Ire | How About Adopting a Different Attitude?

Logo for Ire, the series on my blog for social commentaryMy new piece for The Hindu thREAD, juxtaposing our attitudes to adopting children from orphanages with those from adopting animals from shelters. Unfortunately, the attitudes seem the same. Anyway, the thREAD piece has some edits. Below is the original piece.

This piece on thREAD

Ad for a fertility centre in ChennaiFertility centres seem to be coming up faster than, erm, babies. I turn a corner, and there I spot a spanking new facility. I turn a newspaper page, and here I come across an ad for a newly opened centre or a new fertility department of an existing hospital chain. All promising “the joy of motherhood”, or some warm copy and visuals to this effect. The existing centres, not to be left out in the BYOB (beget your own baby) race, seem to be devising more creative ways of marketing themselves. Outside one centre, I spotted a huge banner featuring scores of kid pix. It couldn’t have been all those kids’ birthdays the same day, for that’s what the banner looked like: individual studio pix, with images of balloons and candles dotted across. So, I gathered – as my transport whizzed past – that the facility was celebrating its own birthday. And I guess what better way to celebrate a fertility facility’s birthday than by showcasing all the birthdays they’ve helped cause, right? And in last week’s paper, things seem to have gotten expectedly commercial. One ad talked of different packages (Basic, Standard, Premier), and another of easy EMIs. And you thought bringing up baby was the expensive part.

I find this both intriguing and amusing. Amusing, because, heaven knows, lesser babies is this country’s leading deficit. Also because some folk seem to have taken our PM’s call for Make in India quite seriously, and are determined that at least in this department, we’re going to sock it to China.

And intrigued (and to be less flippant) because, someone like me, who isn’t too hot about either marriage or moppets, can only wonder at the boom of these baby-promising places. Some reasons seem fathomable. Couples are not able to beget due to some “problem” with either or both of them, age-related issues (with the increasing tendency of couples to marry later in life, once they turn their attention from the rat race to the brat race, they find themselves fighting against the bio clock), and on the same lines, lifestyle-related complications (longer work hours, shorter off hours, the resulting stress and exhaustion) leading to love-making complications.

A less brought-up reason is the lack of compatibility. Some researching shows that one in three marriages is ending in divorce, and within three-four years of getting married. Before they get to that, though, some couples, as a last resort are turning to that old gem: ‘Maybe a baby can fix things?’ But are perhaps not bringing up that other gem: Maybe the problem is not in the bed, but in the head.

Foreign-looking couple (with their backs to camera) holding a child outside an Indian fertility centreSome more researching throws light on another reason, or trend. Many of these centres have a large clientele of foreign nationals, especially from European countries, where population isn’t a problem, or rather, “under-population” is a problem. And where money isn’t a concern, being the developed world and all. (One such friend once told me their government incentivizes them to have kids, such as through educational subsidies.) And I guess where they are not able to, with the money they have, they can just fly down to a third-world country to fulfil their baby dreams.

Children posing outside an orphanage in IndiaWhich leads me to the biggest wonder: why aren’t these folk looking at… adoption? With the number of kids we know of in orphanages and adoption centres and the appalling conditions and illegal practices in quite a few of them, instead of paying so much to bring forth a new life, why not pay nothing to give a home and a new life to one of these kids, and the same joy to yourself?

Foreigners are up against a lot when doing so, having to go through a litany of checks. But Indians? Ah, the good old attitude of “log kya kehenge” (what will people say) and “pata nahi kiska bachcha hoga” (don’t know whose kid it would be) – a prostitute’s, a destitute’s, a druggie’s, an alcoholic’s, a trucker’s, a foreign tourist’s? And then of course, there’s the Great Wall of Religion. And you know, in our country and especially in these times, you can’t argue against what’s in the holy book(s).

Bollywood actress, Sushmita Sen, with her adopted daugthersAnd of late, some people we look up to in some ways don’t seem to be helping much either. Things looked promising until a decade or so ago, when we had two Bollywood divas, Raveena Tandon and Sushmita Sen, choosing to adopt even when single, sending out great signals in pre-Twitter times. (Raveena later got married and had two children with her husband.) But of late, the fertility centres seem to be winning. A few Bollywood biggies (SRK, Aamir K, Farah K) and a couple of “mediums” as well (Sohail K and, most lately, Tusshar K) have in recent years all chosen to have kids through surrogacy. Considering four of these are men, you can’t help but wonder: good old male ego?

