A bucket with dirty, dark water

Dark and Dirty Times Ahead?

A poster of the recent Hindi movie, Hindi MediumIn the recent sleeper hit, Hindi Medium, Irrfan Khan and his family (that is, their characters), who live in Delhi’s swish Vasant Vihar, find themselves having to move to the other end of the residential spectrum – to a slum. It’s like this. Irrfan and his wife, more his social-climbing wife, wish to have their young daughter admitted into an English medium school, but come up against a wall, a caveat. There is a seat (or two) available in one school, but it’s from the Right to Education (RTE) quota meant for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS). And so the desirous parents, again more the dogged mom, needing to prove they are EWS, shift base to slummy dwellings, and subsequently endure all the woes people here face on a daily basis: squalid conditions, dengue mosquitoes and less or no water.

During the time that Hindi Medium had its hit run, this Irfan and his family (that is, my parents and I) underwent a similar ordeal. No, we didn’t move from the relatively upscale locality and building we stay in, but the slums, or rather, slum-like situations came home.

Twice in the past couple of months, and each time for at least three-four days, our building, along with other buildings in the neighbourhood, received sewage-infused water. It was black and stinky, and with each passing day, became blacker and stinkier. The first day and instance, I wasn’t able to figure what the odour was – I thought it was a new, strong variety of cleaning liquid my mom had decided to try – and merrily showered and went to work. I know: ew. The next day, to my sheer disgust and horror, when the smell had turned to stink, I realised what it was. For a day, I had not just let that water run all over my body, but also partly ingested it during my brushing routine. I know: ew, ew. By the end of the third day, unsurprisingly, I fell sick. I was down with the runs, thanks to the contaminated water entering my system and causing dirtier effects within. A day later, my mom went the same way, and the day after that, my dad. Similar scenes unfolded in the other apartments in the building.

As we recuperated, we wondered how it had happened. There had been some repair work that had happened nearby some days ago. We speculated if both the water and sewage pipes had got damaged as a result and the one water mixed with the other. While we waited for the Metro Water officials to examine and get back, we began imagining other scenarios. We went from ‘Was this the EWS folk, the have-nots, envying us haves and infesting the water to give us a taste of what they go through on a regular basis’, to ‘Was this our nation’s neighbours engaging in bio warfare’.

A map showing the water deficits in the southern states of IndiaTurns out, it wasn’t so vile or evil. It was worse. Due to the water shortage that the city / state is presently (perennially?) in the throes of, the Metro Water folk had no option but to supply the fetid water. After we complained and… raised a stink, the scene got better: they started sending muddied water. And this happened, as I already mentioned, twice over.

Learning our lessons from the first time, we didn’t use the sewage-water the second time around. We employed deos and perfumes to keep ourselves from smelling and air-fresheners to keep our environs from smelling, and called for tanker water to keep our health from flailing. As we needed to ration that water, we couldn’t really venture out, at least not too far from home, and because we had used the spurious water the first day, we promptly fell sick again.

Without making light of slum-dwellers and other less-fortunate folk’s lives, those two times, we felt we were living their lives, or something close to it. It felt like residing next to a gutter, going without bathing or being clean for days, having only a can of good water to survive the whole day… I shivered at these thoughts as much as I had when using that foul water.

We have presently solved the problem, like most others in the vicinity, by digging a second borewell. Why a second? Oh, the first went dry due to both non-usage and unavailability of ground water. They had to dig deeper for the second well. Which had my mom thinking equally deep: ‘With so many of us digging second borewells, could it affect the foundations of the buildings? Could it also have geological ramifications, such as earthquakes?’ I told my mom to stop her extreme line of worrying, because the last thing this city needs is Flood of 2015, Cyclone of 2016 and Quake of 2017.

Plus, I had broodings of my own. When the water supply turned from black to brown, I went: ‘So, it’s going to be either tatti or mitti now on…’ (Going forward, it’s going to be either turdy or muddy water…)

The water may not have been clear, but the reasons are. The usual suspects of furious, inconsiderate development, unceasing population growth and increasing urbanization. The area where I stay has over the past decade gone from being peacefully residential to painfully commercial, with the two-storey independent houses regularly giving way to multi-storey stores and eateries. With more people now living and working in the same square kilometres, there’s bound to be further strain on the already-stretched resources.

Sure, we need development, and I don’t want to sound despairingly exasperated like The Hindu’s own J Mathrubootham (who blames everyone from Trump to his work-from-home son for the woeful state of all things), but if you raze trees to construct buildings, how about planting some trees again in the open areas once those buildings have come up? A stretch of the Metro Rail runs, not far from where I stay, through a two-kilometre long road that has ‘avenue’ in its name, but are there any trees on this road to make up this avenue? Go ahead and cut the trees for your digging and tunnelling and constructing, but once the work is done, how about lining up that avenue with some green – instead of spiffy signboards, spanking-new bus-stops and squeaky-clean pavements?

