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One of the Five Sacred Products of the Cow
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Milk for Growth

I’m going to avoid the whole animal protein versus vegetable protein controversy, because, to be honest, I don’t have the scientific background to defend or argue any position on the subject. And, frankly, what I care about is this: Can children can grow up strong and healthy? All I have to go on is my own experience.

The adults in my village ate rice and dal (lentils) with spices and vegetables. The children, after surviving the early years, ate the same thing. We PCVs had a rhyme: Peace Corps food is very nice / Rice on dal and dal on rice. For very special occasions there would be buttermilk at the end of the meal, maybe once or twice a year (during Diwali, for instance). Food was cooked in ghee, which is melted butter with the milk solids removed. Ghee is pure fat (clarified butter); the proteins were in the discarded milk solids.

I never tried to change customs; whatever I was doing was made to fit comfortably with the traditional ways and link to the high culture. Milk is one of the five sacred products of the cow (milk, curds, ghee, urine and dung) and is brought to a full boil multiple times during puja (worship). The greater part of the milk produced by the cow is sold in the market for what little cash the family receives. Milk is too financially important to the family to be consumed at home.

The villager leader’s oldest son Abhijat was, as were all the children, pale and skinny and short, with the big belly and reddish hair that proclaim poor protein nourishment (kwashiorkor). Abhijat was smaller and less energetic than his age mates and his father was worried about him. I convinced father and the village priest to give the boy ¼ cup of the boiled milk after puja, hoping that the small amount of milk protein would complete the package of amino acids and give the child a boost.

Nothing private or secret in the village, remember. When we started, I stood the little boy against the doorpost of my hut and, with all his friends crowding around to see, marked his height with his name (in holy Devanagiri script--the priest was impressed). The other boys wanted to be measured, too, so I measured and marked each of them on the doorpost. Me too! Me too!

Over the months we fed him the small amount of milk once a week. He began to grow. His belly shrank, his skin color improved, and he got taller and taller. In less than a year, he had matched the other boys (who had continued their usual diet) and was clearly going to be bigger and stronger than they. Papa was delighted and his mother was overjoyed. First sons are so important in Indian families.

It was a financial hardship, but before the year was out, most families were managing somehow to eke out a little milk for their sons, when it was clear there was a connection between their sons’ drinking a little milk and their growth. We marked their heights regularly on my doorpost and I counted it a success.

A partial success: Boys only. Girls didn't need to grow up tall and strong.

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