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Prabha Mallya: Illustrator’s Note

Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings, on my third reading of it (a couple of months after the last illustration for the book was handed in) still moves me deeply.

It was always meant to be an illustrated book. The story reveals a living, vibrant, layered world that exists right here part of our bustling human settlements, that we either ignore or know far too little about. There are interconnected communities of animals and birds passing quietly through tangles of undergrowth, winding lanes and a timeless old Delhi backdrop.

This complex, exciting, very visceral story naturally led to a very textured, tactile illustration process (in which constructing, cutting, taping, splotching, stonewashing, layering featured prominently). Conceptually, the illustrations needed to echo the tone of the story, depict key moments and allow for long, exploratory reading pauses at opportune moments. Also, they had to be discreet enough not to give away too much of the story at a casual flip-through.

There were so many scrumptiously described scenes that absolutely demanded to be illustrated. The idea was to heighten the sense of drama at these key points, to make the story practically leap off the page and wrap itself around you.

Like these.

Several cats I’ve met have sneaked into these pages and become these characters.

Though the cats are presumably the core of the book, there were many of these teeny tiny illustrations we snuck into the book – these made the smaller wildings’ presence felt all through the book, and of the weed-filled wild world they inhabit.

Prabha Mallya

http://fishkitty.tumblr.com

http://crabbits.wordpress.com/

About The Wildings

Mara’s story

She was an orange kitten with deep green eyes, no bigger than the palm of my partner’s hand. Mara had been rescued from a drain in Sujan Singh Park by my cousin, and was temporarily living with them and their three dogs.

“We have to find someone to adopt her!” said Kamini.

“Yes,” I said sympathetically. “She won’t be safe with the dogs around.”

“It’s the other way around,” said Kamini with some feeling. Mara had discovered a wonderful game—she would hide on the top of the bookcase, waiting for an unsuspecting dog to pass by, scoot down, smack him on his nose and scoot back up before he’d even seen his tiny attacker. So we rescued the dogs from Mara by adopting her.

I’d never lived with animals before; a close family member had asthma, and though I smuggled pigeons, kittens and puppies in, they all had to be relocated in short order. Except for a brief stint babysitting a mongoose, I’d spent much less time with animal companions than my husband had—his impressive credentials included looking after a pig, a monkey, a very gentle python and a carnivorous rabbit who liked hamburgers.

Mara, inquisitive, intelligent and fearless, opened up a parallel universe. She was a friendly kitten, unwilling to share the two of us but otherwise curious about the strays—cats, dogs, monkeys, birds—who lived in most Delhi colonies. In time, other cats joined our family; and our indoor cats attracted a horde of visiting strays who had designs on their food bowls.

The inside cats and the outside cats watched each other with avid curiosity. If we picked up Mara and cuddled her, the eyes of the visiting strays would widen in incredulity. But if we were lucky, they were more inclined to trust us, even let us cuddle them, once they’d seen us with the inside cats.

Seen from a foot off the ground, Delhi is a different city, Nizamuddin a richly alien neighbourhood. Books on cat behaviour confirmed what I’d begun to suspect: cats were extremely social loners, extrovert-introverts if you like. Most cats lived in loose but protective clans. The queens—the female cats—dominated the clan, but there was always an alpha tomcat or two backing up their reign.

The toms swaggered across the neighbourhood, brawling, yowling, always in trouble; the queens were often ferocious hunters, and both toms and queens were surprisingly caring parents. If there were too many kittens in any given season, the toms would cull them ruthlessly, but otherwise the toms were endlessly patient with the kittens who tumbled around in their wake, and the queens were stern but loving mothers.

I learned other things: cats seemed so often to be silent, not mewing or purring except in occasional bursts of conversation, but they were constantly chatting. Their whiskers and their noses brought them all the news of the world they needed. I began to wonder: what if there was a cat who had longer, more sensitive whiskers than usual? What if she could roam wider and further than any of the other cats, just using her whiskers? Would the clan love and protect a cat like that, or would she be cast out for being different?

In 2007, I wrote a short story about a kitten with deep green eyes who lived indoors with humans because the outside world felt too large and scary for her. It was fun to write. I began to write another story, set in the same world, and two cats strolled into its pages. One was a wise Siamese whose blue eyes told me she had stories to tell that I couldn’t even imagine, the other was an alpha tom, loved and respected by the other cats of his clan.

Halfway through telling those stories, Mara got sick. The vet told us she had feline diabetes. Over the next few months, our little orange warrior lost weight until she was down to fur and bone, but she took her illness stoically, not protesting the visits to the vet, the many injections, the drips, the pain. Our second cat, Tiglath, watched for her to come back from the vet; we’d find him at the head of the stairs, mewing. Mara had groomed and washed him when he’d come to us as a tiny kitten. Now he spent his evenings grooming her ears, her tail, her fur, washing her as gently as she had once washed him.

At night, Mara curled up between us, her thin ribs rising and falling in shallow breaths; but every morning, she wanted to be on the verandah, and her eyes would follow the cheels, the sparrows, our other two cats. She died in my arms, shortly after. She took a calm, slow breath, her green eyes closed, and though I listened for a long while, she did not take another. I put the stories aside until 2010.

When I read them again, it seemed that I had captured only the tiniest corner of Mara’s world. Where were the cheels who seemed to have arrived at an interesting and complex truce with the cats we knew in Nizamuddin? Who was responsible for the brawls we heard at night on the rooftops at the dargah, those dark dramas of yowl-and-counteryowl? I waited impatiently for someone else, a real writer, to write the book I wanted to read, until it began to dawn on me that there might not be too many writers out there fascinated by the secret life of cats. Aliens, yes, vampires, yes, daemons and demons, absolutely. But cats had few champions. This seemed grossly unfair.

Though I read everything I could find on cats and feline behaviour, the real research required getting out of the house and walking for as long as I could. The more I walked around Nizamuddin’s grand sprawl, the more cats I met, hurrying to the dargah, taking their kittens for a walk on the canal road, gingerly sidestepping us humans or the stray dogs.