Aamir Khan holding Darsheel Safary in 'Taare Zameen Par'Aamir perhaps lost out the biggest opportunity to walk his earnestness talk. Sure, he was open about his surrogacy. But just imagine if he had emulated his character from Taare Zameen Par, taking under his wings (though in a different way) a lesser-blessed kid. He could have helped a zameen par taara get back to the aasmaan (helped a fallen star get back to the sky). But I guess these are the pressures of stardom: star kids cannot be called star kids if they are not the star’s own, right?

Now, for someone who’s already said he isn’t too hot about kids, why am I going on about this? Well, I may not like babies, but I love their four-legged versions, animals. (And animals, if it hasn’t been said enough times already, are indeed kids: as innocent but with more hair.) But I see the same attitudes prevalent here. No, not that animals are going to fertility clinics in case of problems on the jungle bed between Mufasa and Sarabi, or Raksha and Rama. But it’s about people’s attitude to bringing home animals from pet shops and breeders versus adopting one from a shelter. So, they continue to buy Persian cats and Afghan hounds and house them in climes they are not meant for. I mean, don’t you get the anachronism by the names itself: a Siberian Husky in Scorching Chennai?

Dogs at a shelter in IndiaWhy do they do it then? The same attitude of what will people say. “How will it look if I get a shelter-residing dog into my sea-facing penthouse?” “Ew, only a shiny Golden Retriever will do in my gleaming silver Merc.” And to be stand-up snarky, “Oh, the irony of feeding Pedigree to a dog without one.”

And so they continue fattening unscrupulous pet-shop owners and animal breeders and perpetuating puppy-farm cruelty. A puppy farm, or puppy mill, in case you don’t know, is actually various kinds of cruelty in one. It involves keeping breeding dogs captive or caged when they aren’t breeding, which is very little of their miserable lives. Before that, it involves having them constantly pregnant, leading to a range of problems, from malnutrition to floor-hanging mammaries. And when their pup-producing days are over, they are either cast off on the roads or bumped off. New-born pups don’t have it much better either, neither the ones who make it to the pet store nor those who don’t. Those who do, have been pulled away at birth from their mom, resulting in separation anxiety (for both), and are brought packed like sardines, resulting in stress and fatigue. The ones who don’t make it to the store, because they are unhealthy or abnormal, thanks to the assembly line-like churning of pups, face a fate similar to mom’s. Suddenly, you’re seeing the cruelty behind the cutie in the pet-shop cage. Blood Doggies, anyone?

Composite image depicting the various kinds of cruelty in puppy farms / mills

Even when enlightened, people don’t care, or worse, don’t want to. On my morning walks, I sometimes meet this man with this Lhasa Apso (bad choice again for the climate, but then most foreign breeds are) named Fido. Last time, though, Fido wasn’t to be seen. On querying, he told me that Fido had passed away after an incident of food poisoning. After expressing my remorse, enquiring about the details, and commiserating over the loss of “his son” (his words: “he was like a son to me”), since I know the way these things go, I ventured, “So, you plan to bring home another dog”? He went pat, even before Fido’s soul could have reached animal heaven, “Yes. I’ve already paid for it. It’s a Beagle.”

Even as I was sighing at the idea of “paying for your son”, I didn’t want to lose the opportunity. I proceeded to inform him about the cruelties of dog breeders, that he could consider adopting one from a shelter (without having to pay, that too), and that if he really wanted a Beagle, he could go for a Freagle, a Beagle that has been freed from an animal-testing lab and is up for adoption. (Why, he could even call him… Freedo.)

He looked at me like I had just revealed it was I who had poisoned Fido. We parted, with him offering that he’d think about it, but I dare feel that since the money’s been paid, the deed’s been done. And the next time I see him on my morning excursion, there’ll be alongside him a fresh little Beagle pup, and not a thankful shelter-housed indie. Because attitudes, unlike animals b(r)ought home, are not so easy to change.

Some people ask me why I campaign for animals such. My usual reply is, “Because for most humans, animals are at the level of trash.” With our attitude to want “our own” child at any cost (Basic, Standard and Premier, no less), rather than give a home to one from an orphanage, our outlook toward less-fortunate younger human beings seems no better.

One of my many street-dog friends, Johnny, when he was smallSo, have I walked the animal-love talk and brought home a shelter dog, or two, myself? I have a standard reply for that too. If I do so, my love for my 47+ and counting street-dog friends (plus two street cats and eight ledge-perched pigeons) will get divided. The dogs will also get jealous on each other and the different species fighting with each other. And there are only so many kiddie fights one can take – even if they are of the cuter, furrier kind.

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