About-Good, bad and ugly.
“And it all meant this: that there are hardly any excesses of the most crazed psychopath that cannot easily be duplicated by a normal, kindly family man who just comes in to work every day and has a job to do.”
-Terry Prachette (Small Gods)
I am very agitated right now. But then I have almost got used to it during last couple of years. More so in the last few months, as it has been an on and off state of my mind -often on. The reason being the so called corny affair of animal rights, mostly stray dogs. A thing of ridicule really -since wars are being fought, and glaciers are melting; besides Fermat’s last theorem has been proved long back and it is the time to move on. Today afternoon Blackie, a resident stray of our institute campus almost for past four years, has been finally deported out, after several previous attempts and arguments, in spite of her clean behavioral record. I almost wish she had bitten a few of us and had her share of fun, especially since her instinctive healthy way of not nosing into others’ peace did not amount to much in the end. But then stray dogs, while left to themselves, beg to differ, when it comes to their idea of fun and well-being, against popular belief.
What is compelling me most to react like this, is my annoyance with a touch of vexation, at the obvious cruelty, or equally bewildering indifference among people who are like me – educated and privileged.
It was not before I came all the way down to Chennai for my studies, did I get into this mess of dealing with and gradually feeling responsible for strays. There were two reasons. One, awareness level regarding strays is quite visibly on the higher side among the city dwellers (particularly among the youth) of Chennai. Two, as soon as I moved into my hostel, around which I have spent last five years of my life, I inherited a few semi-strays. A few mongrels inside the campus, a few more outside, a cat (suffering from acute attitude problem, as cats usually do). I was scared to death of dogs and the cat hated me. However initially it was a matter of feeding them or starving them to death, specially the ones that had permanently taken refuge inside the hostel, encouraged by a fairly large group of students, most of whom were on the verge of finishing their stay. These animals were used to being sympathetically dealt and well-established as part of the institute we all came to study in. A situation that is changing now, due to various reasons -a huge increase in the number of students, two different hostel campuses, an intense personal dislike and insensitivity of a certain faction of the institute administration towards animals and so on.
Going back to those days, it did not take too long for my now-long-forgotten hesitation towards mingling with animals to vanish. I am some sort of a convert (at least to the point of trying to make an animal comfortable in its natural surrounding -though I am now quite paranoid about fussing over strays and thus making them handicapped even at finding their own meal, particularly when I am unable to take care of them permanently, as I am now) and I have not regretted it till now. Animals, specially dogs, when treated with affection and dignity, behave more like an innocent human child (minus the obvious signs of deliberate cruelty typical to humans that unfortunately even children are not firewalled from) than how they supposedly behave in our fearful imaginations. I use the word child not in the sense of lack of responsibility in dogs but because of the quality of dependence in them towards their caretakers. Since the pre-historic age dogs have been systematically herded and tamed to assist and depend on human masters, and the instincts have not died down.
As for normal stray dogs, all it takes is a mild demonstration of friendliness, in the form of cheap food or a couple of pats, to win their confidence permanently. This dependence factor induced through the process of taming a stray was never more beautifully portrayed than in de-Exupery’s masterpiece: The Little Prince, where the fox (but one can justly replace it with a dog) tries to persuade the prince to tame him. It is one of the most beautiful chapters of the brilliant book and I cannot stop myself quoting a a selected part:
(….) said the little prince. “I am looking for friends. What does that mean– ‘tame’?”
”It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. It means to establish ties.”
(….) The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time.
“Please– tame me!” he said.
“I want to, very much,” the little prince replied. “But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.”
“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me…”
“What must I do, to tame you?” asked the little prince.
“You must be very patient,” replied the fox…
On the other hand, Umberto Eco describes a horrifyingly vivid extreme picturization of dog-man relation in his novel -The Island of the Day Before, where a certain doctor subjects a dog to an extremely slow and painful experiment, while keeping him alive by giving him a nominal amount of food at a certain hour. Yet the animal whines in pain mixed with affection towards its tyrant as a sign of gratitude for that food and association. When I read it first I felt like throwing up. But now it only sounds familiar, in various sophisticated forms.
You see, animals just don’t get it!
However, it perfectly makes sense if one does not feel the need to go out of one’s way to show friendliness towards other animals, in particular strays. But it does not make sense, as on top of their regular maladies such as starvation, skin and stomach diseases, heat, cold, rain, car accidents, we frequently subject them to cruel beating, cutting their tails, pouring hot water, kicking, gauging out eyes, hanging them from trees, poisoning etc.