But the book didn’t really start until the winter of 2010, when the driver from the house downstairs handed us a bucket. In the bucket was a white kitten, smaller than the palm of your hand, with the well-travelled air of a seasoned explorer. Young Bathsheba Balti was the only survivor of a tragic massacre, and had strayed, mewing, into the driver’s empty car-wash bucket. She could eat her weight in fish, had the manners of a thug and the swagger of a professional goonda. One day, I came back to my desk to find that Bathsheba had walked across the keyboard. This is what she had typed: “ggggbbb,,,,????????????????”

I looked at the line of question marks. “What happens next?” they asked me. So I sat down at the computer, and did my best over the next two years to come up with an answer. Here it is: book one of The Wildings.

(A version of this was carried by Elle in its August 2012 issue)

The Bhagat Brandwagon

(Published in the Business Standard, August 21, 2012; this is a slightly longer version)

It took the much-praised (and occasionally maligned) Chetan Bhagat just one bestseller to become a character in his own stories. He is already famous in One Night @ the Call Centre, returning from a talk at IIT Kanpur about his book.

He is also already sensitive to criticism, stung when his travelling companion calls it a “just okay-okay type book”. ‘“Some people do want to hear about it,” I said, keeping a sweet tone to sugarcoat my sarcasm-filled words.’

Some people definitely did. One Night At The Call Centre was the second of a long run of bestsellers. By the time The Three Mistakes of My Life came out, the insecure writer had become, in the novel, a caring person who would do his best to track down a suicidal reader. (I should add that the reader’s suicidal thoughts were not brought on by reading Bhagat.)

Bhagat, perhaps the most conscientious brand in the history of Indian writing, produces one book every two years with metronomic precision. By the fifth book, his fictional alter ego was comfortable with fame: “Security volunteers formed a human barricade and soon I managed a neat exit from the hall.”

By his sixth book, a collection of journalism (“What Young India Wants”), Bhagat had honed his artistic vision. “Popular art forms can inject people with modern messages and a new set of values.” He lists his qualifications: he is not aligned to any political party, has no political aspirations (yet), and makes enough money as a motivational speaker. However, he has reach, and the ear of India’s rising English-language speakers, and the appeal of earnestness.

Most of the discussions about Bhagat’s writings reveal a sharp linguistic and class divide. Bhagat speaks for, and to, the Indians who make up the Census 2011’s claim that English is the fastest growing language in the country. Discard the idea that his brand of English is inferior: it is faithfully representative of the Indian English in wide circulation today.

One of Bhagat’s great virtues is that he uses English as it is spoken in India with a complete lack of either mockery or self-consciousness, and perhaps that might help underline the fact that there has never been a “correct” brand of Indian English. From Babu English to the archaic and slightly risible Anglicized English once in favour with the upper crust, to today’s Hinglish, the language has always been accented in India, as it should be. Bhagat writes for the contemporary reader, whose sense of language is formed far more strongly by Bollywood than by books, and who is untroubled by grammatical infelicities.

It cannot be said that his fiction is boring. This is not just because of the popularity of his novels—technical manuals, Malayalam porn, and religious tracts of varied merit can make equal claim to popularity, always dubious criteria on which to judge literary merit. But Bhagat is a deft storyteller, with a gift for pulling readers instantly into his characters’ urban middle-class lives.

His books are fast-paced, and even when his plot twists and turns are preposterous—God makes a long-distance call, and Bhagat’s characters are not massively overbilled by their cellphone companies, for instance—he has the compelling, if slightly nauseating, appeal of the best TV soaps. The strongest argument in favour of Bhagat’s writing is the length of his books. They often cross 250 pages, making them perhaps the longest work of fiction read by many Indians who have not had the increasingly rare luxury of growing up with books or with access to libraries.

What makes Bhagat completely unique is his branding. Many Indian authors have been good self-promoters; very few have been so relentlessly aware that they are consumer products. Bhagat addresses his readers directly (and they write to him, from Kota, from Nagpur, from all across India, the emails stored on his website). He fosters the pleasant fantasy that he and the reader are co-authors of mass-market literature, the reader offering the plots, Bhagat just the humble vehicle.

Indian authors such as Deepak Chopra and Shiv Khera have become brands, but few fiction authors have made the leap from writing as creative activity to writing as a branch of entrepreneurship. Bhagat sells self-improvement, motivational speaking, and follow-your-dream philosophies; fiction is just the delivery vehicle. (Ask The Youth, to use one of Bhagat’s favourite phrases, what kind of writer they’d like to be, Vikram Seth or Amitav Ghosh or Chetan Bhagat, and guess which one they’ll choose.)

Bhagat’s novels, more than his columns, are invaluable for the terrifying mirror they hold up to Young India. Refracted through his faithful lens, The Youth don’t lack compassion, and very much like him, feel a need to fight for larger causes. But the pain they are sensitive to and that they explore is strictly their own: relationship issues, the search for a better job and more money, the faint yearning for a life beyond consumerism, corruption in urban India, student suicides.

His protagonists never address the ugliness of a certain kind of Indian chauvinism or anti-Americanism, the narrow or absent political engagement among The Youth, the incuriosity about India’s history and recent past, the invisibility of anyone on the margins, either geographically or culturally.

One of the claims repeatedly made for Bhagat is that he is representative. That claim becomes very shaky when you look carefully at how much his fiction omits, is blind to or doesn’t question. Two equally massmarket writers, Sankar and Vaikom Basheer, consistently wrote outside the lines; Bhagat colours well within them.

Speaking Volumes: Emperors, apostates and absences

(Published in the Business Standard, August 14, 2012)

The price Raja Rammohan Roy paid in the early 19th century for expressing his views on Hinduism and sati was not minor. His mother ostracized the Brahmo reformer, and declared that he should not be allowed to inherit family property because he was an ‘apostate’.

The Life and Letters of Raja Rammohan Roy chronicles the anger of the Hindu community. The Raja’s criticism of Hindu traditions prompted some Hindus to throw the bones of cows into his courtyard. The reformer asked the women of the house to ignore them, though the practice continued for months.

In the words of the book, “…Great excitement was produced in Hindu society, and the orthodox feeling against Rammohun soon became very hostile”. Raja Rammohan Roy’s weapon was his knowledge of scripture (he translated the Upanishads, for instance), his zest for debate, and his ability to gather strong allies around him. He survived threats, excommunication attempts and much scurrilous gossip.