In my morning walks and jogs through the extended area where I live, I see more boards on building gates with the message ‘Adopt Rain-water Harvesting’ than the declaration ‘This building implements rain-water harvesting’. Any surprise the city lost a year’s supply of rainwater during the 2015 flood?

A poster for Mad Max: Fury RoadData is the new oil, information-age gurus enthusiastically proclaim. The way things are going, water will be the next ‘It’ commodity, and the disturbing future portended by movies like Mad Max: Fury Road will not be dystopia but at our doorstep. Why, a future redux of The Hunger Games could well be The Thirsty Games or, as I have witnessed, The Dirty Games. In more ways than one.

So, here’s a thought. Given how huge a hit Bigg Boss Tamil has proved to be, the next season should be held in an apartment complex. (Because resorts anyway have become the mainstay of escaping and escapist politicians.) Give the contestants all the same things they get on the current sets. Only, provide them little, no or foul water. The dynamics and dramatics that ensue will be dirtier and stinkier than that water. In no time, most will happily nominate themselves for elimination. The resolute few will quench their thirst with their apparently ever-ready… tears. Oh, savage.

I wrote this piece for The Hindu’s thREAD. Here’s the edited version on their site: This piece on thREAD

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Actress Sadaa posing with two dogs for a campaign for People for Animals (PFA)

Veg Today, Vegan Tomorrow, Animal Lover ‘Forever’

Sadaa’s Instagram profile says she is “proud to be a vegetarian and soon to be a vegan”. Our interest piqued, we decided to catch up with the actress, who has earlier been recognized for her animal welfare work by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and also been associated with People for Animals (PFA). The actress, currently done shooting for the latest season of dance reality show Dhee Jodi and having started work on Torchlight, her next movie in Kollywood (where she is known as Sadha), spoke with Irfan Syed in a telephonic interview.

Going Veg… and Vegan

Sadaa has been vegetarian since 2012. However, she’s been an animal lover since childhood. She remembers once as a young girl, when her parents and she were still in Ratnagiri (before they moved to Bombay in 2001), she spotted a caterpillar-like insect (she can’t remember the exact insect) in their garden. Without any provocation, the young Sadaa took a stone and squashed the bug. Her mom, vegetarian since birth, simply asked her why she did so. It wasn’t like the creature was harming her, she told her, adding that no animal does so unless threatened. Sadaa began crying, and still tears up whenever she recalls the incident. It ended up changing her perspective toward creatures big and small. An animal sympathizer until then, as her dad was in the habit of rescuing and caring for animals in distress, she soon turned an animal lover.

Actress Sadaa feeding community dogs at Marina Beach, ChennaiWhy she eventually gave up non-veg was because she didn’t really enjoy the taste and definitely didn’t enjoy the killing involved. And the actress, whose name means ‘forever’, insists it wasn’t due to health or weight concerns, both of which are strongly associated with her industry. While she’s never had an issue with weight (she’s always been on the thinner side and works out diligently), health is a happy by-product, she affirms. We agree, especially when we see this tremendous upside-down yoga pic of hers on FB. To those who insist you need to have meat to be strong (as her gym trainer does), she silences them with “That’s a lot of BS.” Wow, this herbivore can bite. She adds that she isn’t turning vegan because it’s trending in the industry right now, with several actors announcing they have gone vegan. If she were following the bandwagon, she would have already done so. Instead, she is taking her time, seeking substitutes and replacements, especially for beauty and grooming products, which are particularly tough to find in India.

How’s it going then, we check with her. For instance, how does she manage on the sets? That’s not a problem, as she has a cook, plus most Indian food is veg/an. She still has dairy products from time to time, but doesn’t see giving them up as a biggie. It’s the non-vegan items that are a challenge. She stays away from the high-luxe brands (the usual suspects) and buys faux leather. She is pleased that there are more vegan options available now than earlier, and is sure there will be more in the days to come, now that the country has banned animal testing. However, because she wants to go the full distance and be an ethical/lifestyle vegan (rather than just a dietary vegan), she isn’t sure when she’ll achieve the milestone, especially since the boundaries for veganism aren’t entirely clear to her. (What about the milk and fish she gets for her cats, she wonders.) It could be six months or a year – or she might just do it one fine day, as she’s also known to be impulsive.