One form of argument against stray dogs is that they bark loudly causing disturbance. So do loudspeakers and diwali cannons, in spite of their illegality, without the slightest consideration for victims like patients, students with examinations ahead, small children and ironically, animals. A dog does not bark or whimper unless it is feeling certain sensations such as happiness or fear or pain. Do we tend to kick a passerby if she suddenly gets a call and starts exclaiming loudly? Or while traveling in a bus push the co-passengers involved in a loud exchange of swear words? Or when our children start wailing over a nightmare? We may feel extremely irritated. But do we, as sane responsible members of the society, stone the child to death or even worse, a handicapped future? It is after all so obviously another form of life, vulnerable to pain and trauma just like us! It is almost like a xenophobia in our part, as we magnify the danger stray dogs may cause.
Being territorial animals, dogs are inclined to feel threatened when we enter the area marked by them, and that annoys us. The point is that as dogs have clung to their instincts of dependence on us, we have clung to our own traditional panegoism. For us, relevance of life, in particular relevance of the rights to protect one’s property exists only within one’s own clan, be it territorial, political, ancestral or others (all of which, in turn, rise from the sole relevance of the singleton clan consisting of oneself). Naturally, the apparent greatness of human race over other species of animals is almost unanimously granted by us; may be more so as an easy and available outlet for defying our personal insecurities.
In our twelfth standard syllabus, we had a famous play called ‘Nobanno’ (The New Rice) by one of Bengal’s greatest communist-humanist playwrights, based on the terrible famine in Bengal. It had a scene where a few villagers, who were forced to turn into beggars scavenging through city dustbins, were fighting for leftover food with stray dogs near a marriage ceremony celebrated by the insensitive urban rich. The essence was to show how humans had fallen to the level of stray animals. It got us good marks as we combed through the swear-words used by those beggars as if they were meant for fellow-humans, rather than street dogs. In this context, however it chills me a bit, because it looks like even at the level of sincere humanism, it is sort of taken for granted that strays are lower, lesser beings that can be rightfully exhibited as a literary comparisons to portray negative qualities in humans. The same goes for many others animals. Remember the death of the evil wolf in the story of Little Red Riding Hood? Drowned with a pack of stones sewn in his stomach by the gallant carpenter! Humans have lived with those same infamously wicked wolves, even outside the pages of The Jungle Book – talking about empathy!
Some of the statements I stated above are rhetorical and exaggerated. They can be argued, or ignored, or most conveniently ridiculed. After all mocking a theory is indeed one of the most useful ways of denouncing or sub-humanizing it. But more about that later. For now (due to no apparent reason), let me recall one of the many insane stories of this pro-dog extremist friend of mine, who saw a severely injured dog howling next to a slum. The person, who had just beaten its back till it was broken with a stone, was standing next to it. As my friend asked what was the matter, the man reasoned that he had felt annoyed at the dog’s loud barking from outside his house. My friend kept pursuing the topic asking for the actual reason behind such a brutal act against a normal behavior on the dog’s side. That man, unable to find a suitable answer, behaved in quite an unexpected way by calling in a friend, who was holding a dagger rather menacingly. As i gathered from his story, my friend was too shocked to break into a quick sprint. So he took the desperate measure of asking this new person if he thought what his friend did was the right thing to do. The man with the dagger was quite happy to teach this shrimp of a guy, who had insulted his buddy, a lesson. But he probably did not expect a logical discussion on the morality of the matter. Crazily enough, soon the two men started arguing with each other and the event ended in a confused, undecided state, constantly accompanied by the background music of the dying animal’s cry.
We reason that the strays spread disease and more infamously, they bite (not fatally if they are vaccinated; but that is hardly an argument I just realized!) without provocations; at least not something that we would consider on our part as a provocation to such lesser beings! Granted. Probably I stepped on its tail, or probably it was starving for the past two weeks, or it was recently injured by a careless car or a fun-loving bunch of kids. But that naturally does not give it the right to bite my leg. As it does not really give the right to a half-starved thief to rob me even if I am rich. In case I do get robbed, there is the law on my side. One cannot bring in a sound human- law against stray dogs. In fact rather surprisingly, the law (by AWBI, as per High Court orders) is about protecting those very animals from human torture (even against deporting them!), luckily for our legs itching for a kick, the law in this context is a farce with a ridiculously nominal fine allotted for our brutality. So I would rather pick up a twig, break the backbone of the dumb beast for behaving instinctively, spit on it, laugh at a passing remembrance of how a-barking-dog-never-bites-but-does-the-dog-know-that-etc, and move on. But then, it is after all not such an unexpected reaction, as we recall the face of the mob glowing with sensuous pleasure, as a pickpocket gets caught in its hydra-hands.