There were two kinds of persecution, however, that writers like Raja Rammohan Roy didn’t have to face—the direct death threat, or the threat that his views had incensed his assailants so much that they would relieve their emotions by attacking innocent members of the public. That distinctly medieval reaction has become such a commonplace today that it is now considered unremarkable.

For Indian writers, one of the saddest truths about living in this moment is the acceptance that they write with a gun held to their heads, if they are any kind of radicals. Last week, the poet, novelist and editor Jeet Thayil wrote a reflective piece in The Guardian after he was told that the opera Babur In London (with a libretto by him) could not be performed in India, because of fears of protests or violence.

The merits or demerits of Babur In London are not the subject of my column; the fact that most of the sentiments expressed by the Emperor’s ghost in the opera may be found in the Baburnama or in the emperor’s letters is no defence in these times.

It was the writing of histories, especially of Hindu mythological figures and historical heroes, that shut down first, after increasingly trenchant attacks on academics from Romila Thapar and AK Ramanujan to Wendy Doniger and James Laine. (Except for the Mughals, few historical figures are safe territory in India, and most publishers will not touch anything controversial, in the face of the very real fear of protests, riots, court cases and worse.) In the absence of true histories, what the Indian reader now has is pulp retellings of myth, unchallenging but safe.

The next to go were the plays: the late Habib Tanvir’s oeuvre was a repeated target, and many plays, especially some of Vijay Tendulkar’s more incendiary ones, seemed to fade from the stage. More books were challenged, and more disappeared from the shelves, from Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey to AK Ramanujan’s Collected Essays.

Each decade brought not just more book bans, but a slow tightening of the net as more subjects became effectively taboo, and almost literally, unthinkable. In the present, congratulatory state of Indian writing, where we celebrate the power of the mass market bestseller, literary festivals will soon start editing out the more inconvenient authors–the security risks, the arsonists–just as the mainstream has. Some dissent is tolerated, because it allows a judicious blindness: we can safely ignore those who are no longer welcome at the banquet, if we have a few genuine activists to leaven the lump.

This is not China, to lay that classic, knee-jerk argument to rest, and perhaps one of the reasons why what Thayil calls the rise of self-censorship is so insidious is because we’re more like Turkey or Malaysia. Authors have a buffet line of acceptable subjects to pick and choose from—the butter paneer of India travelogues, the savoury khichdi of intelligent fiction that stops just short of being truly challenging.

It’s hard to see what is lost when there’s so much still there; it is only the empty shelves that act as reminders. The shelves of the non-fiction missing from the Indian canon because it is impossible to write an honest life of Shivaji—or even Rammohan Roy—without stepping into controversy, the novels not written and thoughts left unarticulated because they might be too incendiary, disturbing the peace. The freedom of intellectual inquiry once claimed by Ramanujan, of complete creative fearlessness, claimed by Vaikom Mohammed Basheer, the freedom to voice desire and discontent, claimed by Lal Ded or Andal: few writers living in India could confidently claim these freedoms today.

As Thayil says, quoting Nissim Ezekiel, most authors accept that no book is worth dying for—even when the author is not the person who wields the gun, the knife, calls up the mobs. And so we live with absences and silent ghosts, the permanent tenants of the censored mind.

All creatures great and small

(This post was sparked by a story in The New York Times on the stray dog “menace” in India; and by reading Jai Arjun’s post on human cruelty/ indifference towards animals.)

Naming the problem: Stray dog populations have risen in India over the last few years; as the population rises, some urban and rural areas see a rise in territorial, aggressive behavior among the dogs. The fear of rabies, dog bites and attacks has led to a growing demand in the media that the “stray dog menace” be tackled.

For people who have been bitten, know someone who has died of rabies or are just afraid of animals, the fear of strays is very real, and needs to be acknowledged. A death from rabies is particularly horrifying, and India has among the highest incidences of rabies cases in the world. But it should also be acknowledged that most stray dogs are not feral, or vicious; the majority are surprisingly forgiving, very affectionate and make loyal friends.

… and accepting responsibility for it: Calling it the stray dog problem or menace ducks a central issue. Humans are responsible for the rise in the stray dog population—not the dogs. From 2004 onwards, scientists and then journalists began tracking the apparently inexplicable deaths of vultures, carrion birds who used to be ubiquitous across India. By 2008, The New Scientist estimated that India had lost 95 % of its vulture population. The vultures were dying because they were feeding on dead cattle that had been given diclofenac, a drug that is toxic to many species of vultures. With the chief scavengers gone, stray dogs began to feed on dead cattle—and cases of rabies among dogs rose, even as the population of strays rose.

There’s a chain of cruelty at work here that most humans who talk about the stray dog “menace” don’t want to see. Diclofan is often given to cows in the last stages of their lives, because it reduces joint pain and prolongs their working lives. Even though there’s a ban on the drug, even after it was demonstrated that it killed vultures, diclofan continues to be used. The few vultures left are still in peril; the dogs who contract rabies from the carcasses of dead cows die just as horribly as humans do.

…our solution, having killed the vultures, is to want to kill the stray dogs. The problem with this solution is not just that the cold cruelty involved in culling dogs is abhorrent. (Most municipal councils don’t have the funds for painless euthanasia, so when dogs are culled, they are often poisoned—or, as happened in Bangalore, bludgeoned to death.) The problem, as wildlife experts have pointed out time and time again, is that this doesn’t work.

As Delhi knows with its urban monkey problem, removing animals from their territory—either by transporting them elsewhere, as is done with monkeys, or by killing them, as many want done with stray dogs—is ineffective. The langurs and monkeys of Delhi shuffle around in a constant arc of movement, as unsettled as this city’s beggars and slum-dwellers. Shift the old monkeys or dogs out, and new ones come in. Succeed in killing all of them, and other predators have an open run—rats, for instance.

Stray dogs are an easy target, because they’re not protected by religion. Monkeys, especially in parts of urban India, are far more aggressive than most dogs; cows are as ubiquitous. But in Hinduism, cows are sacred, and monkeys are seen as incarnations of Hanuman. The dog has no temples, and does not accompany any of the Gods. People who would not dream of demanding that monkeys be killed or cows be culled have no problem with demanding the death of dogs.

The garbage menace: The Indian practice of leaving mounds of garbage out in the open acts as restaurants for dogs, leopards, monkeys and other animals, with temples, hotels, restaurants, vegetable markets and meat shops being major offenders. If we were serious about making a particular neighbourhood unattractive for stray dogs and other animals, it would help if we cleaned up our backyards first.

