Cowistan and the Holy Matter

If you own a cow in India, you own the world, full stop. You can plonk yourself in any(one’s) territory without the fear of being objected to. Not only will the animal receive treats and tilaks but you, as the owner, will receive chay in exchange for bringing it in daily in order to put the green waste to good use. You wait, gloating at the fools. You wait until your brothers* start joining with their cattle. Residents are happy that they have cows, not dogs. It saves them the temple journeys. They can carry out the prayers right there, feed their ‘dead’ in their courtyard without wasting money on the brahmins with big appetite for their food and rupya.

*Brothers are the other men of your community.

Selling milk is the occupation of your entire community. The sight of you and your flock gathered outside other people’s properties will slowly seem normal. It will be gradual to be noticed, until it is too late. Then, it really is too late. Now you want your cowistan right there. And you get it.

Even before your homes are built, the cowpats are drying everywhere. They bring extra income after milk. Neighbourhood is now dependent on you. They will be lost without the convenience of fresh milk, manure, fuel, building material, green disposal facility, and the ‘temple’. A symbiotic relationship is now formed.

An aunt of mine lived next to a gaushala in Khar West, Bombay. Gaushala is a concept very different to cowistan‘s. It is a charitable institution for cows. There will be volunteers, and the charity will depend on donations. Aplenty donations in the country where cow is revered. In some cases, people will actually ‘donate’ a cow, which will mean donating the amount that can buy a healthy adult cow, always a female. No one wants to donate a bull. It has no milk, so not so holy.

I got accustomed to the rural smell in her urban apartment. Loved it, in fact. After being there for decades, it closed down to make way for a huge hospital building with state-of-the-art facilities. Many lives will be saved, but many hearts are broken, including mine. I miss the cows and their smell. Gaushala cows are not as bright as cowistan cows. They don’t know how to claim the real estate.

I have lovingly handled cow dung – during my aunt’s chulha building and then when making cow dung rings for the Holika Dahan. It did enter my nails, even dried up in them, and I most definitely consumed the holy matter with my regular dal roti. It’s edible, so no worries. No one warned me against it. Not that anyone encouraged either, but there was never any cautionary lesson prior to the job.

Coming back to your cowistan… Wow, you now have several pucca homes with Enfield motorcycles – the Indian Harley Davidson. You still wear a dhoti, still sell milk, but you do it in style, on your heavy-duty bike. You even herd your cows sitting on your bike. You are the Indian cowboy – horsepower without a horse.

Your women are strong and sexy. Right in the middle of a busy road, they walk swaying excessively like they own it. Claiming gene.

Residents start to gradually sell their properties. You are the buyer majority of the time. You’ve acquired wealth by selling milk, plus minimal overheads. Your homes are in affluent neighbourhood. You are already a millionaire. The earlier residents’ properties are going cheap. No one except you will touch a property in a “milking” neighbourhood. You and your people are set. The cows are here to stay for good. Your sons can relocate to a new cowistan.

I love milk and the smell of the manure. I am not selling my property. Tough.

Like Rick Blaine, I never make plans that far ahead.

The year was 2011, a year or two into my street photography work. I photographed much of this part of London. This was the area I started with. This was the area I continued with for a couple of years. This was the area I returned to after unsuccessfully dabbling into the kind of street photography that never appealed to me. A consummate lover of all things classic and historical, I photographed in a manner that would retain the feel, which meant waiting at length for streets to be somewhat void of crowds.

That day was the very first time I stumbled upon this shop. Bogart did it. So did the red. Without him selling the store, there was no way I would be half as interested in stopping to photograph. For a long time after that, I called it the Humphrey Bogart store, for I thought it only sold Bogart memorabilia. I fired some half-hearted shots, with the intention of returning for some more when I would return specifically for it. In the meantime, I neglected the earlier (above) shots. My ‘I can do better’ mantra forever buzzing in my psyche. Don’t save copies, delete the files, take more tomorrow. Knowing full well the area was undergoing changes, I ignored walking past the place, even when only a few hundred yards away on many occasions, busy taking photographs of other streets, as I believed that there will be a next time, plus I might still have some low-res files somewhere in a corner of my folders. I went past it only once after that, took some shots of standing Bogart at the entrance of the shop, but was too lazy for the shot that I was after – from the street opposite.

Some other time! And I went away.

In 2018, when I was packing my gear to return, finally, to Brewer St., I was asked by someone, “Tomorrow, will you….?”

In reply, I swung my head in isolation, from side to side, like a hip-hop dancer, and spoke the famous words, “I never make plans that far ahead.”

Come tomorrow, I looked for my hero everywhere. Couldn’t believe I was seeing what I was seeing. I never experienced the kind of pain I did that day at a scene that was lost forever. Brightly lit clothes shop in place of the cool, dark, old, soiled, worn, seedy, hip, noir-ish, sexy, burlesque-y red shop that sported the cutout of Bogart, the stylish seasoned smoker.

What do I do now? My files gone forever, taking my arrogance along. I could NOT do better, every time. In my dumped folders, I scavenge for the photograph from before. Now, my only hope, the low-res file, was corrupted too. When I clicked on it, it would for a split second reveal what we see above, but then go blank. So, I take tens of screenshots. One screenshot worked, and I got this scene, still corrupted, but it held a mysterious charm due to those two bands running across the image, forming a deeper-red panoramic window, creating an illusion of a private eye seated in the cafĂ© opposite, making a note of the scene. Like I were the private eye with my secret camera. I love the drama that the “window” creates. Oh, so The Third Man!

I am keeping this image. This is a big part of my photography work. It has everything that I love in my work for this documentary – mystery, drama, sleaze, thrill and Rick Blaine.

Like him, for better or for worse, I still don’t make plans that far ahead. And like him, I too once smoked sutta very professionally, as a good friend, a keen observer and writer, flatteringly, wrote about me in his book. More on that another time.