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Vol. XXXIV No. 6, July 1-15, 2024

Lost Landmarks: The Stuffed Calf

This series of articles, on Lost Landmarks of Chennai has generally focused on monuments and places of interest that no longer exist. It has also looked back at these with a twinge of regret for what is lost. But not everything in the past was great and worthy of preservation. There were some aspects that went away for the good – indications of what can truly be spoken of as progress. Smallpox does not come to Chennai anymore. Polio is almost eradicated. There are no open drains. In that list of things whose departure is to be celebrated, I would also add the stuffed calf. At leastI hope it has truly gone. Certainly, it is no longer visible. But there was a time, at least till the 1980s or so, when a dead calf stuffed with hay was a necessary tool of the trade for all milkmen.

These days, while cows and buffaloes remain a visible presence on many arterial roads and bye lanes, the milkman has all but vanished. Milk comes to us out of sachets and we do not stand witness to the actual milking process any longer. But there was a time when most housing colonies of Madras were woken up to the cries of the milkman announcing his arrival. He tethered his cow to a convenient post and having displayed to the lady of the house his milk can being empty (and not filled with water), would sit on his haunches and begin his work. But for the milk to flow you needed the calf on seeing and feeling which, the cow would begin to secrete. It is just that the calf was invariably dead and stuffed with hay.

“With native cows and all the crossbreds, it is the general practice to put the calf to suck before milking,” runs the report of a study done in 1904, and published by the Department of Agriculture, Government of Madras. “In cases where a calf dies, its skin is taken off and stuffed with straw. This is put in front of the cow before milking or the head of the calf rubbed along the belly and the sides.” The above study where milk drawn at random from various sources was tested at the General Hospital, Madras, also noted that it needed to be taken into account that as much as 15 percent of the cows whose output was analysed were milked in the presence of a straw calf.

Picture courtesy: Aditi Manavalan.

The study report very smoothly glossed over the truth the calf rarely died of natural causes. It was invariably killed, particularly if it turned out to be a male. The skin was stuffed with basic taxidermy. The four legs were just sticks and only the most half-witted of cows could have mistaken it for a live calf.

That this was not unique to Madras is evident from A Dictionary of the Economic Products of India by Sir George Wyatt, 1891, wherein he notes this was the practice when it came to milking yaks in Tibet. In autumn the calf was killed for food, and the mother would yield no milk unless given the foot of the calf to lick or a stuffed skin to fondle. That the practice was not unknown in Europe is clear from a reading of Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. The Scots even had a word for it – tulchan. It later came to have ecclesiastical connotations which are interesting. Just as a dead calf was used to draw milk from a live cow, Scotland had the practice of appointing bogus clergymen whose income was secretly handed over to the patron responsible for the appointment. These were referred to as Tulchans.

While it is all very tragic when looked at from the cow’s point of view, it cannot be denied that milkmen, whether from Madras or elsewhere, were driven to this resort owing to sheer economic deprivation. And there is no doubt many were greedy.

It may have been an internationally accepted practice, but it was the stuffed calf of Madras that was spoken of in Parliament. I doubt if its equivalent in any other country has had this honour. Speaking during a debate on the Finance Bill on May 3, 1966, Era Sezhiyan, MP from Perambalur, famously compared socialism to the stuffed calf. “In Madras we see milkmen putting a hay-stuffed calf before the cow; it is not a real calf; it has no life in it; the calf dies for want of milk and hay is stuffed into it. It is placed before the cow so that they can milk it. In the same way, socialism has become a stuffed calf to be put before the people to get their votes.”

The Madras stuffed calf made its way into the world of writing, and films as well. Foreign visitors were of course the first to notice it and even the Department of Tourism’s official publication had articles by them where the stuffed calf did not escape inclusion in articles on Madras. I do not recollect clearly but I think it was R.K. Narayan who said that all children in Madras must imagine that calves are born stuffed. The Ananda Vikatan of the 1970s regularly had some humour connected with the dead calf and one that I can still remember is of a buffalo asking another as to why she had stopped giving milk. “My dear,” comes the answer, “the stink from the straw calf is unbearable.”

In the 1959 film Sahodari, J.P. Chandrababu plays the role of Ananda Konar, a city-based milkman who migrates to the mofussil. He soon teaches all his fellow professionals the ways of the bad city. They begin using straw calves to milk their cows. The song ‘Madras Nalla Madras’ (Anubhavi Raja Anubhavi, 1967) features comedian Nagesh as a villager who has come to the city. In it he sees a milkman complete with cow and stuffed calf and asks as to when cows began giving birth to calves full of hay, which when lifted do not cry. He then drops the carcass on the road and ceremoniously covers it with his upper cloth, making it a shroud of sorts.

Sometime in the 1970s, Madras began to shift to ‘toned milk’ – the supply was there even earlier but I think this was around the time that the Madhavaram Milk scheme reached critical mass. It had begun in 1954 or so, more to evacuate cattle from the city but that cherished goal was soon abandoned. Milkmen in the city were a solid vote bank and did not think being shifted from here was a good idea. The Madhavaram Milk Co-Operative however was not given up. By 1963 milk in bottles was being supplied, with the cows being housed at the colony itself and the calves hopefully being properly taken care of. As late as 1971, the Madhavaram scheme was capable of supplying milk only to a quarter of the city’s population and so local milkmen were still in demand.

It was in 1981 that the greatest change was effected when the Diary Development Department was taken over by the Tamil Nadu Co-Operative Milk Producers Federation Limited, with the products to be sold from then on under the brand name Aavin (of the cow – a smash hit in terms of branding and proving that Governments do have imagination). Milk from all over the State was procured and a large part of it made its way into the city via Aavin. The days of the milkman with his cow and stuffed calf were over for good.

I asked a few millennials if they had ever seen a stuffed calf. Mercifully they had not. But like R.K. Narayan I wonder if millennials think milk comes out of sachets.

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