Effective solutions versus visible solutions: One of the reasons why the dogcatcher’s van, or culling, appeals to many Indians as a solution is because they can see steps being taken, hear dogs yelping as they’re carted off to be killed. It will take at least some months before other strays move in, and for those months, people feel like they’ve achieved something. But most animal’s rights organisations are aware of the problems that accompany a drastic rise in animal populations. They’re also aware that a more permanent way to deal with high populations is threefold: a) neuter the dogs so that populations drop over time b) vaccinate the dogs so that even in the event of a scuffle, humans will not run the risk of rabies c) and this, for many Indians, is counterintuitive, be kind to the strays in your area and they will accept you far more easily as a member of the “family”, not to be harmed.

Dominion, and its opposite: This last argument is never a popular one, but it might be worthwhile making it anyway. The assumption that the world — and our neighbourhoods — belong exclusively to humans is not just arrogant, it’s untrue. Many Indians are ferocious in their expression of the view that animal rights should not matter more than human rights. Fair enough. But how about caring *almost* as much about animals? How about accepting that most neighbourhoods in India have had their animal settlers—cows, sparrows, bulbuls, dogs, cats, insects, cheels—for at least as long as they have had human settlers?

I often wonder why we’re so attached to the idea that the world was built for the exclusive use of humans. We’re not the fastest, prettiest, most astonishing or even most resourceful species. We’re not the only ones with the capacity to love our young, and our kind, or even the only animals with the capacity for empathy.

We’re the ones with the most weapons, though, and with the most control over the earth’s surface, and with the biggest egos. We assume that we have a right to do what we please with other species: because animals are voiceless, and because we can.

But there are few human pleasures greater than being able to connect with members of another species, to feel the simple pleasure of sharing the world with more than just your own kind. “The stray dog menace” sounds unpleasantly like “the Jewish problem”, or “the slum encroachments”. And in that, there is consistency: we’re as rough on the weak, the voiceless and the voteless among humans as we are on animals.

Eight years have gone by since the first vultures started dying from diclofan. In that time, we could have put our resources towards sorting out our garbage problem, really banning diclofan and creating better habitats for vultures, or trapping, neutering and vaccinating dogs. All of this would probably also have created better living conditions for humans. Over the next eight years, we could go on demonizing stray dogs, and then deal with whatever species rolls in after them. Or we might want to take responsibility, and change our own behaviour.

All creatures great and small

(This post was sparked by a story in The New York Times on the stray dog “menace” in India; and by reading Jai Arjun’s post on human cruelty/ indifference towards animals.)

Naming the problem: Stray dog populations have risen in India over the last few years; as the population rises, some urban and rural areas see a rise in territorial, aggressive behavior among the dogs. The fear of rabies, dog bites and attacks has led to a growing demand in the media that the “stray dog menace” be tackled.

For people who have been bitten, know someone who has died of rabies or are just afraid of animals, the fear of strays is very real, and needs to be acknowledged. A death from rabies is particularly horrifying, and India has among the highest incidences of rabies cases in the world. But it should also be acknowledged that most stray dogs are not feral, or vicious; the majority are surprisingly forgiving, very affectionate and make loyal friends.

… and accepting responsibility for it: Calling it the stray dog problem or menace ducks a central issue. Humans are responsible for the rise in the stray dog population—not the dogs. From 2004 onwards, scientists and then journalists began tracking the apparently inexplicable deaths of vultures, carrion birds who used to be ubiquitous across India. By 2008, The New Scientist estimated that India had lost 95 % of its vulture population. The vultures were dying because they were feeding on dead cattle that had been given diclofenac, a drug that is toxic to many species of vultures. With the chief scavengers gone, stray dogs began to feed on dead cattle—and cases of rabies among dogs rose, even as the population of strays rose.

There’s a chain of cruelty at work here that most humans who talk about the stray dog “menace” don’t want to see. Diclofan is often given to cows in the last stages of their lives, because it reduces joint pain and prolongs their working lives. Even though there’s a ban on the drug, even after it was demonstrated that it killed vultures, diclofan continues to be used. The few vultures left are still in peril; the dogs who contract rabies from the carcasses of dead cows die just as horribly as humans do.

…our solution, having killed the vultures, is to want to kill the stray dogs. The problem with this solution is not just that the cold cruelty involved in culling dogs is abhorrent. (Most municipal councils don’t have the funds for painless euthanasia, so when dogs are culled, they are often poisoned—or, as happened in Bangalore, bludgeoned to death.) The problem, as wildlife experts have pointed out time and time again, is that this doesn’t work.

As Delhi knows with its urban monkey problem, removing animals from their territory—either by transporting them elsewhere, as is done with monkeys, or by killing them, as many want done with stray dogs—is ineffective. The langurs and monkeys of Delhi shuffle around in a constant arc of movement, as unsettled as this city’s beggars and slum-dwellers. Shift the old monkeys or dogs out, and new ones come in. Succeed in killing all of them, and other predators have an open run—rats, for instance.

Stray dogs are an easy target, because they’re not protected by religion. Monkeys, especially in parts of urban India, are far more aggressive than most dogs; cows are as ubiquitous. But in Hinduism, cows are sacred, and monkeys are seen as incarnations of Hanuman. The dog has no temples, and does not accompany any of the Gods. People who would not dream of demanding that monkeys be killed or cows be culled have no problem with demanding the death of dogs.

The garbage menace: The Indian practice of leaving mounds of garbage out in the open acts as restaurants for dogs, leopards, monkeys and other animals, with temples, hotels, restaurants, vegetable markets and meat shops being major offenders. If we were serious about making a particular neighbourhood unattractive for stray dogs and other animals, it would help if we cleaned up our backyards first.

Effective solutions versus visible solutions: One of the reasons why the dogcatcher’s van, or culling, appeals to many Indians as a solution is because they can see steps being taken, hear dogs yelping as they’re carted off to be killed. It will take at least some months before other strays move in, and for those months, people feel like they’ve achieved something. But most animal’s rights organisations are aware of the problems that accompany a drastic rise in animal populations. They’re also aware that a more permanent way to deal with high populations is threefold: a) neuter the dogs so that populations drop over time b) vaccinate the dogs so that even in the event of a scuffle, humans will not run the risk of rabies c) and this, for many Indians, is counterintuitive, be kind to the strays in your area and they will accept you far more easily as a member of the “family”, not to be harmed.

