My memoir Holy Cancer: How A Cow Saved My Life chronicles my journey after a cancer diagnosis. Given six months to live and no immediate family to support me, I ventured on a path less taken and explored alternative treatments throughout India for my metastatic stage IV cancer diagnosis. The journey started as a prelude to my death but ended up giving me a second life.
This excerpt from my book is a story about resilience, believing in oneself, trusting in humanity and not letting judgment stop anyone from trying anything. It goes beyond any disease. It's about appreciating each moment, truly living, and winning in life by finally taking time to get back in touch with nature.
On my first morning in the village, everything felt staged. From the early morning roosters to the farm hands bathing naked outside to me struggling to make my way to the bathroom with a roll of toilet paper, I was experiencing the typical city to village transitional culture shock.
As prepared as I thought I was after my time at the hospital, the village and in particular farm life was not something I was used to. My idea of camping was limited to private clubs and organised trips that included the rustic option of sleeping in pre-set luxury tents. Yet, despite the dramatic change from my luxury doorman living in New York to now a borderline rustic farm, I managed to find my way very quickly. As it turned out, the farm was still under construction. Mohanlalji had not shared this news with me prior to my arrival, so I'd have to be taken to Manavji's place for a bath as there was no hot water and the bathroom was not complete.
"Just as I stepped away, I saw Ganga start to urinate... I watched in amazement. She was literally giving me morning medicine."
Still dressed in my pajamas, I saw Devjeet jump into the reservoir leaving his towel and soap on the side. The water was far from clean, as the monsoon coupled with the dirt around the premises had made it quite muddy. Still, that seemed to be the place to simply jump in and take a bath, not to mention, have a swim. The reservoir was over 50ft deep. I had not swum in several years and given the condition of the water this was something I was not going to do on my first day.
As I saw Mohanlalji join him, I walked over towards the gaushala and saw the cows for the first time in daylight. I introduced myself to Sakshi, Gauri, Ganga and the rest of the crew. I noticed there were also two Jersey cows and one bull. The cows were dramatically different from the Gir cows I had gotten to know and trust at Laxmiprasad. As I spoke to the main caretaker Ajay, about the cows, he mentioned the different breeds. I was drawn by their long horns that were painted bright orange.
I asked why that was done. It was done on the Mattu Pongal day, a day that celebrated the prosperity of the land; the desi cows were considered a holy blessing for the land. In all my time at the hospital, for all the prayers and blessings we were taking from and giving the cows this intimacy between man and cow felt far more intense. There was a loving relationship between two specific animals. It was one of appreciation and reverence. I tried to pet one of the desi cows but Ajay stopped me before I could. He informed me that they weren't the friendliest and will not hesitate to kick me straight out of the gaushala.
I was somewhat taken back since I had had such a peaceful experience with the cows in Sevak. In fact none of the cows at the hospital gaushala were tied up, while here all of them were. I understood why they might not be as friendly. Just as I stepped away, I saw Ganga start to urinate. Ajay already knew about my condition and he had a stainless steel container ready. He ran to grab it and place it to catch Ganga's gaumutra.
I watched in amazement. She was literally giving me morning medicine. Despite the many hours I had spent at the gaushala, I was not privy to seeing the cows give milk or the labourers gather the gaumutra and gobar. But standing here in the gaushala, I knew that no matter what lay ahead being here was a good thing not just for my health but my soul.
"Hesitantly Ganga started to give milk and I watched in marvel. After her gaumutra, she was now blessing me with her milk."
As the container was overflowing, Ajay handed it to me. I thanked him and he told me that normally the first gaumutra of the cow is the most potent and starting tomorrow he'd make arrangements to get it earlier. I told him that I'd like to do it myself. He questioned whether I'd be able to get up so early. I told him that I was used to be being up by 5am or sometimes even earlier so it would not be problem. He seemed somewhat surprised, then assured me that I'd not need to be there that early and that 6.30-7am would be the best time.
He then walked over to the reservoir to fill a pail with water. It apparently was his prep time before milking the cows. I saw from afar that his mother, Ajji, was making her way to the gaushala to help him.
She started to speak to me in Marathi, but to no avail. It was clear that this woman had spent her life around these animals. Bossing them into getting into their respective places was clearly a routine. As she sat herself down below Ganga, I knew it was milk time.
