Editor’s Note: The following excerpt has been taken from Parashar Kulkarni’s Cow And Company. It’s a hilarious work of fiction, set in colonial India, and tells the story of a British Chewing Gum Company that opens shop in Bombay with the objective of enticing Indian paan addicts to switch to chewing gums. To prove their point that chewing gum is a superior substitute of paan, they use a cow as their mascot.
The cow’s photo goes up on all the posters, and of course, there are consequences. Religious sentiments are wounded and that one decision of using a cow as a brand ambassador invites catastrophe. The book, a debut outing of Kulkarni, will give you many belly laughs, and introduce you to some wonderful interplay of fantasy and myth. Cow and Company employs satire to take stock of India and its complex relationship with religions, then and now.
Here’s an excerpt from the book:
‘What is the price of our chewing gum, Mr Pestonjee? Half an anna?’ Thompson twirled his stick.
‘Yes, sir, half an anna, like paan,’ said Pestonjee.
‘Never quite liked it.’
‘I don’t like it either, sir, but Banerjee likes it. One every hour. The corridor—’
‘Those filthy red stains. I knew it was Banerjee… The first time I ate paan I felt like my lungs would explode.’
‘You must have swallowed it whole, sir, instead of spitting—’
‘We haven’t quite taken a fancy to spitting you see.’ Rat-tat-tat-rat-tat-tat… Thompson drummed his stick
against the table.
‘We are competing with tea and paan. But chewing gum has many more benefits.’
‘Why is that?’ Thompson asked, continuing the drumming—a rhythm had evolved.
‘Is it a symphony?’
‘I wish. Here it is hard for a man to follow his persuasions. What were you saying?’
‘I was walking home one day. I stopped at the vegetable store. A man, bulging on all sides, stood next to me, reading Bombay Samachar.’
‘What’s your point?’
‘Yes, sir. So, he stood there, reading his paper loudly, like he was the—’
‘I don’t have time for this, Pestonjee.’
‘I am coming to the point, sir. He spits without a care in the world on my new leather chappals. That uncivilized
barbarian! Excuse my language, sir, but he had no manners.’
‘It is either uncivilized or barbarian. Does not help to claim both.’
‘If he were to spit chewing gum, it wouldn’t make such a mess.’
‘Chewing gum does not have tobacco, Pestonjee.’
‘Poor men will still chew it.’
‘Pray, tell me why?’
‘If they are hungry and want long-lasting flavour . . .’
‘One can always keep paan in his mouth.’
‘But then, the red betel juice will dribble out from the corners of the lips and stain the clothes. If his clothes
are stained, his wife will be angry. If his wife is angry, she will beat him. Instead, he can chew gum all day long.
Everyone is happy. Also, paan makes one hungry. It’s a digestive after all.’
‘It is a what?’
‘Digestive… digestive… for the stoma—’
‘Children are more disposed towards chewing gum, rather than grown men. We have a small propaganda fund for this. Work on that. Erect a few boards across some of the schools, ten or twelve at first. Make sure the shops stock
the chewing gum before the boards go up.’
‘Sir, we should have made paan-flavoured gum instead of mint. Why will anyone waste money on chewing gum when they can steal mint from their parents—’
‘It’s not the taste, Pestonjee, it’s the form.’
‘Sir, in that case, why not paan-flavoured chewing gum?’
‘Have you recalled the old label?’
‘Why? Did someone complain about my memory?’
‘Sorry, sir. Yes, I did.’
‘Is the new label specific about the contents?’
‘Does not contain animal products. Suitable for vegetarians.’
‘Good. I want this message on the poster, not on just the label.’
‘Sir, these additions will take up too much space. It’s written quite clearly on the label.’
‘And the caption?’
‘Go Mata Ko Bhata (the chewing gum that the cow mother loves).’
‘Still sounds odd.’
‘Sir, trust me on this. I have spent quite some time on the subject. What better way to get the natives to love our
chewing gum than to use a cow? After all, it is the first chewing gum in the—’
‘Tomorrow you will put a pig on the label.’
‘No, the Muslims—who said pig?’
Pestonjee observed Thompson. ‘What are you thinking? No pig,’ Thompson fidgeted uncomfortably. ‘What is that smell?’