Dominion, and its opposite: This last argument is never a popular one, but it might be worthwhile making it anyway. The assumption that the world — and our neighbourhoods — belong exclusively to humans is not just arrogant, it’s untrue. Many Indians are ferocious in their expression of the view that animal rights should not matter more than human rights. Fair enough. But how about caring *almost* as much about animals? How about accepting that most neighbourhoods in India have had their animal settlers—cows, sparrows, bulbuls, dogs, cats, insects, cheels—for at least as long as they have had human settlers?

I often wonder why we’re so attached to the idea that the world was built for the exclusive use of humans. We’re not the fastest, prettiest, most astonishing or even most resourceful species. We’re not the only ones with the capacity to love our young, and our kind, or even the only animals with the capacity for empathy.

We’re the ones with the most weapons, though, and with the most control over the earth’s surface, and with the biggest egos. We assume that we have a right to do what we please with other species: because animals are voiceless, and because we can.
But there are few human pleasures greater than being able to connect with the member of another species, to feel the simple pleasure of sharing the world with more than just your own kind. “The stray dog menace” sounds unpleasantly like “the Jewish problem”, or “the slum encroachments”. And in that, there is consistency: we’re as rough on the weak, the voiceless and the voteless among humans as we are on animals.

Eight years have gone by since the first vultures started dying from diclofan. In that time, we could have put our resources towards sorting out our garbage problem, really banning diclofan and creating better habitats for vultures, or trapping, neutering and vaccinating dogs. All of this would probably also have created better living conditions for humans. Over the next eight years, we could go on demonizing stray dogs, and then deal with whatever species rolls in after them. Or we might want to take responsibility, and change our own behaviour.

Food: In The Flesh

Published in Seminar, 2005

Here is a partial list of animals I have eaten over the last three decades.

Goat (legs, stomach, brain, sweetbreads, kidney, liver, yes; eyes and head, never); cow (usually in the form of steaks, but also the tail in soups, the tongue, the parts inside—liver, kidneys, even heart, brain, intestines, but of the head only a small portion of a calf’s head, to be sociable), the feet in a glutinous soup somewhat like nihari; pig (the legs, roasted, the cheeks, the flesh in diverse forms, from pork chops to sausages, the blood in black pudding, the stomach and several organs in the form of haggis, the liver, deliciously, in a sorpotel); rabbit, twice or thrice, liking and repelled by its strong tang and dark, earthy taste; snake, if I am to believe the lady who fed me this rich, musty stew at a street stall in Kuala Lumpur, but I fear she was lying and it was only, after all, chicken; deer, presumably an illegally hunted specimen, in my youth at the home of a friend whose family was gun-happy and uncaring of the country’s laws; ants, in a spicy, fiery chutney, crickets, fried. This list is heavy on feet, innards and offal, but low on eyeballs and faces.

Fish (the back, the stomach, the tail, always when available, caviare or humble but equally welcome fish roe, and in loyalty to my Bengali heritage, if reluctantly, the head, often—all of it, in fact); prawns, oysters, mussels, lobsters, crabs, with and without the shells, always with relish; baby jellyfish, sea urchins and the like, on occasion, but never sea horse. I don’t know if anyone actually eats sea horses; dried sea horse is used in some alternative medicine therapies, but I found no recipes for sea horse entrees on the Net. Snails, which should show up once in the meat section for their slight resemblance to marrow and once here for the oysterish texture, I’ve eaten whenever I can get them, their taste enhanced by those tiny, doll’s house forks you use to extract the flesh.

Chickens, entire, and severally: the feet in Malaysian and Chinese soup, the beak, once and never again, the comb of a rooster, once and ditto, the breast and legs and wings, too often to count; ostrich, as steaks, three or four times, as eggs, three or four times; duck, often, in tired orange sauce and equally tired Peking duck pancake specials, once, memorably, after a shoot, in curries and sandwiches, the taste of it robust, gamey, but marred by the memory of the dying light in the shot bird’s eyes; goose and turkey at Calcutta Christmases, often but not of late, once in Canada, once in the US; pheasant, once, an unpleasant experience for an Indian unused to the practice of hanging meat until it turns ripe, gamey, rotted to our senses; partridge, several times; tiny birds whose name I have forgotten but that were served whole on toast—it would be nice to speculate that these were ortolans, but they were probably just snipe; quail, often, despite those fidgety bones; frogs, legs of (I suppose these belong with the fish, but everyone insists that frogs’ legs taste of chicken, so they’re here), a few times, without either pleasure or repulsion.

Here is a partial list of animals I have never eaten and that I would be reluctant to taste: dogs (especially puppies), horses, cats (especially kittens), guinea pigs, budgerigars, humans (perhaps one might make an exception for babies, the kind that cry at high volume), monkeys, chimpanzees, apes and orangutans, elephants, owls, nightingales, whales and dolphins, ibexes, penguins (and especially puffins, with their comically sweet faces), lizards, from the ordinary house-and-garden variety to iguanas and monitor lizards, (though crocodile steak I might eat) white mice, vultures, hoopoes, ocelots, lynxes, foxes and wolves, albatrosses, jaguars, panthers, tigers (and cubs), lions, sharks, duck-billed platypuses, kingfishers, hummingbirds and sparrows.

These lists. How arbitrary they are, how illogical in their implicit acceptance of what I will allow into my body and what I will forbid.

* * *

For 31 of my 34 years, I have been the perfect omnivore, the harassed hostess’s best friend—I will eat anything. (Almost anything—see lists—but then, very few Indians serve hummingbird, orangutans, puffins or iguanas to their guests; I have seldom been tested on my taboos.) My strongest dislikes are vegetable, not animal—stewed tomatoes, waterlogged bhindi, frozen American corn—and these were relatively few.

Of all the members of the animal kingdom, it was the mosquito that did me in. Like many Indians, and like the stereotypical army colonels of the British Raj, I have an admirable malarial tendency—the year I turned 31, I had my 30th bout of malaria, a source of perverse pride for me. I emerged from episode number 30 in the longrunning Malaria and Me soap opera, thinner, marginally more prone to the very Victorian complaint of fatigue—and with a changed palate.

