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The biggest threat to the rice crop and the kitchen gardens was the nilgai. In Hindi, “nil” means “blue” and “gai” means cow. However, it is a type of wild antelope (are there tame ones?), not a cow at all. Since it is a bovine, Hindus will not injure it and it often ravages rice paddies and eats anything growing. To me it always looked vaguely demonic, with the sloping back and small horns and the male’s blue-gray body.

When the rice is ripening, Indian farmers (men) often sleep in the fields to keep watch over the precious rice crop, for a raid by a nilgai group can spell hunger or starvation in the coming months.

The kitchen gardens were no safer from the marauders, since they are emboldened by the humans’ lack of aggression toward them. The men guarded the rice only, so it was left to us women and children to do what we could about the gardens. Sometimes a feckless farmer would fall asleep and wake to find nilgai cows and calves knee-deep in his precious rice paddy.

I had fits the first time a nilgai ate my precious tomato plants and I decided to do something about it. “Simply, Madam, the cows are eating our garden and no help for it, isn’t it?” Oh, yes, there is. I organized the children into a troop of little guards. They loved pretending they were grown-ups, sent out to guard the fields.

I taught them the trick of standing guard for three hours or so, then going to wake the next child before going to bed themselves. Watch the North Star, I told them, or (in winter) watch Orion, then when it is overhead, go wake the next child. When it then is over by the trees, the second child, go wake the third. And when the dawn is just glimmering, the third child wake the fourth. If any time during the night you see a nilgai, the child on guard has the bucket and a spoon. Start yelling and banging on the bucket and we’ll all come out to help you scare it away.

Children love to play at grown-up and they guarded our gardens with sharp eyes and ears. The nilgais soon learned to forage elsewhere.

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