My new neighbor stares at me, as if trying to figure out if I am joking or mocking. Probably both, even though I didn't intend to. "All thirty-three thousand gods live in the cow," she says huffily. "Her four legs are the Vedas; her eyes are the sun and moon; her neck holds the trinity. Even her dung holds Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Gomaye vasathe Lakshmi; go mutre Dhanwantri. Her urine contains Dhanwantri, the celestial physician. You didn't know this?"
I have a choice: to fudge and say that, of course, I knew every detail of her account. Or to tell the truth and say that I sort of knew what Hindu scriptures said about the cow without knowing the details.
"Of course, I knew," I say, a trifle too loudly. "That is why I came. I was wondering if I could hire the cow to walk through my home as well. After you are finished with her, of course."
The woman pauses and frowns slightly. I know what she is thinking. Will sharing the cow dilute the good luck that she hopes to accumulate?
"You could ask the cow's owner, I suppose," she says finally. "She sells milk to this neighborhood apparently."
I don't know my neighbor's name but we are already sharing cows. Our sojourn in Bangalore is off to a swimming start.
I nod at the milk woman. Her cow moos in response. Her name, I am told, is Sarala. The cow, too, has a name, but we haven't yet been introduced.
The priest calls my neighbor to minister to the cow, feed it sugarcane stalks and green bananas. She does so prayerfully, glancing at me every now and then as if to say, "See, this is how it is done."
A few minutes later, a young girl clad in a mango-yellow skirt hands me a bowl of milk payasam. "Please have it," she says. "My mother made it."
By now, I am convinced that this is my neighbor's ploy to show me up not just in the cow-hiring but in the culinary area as well. Or maybe she is just being hospitable. I nod my thanks and spoon up the warm, milky payasam. Flavored with roasted cashew nuts, it is sickeningly delicious. Much better than my uninspired version.
The priest calls everyone to feed the cow.
"Those who want the blessings of this goddess of wealth can feed it," he announces as we line up. I pick up my token, which happens to be fresh green grass. As we stand in line with our offerings; the priest recites some mantras. He explains their meanings to us. "Daughter of Surabhi, the fragrant one, who is framed by the five elements of wind, water, earth, sky, and ether. You are, holy, pure, and benevolent. You have sprung from the sun and are laden with precious gifts. Mother of the gods, sister of the original progenitor of the world, and daughter of the ancient creators: the Rudras, Vasus, and Devas. Accept this food from me as a salutation
to thee. Namaste!"
"Namaste," I intone just to blend in.
The cow stands in a dignified fashion and quickly eats everything that we offer. Her raspy tongue tickles my fingers.
After the cow is relieved of her official duties, I follow her and her owner as they amble out the door. Can she come up to the fifth floor and parade the cow through my apartment as well?
"Normally, they give me one thousand rupees [about fifteen dollars] for this, but since we are already here, you can pay us seven hundred," Sarala says.
We have a deal. I run up two flights of stairs while the cow and accomplice take the elevator. I feel that I ought to welcome the cow properly but there is little at hand in my empty apartment. I think about allowing it to lick my cellphone instead of a banana but decide against it.
"Welcome to the cow," I say formally as they come out of the elevator. My floor thankfully is not marble. It is red oxide and therefore rougher. The cow walks through my empty apartment, somewhat bemused and a little impatient.
"At some point, you should buy her some bananas as a thank you," says Sarala as she pockets the seven hundred and leads the cow outside. "Just as a gesture."
"That's why I gave you the money," I reply, wondering if she is negotiating for more cash.
"Yes, but cows can't eat money," she replies.
"Cows eat paper in India," I say. "I have seen them."
"Those are poor homeless cows, Madam," she sniffs. "Not my cows. My cows like bananas."