It took me a while to realize that I couldn’t stomach meat any more. For the sake of my family, emphatically carnivorous, I hid this bizarre side-effect, politely attempting to eat the fried chicken, the mutton curries, the lightly steamed fish in mustard, the robust home-made kababs that were staples of my mother’s table. For the sake of my husband and a host of cheerfully flesh-eating friends, I continued to cook meat and fish long after both had turned to ashes on my palate. I went to great lengths to conceal this inadvertent vegetarianism at first, and I waited, patiently, for my palate to cease its apostasy. I found I could eat a little bit of flesh—fish, fowl, animal—through an effort of will, though I would throw up afterwards; for some reason, my appetite for prawns remained unaffected.

India is an easy country for a vegetarian. The European or American table holds meat in pride of place, vegetables as adjuncts, and it shows in the number of meat substitutes available for vegetarians—poor imitations made in soy protein or wheat gluten. The Far Eastern table gives fruits and vegetables the respect they deserve, but is unconcerned with vegan purity. Fish sauce will lace Thai meals, Japanese “vegetable” dishes will often contain a smidgeon of pork or fish for flavouring, the light stocks that Chinese vegetables are often simmered in are usually prepared from fish or meat bases. Here, we place rice and dal, or rotis and dal, at the heart of the meal. Even the classic Bengali non-vegetarian feast will have a strong line-up of vegetable fries and mashes, vegetable stews, vegetable chutneys. To stay away from meat is easy in the practical sense—it’s only on the social front that drifting towards meatlessness creates problems.

So, I became an equal opportunity offender.

My carnivore friends saw the shift towards meatlessness as apostasy, even betrayal; many of them mentioned one of the world’s most prominent vegetarians, A Hitler, as the classic counter-example to that other prominent vegetarian, M Gandhi. The good or evil that men do may be interred with their bones, they implied, but it certainly wasn’t to be inferred in the flesh they abstained from.

Carnivores attempted cunningly to turn me back to the path of flesh, offering Lucknow’s tundey kababs, tender cuts of lamb cooked Chettinad style, fragrant biryanis richly layered with beef, pabda maach cooked with whole black cumin, Goan pomfret fried in aromatic spice pastes—in extremis, they would smuggle homemade chicken stock into the daal and declare an underhanded victory.

Vegetarians were annoyed by me, as true believers are by the half-hearted convert. Some were tolerant; they saw dietary preferences as a private, very personal choice, and if they disapproved of what was on your plate, that disapproval rarely took the form of interference, or moral judgement. Others had arrived at intolerance after years of fighting for animal rights or having to defend their own dislike of meat, which didn’t make their righteousness any more palatable.

In the first few months of turning away from meat, I faced a battery of Purity Tests. So I didn’t eat meat? How about eggs, cheese, milk? (Eggs and milk I can take or leave, but anyone who takes my Gorgonzola or Reblochon away from me will die, I promise.) Did I understand that prawns suffer (yes, but I don’t like prawns as creatures, so I don’t care), that fish die in agonies (yes, and I like fish as creatures, so I do care), do I wear fur (no), silk (yes), use leather (if I can’t find another option), use products that weren’t tested on animals (as far as possible, no), campaign against slaughterhouses (no), support chicken battery farming (no), use insecticide (yes, though it’s a homemade herbal concoction)?

I accepted my own inconsistencies, and found them mildly fascinating, as fascinating as the question of what dead flesh I would eat and what I would eschew. But after a while, every passionate vegetarian argument, every finetuned query, began to sound like the tired chorus of a worn-out song: Was I pure enough, good enough, clean enough? Was I pure or tainted, righteous or sainted? Was I slightly pure, mostly pure, potentially pure?

Malaria had made me a reluctant semi-herbivore; a bone-headed stubbornness now made me a reluctant semi-carnivore. Over the months, what had started as a disease of the palate, an inexplicable turning away from flesh, mellowed into the realization that given a choice, I preferred fruit and vegetables, the nectarine over the neck of lamb, the cauliflower-and-turnip pickle over the calf’s-feet-jelly, even, heresy of heresies, tofu over trout. Even so, I ate just enough meat—a kabab a month, a bit of maacher jhol every two months, a bite of sausage at six month intervals—to permanently disqualify me from the ranks of the pure-in-spirit vegetarian. It was childish, and from a personal point of view, distasteful: much as I missed the memory of enjoying meat, when it was present in the flesh, my stomach, my tongue, my gustatory soul rebelled.

I follow and often endorse the moral argument for not eating meat—what cow, or goat, or chicken, or flapping, oxygen-starved fish, comes willingly to the butcher’s knife, and what right do we have to take another creature’s life to satisfy our own appetites? But this, on its own, would not stop me from eating meat—when it’s been a contest between my conscience and my palate, the palate has won, every time. I understand the ecological arguments—the grain and grass it takes to feed sheep, cows and goats would feed far more people if we were all vegetarian. But that would not stop me, either. Most of us who eat meat do so for the simplest of reasons: we like the way it tastes. My body gave up on flesh, not my heart, mind or memory. Unlike Gandhi, I sensed no goats bleating in my stomach, pleading to be restored to life.

What do you do when the rebellion against flesh comes from deep within your own flesh? To have this choice at all is a luxury in India, where so many people live on the edge of starvation, where a single green chilli can be the highlight of a meal. I have always had this choice, though, and all I can do is examine its implications.

My inheritance was the secular kitchen, where forbidden food like pork and beef, and food off-limits to widows, such as onions, garlic and fish had equal space on the table with a yogi’s pavitra diet—honey, yogurt, bitter gourd, seasonal fruits. Given the insistent inclusiveness of this heritage, something I shared with only a thin layer of Indians, I felt that before I gave up meat entirely, or returned to its complex pleasures, I needed to look more closely at the nature of meat itself.

* * *

Smell, sound, sight: three memories

Smell. Ahmedabad, 2004:

Two years after the riots that tore Gujarat apart, I’m here to do an innocuous, tourist story on the state’s ancient and very beautiful step wells. I have not yet named my turning away from meat, merely registered it. The city is normal. The riot survivors have been tidied away, banished from memory, exiled from most of Ahmedabad’s busy, commercial streets. Navaratri is in full flow, and at night, the rhythms of the dandiya drive the city into motion.

