Walk like a cow

Indian notebook 4

The best advice we received in India was from our guide in Mumbai. We were marooned in the central reservation, wondering how to cross a three-lane highway with fast-moving traffic and no apparent end to it. Our guide walked out casually between two cars. ‘Walk like a cow,’ she said. So we did. And then we did it everywhere else. It never failed.  

Indian drivers are used to avoiding cows. They are ever-present and they may not be killed. Cows mooch along rural roadsides. They wander slowly through towns, meandering from one side to the other. They lie in the fast lane of motorways, backs nestling in the concrete partition, which seems to have been designed for their comfort. If we walk like a cow, drivers know what to expect and how to avoid hitting us. If we walk like a human, and start running or suddenly pausing, drivers have no idea what to expect.

Indian drivers are used to avoiding much else, and mostly each other. If there is one thing that all tourists to India are told, it is that the roads are death-traps, the driving diabolical, and that your life is at risk on every journey.

In our experience, nothing could be further from the truth. Admittedly, you have to acclimatise yourself to ways of driving not found in the highway code. After that, sit back and enjoy the ride.

Kerala was an extreme introduction to Indian driving. Away from the coast, the roads are tortuous, with few conventional opportunities for overtaking, and crammed with traffic, much of it slow-moving. By the rules of the British road, every journey would average 10 mph at best.

By the rules of the Indian road, that gets up to about 30 mph. The first rule is that you can overtake anyone at any time, even approaching a blind corner, as long as you get your nose in front of the vehicle you are overtaking before the oncoming traffic arrives. If you do, the priority is yours and other vehicles have to pull back, even if it means slamming on the brakes. This process is helped by the fact that a vehicle coming the other way round a blind corner naturally expects to find something on the wrong side of the road and is prepared for evasive action.

It all works fine. It’s just different. I find it astonishing that India has never produced a Formula 1 champion.

We were helped by the fact that our driver in Kerala, the incomparable Govan, was a master of all these arts. I have never met anyone who knows the width and length of his car so exactly, and who so frequently drives (without exaggeration) to the millimetre. Many a time, the bonnet of his car was tucked beneath the bed of the truck in front. He was at his best on the smaller roads. He clearly loved the challenge they presented. But when it came to dual carriageways, he lost interest. No challenge there. So he would dawdle along and let other vehicles overtake, which he never did anywhere else.

My wife thinks that Govan would be a sensation if he came to drive in London. I think he would too, but I fear he might end up in prison. However it is true that, if you can drive in India, you can drive anywhere.

We sampled almost every available form of transport during our 3 weeks. Cars were the staple, but there was a bus in Fatehpur Sikri, tuk-tuks in Jaipur and Delhi, a bicycle rickshaw in Delhi, a train from Mangalore to Mumbai, a flight from Mumbai to Udaipur, and an elephant ride in Thekkady. I think the only thing missing was a camel.

I cannot recommend the train. It is compulsory to attempt an Indian train, but not necessary to repeat the experience. Govan advised us to chain our suitcases together and to a stanchion, to stop them being stolen in the night. The Indian woman in our compartment was a little affronted that we should be doing this. However, the fact that the station kiosk stocked chains and padlocks suggested it was a wise precaution.

But I come back to the cows. I was entranced by the cows. From the big buffalo-like cattle of Rajasthan to the small dainty beasts of Kerala, every day brought fresh cows and fresh delights. I wanted to bring one home in a suitcase, and one of the small Kerala calves might have fitted, but I was not encouraged to do so.

There is, however, a serious problem with India’s cattle, and it has to do with gender. In the old days, there was a parity between cows and bulls. Cows provided milk and curds. Bulls provided transport and hard work in the fields. Neither, of course, could be slaughtered, but both were essential.

Cows are still needed, but not bulls, except the lucky few who perform stud duties. Tractors now till the fields. Lorries and trucks have replaced the oxcarts: we barely saw one in all the time we were there. So, when a bullock is born, he is unwanted and is turned loose in the nearest town and left to fend for himself. I had not expected to be making a study of bovine genitalia, but I can report that at least 90% of the cattle that wander around towns and cities are male. They have become scavengers, abandoned by their owners, reliant on food left out for them by pious Hindus hoping for an upgrade to their karma. The only useful thing they produce is dung.

And this is not a joke. I have no idea what will happen in the future, but it has the makings of a serious problem, if not a tragedy. When we consider the casualties of industrialisation, let us not forget the bulls of India.

Of course, there is also an irony in this. For centuries, baby girls have been unwanted in India. As with the caste system, things are now better, but not entirely. A woman is still a second class citizen, despite ladies-only train carriages and the Pink Police patrol cars, one of which we witnessed in Trivandrum. There is a poetic justice in the fact that bulls have now become second class animals.