Holy Cow

By Raajeev Aggerwhil

My father had a unique sense of humor. He lived for many years in the US as well as in India. He knew the power of humor and how to use it to diffuse tense situations. I learned to appreciate it over the years.

In the 1970's and 80's, he would travel between India and the US for his import-export business. At that time, the customs process at the Indian airports was not streamlined and the officials would give him a hard time. We were living in Delhi at that time and I remember on numerous occasions when he would come back from the US, he would say under his breath, “Saale, Ullu ke Patthe." “Bunch of stupid jerks." That would summarize his frustration with the corrupt bureaucratic officials.

Once he was bringing some brass bead samples from the US to India. The customs officer wanted to impose a duty saying those were commercial items. My father explained that those samples were originally made in India and were worth less than 10 rupees (less than a dollar at that time) in value. Still the officer would not relent and wanted to impose an import duty. I am sure the officer was looking for an easy opportunity to make money. When nothing worked, my father said, “Hum wo gaye hein jo chara bahar khati hein and doodh yahan par aake deti hein." “We (exporters) are those cows who eat the grass in the US and give milk in India." Hearing his humorous characterization of the situation, the customs officer smiled and let him go.

For some reason, several of his favorite quotes involved cows. After I got married, for a brief period my brother and I lived in the same house with our spouses. On my dad's visit to the US, I noticed that he would only point out to my wife the things that needed improvement –- a missing shower curtain ring, a blown out light bulb, or a TV control with weak batteries. I felt it was a bit odd of him to single out my wife, instead of the three other adults in the house. I decided to confront him and told him that I wanted to talk to him. I reminded myself to be polite and not raise my voice. I softened him up first by making some sweet tea and offered even sweeter cookies. Then I got to the main point and said, “I think you are biased against my wife and favor the older brother's wife."

At this point he just kept quiet. That one minute silence seemed like an eternity. Thoughts raced through my mind. “Did I offend him? Should I have not brought it up? Was it wrong of me to stand up for my wife? Is he going to bubble up?" He kept thinking. “You are right," he said in a calm voice. Those words brought me a sigh of relief. He didn't need to apologize; that would not be appropriate. Bollywood movies had taught me how to behave like a dutiful son and always respect our elders. Then he summarized the situation by saying, “Dekho bhaddi baat hai parkahavat hai, par doodh dene wali guy ki dulatti bhi sehni padti hai." “It's kind of an ugly saying that you have to tolerate the kick of a lactating cow." That made sense. My brother's wife was working actively in his business and my wife was not. Even I was surprised by my next remark which was even bolder. “So why should my wife be penalized just because she doesn't work in your business?" The teacup rattled in the saucer sensing his uneasiness. He didn't say anything.

After that incident his behavior changed forever. I admired the greatness of this man. Not only did he not deny it, he took the time for a bit of introspection and then admitted his mistake. He summarized the situation aptly by coming up with a humorous quote that dissolved the tension. The part about the lactating cow was a bit awkward and I am glad I never had a birds-and-the-bees talk with him in my teens.

Two of his other favorite quotes were: “Murgi ki jaan gayee, miya ko swad hi nahin aya," which translates to “The chicken lost its life but the master didn't relish the taste." He used it for unreasonably demanding customers when his hard work would go unappreciated. The other quote that he used often, “Tumhe aam khane hein, yeh ped ginne hein?" “Do you want to eat the mangoes or want to count the trees?" It basically meant, “Do you care about getting the job done or how it was done?" He would use it often when someone would be too intrusive or get into the nitty-gritty details.

My father's ability to use humor in real life situations taught me some valuable lessons. Humor allows you to connect with people who have differing views than you. Ronald Reagan knew this and used it effectively. Humor can help you maintain your sanity when you are not able to change other people's behavior. Mahatma Gandhi knew it best when he said, “If it were not for humor, I would have killed myself long back." I am sure he was referring to the stubborn British masters. Humor can diffuse seemingly insurmountable tension and if used cleverly, you don't have to say you are sorry!

One of my dad's favorite sayings that he would always recite was a couplet from an Urdu poet. It didn't have humor but it was really touching. “ Hazaron manzilen hoongi, hazaroon caravan hoonge, nigahen hum ko dhoondengi, na jaana hum kahan honge". “There will be thousands of destinations. There will be thousands of caravans. Eyes will be looking for me, but don't know where I will be." I miss you, Dad.


Los Angeles-based comedian Raajeev Aggerwhil has starred in Nickelodeon's TV show 100 Things to Do Before High School and also acted in the film based on the television series. See his videos on YouTube.