The cow is hungry. Very hungry. At 1.30 pm, her lunch spread is a garbage dump off a busy street in Sector 22, Noida. Her head bent, she sniffs and sifts through the heap of middle-class discard — emptied packets of Tata salt, Haldiram chips, and Ashirwad aata, sullied pillow covers and torn jeans — and nibbles on chappatis, leaves and rotten vegetables.
She shares her lunch with a group of dogs who also rummage through the dump. But while the dogs are edgy, looking up every time a human or a vehicle passes by, the cow’s focus on her food is unwavering. Neither a sudden brawl that erupts among the dogs nor the cacophony of the honking vehicles distracts her.
“Look at the bell around her neck. She is not awaara (stray), has to be paaltu (domesticated),” says Baleshwar, who runs a cement store near the dump. “People milk cows, but don’t feed them. The owners, after milking them in the morning, let them wander the streets to feed on trash. In the evening, some 12-15 cows crowd this dump,” he says. Cows, he adds, “never lose their way and return to their owners at sunset, when it’s time to milk them”.
Suraj, a scavenger, stops his cart and takes out his gunnybag, stuffing it with polythene bags from the dump. “I visit 20 dumps a day. There are cows at each one of them,” he says.
A large, shining yellow bulldozer arrives at the dump. As the machine pushes forward with its clawed shovel, the startled cow jumps back. She walks away, but brushes past an electrician repairing cables fixed to a pole. Irked, he hits the cow with the tester he is holding.
It’s 2.30 pm and the bulldozer has blocked the road, causing a traffic snarl. The cow, meanwhile, saunters past small shops, stopping by a tiny mound of cement.
She sniffs it, realises there is no food, and walks on.
Gandhi Smarak High School, down the same road, seems to be familiar territory. She walks through its gates. Ram Deen, the chowkidaar, shouts, “Nikal (get out)”, but she wriggles her way in. Inside, a lush park is the cow’s pasture. But her joy barely lasts 10 minutes as Ram Deen comes running with an iron rod. As the cow gallops out, he says, “She comes here very often. She has brought down banana plants and broken flower pots.”
The cow walks on till it finds a garbage dump near a bus stop. After feeding on it for about 20 minutes, it seems she has had her fill. She sits down and begins chewing the cud, flapping her ears, occasionally shutting her eyes. Naresh, a vendor from the vegetable market across the road, throws a bunch of leaves in front of her and onion peels a few metres away. “The cow doesn’t eat the peels,” he says. The cow, however, ignores the leaves and walks straight up to the peels.
Anil Vashisht, a carpenter who runs a shop nearby, says, “Cows are so used to eating trash, they ignore the greens.” As someone who also owns a cattle shed, Vashist knows a thing or two about cows. He strides up to her, examines her and points out, “See, she is not able to move her right hind foot properly. And look at her tail. It’s half cut.”
The cow sits down again for an hour-long round of chewing, her smooth red-brown skin glistening in the sun. A bull brushes past the cow. She promptly gets up and walks straight past him. Spurned, the bull begins feeding on the trash.
The cow then takes a lane leading to Chaura Ragnathpur village. For the next two hours, she walks down the narrow alleys of the village, sniffing at anything that comes her way — bricks, crumpled paper, even sand. As she gets too close to Amritsari Naan corner, a small, unmanned shack, a villager clucks in disapproval, then slaps her from behind, saying, “Chal, hat (move away)”.
That’s a phrase that gets hurled at her every few minutes — when she tries to graze on some fodder in the courtyard of a house and when she gets curious about the noodles that a few girls are snacking on at a stall. A few more blows rain down on her but she walks on, unruffled.
“Chal, hat,” snarls a young man at whose house she decides to make a halt. When she doesn’t budge, he wields a mop to shoo her away.
Some, like a group of women huddled in a lane, are kinder. As the cow walks past them, they stroke her back. “She wanders here often. We feed her cauliflower,” says one of them.
In this village of mostly Pandits and Gujjars, nobody knows who owns the cow. Some say a “Chauhan” who doesn’t live in the village owns her. Others say she “belongs to the garbage dump where she will return at the end of the day”.
The cow strays into almost every home in the village, standing across the thresholds. At one of the homes, a girl feeds her mounds of atta and then some chappatis, all the while stroking her forehead. Ten minutes later, the cow still isn’t done and the girl gets impatient. “Chal, hat,” she says and slaps the cow’s back.
The cow now makes her way to a cow shed at the end of a lane. Three cows and a calf are tied inside. The cow rubs her face against that of the calf, ignoring the fodder around, as if just glad to be among her ilk. The owner is not at home. Villagers say the cow doesn’t belong to this shed.
Durga Devi, a villager, sits down to chat. “Cow are a lot like humans,” she says. “Like a mother’s breasts ache when they are full of milk, so do a cow’s udders. Look, her udders are swelling up, it’s time for it to return to her owner,” she says.
But the cow saunters for another half hour through the village. The sun has long set, but her home is nowhere in sight. At 7 pm, the sky now inky black, the cow sits down in an empty plot, chewing her cud again. “Probably her owner doesn’t want her anymore,” says an onlooker.