Saturday, December 20, 2008

The bovine fixation

In an essay titled, “Confessions of a Xenophile” that came as a supplement to the latest issue of Outlook magazine, Amitav Ghosh describes his stay in a little village in Egypt, in the 1980s. He later gave this village the name of Lataifa.

The villagers, he says, knew no English while Amitav knew very little Arabic. So, conversation languished, till the time they mutually discovered one medium of communication: aflaam-al-Hindeyya, that is to say, Hindi film songs. Everyone would ask him detailed questions about various film episodes, especially of the fifties vintage, featuring stars such as Raj Kapoor, Nargis, etc.

Another aspect that they would torment him with was ‘cows’. He would face questions like, “Was he a devotee of cows?”, “At what time did he conduct his prayers to cows?” “Could they witness his prostrations?”, “Wasn’t there a risk of being splattered with dung?” etc. From the barrage of questions, says Amitav, one would have imagined that Bollywood was a veterinary enterprise and that cows, not Raj Kapoors, were the true stars. Till he went to Egypt, says Amitav, he had no idea that cows played such a central role in Hindi films.

I had a similar experience once, more than 20 years back. A colleague from our UK office was visiting India for the first time. I picked him up from the hotel in the morning and as we set off to meet our first customer, he pulled out his camera and expressed his intention to take a few photos of cows on the road, something that he had heard about from his friends who had visited this country earlier, and a subject that fascinated him. He had never been seen cows on the road.

I told him that the chances of filming cows on the high-traffic city route that we were taking were pretty slim. And, that he was in for some disappointment. By the end of the day, however, he had spotted cows of every variety and in different settings, including one inside a tea shop. He finished an entire roll of film before sunset.

I guess that cows are so much a part of the scene here that we no longer notice them. It takes a new pair of eyes to discover them.

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