He looked like any other old villager, wrapped in his blue green shawl, a faded lungi tied around his waist. His right eye was cloudy, face unshaven, and hair uncombed.
I first met Vellaiyan in the clinic, having been dragged to see me by his wife, a wisp of a woman with intelligent eyes.
Though her hair was in wild dreadlocks, she had clearly been a beauty in her day, wrinkled in all the right places, a visage sculpted by time and sun. There are those burned out by ashen age, and those to whom the years impart a power tougher than their sinews. Though her voice had a tremor and she shuffled, Chinnathai was clearly in charge.
“Our son Suruli takes care of your cows,” she said. “He sent us here.”
“Yes, I remember you. So what’s the matter today?”
Vellaiyan gazed at me, his demeanor unreadable.
“It’s the old man,” Chinnathai said. “He’s dizzy all the time, and won’t eat since that cow of his kicked him last month. I keep telling him it’s time to sell the beast.”
He turned towards her. “Stop talking, now. She just tapped me, is all.”
“Listen to him!” She pointed both hands towards his chin. “That cow rose up on her hind legs and knocked you over, then pounded your chest with her hoof!”
He pursed his lips.
On examination, a spot near his left nipple made a crunching sound and caused him to cry out. His upper abdomen was tender too and when I depressed his lower lid, the color was extremely pale.
“No wonder you’re dizzy. Your blood is half gone.”
“That’s what I keep telling him. No blood. He just eats a few bites of rice and rasam. Nothing else.”
He frowned. “Why should a man eat if he’s not hungry?”
“How much tea do you drink?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “Not much.”
“Aiyoh, doctor. he drinks at least eight cups a day. That’s all that keeps the village men from carrying him off to the graveyard.”
“How about smoking beedis, cigarettes? Alcohol?”
“I’ve never touched all that stuff. Big waste! And I also don’t go to the cinema or watch TV.”
I sent him to the lab and after seeing a few more patients, called the couple back.
“Your hemoglobin is only 5 grams. Your tank really is less than half full.”
Chinnathai nodded her approval.
“You may well have an ulcer too, which is why you’re not hungry. We’ll need to give you iron injections to build up your blood.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“He’s afraid, Doctor. He’s never been to a clinic before and has never had an injection in his life.”
“Who says I’m afraid? If I need an ooci, then I do.”
After an injection for pain and one containing soluble iron, the couple collected their brown paper covers of medications and an order for a chest x-ray in town. They left.
A month later, Chinnathai came alone. Her right foot was wrapped in a large bandage and she could hardly walk.
“Here,” she said, handing me an x-ray.
“That cow again. She stomped on my foot.”
I held the x-ray up to light coming in through the window. “This isn’t your foot. It’s your husband’s chest.”
“I know, we didn’t have enough money for both of us to take an x-ray.”
“Where is your husband?”
“That old man said he’s too busy taking care of the cow to wander over here.”
I pointed to the upper left corner of the film. “See up here? His rib is cracked. How is he feeling these days?”
“Much better. His chest still hurts, but he’s able to cut grass, carry water from the township tank, and milk the cow.”
Chinnathai explained how the cow had stepped on her while she was clearing away manure. Her youngest son had brought her to the local Malayali homeopath for injections, but her foot continued to get worse. A neighbor had suggested opening antibiotic capsules and sprinkling the powder on her wound, which Chinnathai had been doing.
The top of her foot was crusted and blackened with about an 8 centimeter wound oozing pus. I debrided the dead tissue and asked the nurse to apply a betadine dressing.
“That cow sounds dangerous,” I said.
“She’s a naatu maadu. Normally these breeds are just fine, but when she’s in heat, watch out!”
“Maybe your husband’s a bit too old to care for a cow? What is his age anyway?”
She smiled and held up an empty hand. “We’ve never been to school. Maybe 50? Or 80? Our oldest son is about 45, if that helps. My husband gives him money since he drinks and is always short on cash.”
“Grandmother,” the nurse said, “you have to change the dressing just like this every day. We’ll send the materials home with you. Can you manage?”
“Why not?” Chinnathai stood up stiffly.
“So have you considered getting rid of the cow?” I asked her. “Letting him rest?”
“He doesn’t want to rest.”
“But with the drought and the price of feed? How’s he getting by?”
The old woman went on to explain how Vellaiyan wandered around the village and collected the stalks and husks that other cows wouldn’t eat. He had trained his cow to chew them right up.
Her husband would also walk to nearby fields and ask permission to cut weeds from the dikes and irrigation channels, then carry these bundles.
Finished with her dressing, Chinnathai went to the pharmacy to collect her antibiotics, then came back to my examining room and interrupted me. She held her palms together, and nodded her thanks.
