City life Delhi: `I welcome two cows. No barbecue jokes.'

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DEEPAK PURI, the workaholic Time-Life news bureau manager who sometimes scolds himself for having "No time, no life", is very chuffed about his new cows. A pair of white calves are his for the taking. All he must do is keep them in the style to which they have been accustomed and he can become an urban cowboy, South Delhi style.

That is a tall order. These young cows are not only pampered, but revered. They come from the gardens of a lavish mansion set back behind a high wall on one of Delhi's broad avenues. The cowshed is cleaner and better ventilated than most local slums. In a pastoral scene to rival Marie Antoinette's milkmaid fantasies, a wealthy Hindu family keeps a small cow herd as a centrepiece for its devotion. Instead of the usual puja room filled with bejewelled idols, the family maintains a sacred ground for a big white bull blessed with its own bovine harem. Sweet grass and fodder are brought daily, while heaps of fresh dung are duly pat-a-caked into organic fuel discs, dried and distributed to the poor. Milk is overflowing.

Keeping these sacred cows on prime Delhi real estate is as extravagant as it is reverent. True, cattle can wander with impunity through the traffic but not without the risk of munching plastic-bag rubbish and choking, or getting respiratory problems from inhaling diesel fumes. These holy cows, accustomed to splendour, were reproducing quickly and becoming overcrowded.

Ultimately, it is Deepak, renowned for his ability to orchestrate anything legal with a few well-placed calls, who is called in to sort out two extra heifers. At the mansion, the devout matriarch will retain the humped white bull and his placid concubines while Deepak gives a new home to the herd's youngest.

He calls me with no warning. "Tomorrow I welcome two cows to my farm. Please come at 8am sharp for the handover. No jokes about barbecues," he says quietly. Already Deepak has a new cow shelter at his weekend farm, on the Delhi-Haryana border, and is planting black grapes on an arbour that will give the twin heifers shade. The farm is his all-consuming hobby. In less than six months, he has coaxed his wild acres into sprouting exotic fruit trees and vegetable crops. Two head of holy cattle will be an auspicious touch. But first Deepak has to go to the centre of Delhi and entice them into a pick-up truck.

There is no lack of manpower. Almost a dozen hired hands crowd around, taking their cues from the resident cowherd, an aged Brahmin, to shoo the calves up a plank. Once both are tied down securely, off we all go in a convoy across the capital. Deepak, in the first car, monitors progress with his cellular phone. After almost an hour we arrive at his hilly farm, where the sun shines, dragonflies dart in the sky and Deepak's wife, Veena, has whipped up brunch for 40 people. Deepak's mother is there, too, to see the weekday fixer's fixer become a Sunday son of the soil.

But chaos intrudes. One of the calves leaps out of the lorry and a chase is on. The excited shrieks of the city cowhands, more accustomed to sending faxes or dispatching photos than roping cows, do nothing to calm the situation and the creature blunders into barbed wire. The boys untangle her gently. Everyone starts clucking about the frisky calf, who nearly got away. "She is spirited," one woman observes "She will give more milk." A Hindu priest who is on stand-by, gripping a tray of incense, vermilion powder and a coconut, does a double-take when he sees the cows muddied and bloodied from superficial scratches. But the ceremony gets under way.

It is a proud photo op, and five cameras click away. Chants are uttered, marigold garlands slipped over the calves' necks. Each guest must line up to streak the heifers' foreheads with a vermilion exclamation point. I have never touched a cow on purpose and, reaching out, idly wonder if they will bite. Can they smell fear? Or McDonald's? I tentatively toss a fistful of blossoms at them - a pretty distraction - and quickly make my mark. The priest ties a miniature lasso around my right wrist with red string, then methodically moves on.