes till I need to leave to catch the milk truck. Did you know that this process of shrinking continued to the point that there is a race of people who are just one jaan tall. That’s the span of one hand. Though they are tiny, these people are very powerful. If you look in their direction, they disappear and fly off to somewhere else. That’s why it’s so hard to see them and why no scientists have been able to take photos of them. This is absolutely true. You can read all them in the old books.”

milkman's bicycle

Murugan tied his measures and aluminum pot to the top of the 40 liter milk can attached to his faded Atlas bicycle.

“Yes, the world is really amazing. Did you know scientists have discovered giant mosquitos one meter wide? I saw this on a TV show. What happened is that normal sized mosquitos got stuck in tree sap and then as the tree grew and oozed sap around them, they would suck on the sap. Over forty or fifty years, these insects grew into massive sizes. I haven’t seen one yet, but there are people who have. Well, I’m late. The Milk Supervisor is going to shout at me. See you this evening.”

As the months passed, I began to piece together Murugan’s personal story. He was born into a  Dhevan Chettiar family who earned barely enough to buy rice.  As an infant, Murugan’s left leg had been paralyzed by polio. Because he would never be strong enough to do coolie work, his parents sent him to school. After marrying off his older sister, there was no money left for schoolbooks and uniforms, so Murugan had to drop out of tenth grade.

Not one to sit around, Murugan found a job at the Bodi Milk Co-op washing tea glasses and milk cans for 4.5 rupees a day (about ten cents).  He would work from 6:00 A.M. to noon, then from 5:00 to 9:00 PM.  After a few years, he graduated to pedaling a cycle rickshaw 4 km to Sillai village to collect full milk cans for the Coop. Though it was difficult with only one good leg, he managed to perform his tasks well and his pay was raised to 8 rupees a day.

Between trips, Murugan would assist the milkmen as they measured the milk. After a few months, they let him clean and prepare the udders before milking. He pestered the men until finally they let him milk. After six months, the Milk Co-op officially hired him as a milkman for 10 rupees a day.

milkman 1

Though he was thrilled with the promotion, the job came with grueling hours:

Wake at 1 AM, drink some tea and go on his milking route till 7:00 AM.

Sleep from 8:30 AM till 12:30 noon.

Start the afternoon circuit from 1:30 PM till 6:00 PM.

Sleep from 9:30 till midnight.

“Aren’t you afraid, cycling alone so late at night?”

“Yes, sometimes, but I’m a milkman and this is our job. It’s all in your attitude. If you cycle up a dark lane believing that nothing bad will happen, then nothing will. The one place that terrified me, though, was the open well near the BDpatti graveyard. A nasty girl ghost used to attack people there. The girl had been a local teenager who had become pregnant out of wedlock. Her enraged family beat her and threw her into the well alive. That’s why her angry ghost would take out revenge on anybody who came near.

“Djai! Keep still!!”

Saraswathi, the black cow had raised her left leg to kick him away because of a painful ulcer on one nipple.

“Grab the nose rope for me, will you? Just a little so she settled down.”

milkman cow rope

I gently grabbed the rope and though she rolled her eyes at me, she stopped kicking. Murugan continued his story.

“I still get the goose bumps thinking of it. The villagers were so fed up with this ghost, that they called a Nayakkar who specializes in exorcisms.  I was curious, so I stopped by to watch him work.

“The man took a clay pot of water filled to the brim and placed the end of a long string in the pot and the other end way down into the water of the well. He then started playing his howling oorumi drum and chanting mantras. Suddenly the water exploded out of the pot, a sure sign that the spirit had successfully been summoned. The Nayakkar quickly closed the mouth of the pot with a yellow turmeric cloth. He tied this cloth around the rim with a rope twisted from the hair of 7 animals including humans. He then took this pot to the Kurungani River and buried it along the shore. The ghost of the dead girl never bothered anybody again. There is the danger though, that somebody will dig up and break the pot. The ghost could get out and start haunting people again.”

One overcast morning when the cows were slapping the flies with dung-laced tails, Murugan told me about the years he had lived in Kerala. Having had enough of hard work and low wages, he headed off to Kottayam hoping to get a job at Mr. Joy’s Buffalo Dairy. Murugan had left home without telling his family, bringing along only one shirt, one veshti, and bus money. Mr. Joy, who was running a herd of 100 milking buffalos, hired him on the spot for 70 rupees per day. Murugan worked hard and saved forty rupees a day. After several months, his father tracked him down and Murugan agreed to send money home to support his family. After 3 years, his parents arranged a marriage for him. Murugan returned home at the age of 25.

Murugan got a job as a senior milker with the Bodi Milk Co-op. Now, 20 years later, he earns 250 rupees per milking cow per month or roughly 300 rupees per day.  The Co-op also provides gratuity, life insurance, and a pension.

“How do you manage, year after year, with such a difficult schedule?” I asked one morning. The golden sun was angling through the branches of the rain tree.

“I’m used to it. For a time my wife complained a lot because I was always too tired for ‘family relations’. But we worked it out.”