Over the next few months, I often asked Suruli about his parents. He told me how as a younger man, his father was a well-respected channel irrigator. Strong and efficient, he could stretch the water from a half-empty well across an entire field, sluicing just enough to fill each patch before the daily power cut. The owners loved him because they never had to tell him to work harder. He didn’t mind stinging weeds and snakes and mosquitos and eye flies, nor all those salt-filled grass cuts.
In order to enhance his income, he bought a young native cow for 500 rupees. She was lovely and promised to be a great milker, but shortly after giving birth to a female calf, she died from milk fever. Grief struck, Vellaiyan took an oath, a nerthi kadan. He would raise this calf and later either give it to the temple or sell it and offer all the proceeds to God. In exchange, he prayed for protection from disease for his family and to have enough money to raise and feed his five children.
After work, he would go home, feed the cow, eat a simple supper, then lie on his mat and sleep. He would rise before dawn, do cow chores, drink some tea and head off to the owner’s coconut grove.
Vellaiyan always had a sweaty wad of rupee bills tucked away in his veshti’s waist band. In fact, he couldn’t sleep unless he has a thousand rupees tucked around his middle. If people asked him for a loan, he would unwrap the empty side of cloth.
“Sorry, no money.”
If his oldest son asked for cash, he would hand him 500 rupees and tell him to buy him a tea now and then. In fact, every time somebody bought Vellaiyan a tea, he would bless them.
“Nee nallaayiru. May you live long and prosper.”
Suruli explained how in the 1960’s, the government granted his father three cents of land in SC Colony since they were landless members of the shoemaker caste. First he built a mud hut with 18-inch walls and very little foundation. He dug and hauled the mud himself, raising the walls six inches, letting them dry, then applying another 6 inches.
He then smeared the whole thing with cow dung, followed by whitewash. The steep roof was constructed of sticks lashed together and thatched with dried grass that he would cut in the foothills and transport by oxcart. This had to be replaced every year, while at the same time repairing the areas of the walls that had been melted by the monsoon rains. Though the house was cramped for a family of seven, Suruli remembers it as always being warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Later Vellaiyan thatched the house with chollam stalks , and after a few more years of saving his rupees, switched to coconut beams painted with waste oil, and corrugated tin sheeting. A few decades later, the government contractors built everybody in SC Colony a brick house with a tile roof. Many of these sagged and collapsed due to corrupt contractors skimping on materials. Vellaiyan replaced the roof with a durable concrete slab and allowed his old mud house to dissolve.
As time went by, Vellaiyan’s knees became too arthritic to do field work. He decided that it was time to retire, so he called the authorities and divided the property between his sons. He wanted this done while he was still alive so as to avoid the disputes and bruising infighting that divided so many families. Since his daughter had died in childbirth, the property was divided four ways. The oldest son bought out the second son and got 1 ½ cents and the house. Suruli and his younger brother each got .75 cents and had to build their own homes. Vellaiyan and his wife paid a 30,000 deposit and moved to a rented cement house with enough space for their cow.
For money, Vellaiyan sold the milk from his cow and raised and the calves for sale.
“Remember, boys,” he would tell his sons. “Sambathikira allavukkku thinnu, eat only what you earn, and never, ever take loans.
Even in retirement, Vellaiyan always had a small bundle of rupee bills rolled up in his waistline.
Then came the days of trouble.
Suruli’s 17 year old daughter dropped out of school, ran off with the neighbor’s son, and got married against the wishes of the family elders. Though the boy’s family was willing to accept the girl, Suruli’s hotheaded younger brother and uncles couldn’t stand the loss of face and refused to bless the marriage. After Suruli’s brother got into a fight with the boy’s big-fisted father, the two families were no longer on speaking terms. The girl got pregnant and then had a miscarriage complicated by life-threatening bleeding and was rushed to a private hospital. They doctor ‘cleaned out her womb’, transfused blood, and saved her life. The fees were very high however, and the new couple was unable to pay.
“Enough of this,” Suruli’s father said. “She’s my granddaughter.” He emptied his veshti of money, gave it to his wife, and told her to help pay the hospital bills. He then went to the milk union and for the first time in his life, broke his vows and asked for a loan. With this money, he helped pay the rest of the girl’s expenses. Suruli, moved by his father’s actions, brought the girl home, and though he wouldn’t speak to her for fear of disrespecting the elders, he cared for her till she recovered and was able to return to her husband’s family.
Suruli’s father, meanwhile, had to cope with trying to repay the loans with income from seven liters per day, then six liters per day, then five liters. He and his wife barely had enough money to buy food. His arthritic right leg was starting to bend like a bow and his chest injury still hurt every time he drew a breath. At least the calf was fully grown, pregnant, and ready to sell.
