India: A tale of cattle, turmeric, and guns

I recently returned from several weeks of research in Bihar, India’s poorest (and, with 103.8 million people, its third most-populous) state. My topics in this fascinating place included river erosion on the Ganges, public health, politics, and political violence. I met some extraordinary people along the way, including the journalist Nalin Verma. Raised in a tiny village in northwest Bihar, Verma literally swam to school with his books tied on top of his head during the annual monsoon flooding. Today, he is a senior editor at the Telegraph newspaper. He wrote this powerful essay about progress and conflict in his home village for his personal blog, and with his kind permission we are reprinting it here.

Nalin Verma

Sukath Choudhary is dead. So is my father. But my village, thrown carelessly on the map of Bihar state in India, is still there.

I love my village, for it nurtured me and saw me through my wonder years. And it has zealously treasured my memories. I still remember the half-naked grazier locked in verbal duel with my father. My father had offered the man some money to graze the family cow.

“Don’t try to fool me with these pieces of paper,” Sukath shouted, throwing the money back at my father. “After all, I have guarded your cow in the blazing sun for months on end.”

Father was a bit bewildered. But, archetypal villager that he was, he soon sensed that currency notes were alien to Sukath. So he handed him a few coins instead. “Yes! Now you have given me genuine money. I will purchase tobacco with it.”

Sukath Choudhary lived in a world of his own. It was a world of cows, calves, and bulls. He talked to bovines and they responded. He lived among them at all times. On the banks of the canal and in the barren fields on the outskirts of the village — Daraily Mathia in Siwan district — he was often seen amid hundreds of cattle.

He did not remember when he started spending all his time in the company of longhorns. “My parents enlisted me to look after the cows even before I began to wear clothes!” Sukath told me.

My curiosity drove me to inquire about this herdsman in his late 60’s. I frequently saw him escorting the four-footed at the canal. It was in the mid-1970s, when I was in my teens. I initially thought Sukhath had hundreds of cows and calves in his possession. No farmer in my village owned more than three or four. One fine morning I learned the answer when my father asked me to take our cow to Sukath. Sukath was the caretaker of the cows of several other farmers, besides his own.

Every morning I took our cow to Sukath. And every evening I used to bring the creature back home. This routine enabled me learn more about him. Clad in a soiled dhoti and holding a baton on his shoulder, Sukath lorded over his animal kingdom. His knowledge of words appeared limited to “hat…hooh….aaha…hurr,” which he frequently uttered to command his subjects.

He had little time to interact with other people of the village. His day began at the crack of the dawn. With a bundle of sattu (a powder of fried grains) on his back, Sukath left home with his four-footed friends. And he returned home after the sunset to sleep beside the cattle at his door.

One story about Sukath, and the halcyon days of my childhood, sticks out.

A village lad, Mangru, opened a tea stall on the canal on the outskirts of the village. Mangru had learned to prepare tea while working as a busboy in a restaurant somewhere in Punjab. Most of the old people in my poor and remote village were still unaware of this hot beverage. Sukath was walking lazily along the canal while his cows were grazing in a nearby field. Mangru offered him an earthen vessel of tea. Sukath readily took the cup and raised it to his lips.

And then all hell broke loose.

Sukath started beating Mangru with his baton. “You have given me poison, it burnt my lips, I will not spare you,” Sukath screamed. The shopkeeper, bruised and battered, somehow escaped with his life. Other villagers gathered around to convince Sukath that tea was not a poison and that, if consumed slowly, it would not burn his tongue. But Sukath was not convinced.

Mangru was my neighbor. Later that evening, I saw Sukath standing at Mangru’s door. He was holding a pail full of milk. “Come out Mangru,” he shouted. Mangru, still bruised, hobbled out.

“Take this milk,” Sukath said. “Boil it, add haldi [turmeric], and drink it. You will be relieved of your aches.” Then he explained: “I beat you because you were playing a prank on me. You are now a grown man, stop playing tricks on old people.” Mangru accepted the milk meekly and peace was restored.

Sukath had no enemies. His needs were limited. He was more than content with his bovine friends. He was closest to what I know of a happy man.

On a recent visit to my village, I heard Sukath had passed away. He had three sons. His eldest died of tuberculosis. The second son died in a road accident. The third, Harekrishna, is alive. Sixteen-year-old Harekrishna is married to the 32-year-old widow of his eldest brother. He is an active member of a Maoist insurgent group that has gained ground in my village.

“Clever people fooled my innocent father. They paid him only a rupee for an entire month of grazing their cows,” Harekrishna said. “I am not going to carry on what my father did. He led an animal’s life.”

Unlike his late father, Harekrishna is aware of his rights. He works as a farm laborer, “But no one dares to pay me less than the legal wage.” Harekrishna and his generation are aware of both currency notes and coins. His father would be an anachronism today.

Several tea shops and paan shops have come up along the canal. People are aware of tea and paan. They keep their cows in sheds or staked near their doors. There is no Sukath to lead the herds.

But with the passing away of Sukath, peace and harmony have also disappeared from my village. It too is plagued by trouble and unrest, like many other villages in Bihar state of India.

The upper castes and the lower castes are on the warpath. Society is divided. People do not gather as they used to. Friendliness and good-neighborliness have been replaced by distrust and suspicion.

The baton that Sukath carried is out of fashion now. Firearms have replaced it.

Mangru is still alive. When reminded of Sukath’s assault on him, Mangru becomes nostalgic. He says: “Babu, do you remember how Sukath-bhai offered me milk after beating me?

“The injuries caused by guns will not be cured by hot milk and turmeric.”

Wildlife

Dan Morrison is a contributor to National Geographic Voices. From 2007 to 2012 he reported for National Geographic News from South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, filing dispatches on climate change, conflict, the environment, and antiquities. Dan is author of The Black Nile , a nonfiction account of his 3,600-mile journey down the length of the White Nile through Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt. The Daily Beast called The Black Nile "a masterful narrative of investigative reportage, travel writing, and contemporary history," and The Village Voice named it one of the Ten Best of 2010. Dan was a 2013 United Nations Foundation Global Health Fellow. Currently at work on a book about the Ganges River, Dan also contributes to the New York Times, POLITICO Magazine, Slate, The Arabist Network and the Dhaka Tribune. To contact Dan please see his website.