But Who Picks up the Cow Dung?

Marylin LongleyUniversity of California, Berkeley


We emerged onto the busy highway. Leaving the safety of the airport, I re-prepared my mind for the many new experiences I was surely about to have. The first thing I noticed were the cows. I hurriedly whipped out my phone, hoping to snap pictures before these mysterious street cows disappeared, before stupidly realizing that the cows were, quite literally, everywhere. Cows in the fields, on the roads, on the medians. Skinny cows, fat cows, brown, black, white cows. I marvelled at the creatures who fearlessly walked amongst the vehicles—they knew, as I would soon come to realize, that they were the true kings of the roads.

The second thing I noticed was the noise. Honking from the cars, beeping from the motorcycles, yelling from the pedestrians. This noise closely accompanied the erratic driving. Out driver expertly weaved in and out of traffic, avoiding pedestrians and other cars by a hair, all the while honking at slower travellers unable to keep up with our driver’s ferocity. I noticed, amusingly, he (along with all other drivers) took great care avoiding the possibility of hitting any cows, going from a frenzied joyride to a gentle deceleration all in a matter of seconds.

As we drove along, I continued taking in the sights. I was surprised at the diversity—not of skin color, as Americans traditionally think of when thinking of diversity, but of dress. Women in beautifully woven saris walked casually along the dirt road, accompanied by male counterparts wearing fully Western suits. Behind them was a farmer, dressed in pristine black slacks and an expensive white button-up, expertly balancing a full basket of wheat (?) on top of his head. The driver next to us was a woman wearing a brightly purple print shirt and blue jeans, who was deep in conversation with a Sikh man in a kurta.

I was jolted out of my reverie as we suddenly slowed down to avoid a cow that had plopped itself in the middle of the road. As we passed the cow, the thought occurred to me—where are the smells? Visually, auditorally I had been quite satisfied, but I was missing the odorous component. With all the cows, surely there should be some sort of dung on the streets? The fields seemed clear, the roads were clean… Was it the job of some poor sap to follow the hoards of cows, picking up their excrement along the way? But no worker seemed to be following them. I pondered this thought for the first week before bringing up my quandary to our fellow Kolkata-born-and-raised intern friend. She laughed at my silly American question and graciously answered that yes, there were workers whose job it was especially to clean up the cow dung. I grinned, slightly embarrassed but happy to have an answer all the same, and kept my eyes open for these mystical workers she had mentioned.

Weeks later and I still have not seen a single worker on the streets tracking any sort of cow. And yet, I have also yet to see any dung. So my question remains: Who picks up the cow dung?