One morning, the mother cow went into heat and began to moo and kick and buck. Vellaiyan untied her and led her down the lane towards the government veterinary extension clinic for insemination. On a way, a roaring tractor spooked her and she tore free from his grip. The cow bucked and jumped and landed on a neighbor’s front porch, shattering his wooden bench and smashing several water pots.
“You old garbage picker! Can’t you control your cow!”
The man punched Vellaiyan in the face, knocking him to the ground. He then began to kick him. Neighbors rushed up and pulled the attacker away. Several men managed to subdue the cow. They helped Vellaiyan to his feet and dusted him off. His eye was swollen and his face contorted in pain.
“You’re too old to be doing this, Vellaiyan! Sell the cow! Act your age!”
Though he could barely walk, the old man took hold of the cow’s nose rope, shuffled off to the veterinarian, and completed the insemination.
That evening after work, Suruli compensated the angry neighbor for his loss of property, then went to his parents home to talk things over.
“How long can we go on like this, Appa? What if the cow had crushed you? Or perhaps killed a child?”
The old man groaned and turned on his cot to face the wall.
Several weeks later, the young heifer’s udders began to fill as calving time drew close. Suruli helped his father find a buyer and negotiated an excellent price. The man paid him 40,000 rupees in new pink 2000 rupee bills.
“What’s this?” Suruli’s father asked. “Just a few twenty rupee bills! You let that man cheat us?”
“No, Appa. Even though they’re red like the twenty rupee bills, they are each worth two thousand.”
“These flimsy things? They look like play money.”
“Tell you what, I’m going to keep this money safe for you. We boys will bring it to the bank together. Whenever you need some money, you can ask us.”
Vellaiyan’s face became dark.
“Hand me the money, all of it. It’s mine! I worked hard to raise this calf without your help and I don’t need your help to keep my money safe.”
“Sorry, Appa. What if the tea stall man asks for a 20 and you give him a 2000 by mistake? It’s better this way.”
That night, Vellaiyan went on a hunger strike. He lay on his bed and wouldn’t eat. Same thing the next day. Alarmed, his wife called in the boys.
“Talk to your father! Do something! He’s going to die.”
After a few more days of cajoling and shouting and pleading, the boys handed the 40,000 back to their father.
He rose stiffly from his cot and tucked the money into his waistline. “That’s better. Now buy me a tea.”
Two days later, the oldest son developed severe chest pain and began to sweat profusely. By the time the other brothers arrived, he was gasping on the floor, unconscious. They dialed ‘108’ and the ambulance rushed him to Susiram Hospital in Sillamarathupatti. Dr. Vinodkumar took one look at him and shook his head.
“I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do. He’s barely alive and I can’t even feel his pulse.”
Suruli’s father began to weep.
“Please, he’s my oldest son. You must try. I can pay you whatever it costs.” He removed a handful of bills from his veshti and thrust them into the doctor’s hand. “See?”
“Please put your money away, sir. OK, I’ll try my best. You people just need to understand that his condition is really, really serious.”
The doctor admitted him into his little ICU, started oxygen, and administered emergency cardiac drugs including an expensive clot dissolver to open the coronary artery. After a few hours, the patient’s blood pressure returned to normal and he woke up.
“When can I go home? I need a beedi.”
Suruli’s brother made good progress and was referred to Theni for an angiogram. A week later he was home, walking around comfortably. He gave up smoking and booze. Suruli’s mother put on a fire-red sari and joined a ladies pilgrimage to the Parashakthi temple near Chennai to offer thanks. On the way home, she visited MGR movie star’s tomb at the Marina beach and dipped her toes in the ocean for the first time in her life. She was ecstatic.
A few weeks later, I asked Suruli how his father was doing.
“Well, he’s spent all of that 40,000 rupees.”
“What, did somebody cheat him?”
“No, he paid 20,000 towards my brother’s angiogram. Another 10,000 went towards their rented house since the owner was threatening to evict them if they didn’t pay a larger deposit.”
“And the last 10,000?”
Suruli told me about his recent visit to his parents house where he found their living room filled with high quality brass water pots.
“Where are all these from, Amma?”
“Oh that’s your father’s latest project. He lends the neighbors 1000 rupees at a time and they have to hand over a 3000 rupee brass pot as collateral. After they repay the money plus 5 rupees per hundred monthly interest, they get the pot back.”
Suruli turned to his father. “So that’s what you’ve done with the last 10,000, become a money lender?”
The old man’s poker face changed ever so slightly. A flicker of a smile.
Suruli’s mother continued. “No, I advanced him the money for that business. With his own 10,000, this old fart went and bought himself another cow. A black and white one this time.”