The Milk-God pedalled a broken old Raleigh bike around the streets of Samode. It was painted in brilliant white and had a rusty cart attached to the seat-post. The bicycle was a cast-off from England, donated by a charity of some kind. The cart had come from who knew where. Most people reasoned that the Milk-God must have built it himself.
He distributed his product — the one we named him for — to the village, and occasionally to bewildered tourists from the Palace-turned-hotel which overlooked the streets from the top of the hill.
We called him the Milk-God because he claimed to be Kalki, the tenth avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu. Many privately believed he should be soundly beaten for his heresy.
Worshippers returning from the temple of Hanuman away to the north would often taunt him. “Milk-God!” they would cry, “where is your white horse? Where is your flaming sword?”
He would smile at them patiently and reply “Horses come in many forms. The nature of a horse has changed over time.” And he would gesture at his bicycle.
“But where is your flaming sword?” they would taunt. And he would murmur “the time has not yet come.”
And this is how the Milk-God’s strange routine proceeded for the next three years. Every morning before the sun could reach its full heat he would pedal through the winding streets dispensing his divine bottles of milk and collecting empties from the doorsteps of the houses. He would disappear between eleven and three when the sun was at its hottest, reappearing near the Palace under the shade of an Acacia tree, attempting to sell his last few bottles to visitors.
And still he maintained that the Raleigh was his steed, and still that “it was not time” for his flaming sword. Some still grumbled about his disrespect for the traditions of their religion, but by and by he became a tolerated, eccentric feature of our little community.
On the Fourth of July, when most of the American tourists were celebrating their Independence Day up in the hotel, a rumour swept from house to house in the village.
“The Milk-God is planning to reveal himself!”
And so he was, in a small square barely more than a courtyard. I was sucked into events only because I happened to be passing. People had already gathered, the gossip spreading like wildfire. As I walked past a doorway on my way home I saw him lurking in the shadows. He had a sword with him — stolen from the palace by later accounts — and he was wrapping it with some kind of cloth. As I passed, he finished the binding, poured kerosene onto the cloth from a small bottle and struck a match. I watched fearfully as he strode out from the doorway towards the square. He glanced at me but did not stop, and I followed him at a distance.
As he burst into the crowd the anticipatory chatter died instantly, people scrambling back from the sheet of flame erupting from his hand. He strode to the centre and up onto a small platform.
“People of Samode!” he bellowed. “The time has come that you see my flaming sword, and that I tell you the purpose of my coming. Man has fallen far and ceased to believe in the small miracles of life. And I come to do only one good thing – to show you again that God is in everything, even the skinniest most unaccountable delivery boy.”
His eyes blazed with passion and the crowd stared at him as though seeing him for the first time. He dropped the sword into the square suddenly — it must have begun to burn him — but he kept up his defiant gaze, sweeping his eyes across every one of us.
Suddenly, a voice began bellowing from behind the gathering. “Enough of your nonsense! You are no more Vishnu than I am Ganesha!”
A shot rang out, and the crowd screamed, stampeding for the edges of the square. When we looked back, the Milk-God had fallen from his perch. He was sprawled face-up in the dust, a bright red lotus blooming through his shirt just above his heart.
He lay gasping, a pool of blood gathering beneath him. People began to inch back towards him, gathering around his fallen form, their faces filled with shock. He tried to prop himself up on his elbows but slumped back to the ground. And with a final gasp, he uttered the last sentence he would ever speak on earth.
“As I said it to you, now you can see it. How far man has fallen.”
No one spoke of the Milk-God after his body was buried secretly in the hills. No-one invoked the name of Vishnu or Kalki either. He may have been nothing more than a skinny, eccentric young boy with delusions of grandeur, but one strange fact remained.
For five years following his passing, no cow within a hundred miles of Samode produced so much as a drop of milk.