He squatted next to our orange cow Rajni, the one who sharpens the tips of her long horns on the cement pillar. She was in a good mood and stood quietly as Murugan milked her.

“Well, we lost another chicken to mongooses yesterday,” I said. “I wish the Nayakkar hunters had caught them when they came through with their dogs last Sunday. I counted 20 hunting dogs this time.”

milkman nayakkar hunters

“Those mongooses are too smart. The moment the dogs come near, the mongooses dive into a termite mound. To catch them, Nayakkars set traps baited with live chicks.”

“So they really do eat mongooses?”

“Yes, but not like in a curry. They take little pieces medicinally. After skinning the animal, they cut the meat into strips which they dry on lines and store in airtight containers. You see, mongooses catch and kill snakes. If a snake bites a mongoose, the animal runs into the bushes and rolls around in special plants till the juices covers its body. These herbs take away the power of the poison, so if you eat a mongoose, you’re protected against snake poison.”

The red cow lifted its tail and emitted a thick arch of clear urine.

“Nayakkars eat cats too?”

“Yes. Have you ever seen a cat wheeze when it runs? Cat meat cures asthma.”

The milkman stretched his feet into the warm stream one at a time and wiggled his toes.

“Cow urine is great medicine, especially for sores between your toes. It’s an ancient milkman secret. You should try it sometime. Oh, and here’s another good remedy. If you have horrible teeth with holes and your gums are half gone and teeth are wiggling, you chew on dried monitor lizard meat. Keep the meat over the gums for several days. The meat binds to your gums and takes root and your gums become strong. Works every time.”

milkman crow drinking

A crow landed on the rim of the large milk container and dipped its beak into the milk. Murugan waved and hissed at it. Unperturbed, the crow took two extra gulps, flew lazily over to Poongodi, and wiped its beak clean on the calf’s fur. Murugan stood up stiffly, hobbled over to the milk container with his bucket, and poured in the frothing milk.

“You need to do something about these crows.”

“We bought a sling shot in the hardware shop.”

“Crows are too smart for that. The most effective way is to kill a crow and hang it up as an example to the others.”

He started on Amaravathy, a black cow whose horns never grew in.

“Did you ever wonder how a baby crow knows how to be a crow? I mean why do crow babies grow up to steal milk, egret babies to follow cows around, and babblers to peck at their reflections in shiny milk cans? I heard about this on TV. You see, astrologers can take your birth details and write out your entire life in a notebook. Similarly, scientists can look at the ‘DND’ in the your blood and  figure out everything about you. Even crows have this ‘DND’ which is why they behave like crows.”

milkman new TVS

One morning Murugan arrived before dawn on a shiny new TVS moped.

“Whose is that?” I asked.

He slapped the black leather seat.

“I bought it.  My knees hurt and my right foot is still swollen from when that cranky cow in BDpatti stomped on it two month’s ago. I’m getting too old for that bicycle.”

I inspected the TVS’s chrome handlebars and unscratched dark green paint, the red and white racing stripes. The moped didn’t even have license plates yet.

“I never dreamed that one day I would actually own such a fine vehicle.”

“I hope you don’t go and get fat on me. You don’t want to develop pressure and blood sugar problems, you know.”

After finishing the milking and measuring, Murugan sat in the feed trough to write the morning cow accounts. He yawned.

“I was thinking about what you said about crows and ‘DND’ and also about how chickens descended from dinosaurs. What’s your view on the origin of races and caste?”

He replaced the notebook in his pocket and leaned back luxuriously, supporting his head with his hands, elbows outstretched.

“You mean like why are you a white man and I’m an Indian and somebody else is Chinese or African? Well races developed because of the land. Each land has its own shakthi. Rajasthan is desert, so Rajasthani’s look a certain way and are adapted to heat. Kashmir has cold, snowy mountains, so Kashmiris tolerate cold and have lighter skin.  This is just like when Indians go to America, they develop lighter skin color because America is so cold and the land has light colored shakthi. The Indians don’t become completely white, but after many generations, their children’s children eventually would. South India is very hot and sunny. You were born in India and we can tell you’ve changed compared to the usual white people.  You’re a little darker and you look more Indian and your pronunciation is coming along. After many generations your descendants would look just like other South Indians. It’s the shakthi of Tamil Nadu.”

As I was spraying disinfectant on the cows’ nipples, my left foot slipped on a fresh cow pie and I almost went down. Green manure dotted my shorts.

“Careful! You don’t want to sit in this mess. Madam won’t let you in the house.”

milkman calf

I pulled a stubborn calf from its mother and tied it to the metal ring next to the older calves.

“In the old days,” Murugan said, “all humans were just one caste. From time to time, groups would move around in search of better food or water. If individuals were too sick or old to travel, the tribe would put them inside a giant clay pot with a little food and water and leave them to their fate. I know it sounds cruel, but life was very difficult back then. If the person survived, then he or she would climb out of the pot and wander around looking for food.  Similarly, individuals from other tribes would survive and wander about. If these loners would get together and have babies, a new group would be formed. Different, yet similar. The descendants would say, ‘We’re such and such caste. You’re different from us. We don’t marry our children with yours.’