The second morning in Ahmedabad, I’m up at dawn to see one of the oldest stepwells in the city. The bats are disturbed when I negotiate the steps downwards, and they flutter among the delicate stone carvings on walls like the black exhalations of sleepy ghosts. In the half-light of morning, this place is incredibly beautiful; I sit at the very bottom of the well for a long time, listening to the sounds of the azaan from the nearby mosque drift slowly downwards, breathing in the mossy air. And then I ask the driver whether he would take me to Gulbarga, the small, middle-class cluster of flats where Ehsan Jafri and a score of other Muslims were burnt alive or hacked to death as the riots raged across Ahmedabad.

To this day, I have no idea why I wanted to go there—I am no activist, just a book reviewer who does travel stories too, definitely not the kind of reporter who takes wars, riots, morgues and corpses in her stride. Perhaps this was just self-indulgent disaster tourism; but in a city that has embraced amnesia so effectively, I found myself wanting to pay tribute, if in the smallest of ways, to bear witness to what happened here.

Hardware shops are strung out in a line in front of the narrow alley that leads to the Gulbarga society. Many of them are open for business, and they look at me incuriously: they have seen too many riot tourists to care, there are no TV cameras accompanying us.

Gulbarga is approached through that narrow alley, boxed in by other societies and flats on three sides. There are no birds, no cats, no stray dogs, no humans here. The houses are small but must once have been cheerful; they were painted in different colours, lilac, apple green, bright blue.

The ground beneath my feet is spongy, and black, and still littered with glass, with shards of pottery from ceramic planters, with splinters of wood from cane chairs, fragments of paper from schoolbooks and magazines, with shreds of fabric. If there are other, more human remains here, they are not visible: if there was blood or bone or hair, it has been removed, or it’s hidden under that thick sticky coat of black, kerosene-soaked mud that I will later track into the halls of the heritage hotel where I’m staying.

It would be so easy to say that Gulbarga stinks of death, and pain, and fear. The windows of most of these homes are smashed; a broken swing hangs suspended from a chain outdoors and a black stain, denser than the rest of the tarry mud, spreads out under it. The people who lived here had no way out once the mobs came; nowhere to find shelter except in these fragile houses, and they were dragged out of there and set on fire, or beaten to pulp, some had their limbs hacked off their torsos before they died, some were burned alive, and none of that shows in the remains of Gulbarga.

The truth is that it does not smell of terror at all or of sadness. It smells of a havan; the scorched patches of oil-soaked earth are familiar to anyone who has attended that ancient Hindu rite of prayer and fire. It smells of the crematorium, yes, but it also smells the way a barbecue at a party smells the next day, ashes and the departed ghost scents of roast meat.

It is very silent here, so silent that I am first irritated when a gasping, snorting sound breaks the unnatural peace of the colony. And then I turn to see my taxi driver, the young Hindu boy who told me yesterday how the “Mohammedans” were ruining the city, is in tears, he can’t hold back his sobs, he crumbles handfuls of black, greasy earth between his fingers and he cries like a child, in great gasps. There is nothing to say; I sit there, looking at the dark brown fingers of soot on a pale pink kitchen wall, looking at the money plant still growing in a shattered Jaipur pottery planter, looking at the exercise book where there is nothing written after the words ‘A Picnic’.

Ahmedabad has incredibly delicate vegetarian food, and for the next few days, I try all the local specialties, from undhyo to patra to dapka kadhi, and behind every thali I can smell the charred, oil-soaked earth stink of Gulbarga. Then one day, several months later, I wake up to an absence, a smell that is no longer there. Gulbarga has left my olfactory memory, and will not return until I write these paragraphs, this sentence.

Sound. Kumaon Hills, 1998.

We arrive at the army cantonment up in the Kumaon Hills after a long drive, touted as a Himalayan Rally, through some of the loveliest landscapes in India. It is Durga Puja, and I have been silently missing the rituals, bustle and of course food, of this quintessentially Bengali festival. “We have arranged something special for you,” says the Colonel to our tired troupe. “A proper regimental puja.”

We shower with lukewarm, slightly muddy water; the women officers and I change into saris, salwar kameezes, the men into clean shirts, pressed trousers. Far off, a goat bleats, then another, widening into a chorus.

The “temple” is located inside a large tent, and we watch the priest go about the arti, those tiny flickering flames and the scent of camphor bringing a small whiff of comfort to the travelworn, the road-weary. Then we’re ushered outside, into a field. It is already dark, and all the stars are out, a light breeze plays up and down the hills. Even to an agnostic like me, the evening prayers have brought peace.

One of the women, the young wife of a young Captain, stirs uneasily. She is listening to the bleating of a goat, not so far-off any more. The goat—properly a kid—trots in eagerly, escorted in by two soldiers with very young faces and very old eyes. It bleats; off in the distance, other goats answer. It is very interested in the wooden structure—two poles decorated with garlands of leaves and flowers, and it tries to eat some of the flowers, as a burly man in uniform tests the blade of a long, curving knife, crouched down beside the kid.

It is only when the soldiers pull on the rope around its thin neck and force its head down onto the crescent-shaped piece of wood connecting the two poles that the kid starts to protest. It bleats, and the answering, distant bleats are more frantic. It bleats again, and again, wriggling, kicking its legs out. The burly man stands up and swings the blade easily, testing it, splitting a green coconut in two with no effort. The kid has been subdued, but its eyes are rolling and it piddles uncontrollably; I am close enough to see the froth forming at the side of its mouth. It bleats yet again, an animal, human cry, and the bleat is cut in two, severed as swiftly as its head by the blade as the burly man, having taken his stance, brings the knife down cleanly. In the distance, the other goats bleat continuously; the kid’s head bounces twice and lies still.

The young wife of the young Captain has fainted. She is a vegetarian, and she has never seen an animal sacrifice before. She eats no meat that night, but the rest of us do. The meat is warm, tender, steaming. I eat with pleasure, and my conscience is untroubled. But many years later, when my husband and I have shifted to Nizamuddin, where goats are still bought and kept in people’s gardens and homes before the ritual sacrifice on Bakrid, I hear the happy bleats of the goats, especially the young ones, and I think of the goat we met that night in Kumaon.

