KOCHI: Babu Manjally stood at the cowshed and saw that the water had reached the necks of the animals. It was raining heavily. A fierce wind was blowing. The trees were swaying dangerously. By this time, the sparrows and crows had flown away to higher areas.
The 37 cows let out fearful cries and their ears became pricked up. “This happens to all animals when they are very scared,” says Babu.
He decided to cut the ropes around their necks. Because the ropes were wet, it was not an easy thing to do. But time was running out. He looked behind him. In another shed, 300 pigs were grunting wildly. He told his younger brother Mathew to open the doors of the different blocks. Meanwhile, 60 goats were bleating along with 11 buffaloes.
Babu’s farm at Ayroor (40 kms from Kochi) is located between the Chalakudy river in the north and the Periyar in the south. As the five shutters of the Idukki Dam were opened on August 9, water began gushing down the rivers.
On August 11, Babu went to the banks of the Periyar, at Aluva, which is 14 kms away to study the level of the water. “I felt there was not much of a problem,” says Babu. But in the succeeding days, the water level rose and rose. And suddenly it became too late to shift the animals elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the freed cows jumped into the water. They swam for a distance, but there was no solid ground anywhere for them to stand. “After a while, they returned to the shed,” says Babu. “The other cows did the same. The water was very cold and the current was fierce. It was heart-breaking. I felt so helpless.”
Mathew said, “Chetta, let’s go. If we stay here any longer, we will have a heart attack.”
So Babu looked at the cows. “They knew they were facing death,” he says. “And they also knew I could not do anything. The look they gave me was one of simply saying goodbye.”
Babu and Mathew got on to their canoe and paddled the way back to their house, which was 2 kms away. There, they faced another crisis: the water was rapidly entering the ground floor.
Back in the farm, all the animals were swept away as the water rose to a height of 12 feet.
A few days later, when the rain and the floodwaters receded, an astonishing sight greeted Babu. All over his one-and-a-half-acre farm, there were dead cows, goats, buffaloes and pigs. “They were not able to go very far,” he says.
But there was a tiny heart-warming outcome. “Four pigs got stuck on top of a large haystack and managed to survive. I was able to bring them back,” he says.
As the days went by, Babu began to bury the animals in six-foot pits on the farm and covered it with mud. But the job is yet to be completed. On a recent visit, one could see the carcass of several cows, amidst a couple of skeletons. The stench was unbearable. “Look at their state,” says Babu. “They were so healthy once.”
The sun has been beating down for the past few days. In an astonishing turnaround, the farm looks baked now. There are cracks in the dried mud, and it is difficult to believe that just a few days ago, there was such a large volume of water in the area. But the sheds lie ravaged. Broken cauldrons, torn plastic sheets, silt all over, while tiled roofs and walls had all crashed to the ground. A coconut tree lay fallen to one side, its white roots exposed.
A pained Babu says, “My losses amount to Rs 60 lakh. Last year, I had taken a loan from the bank. I will be a defaulter soon.”
There was more heartbreak. A group of men came to the farm one evening when Babu was not around. They grabbed one of the pigs and took it away. People saw them. They identified them as local youths, high on drugs and alcohol. They ended up killing the pig and eating it. Babu has filed an FIR at the local police station.
He is rightfully angry because animals have been a passion for Babu. He grew to love them deeply. “They have a pure heart,” he says. Babu would come to the farm at 6 am and return only at 11 pm. He would help the workers to clean the sheds, oversee the feeding and the milking, and get the animals washed too.
It was not long before his wife would complain to visitors, “Babu is always at the farm.”
Not surprisingly, Babu began to understand their language. “The moment I would come to the farm, they would make greeting sounds,” says Babu. “And when the feed time came, all of them would stand up. The pigs went, ‘Krank, krank’, the cows would bang their horns against the poles they were tied to. They were saying, ‘Give us the feed, give us the feed’.
The goats nuzzled their noses against my legs.”
And Babu gives an interesting insight. “If you talk to them, they will stand still and stare at you pretending that they understand what you are saying,” says the farmer. “It used to make me laugh at times.”
But he knows that their sudden and unexpected deaths have left a permanent scar in his heart. “In the end, I was their parent,” says Babu, the father of two teenage boys. “You can imagine how painful it is for a parent to lose his children.”
But Babu has plans to restart his farm. He is turning to some of his well-off friends and animal lovers for financial assistance. “I will start by buying baby pigs from Mysore and calves from Tamil Nadu,” says Babu. “My 84-year-old father told me there will be setbacks in life but we need to move forward.”