Mothers and Calves

During the few months of spring and early summer, the bay area resembles fairy land itself. The mustards are blooming alongside the lupines and golden poppies forming a profusion of yellows, violets and oranges against the lush green backdrop of the grassy hills.

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As I made my way through the green hills with my friends, who unwittingly agreed to a walk on a Friday evening, I chirped on happily. A few minutes in, there we were stalled in our tracks, faced with a herd of happy cows who didn’t seem too happy to see us. Right across our path they stood clustered around holding a conference of sorts, while one calf decided that the best place to drink mother’s milk was the pathway. This was one of the few places on the trail where a steep ravine drops on one side, and a rather incline presents itself on the other.

So, we stood, patiently awaiting the calf to finish drinking milk. Looking at my friends’ faces – not to mention the cows’ faces, I realized that this may not be the best time to tell them heartwarming stories of the elephant calf drinking milk on the Bandipur highway. (Galactic Plumes) So, I cheesed it, but here it is:

Along the roads from Karnataka towards the Nilgiri Hills are thick forests on either side. The Bandipur and Mudumalai national forests lie on this path. A drive through these roads is picturesque and can grant many marvelous views. Bison, spotted deer, and elephants are only a few of the marvels along this road. One such time when I had taken the night bus home, the bus stopped with its headlights off, and did not budge. The whole bus was awake within minutes and all of us were starting to get excited in those loud tones when the bus driver and conductor shushed everyone vehemently and told us to quieten down. It was apparent from their faces that there was potential trouble. Peering out into the road, we realized, they were indeed correct. There, in the middle of the road – on a national highway no less, stood an elephant mother, and her calf, who had decided to drink milk at 2 a.m. 

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While this may seem a trifle dramatic, the one thing elephant mothers do not tolerate is being disturbed when their infants are feeding. There have been several instances of a mother elephant losing it, and sending vehicles tumbling down ravines if disturbed. So, we waited. The waiting vehicles snaked for miles on each side, while the calf drank peacefully in the glow of the moonlight, and the headlights dimmed out of courtesy. How no one honked is beyond me, for Indian traffic is not known for its patience. Maybe, the road only attracted regulars, and they knew the ways of the forest creatures well. In perfect silence, the hundreds of vehicles waited on either side, quietly, patiently. Finally after 45 minutes, the calf had had its share, and the mother sagely moved to the forest. The drivers let out a perceptible sigh and slowly revved their engines on again, before proceeding. 

Where am I going with this? Well, replace the elephant with a cow, and add a herd of them in the middle of the road, and that was the situation facing us. We stood there, carefully waiting for the calf to finish its evening snack. Whoever termed the phrase ‘Mama bear’ got it right. Mamas aren’t to be messed with especially when they are in Mothering mode. It was a fitting lesson for Mothering day. (In the UK, Mothering day, different from Mother’s Day, is celebrated close to Easter.) 

I don’t know if you have ever walked through a herd of cows and calves before. If you haven’t let me assure you, it isn’t easy. It isn’t that the cows are going to do anything. Like the son said fairly during the wait, “We are in its home. So, it is better we wait!”, but the weight of even a calf is enough to send us tumbling down, and no one wants a stampede of cows. 

Anyway, we stood there feeling braver and looking dafter every passing minute. Funny how the braver we felt, the farther we seemed to be inching away from the cows. The cows seemed to be enjoying every minute of the predicament too. There were amused glances and tittering amongst them, I swear! Pretty soon, a cyclist came buzzing down and just parted the herd as he made his way past them. This seemed to give us courage, and we made our way too, though I must say I almost wet myself when the calf and mother gave me a warning as we passed. 

In ‘The Road To Little Dribbling‘, Bill Bryson writes of encountering cows in his walks. I couldn’t help thinking of the book at several points in the walk.

You know how we anthropologize our fellow creatures? I think this particular cow was messing with us. Probably make for a hilarious retelling at the water hole later on. You see, there she was, grazing on the hillsides, and just as she saw us coming, she turned a quiet eye towards us mocking us, and shuffled onto the road. There was simply nothing for us to do, but for us to scramble on to the hillsides ourselves while she looked on amused. The setting sun on one side, and a bright full-ish moon on the other, this picture is truly priceless. If only I could share it with the cow, so it lends her tale credence at the water hole! 

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People sometimes ask me what it is I find so enthralling in nature that I rave about it so much. Well: This is just it.

“I like being in a country where when cows attack, word of it gets around. That’s what I mean when I say Britain is cozy.”
Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island

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