Ajay had cleaned Ganga up nicely in order to get Ajji ready to milk her. Ganga was pregnant. It was clear she was not very compliant in giving milk at the time but Ajji's insistence meant she was not going to take no for an answer.
Hesitantly Ganga started to give milk and I watched in marvel. After her gaumutra, she was now blessing me with her milk. Ajji mentioned to me that if I wanted, I could have the raw milk. I was unsure but had spoken to Dr Balsara about it. While there was fear of bacteria as the cow was being milked, if consumed immediately the risks are minimal. I was surprised at how warm the milk was when she handed it over to me. While I was not likely to have the milk then and there on my first day, it was something I was going to look into later.
By then Mohanlalji had made his way over to the gaushala. He could see my fascination with the cows. He went on to explain a little further about the history of the specific cows. He introduced me to Radha, a rather old-looking cow on the other end of the gaushala. She had apparently been the desi cow of his family, and all of his and his brother's children grew up on her milk. She was now quite old and fading away but he knew it was the right thing for her to stay with them till the end, no matter what. He may have been speaking about the cow but it was clear he was also reassuring me, as this was a much more foreign world than even the hospital.
"I made it a point to head to the tulsi tree and grab fresh leaves. Ditto for gymnema, neem and curry leaves."
As I was holding the milk, he too suggested I consume it raw, but I had not yet had my morning gaumutra so I told him that I could do that the next day. Given that I did not drink tea or coffee, he suggested that I take warm fresh milk in the morning. I agreed.
He then walked me around a little through the farm. To one side there were acres upon acres of banana trees. It was the first time in India that I'd been around so much agriculture. To the other side there were endless small trees. I didn't actually recognize them from afar but upon closer look I realized that they were pomegranate trees.
It was the first season and while not traditional for the local environment, Mohanlalji was taking a risk to try and grow the tricky fruit on his land. We walked a little further to reach what was a familiar site, the track our car had taken to bring me there the night before. It was covered by sugarcane on either side and further ahead, acres and acres of grapes, that too in its first season.
As he shared, much of the farm was on relatively newly acquired land and other areas near the village had the majority of his and his family's sugarcane and grapes. This land was his attempt to move from a small-time farmer to a bigger regional agriculturalist. While he kept sharing, my focus was centred on the numerous wild trees growing around the property. I saw countless trees of neem, gymnema and curry leaves. Ecstatic at being able to correctly identify the trees, I started to take some leaves of each tree. Mohanlalji seemed surprised but I told him that this was something I had started at the hospital. During one of my conversations with Dr Balsara, I had questioned him about the tulsi water we as patients were supposed to drink throughout the day. I was a fan of tulsi and was wondering if it would have the same effect if I simply consumed the leaves directly from the tree. He believed there to be little difference. From that day onwards, I made it a point to head to the tulsi tree and grab fresh leaves. Ditto for gymnema, neem and curry leaves.
As Mohanlalji noticed me, I realized I looked like an excited kid in an Ayurveda candy shop. He then showed me fresh gingerroot and turmeric at the other side of his farm. I was thrilled as I discovered one thing after another. I told him that as long as I was to stay there, I'd like to eat as raw and natural as possible from the land. He heartily agreed and pleaded with me to speak to his Mataji who had apparently stopped some of the treatment from the hospital already. He was hoping that I'd be able to convince her to stick to the course and perhaps with my presence, she'd feel like she wasn't doing it alone. Of course I agreed.
"It was clear that Ganga's liquids were making their way through my system too quickly. I rushed to the bathroom, which thankfully I reached in time."
Mohanlalji's family lived between the village and by their main grape farm. My room was in the godown several kilometres away. As a result, he believed I'd not interfere with his family's life and I could feel at home. He showed where additional rooms were going to be built for the labour and soon enough the kitchen would be empty and then I'd also be able to cook for myself (he knew that I enjoyed preparing my meals by myself).
But for now, I had to get ready for my trip to Manavji's to take a bath. Upon finishing the gaumutra and milk with some warm upma that Ajji had made, I instantly felt uneasy. It was clear that Ganga's liquids were making their way through my system too quickly. I rushed to the bathroom, which thankfully I reached in time.
It was clear that the new atmosphere, the new cows (for me) and this new life were going to take some time to settle in.