He stood up, splashed some cold water on his face, and retied his blue plaid lungi, Murugan then took a rag and began to polish his TVS.

“Here’s another way castes were formed. During the time of the kings of Madurai, for example, royalty like the Zamindar of Bodi kept bodyguards, huge muscle men with bare chests smeared with oil. These moustache men would run in front of the tribute collectors’ chariots as they went from village to village collecting taxes. They would clear the crowds and threaten anybody who didn’t pay what was owed. In time these men called themselves the ‘Thevar’, or the ‘gods’. They lived together in communities with tough talking wives and had tough little babies who grew up to become bodyguards too. Thus formed the Thevar caste. After the epoch of the Kings came to an end, these people left their villages and spread out all over the country, but they still remember who they are.

“A similar pattern happened with potters and carpenters. ‘Hey you’, says the Zamindar. ‘Make me a table. You’re now an Aasari. You! Go pray to the gods and offer sacrifices. You’re now a Brahmin. And you, go clean the gutters. You’re now a sweeper. We’re the bosses and you all better not forget it.’”

He yawned again. “Well, I’m worn out. Time to drop off this milk and go to bed.”

Like clockwork the next morning, Murugan rode up on his TVS and whistled to let me know he had come. I whistled back and joined him. Two little fifth graders from the boy’s hostel were waiting with their little pot to buy the day’s milk for their tea. They were shy and took their job very seriously.

“You’re good boys,” Murugan said. “Not like so many of them these days who don’t respect their elders.”

He measured out 2½ liters for them and dismissed them with a smile.

“The problem,” Murugan said, “is that parents don’t discipline their children anymore.

When I was small, my friends and I—there were about 5 of us—we cut class and sneaked over to the mango grove where we ate mangos all day.

milkman laughing at story

“Then we took naps in the shade because our tummies hurt. Just as school was ending, we put on our backpacks and slipped into the group of kids who were leaving the school ground. We acted like we had been in school all day and got away with it.  Two days later, we tried it again, but this time the mango watcher caught us. He dragged us to the headmaster.

“‘Who’s your father?’ the H.M. said. “What street do you live on?  You’re in big trouble.’ When our fathers came for us, they shouted at us. They tied us to a tree and sprinkled red ants down our shirts and in our pants. Talk about fire and pain! We learned our lesson.”

After emptying his bucket, he lubricated his fingers with more castor oil and started to prep the swollen udder of Annaikili who had just calfed the week before.

“Back then, for crimes like stealing, the men used to smear the kid with sticky brown jaggery water, tie his hands behind his knees, and toss him on the dung heap in the sun. The ants would be attracted to the sugar and bite him up and the boy would never steal again. Nowadays, if you even touch a kid, they can put a court case against you. No wonder children are so disrespectful.”

“Did you ever use the ants in the pants with your kids?”

Murugan stopped prepping the nipples, looked down, and leaned his forehead against the flank of the cow for a few moments. “We were never able to have children.”

He straightened and wiped his hands on a clean patch of fur. “After spending 30,000 rupees on scans, blood tests, semen tests, expensive injections and pills– nothing. We’ve given up.”

milkman milking closeup

As the cow let her milk down, Murugan entered into the rhythm. Squirt, squirt, squirt, squirt, squirt, squirt. I absently began to count. If it takes about a thousand squirts per cow per milking and he does 30 cows twice per day and he’s done this for nearly 20 years, think how many…

“No, in this life, I will never be a father.”

I thought of my own children, of all the years of being, of watching their remarkable transformations and incarnations. “I’m sorry.”

milkman face close-up

He shrugged and shifted his bare feet on the manure slick floor. “I’m at peace with it. Life is good. Look how much there is left to learn. Did I tell you that massive rocks in space the size of mountains are flying straight towards the earth? I saw it on TV. And now scientists have figured out how to shoot rockets up to explode those asteroids before they destroy our world.

“I would love to go up on one of those rockets someday. Not all the way to Mars though. Just to be way up there circling the earth, looking down on all this as it slowly passes by.”

milkman on TVS front


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.


  • Bob Granner

    This is fascinating. . . You’ve told a story of Creation here even though the setting is provincial and the conversation minimal. . . It’s like a Creation Myth. Thoroughly enjoyable. . .

  • Penny Fidler

    impossible to have a conversation with out postman here……. nice to know that yours is such a knowledgeable fellow…

  • Pippa

    I love this the stories of the first milkman reminded me of the first
    one I had in Kodai who watered the milk so that it went blue. Your
    first milkmen were so funny but so tru.
    Murugan is amazing I love his dinasaur stories and all the things that
    he was doing.
    What a great story it should go into a book. Pippa Mukherjee

  • Evelyn

    thank you for another beautiful telling! feels like I am there in the milk shed

  • Tamar

    Amazing insight into the mind of a brilliant villager who had no chance to get an education but is trying his best to understand the workings of the world – I love this post! Brilliant.