The small animals scattered, tails tucked in, ears stiff, feet on the double, fear flitting in their eyes. The birds took off instantly, cooing, cawing, trilling and hooting. The trees woke up from their slumber, disturbed by the dithery of the animals, and the cacophony of birds aflutter. And then, all of a sudden, a blanket of silence enveloped the forest, which was witnessing an unthinkable event. Punyakoti the cow walked purposefully towards its predator, Arbhuta, the tiger.

“Everyone said I was a fool to let you go,” said the incredulous Arbhuta, with relief and disbelief.

“Thank you for letting me visit my children,” replied Punyakoti. “I returned as promised, although I haven’t been able to find guardians for them.”

“Why? Isn’t the village full of cows that hold you in high esteem?”

“That’s the problem. I always had enough to feed my children. I was the first choice at temple festivals, and grihapravesams. I lived my life in relative comfort. I never acknowledged it, but I always occupied a special place within our community; my lineage mattered.”

“But aren’t all cows equal?”

“I thought so too, until they said: ‘We would love to take care of your calves, but what would we feed them? Our master doesn’t allow us to feed our own calves, he weans them away within hours of their birth. Sometimes we don’t even see them after they are taken away. We wake up to their moaning, and keep calling out to them through the night. We cry our hearts out, till our faces are stained by streams of dried tears’.”

“Why wouldn’t he allow the little calves their share of milk?”

“His greed is unbounded. My friends produce more milk than normal. They feel heavy, drugged, and drowsy; they are perennially made pregnant and lactate continuously; they are scared, confused, and helpless. To be forced into motherhood so you can satisfy others’ thirst for milk is a curse, not a blessing. Their lives are so wretched they offered to swap places with me.”

“That’s incredible. Aren’t they afraid of death?”

“They are dead from the inside. They died a little when their calves were snatched. They died some more when their bodies were manipulated. And they continued to die a little every time they heard how their bull-calves and the older cows were slaughtered.”

“Isn’t that illegal?”

“In our country there is a way to bypass every rule. Law can be softened by violence. Violence finds justification in religion. Religion finds refuge in politics. The engine of politics runs on money. Even the scriptures specify how to wash away sins with money. Within this nexus, man has found ways to play god; running on his farm a vicious cycle of life and death, in which he feeds, breeds, milks animals, and turns them into food and leather.”

“But aren’t those cows sacred?”

“What is sacred for some is profane for others. Sacredness doesn’t protect. It merely defines the boundary that separates people who exploit, from those who aren’t allowed to exploit. From the days of Kamadhenu we have been considered sacred, and milked. In the ancient times, the gods and the holy men fought over us. Now their descendents have made us a symbol, a political flashpoint.”

“So why did you return when you had a chance to send one of your friends?”

“They think I am learned, and are willing to make sacrifices for me. I have always been secretly proud of the fact that my knowledge is from the scriptures. I enjoyed the sense of entitlement it gave me.

“For me death was a visitor, for whom I should be prepared when he arrives at the appointed time. For them death is a constant companion. I dreamt of living beyond death. Their dream is to survive alongside death. I lived my life in search of salvation. They live theirs in search of emancipation. I made a mistake by straying into your territory. They never made a mistake in their lives. I got a second chance, thanks to you. Man gives them no second chances.

“To tell you the truth, despite being close to the gods, and the holy men who serve them, I never raised my voice in defence of the weak and downtrodden, even within my own community. About my regard for the unconsecrated animals, the less said the better. Somewhere along the line, I became so preoccupied with myself and my family, and our well-being, that I lost the empathy for the less fortunate. I never tried to understand their words, let alone feel their pain. Yet they were willing to help me. They deserve more. I merely studied the scriptures, they are beyond scriptures.”