Why would anybody want to eat handfuls of butter?
There is a painting in my parents’ home that I have coveted ever since I was a kid. When I was little, I’d beg my mom to let me hang it up in my room. She refused and I can’t say I blame her: it really is far too pretty to be wasted on my bedroom, which I guard like Fort Knox when I’m in residence. And once I left home and abandoned it to the fate of guest room-ship there really was no point shifting it onto one of my walls. If guests want to see something pretty, let them look out the window. Besides, Ma bought that painting in the first place because she felt as strongly about it as I do. And as she lives there year around and I don’t – checkmate.
“It’s a Baby Krishna painting,” I tried to explain my obsession with it to a friend. “You know, the classic pose? The cute baby one? Makhan chor? Where he’s all adorably chubby and crawling up to a pot of fresh butter and dipping his fist into it?”
Wait, hold on – what? My friend was saying something in reply but there was a sudden buzz in my ears, drowning her out. Dipping his fist into a pot of fresh butter? Who eats handfuls of butter, fresh or not? I’ve had freshly churned butter and yes, it’s very nice but would I want to eat pots of it? No. Do I like it enough to steal pots of it? Um, no. Did I like it enough to court the nickname, Makhan Chor? I don’t think so!
Butter Thief? Butter Thief?! Who the hell likes butter enough to get the moniker Butter Thief?
All these years I never thought about it. It was just a cutesy name for Krishna, and call me a silly girl but I do like Him a lot. Hindus tend to have very personal feelings about their favorite deities and we often talk of them like they were our favorite cousins or something, so the whole “Butter Thief” thing was on par with, say, my brother who really liked this one fried banana dish so much that he’d constantly be asking everyone to make it for him until my cousin nicknamed him after his favorite food. You’d think going to boarding school where your cool older cousin’s friends called you Fried Banana Dish would be traumatising enough to throw him off that food item for the rest of his life but no – he still loves it. Now that’s some serious love. And yet, I’ve never heard that my brother went raiding somebody’s house for some bananas.
But apparently Krishna loved butter so much, he actually stole it from other people’s homes when he couldn’t get a fix at home. What exactly am I missing here?
It has to be either an ancient cultural thing or an allegory of some sort, surely. I’d ask Ma but I’m afraid she’ll sign me up for classes of some kind and my poor body is still recovering from the last set of lessons she bought me as a “gift”.
Now I understand He grew up in some sort of rural community dedicated to cowherding so it makes sense that everyone around him was making butter because it’s not like ancient India was known for its cheese or refrigeration, is it? This was also pre-pasteurization so there’s that to be considered. And there’s only so much milk you can drink without bringing it all back up. Besides which, not everybody actually enjoys drinking milk, which I personally find strange (it’s yummy, it’s healthy, it goes great with chocolate whether hot or cold – what’s not to like?) but it’s not for me to judge.
But what exactly were they doing with all that butter? I don’t think anybody ever explained that to me. All this time I’ve sort of imagined that they did what we’d do these days with it (sell it to the co-op!) but now that I think about it, the White Revolution (relax, this is the food kind) only took place a couple of decades ago.
So did they sell it or did they all have a butter addiction? Because if you’ve seen those paintings of Krishna sneaking in to steal some butter, there’re pots and pots of the stuff. Their food must have been drowning in it!
Butter! Butter! Butter! Butter flavored milk! Butter flavored veggies! Butter flavored toothpaste! Butter! Butter! Butter! It makes everything… better.
The heart disease in that district must have been through the roof. Maybe that’s why Yasoda was always mad when Krishna stole the butter. How happy would you be if your kid developed a butter addiction? You come home from work and there’s little Munnu Punnu sitting on the couch, watching TV and munching on a stick of butter. Ew! Butter breath baby!
But maybe it was about economics as well. Even if they didn’t have currency back then (did they?), they must have had some sort of barter system and it can’t have been going well if the day’s butter was getting gobbled up by some kid with an outsize appetite.
Which is another thing I don’t get. All through the stories, Krishna seems pretty aware of the fact that he’s actually a divinity and not some mortal kid. So he must remember what he used to eat in his regular guise, right? Ambrosia, which has always gotten pretty good press. Add two plus two: does ambrosia taste like butter? Oh my God, is that why I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter will keep you alive longer? Are we buying the food of the Gods in a little plastic tub for less than five bucks?
Being a God isn’t what it used to be, huh?
I thought maybe this is some sort of representation of the eat butter-get fat-look rich formula. You know, “child of an eating-drinking home”, which sounds sort of terrifying in translation (you have a home that likes to snack? On what? Flesh and blood?) until you realize it’s just Indian code for “fat” or rather “not poor”. The only problem here is that once Krishna grows up, he apparently went into butter rehab and never steals any again. Of course, he was king so maybe he could now afford all the butter he wanted. I say tomato, you say tomahto; I say chocolate eclairs, you say butter.
But the other intriguing theory I read was that “Butter Thief” was a reference to Krishna’s more famous role as “Love Thief”. I need to read more about this angle because the memory of my childhood is now staring at me like I was a mad person.