Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Indian Water Buffalo - A Tale from my childhood

When I was 10 years old, I read an amusing Marathi folk tale. It was about a man who left his home in a huff after a quarrel with his wife. When evening came, he regretted his rash action, but couldn't bring himself to go back and say sorry. Besides, too many of his neighbours had seen him walk off swearing never to return. He would become a laughing-stock if he returned meekly.

But he badly wanted to go back home for dinner, especially since his empty stomach now reminded him of his wife's lovely cooking. Desperate, he looked around, and spotted one of their buffaloes returning home unescorted after the day's grazing.

So he grabbed the buffalo's tail and went back home behind it, pretending the buffalo was dragging him back against his wish.

As he went, he sang a rhyme loudly: "Aga Aga Mahshi, Mala Kuthe Nehshi?!" (Oh, Oh, my buffalo, where are you dragging me?!).

He sang loud enough for the neighbours to hear :) When he reached home, his wife, wise woman that she was, smiled to herself at the hilarious sight, but welcomed him and gave him dinner. And that was the end of their fight.

Even today, every time I see a buffalo, this story brings a grin to my face.

Aga Aga Mahshi, Mala Kuthe Nehshi!

Buffaloes are a big deal in India. I was looking at the National Dairy Board figures, and we seem to have an astounding 100 million buffaloes. That's one buffalo for every 10 Indians!

We have a lot of cows as well; in fact the cattle population is nearly double that of buffaloes. But the buffalo population has been growing far faster.

While buffalo numbers have grown by 130% in the last 50 years, cattle population has grown by only 15-20%. The trend is sharper in more recent years. Clearly, buffaloes are fast becoming the animal of choice in the Indian dairy industry.

Why is this happening? Simple. The buffalo offers the most reward for the least cost and effort.

Firstly, the buffalo is hardier, and survives better under poor fodder and poor management conditions.

Skinny buffaloes in a dry village near Dausa, Rajasthan.

In this village home that I visited, there was no feedstock anywhere in sight; and grass was scarce. The buffaloes were skinny, and some had skin infections, but they still yielded milk. These buffaloes were still the biggest source of that family's income, and I'm guessing they made a big contribution to the family nutrition levels.

A buffalo yields richer milk than a cow (typically, buffalo milk has twice the amount of butterfat than cow's milk). The milk therefore fetches better prices. Buffalo milk is whiter, and better suited for the manufacture of milk powder. Traditional paneer cheese made from buffalo milk is better. Buffaloes can be used in agriculture for tilling, and also as a source of meat.

With the start of Operation Flood in the 1970's (specially the second phase of the program in the 80's), there has also been infrastructural support from the Indian government for buffaloes. Feedstock availability has been improved, veterinary services made available, and, most important, a stable, self-sustaining distribution channel has been established for buffalo milk. Both cows and buffaloes form part of the staggering 73,000 village co-operatives that produce milk for sale; supplying over 300 towns and cities. Each co-operative is made up of multiple small producers, allowing rural as well as semi-rural families (like the one below) to prosper.

This family near Agra had four fat female buffaloes with three calves.

The children of this family looked well-fed and healthy. Obviously, the milk was for sale, and not just personal consumption. I could not stop and check if the milk was being sold to a co-operative. But since this home is not far from Delhi, I assumed the milk would probably end up there.

There are several breeds of buffalo in India; but the champion milk producer is the Murrah. You'll see the Murrah in Delhi, because it is native to Haryana (adjacent to Delhi). It's really easy to identify this champion - the horns are small, upwards, backwards and tightly curved inward at the end.

Haryanvi Milk Goddess :)

The tail of the Murrah often has a white switch at the end; and that's an easy identifier too (although you can't see it in this photo). There's a very nice page here, managed by Central Institute for Research on Buffaloes, that describes all the buffalo breeds in different parts of India. As you can see, they're each quite different; and some of them look very fancy! I'm going to click buffalo photos now, whenever I travel through the country!

All this milk-talk has suddenly set up a craving in me for paneer. Thick, creamy, soft, paneer... I'm thinking we'll try palak-paneer tonight! You're invited :)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

In which I learn about paring toenails

On facebook, a friend posted this photo, which explains the right way for a devout Muslim to trim their nails.

Toe nails are easy. You start with the smallest one on the right foot, then work your way in an arc towards the smallest one on your left foot.

Fingernails are a little more complicated. For some reason, you do four fingers of the right hand in one arc, then four fingers of the left hand (but starting with a different finger), and then finally the thumbs (see photo above for better understanding; the fingers have been helpfully numbered in the right sequence).

As if this elaborate sequencing isn't enough, there's also a recommended frequency of nail paring (not more than 40 days between trimmings), a recommended disposal method (burial) and several other injunctions (for example, you can't wear nail polish, but you can put henna on nails and make them orange).

I then looked up a Jewish resource site, to find out what they had to say about nails. As it turned out, the Jewish way is equally specific. There are rules for the frequency with which nails should be cut (every week, or once in two weeks). There are days on which nails should not be cut (Thursdays). There's a recommended sequence (adjacent fingernails can't be trimmed one after another). There's also another rule that says you can't clip fingernails and toenails on the same day.

Both religions say that it is important to dispose of or destroy nail clippings. I think it stems from this old underlying belief that nails have "power" of some sort, and if you leave them lying around, someone can cast a a spell on you or do you harm.

I then looked up Hinduism and Christianity on the subject of nails. In Hinduism, I found that there isn't much other than an injunction not to cut nails after dark (I found lots of complicated rules about haircuts and tonsuring, and a total obsession with bathing!). Christianity doesn't seem to have anything much to say on the subject of nail cutting at all (or bathing, or haircuts or any other form of personal hygiene). Or maybe I just didn't look hard enough.

The more I read, the more I wanted to smile, especially when I laid all the "rules" side by side. They were all written in earnest religious tones; and each writer seemed convinced that they had got it right.

Actually, some of this stuff may have been right at the time it was written - for example, not cutting nails after dark was probably sensible in the pre-electricity era. Not leaving nails lying around is definitely sensible, no matter what era you are in.

But not all the rules make sense today. By and large, I find that the elaborateness of religious ritual borders on the absurd.

I have never had much patience with it; primarily because I grew up without any customary daily prayers or weekly fasts or what have you. I agree that rituals do have their uses. Having set patterns for things can aid in calming the mind. But hello? the "right" sequence for paring toenails? What were they thinking? :) :)