I wonder about the germs spread through that spittle of mine that paints the urban alleys, polluted by the presence of the strays. I also worry a bit about the germs of hatred that we spread, through our insensitivity. It scares me a little thinking of my victim turning into demons and getting back at me, even symbolically, like those Birds in Hitchcock’s fantasy, or like the great wild boar carrying a contagious killing curse, causing slow, painful, gory death, inflicted by the hatred spread by the industrialist humans invading the forest fondly ruled by the wolf-princess Mononoke. But then stray dogs seem likely to be too tempting as victims. They can be tortured indifferently or consciously, all the while looking a bit bewildered at their incomprehensibility of the unfairness of the event. They are irrelevant life-forms in compared to wars, glaciers and Fermat’s theorems that affect mankind in greater ways, or are they?
In my personal experience, me or any of my friends have never been actually bitten by a normal stray dog, in spite of roaming around numerous shady lanes in different cities around or after midnight (and that too when I was no admirer of animals). The only relative who ever got bitten by a dog was my sister. The dog in question was a pet pedigree dog of our neighbor, who used to keep the dog confined in their small house all day and night, looking at children running around, shrieking in fun. Incidentally, that is the concept of fun to dogs, as it is expected from any healthy being – leading a healthy life adorned with freedom and affection.
As for spreading diseases I have not known a single person falling seriously ill due to his association with a stray dog. I may be misinformed. But basic hygienic tricks like washing dirty hands have usually worked wonderfully for me for dealing with such risks. However yes, I know of dogs falling seriously sick, both physically and mentally due to not only our cruelty, but also of our careless plastic affection such as feeding them unhealthy food for months and keeping them confined in the name of affection and safety. It is not difficult to believe that a free dog is much less likely to be aggressive than a tied one. Such a treatment always reminds me of the movie Dogville, where the sweet trusting honest protagonist character turns into a bomb of ruthless violence after staying tied up for months and being used by the villagers to jerk off their lust, first in the form of affection, and then possession – a quite common psychology behind keeping pets by the way, and not so surprisingly either.
It is there in the textbooks that education is meant for helping us to think, sympathize and win over our cruel tendencies (ironically referred as animal instincts)? Personally speaking, what I feel most blessed to have obtained out of my education is to think rationally. But then I walk out of my safety-sphere of absoluteness and once alone in the open world, logic takes form of a many headed demon. In this context my logic says that it is not a conspiracy on the dogs’ part to deliberately irritate us. Thus in order for them to shed their insecurity about us, we should also counsel ourselves to shed our own insecurity about them and treat them with sympathy, or at the very least non-violent co-habitation. Still accidents happen. Stray dogs bite, go rabid, cause death (though the toll is negligible compared to the number of dogs that are killed by human, accidentally or deliberately). But if we are to eliminate the whole community of stray dogs for the fear of it, to me it sounds uncannily similar to the butchery of thousands of tribal villagers as a handful of them have been known to be supporting terrorism.
I think I just managed to spurt out the point that has been making me sick inside for hours. Incidentally I recently started reading this book about a literary study circle at Tehran. It is written as a memoir by the disillusioned professor Azar Nafisi of the Tehran university, who was expelled by the revolutionary regime that came into power towards the end of the seventies. The study group consisted of herself and a few of her students studying English literature, reading a few novels denounced by the law. In their weekly meetings, they continuously analyzed and criticized both their society and themselves in the light of those novels, thus defying the extremist regime in the form of a very personal (but existentially far from weak) protest. In their interpretation of their first assignment Lolita, Nabokov’s masterpiece, these women saw the so called teenage brat as the rebel protagonist – fighting hard against disappearance of her identity, even hurting herself while at the process. She is fighting Humbert’s systematic effort of removing her history, even her existence outside his lustful embrace. These women condemned Humbert not so much as the pedophilliac that he apparently was, but more as a symbol of the fanatic regime that watched over their freedom and forced them to act as descendants of a tailor-made history woven for the convenience of the administrators. Women, as Lolita was to Humbert, were either objects of possession, or they were as expendable as mad bitches. But first there was this process of projecting the victims of the tyranny as creatures worth sacrificing before the world (including and often importantly oneself). As always, that was done by an effort of eliminating or fabricating the victims’ history and establishing them as subordinates, or subhumans (thus expendable). These are instinctive tricks invented by humans centuries ago, played at various levels to these days -maligning the character of an enemy (or victim) before punishing him for a not-so-glorified reason. It was successfully implemented by the Aryans as an excuse to themselves and the rest of the world, present and future, when they portrayed the Dravidians as demons in their history and their art. Or similarly by the Christians as they
created their image for the devil based on the pagan god Pan. It was used by the Spanish victors in South America before wiping the tribes off the back of the world, by the French and Belgians while colonizing Africa, by the British in India. It is still being tried on everywhere, be it Gaza, or Dantewada, while encroaching the land through humiliating, butchering and exiling its inhabitants, for obvious colonial profits.