Sight: INA market, Old Delhi meat market, Sarojini Nagar Market, 2006:

I know these markets, I know the butcher’s shops, I have been coming to these blood-steeped alleys from the age of five, or six, accompanying my mother or my grandfather on ritual shopping expeditions. But one of the first lessons you learn as a flesh-eater who also buys and cooks meat is the art of selective vision.

We do not live at a distance from our meat, as you might in other countries; a few malls and supermarkets now offer neatly packaged frozen or fresh cuts, meal-sized portions that have none of the slaughterhouse feel about them, but this is still relatively uncommon. Most of us buy meat and fish in the flesh, up close near the blood and guts.

You learn very quickly not to look too closely at certain things. The gutters, running with blood, feathers, scraps of flesh, wattles and combs, fish scales, the plucked whiskers of prawns. The bucket of guts, gills and intestines at the fishmonger’s, the bucket of skin, feathers and innards at the chicken shop. You learn to look for certain things; redness in some cuts of meat, shading to voluptuous dark maroon in other cuts from other animals. You look for bright red gills and a firm skin in fish, but you ignore the occasionally flapping lips of a fish so fresh it still misses the water. You look for greyness in shellfish, which is bad; but in some specimens, an oceanic greeny-greyness indicates flavour. You look carefully at the leg of goat or lamb the butcher slaps down on his block, to check that the flesh is firm; you look closely at liver and kidneys, rejecting wrinkled and deformed organs; but it would be a mistake to look too closely at the butcher’s block, where years of hacking and chopping have blended the grain of the meat so thoroughly with the grain of the wood that the surface mixes animal, vegetable and mineral in one inextricable mass.

The meat market in Old Delhi is the wholesale market, and it has no time for niceties; the meat arrives often on the hoof, and while it isn’t slaughtered on the premises, it can come in so fresh that warm steam from the blood that poured out of the carcass still rises from the flanks, the legs, the chest of the dismembered animal. Three boys, apprentice butchers, squat and chat as they casually stick their hands up the rectums of goats and flick out the shit. Great masses of flies rise and settle, rise and settle, first on the blood of the carcass, then on the gleaming piles of black goat pellets. One of the alleyways is given over to heads—sheeps and goats, chiefly, some with their tongues neatly severed and tucked into the gaping mouths, and eyeballs lightly loosened from the socket. The morning I go, there are no horse’s heads on sale, though the butchers confirm that a few occasionally can be found—they are uncomfortable discussing who might buy a horse’s head, and what finished dish might be made from it, and they say it is not a frequently sought after item. It is, however, remarkably cheap.

I hope that if I look long enough at these corpses, the transformation of the living into the dead into dinner, I might experience a life-changing revulsion, be free of my ambiguity about meat and flesh, blood and bone, my reluctance to commit to one or another side of the vegetarian debate. A revelation would be wonderful, but even revulsion would be useful in this personal exploration of the sins of the flesh.

And so I look. At INA market, I notice for the first time how neatly the haunches of goat hang from the shop lintels, how cleanly the inverted hooks pass through the tendons, just above the trotters, how carefully the liver, sweetbreads, heart and kidneys of each animal has been inserted into the half-carcass so that you can inspect it for health, for the consistency and clarity of the fat, before you buy.

I notice how the fishmonger reserves his respect for the pickiest customers, the ones who understand that the best fish was breathing up to a minute ago, who will buy the small, unregarded, tasty fish with those deadly, hair-thin bones. If you lift the gills of carp at the right angle, you might spark an involuntary exhalation, a final, if illusory, sigh.

No fashion designer has yet claimed inspiration from the meat markets, but no fashion designer could improve on the beauty of the colour scheme—the gunmetal, silver gleam of fish brought into shining relief by the vivid reds, maroons and scarlet of blood and guts.

And I notice—have I been blind all my life?—how the worst position of all, if you’re a chicken destined for the table, is to be in the third row, the fourth or the fifth row, the bottom rows of the coop. The ones in the first row have just as little space, but their feathers are white shading to cream. They shit on the chickens below and the chickens below shit on the chickens underneath and in the constant jostling of chickens for living space, every now and then the dried shit on the feathers of the chickens above cascades down like dirty whitewash onto the chickens on the lower rungs.

I see all this, and my mind makes the automatic transition of all cooks everywhere in the world: I think of earthy dak bungalow curries and the aroma of chicken country captain, of chicken breasts tenderly braised with mushrooms, of spicy mutton curries fiery with red chillies, spiked with malt vinegar, of subtle fish coconut curries, of crisp-fried fish fillets with shallot. This is a strictly fleshly pleasure, the knowledge that you can take the stink and the mess of the marketplace and transform that into food that will fill the belly and make the soul hum with happiness.

One of the coops is placed on a bench; at the same level, there’s a tray of chicken feet. The butcher’s assistant adds two more feet to the tray from a freshly slaughtered bird; as he turns back, he jostles the tray a bit, bumping it closer to the coop. On the second level, getting shat on, but not so badly off as its counterparts on level three, a bird pokes its beak through the wires and discovers that it can peck at the chicken feet. It is a briefly disorienting sight, it looks like a Disney cartoon gone noir, as though the chicken is snacking on its own dismembered claws.

I have to step aside because a fresh bunch of goat carcasses is coming in; I watch as the butcher slams each haunch onto those hooks, and I wonder whether I would feel more horror if, say, those were skinned puppies being prepared for display, upside-down babies being skewered through their delicate, tiny feet. Perhaps, but what if I lived in a society where it was the custom to eat every third baby, to usefully dispose of the puppies in every litter that couldn’t be adopted? Revulsion wears off very, very quickly, as anyone who spends time in a meat market will know—it’s a question of what you’re used to.

I buy meat that I will cook, but not eat, making me an accessory to the crime in the eyes of all those good people who believe for very valid reasons that meat is murder. I could stop eating meat for the rest of my life, starting today, and still not atone for the sins committed during half a lifetime of meat-eating; I could be a vegetarian and still visit terrible harm on other people.

I have come to no useful conclusion about flesh; I know its pleasures, even if I increasingly abjure them. I know the vulnerability of the flesh, how easily it is penetrated by knife, skewer, fork. I know how close that dividing line is, between living and dead. I know that this ambiguity about flesh cuts deep and cuts close, too close to the bone.