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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

Chronicles of a lacto-loving society

The Operation Flood logo, one of the largest dairy development programmes.

eing lactose-intolerant, my interest in milk is a bit like the vegetarian angler's investment in fish. The thing about milk is that no one tires of recommending it enough, and it's one of the constancies of life, this unanimous and universal praise of milk through the seven ages and nine lives. As if listening to your mother at breakfast wasn't enough, her affection a transferred epithet foaming at the mouth of a glass of warm milk, you decided to study English Literature at university, and there was Shakespeare, permanent resident on the syllabus, feeding you the 'milk of human kindness'. And of course Dr. Samuel Johnson, responding to sceptics with 'Truth, Sir, is a cow, which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull'.

The words immediately took me to the politician Laloo Prasad Yadav, who often makes a case for his politics by employing similar tropes about cows and milk, as in — 'No, I am not against computer. But computer is no solution to some of the basic problems facing the nation. ... While the animal population is coming down, we are told to drink soyabean milk, instead of cow's milk'. Rumours about his 'air-conditioned cowshed' have refused to die and socio-political commentators have often made casteist remarks about his 'Yadav-milkman' politics, in the process evoking the long history of milk kinship that is at the root of Arabic expressions like 'Blood is thicker than milk'.

Recently, I chanced upon two poems by writers from Bihar. This is from Tabish Khair's poem Milk.

Now it has reached this town of slow watches,
The sign that we are the world's largest producer of milk,
A proof in waterproof packets named Mother Dairy.

Khair is writing this nearly two decades after the implementation of Operation Flood, the world's biggest dairy development programme, a project of the National Dairy Development Board. His poem records his impressions of changes that have come either over him, after his return from a long stay abroad, or over his small town in Bihar. The dig at "proof", mimicked immediately in "waterproof", is impossible to miss, as is the Guinness world record like mock vaunting in "the world's largest producer of milk", all essential to national mythmaking. (The name 'Mother Dairy' never fails to irritate me. That function of mammals and mammaries is, as Khair points out wryly, now to be found in "waterproof packets". But then, what else is to be expected in a country where men in our films taunt each other about courage and masculinity with the words 'Ma ka doodh piya hai toh ...', or where a popular film has the title Doodh Ka Karz?)

he "stiff-jointed, slow-speaking Hero cycle poised/Between two unmarked cans, equal on both sides" has given way to the "new three-wheeled van". Khair's sympathies are clearly with the father who prefers having his milk brought to him "on four/Legs, and a man wearing a loose turban and a moustache/Who takes the pail set out for this purpose and holding/It firm between feet moves his hands in an ancient rhythm/Filling the morning with the magic sound of monsoon".

Amitava Kumar's prose poem is titled Milk is Good for You.

Once, when the boy was four, he was peeing in the teacher's front yard and announced that he was going to start drinking more milk because his pee was coming out yellow.
'Yes,' the boy said, 'milk is good for you and can make your pee white again.'

The thought of milk-white urine is an epiphany, of course, but more soon follows: "Just the other day in class he collected the snow from the windowsill and asked if they could sell it in packets in other parts of the country where it is hot". Cold milk running down the gullet of a sun-lashed life in the summer plains of India is such a relief that you find yourself swallowing the words until the end arrives:

A customer joked, 'Maybe the Army can help with that. Their trucks can take the snow back to the plains.' The one-armed boy looked up from the kerosene stove. He said, 'Or the snow could be used in the coffins in which we could send back all the soldiers'.

I am reminded first of Sir Walter Raleigh's Nature, That Washed Her Hands in Milk, which uses a similar metaphor, and then, almost immediately, of William Matthews's poem Spring Snow with the devastating opening lines, "Here comes the powdered milk I drank/as a child, and the money it saved", the visual equivalence between the "powdered milk" and the "spring snow", a remainder and reminder of a child's way of looking. In Amitava Kumar's poem too it is the child whose curiosities about milk give the poem its tragic dimension in the end. Milk is no longer sacred, not nutritious; it could be "powder", or "the snow" for coffins of dead soldiers. Between 2000, when Khair's poem Milk first appeared (Where Parallel Lines Meet), and 2012, when Amitava Kumar's poem was published in The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry (edited by Sudeep Sen), this is where 'human kindness' has come to rest — in desiccated milk. Perhaps that is why the national need found its expression in rhetoric overflowing with surplus: Operation Flood. And hence that magic last word in Khair's poem: "monsoon".

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