At the risk of drawing a forced parallel, I am inclined to see a similar structure in the context of stray dogs. Along with global warming and pollution, the rapid rise in the number of various rare species at a constant risk of extinction, is one of the most important backfires of man-made ecological imbalance. Dogs, as any other non-human animal, play a certain part in nature. And who knows what strange consequence it will bring onto us if the common mongrels turn out to be another eliminated race! But strays, habitually forced to stay near humans, have gradually lost their glory as fellow-animals, unlike humming birds or suchlike in our intellectual brains. Thus they fall prey to the common attitude of ours, consisting of a mixture of irritated indifference and contemptuous patronization. However it is not only their ecological history that we deny them. Is it not our own humanist leader Mahatma Gandhi, who said that one can understand the nature of the people of a nation from the way they behave towards animals?
Even though it sounds ridiculous, every stray dogs in a street comes with a personal history of its own – a complete package of belonging, betrayal and pain. Our Blackie, who got deported today, has a history too. She was dropped by one of the Govt. dog catcher vans, which pick strays up from roads, on or without complaints charged by the local residents. Those dogs are operated without anesthesia so that they cannot breed more hungry whimpering puppies so as to annoy the human senses. If alive, they are dropped at a different end of the city unknown to them. Blackie had a similar fate. She was terribly skinny, hiding away from anyone who was trying to approach her, with her operation wounds unsealed. She was rescued by a few students and treated by the local vet always ready to help the students in such matters. Ever since she was taken care of by the security guards at the institute gate. Looking at the all-black ball of fat (though almost blind in one eye) it is now difficult to recognize her. Other than one or two futile barks at unknown visitors she has been an exemplary well-behaved dog, generally liked by almost all, till she was force-judged to be a harmful beast, backed up by the above stated usual arguments. After several pleading and reasoning sessions and a few futile efforts of keeping her out of the way of the strangely offended ones, one day she was beaten up with a stick by one of her very protectors, who had been casually threatened to choose between the dog and his job. The situation started looking alarming and finally we had to take the bitter decision of deporting her. She came absolutely peacefully when we tricked her into the car with her favorite snacks, all the while tongue out at bewilderment, looking at us with eyes wide with fear and trust.
Blackie was thrown out because in the perspective of power, devoid of its memory of history and promises of peaceful coexistence, she seemed to be an annoying fly of rebellion -a subordinate being, kept and tended by another host of subordinates, propagating freedom beyond the regulations of the existing regime, however pleasant otherwise. As most of the human-occupied area of this world, our campus is also thought of and accordingly administered as a place reserved for humans (identical logic has been used by the colonizers all over the history -for denouncing the rights of the so called subhumans). The other species who have also inhabited the same area (often for their whole life) are mostly seen as lives favored by us out of our goodness, which is limited. And that limit is usually independent of the behavior on their part, rather on our own shifting mode of kindness and opinions. The aggressive decree about having a stray-free campus, the ridiculously desperate effort of seeing ourselves deserving a heaven out of the world that is full of stinking commoners and dirty strays – all look like fancy means of covering up one’s personal fear of failings and falling from the position of power to me. It is a misplaced container of one’s own frustrations, and hence shameful. But it is also a typical byproduct of our historically infamous insensitivity towards the other; like “neighbor-enemies living in this region occupied by madness”, in spite of all our exposure and intellectual evolution. That is what leaves me most shaken.
I wish in my wild fancy that Blackie’s fate-determiners would steal a moment out of their busy routine to take a look at last century’s popular-most fairy tale, where the greatest wizard of the whole magic world claims that the meaning of having power comes from being able to control it; through using it for strengthening the vulnerable, and not for hiding one’s own vulnerability from others and oneself. I also wish in my wild fancy that grown ups would some day see the boa constrictor devouring the elephant, through the outline of that crazy hat.