‘Sir, I have something that will convince you that the cow is the best ambassador for our product.’
‘Here in the lobby.’
Thompson stepped out of his room. The white cow with red horns stood in the lobby looking at him with great
big moist eyes, masticating.
‘What is this nonsense? Is this a joke, Mr Pestonjee?’
‘No, sir. I got her for you. To show you how she chews the cud, just like chewing gum. And prove to you that she deserves to be on our posters. I will open her mouth and show you. Natwarlal! Open her mouth,’ Pestonjee ordered.
‘Sir, she might bite.’
‘Cows don’t bite.’
‘Does she know this?’
‘Just open her mouth.’
Natwarlal put a cloth around his hands and tried to open the cow’s mouth. The cow stood still. Her saliva
trickled down his wrist and towards his underarms, making him wiggle.
‘Now shoot,’ Pestonjee yelled at the photographer, who had been summoned exclusively for this purpose.
‘It’s too dark,’ the photographer responded. He preferred still life. He was unprepared and unenthusiastic about drama.
‘Natwarlal! Get a torch.’
Natwarlal ran to the stationery room and returned with a torchlight. Pestonjee flashed the torch into the cow’s
mouth that Natwarlal held open using both hands.
‘Perfect,’ the photographer said.
‘I want her mouth wide open,’ said Pestonjee. Then, turning towards Thompson, ‘Sir, the cow chews all day long. All Hindus love cows. If we use her on our posters, they will love our chewing gum.’ He flashed the torch again.
The cow shied away from the light nervously and blundered into the cameraman and his equipment.
‘Stop her! My camera!’ screamed the photographer.
‘First, get her out of here,’ Thompson shouted.
‘Clean up this mess now! I can’t breathe. I want this place spotless before the end of the day!’
Then he left.
Pestonjee, the officer and Natwarlal tugged at the rope around the cow’s neck. She suddenly jerked her neck and
sent them sprawling on the floor before lumbering off towards the filing room. The day’s outbound post was pending. Natwarlal rushed to the dispatch desk to collect envelopes and parcels, then to the storage to fetch his sandals, then over to Banerjee for money for the postage and only managed to catch his breath half a mile away at the post office, two minutes before closing time.
When Natwarlal returned, it was half past five, the office was empty and Pestonjee was resting against the door of the filing room. After the mishap with the photographer, he had run after the cow and quickly bolted the door.
‘Is everything okay, sir?’ asked Natwarlal.
‘Come here, you idiot!’
‘Oh no, the cow!
‘Open the door.’
Natwarlal opened the door to the stench of cow dung. In the middle of the room, the cow sat demurely with her
legs folded. In her mouth was an old brown file.
‘What is she eating?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’
Natwarlal yanked out the half-chewed file. ‘The correspondence for May.’
‘From last year. No one will ask for that now. Clean this up and kick her out. I don’t care if she’s a cow.’ Pestonjee advanced towards the cow and lifted his leg.
‘Get up, you filthy animal!’ Schlip—flop—he slid on the puddle of dung and urine and landed on his butt. Natwarlal
covered his mouth. The cow rose. She looked at Pestonjee on the floor and their eyes locked for two seconds.
She turned away, as if embarrassed, and then walked past him, through the doorway and down the stairs. Natwarlal followed her with his eyes until she had disappeared into the streets.
‘Natwarlal! What are you looking at? Give me a hand.’
‘See, sir, what an intelligent animal. She knew her way out.’
‘Only one door was open, you idiot. Get me a towel.’
‘But, sir. She could have pushed open the other doors.’
‘What do we do now?’ Pestonjee asked.
‘Can we go home, sir?’
‘About the file!’
‘I have an idea. I could get one or two mice and leave them in the room. We can blame the mice for the file.’
‘What if the mice destroy more files?’ Pestonjee asked.
‘We can put them in a cage and say we caught them. No one comes into the filing room anyway.’
‘Sir, tomorrow I will tell Banerjee sir that I saw a mouse. Or you say that you saw a mouse. It will sound better.’
‘No. You tell him.’
The following excerpt from Parashar Kulkarni’s book Cow And Company has been published with permission from Penguin Publishers. The book costs Rs 399 (hardback)