And how have people around her reacted, first to going vegetarian and now to turning vegan? Her mom insists she has to have at least dairy. (Ah, moms.) Her dad, who likes his chicken and eggs, believes ‘chicken are born for being eaten’. Sadaa says she hasn’t asked her dad to give up non-veg in all these years, and therefore neither should he, nor others, ask her to give up being veg/an. She is emphatic: “What I put in my mouth and stomach is my decision. It’s not like I’m doing anything wrong. In fact, what I’m doing is a good thing.”

Animal Love… and Action

On her social media pages, she often posts about caring for distressed animals and asking people to adopt her fosters and rescues. But that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, we learn. She doesn’t post even 1% of her fosters/rescues, she says, doing so only when she needs help. She has helped them all: cats, pigeons, owls… She narrates two incidents, one from a couple of years ago, the other more recent.

In 2015, she saved about 40 pigeons (adults and babies alike) from her building when it was undergoing some repairs. The labourers had closed the ducts without thinking of removing the birds from within. The pigeons were trapped for a week or so, even as Sadaa and her parents tried frantically to help them, much to the chagrin of the society residents. Her friends didn’t come to her help either, not wishing to go against the society. When the firemen finally came, they were able to save most of the pigeons. She brought them home, putting them in her balcony in special carriers she had made for them. They were eventually able to save about 20 of them. While she released most of them, two remained for two years, and even after being released, would keep coming back. Mother hen, er, pigeon, anyone?

A rescued mother cat nursing her kittens at actress Sadaa's homeA few weeks back, she rescued a mother cat with her kittens. Again, her society was against the presence of community cats on the premises, and if Sadaa had not been there that day, would have had them thrown out. Sadaa brought them home and had the female cat neutered. Still recovering, the cat is already itching to go back to her stomping grounds on the roads.

Which makes us wonder: does she get attached to her rescues? It’s a fulfilling experience, but the actress believes you should let them go, especially if they belong to the streets. Also, it’s not humanly possible to keep them all. Presently, she has also got associated with Som Villa in Karjat, on the outskirts of Bombay, to help with her rescues.

The Man, and Woman, in Her Life

Sadaa has two cats at home, Sheru (male) and Laila (female), and she has heart-warming tales to tell about how both came to her home.

While her mom has regularly fed cats, her dad wasn’t really a cat person. In fact, he used to believe felines were not loyal, until he fell in love with a black cat (not Laila). Then, one day in 2010, on a road trip to Hubli, he spotted this tiny orange furball on the road, picked him up and brought him home. Sadaa admonished her dad: the cat wasn’t really a rescue, but an animal he had forcibly picked up. The scolding, though, was merely mock: Sadaa had fallen in love with the fuzzball by then. To alleviate any misgivings, they consulted with the vet, who told them cats are easy to nurture. (Until then, they had had only a rescue dog, who had unfortunately passed away.) After Sheru, so named because of his lovely leonine mane, the family has rescued many cats, and realised how easy it is indeed to tend to cats. “Sheru is the best thing my dad has ever done,” claims Sadaa proudly, the smile clear over the phone.

Sadaa's home cats, Sheru (front) and Laila (behind)Laila chose us, reminisces Sadaa warmly. When the family rescued her, about a couple of years ago, she was tiny, petite and malnourished. They nursed her back to health, had her spayed, and then put her up for adoption. Once a family in Panvel, another outlying area of Bombay, decided to adopt her, Sadaa and her parents drove down from their house in Western Bombay to pass on Laila to the family. That night, after returning from relinquishing the cat, none of the three could sleep. The next day, they went back to meet her new family. Turns out, Laila hadn’t eaten or slept either. They brought her back, all four sentient beings now happy. Five, it seems. Apart from Sadaa and her parents, Laila has impacted Sheru too. The tomcat has changed for the better since she arrived.

And how did Laila get her moniker? Sadaa went name-hunting online, but kept coming across the regulation ‘Blackie’. Another that kept coming up was ‘Maya’, but that made it seem black is evil. In the end, she went for ‘Laila’ of Laila-Majnu, who was believed to be dark-complexioned. And Sheru, Laila and Sadaa have been living amicably together since then, their love triangle not turning tempestuous in any way so far.

Talking Tough

Apart from affirmative actions, the actress believes in voicing her opinions on animal welfare equally strongly. She is a big proponent of #AdoptDontShop. In fact, she told off someone who approached her on her FB page for buying animals from him. She opines, and sighs, that animals are not commodities that you should buy them. She fails to understand rich folk’s attitude to having only pedigree dogs (not that she has anything against breeds), as they don’t know where these dogs come from: a puppy farm where the mother dog is forced to birth non-stop until she dies or is abandoned. What’s worse is that the same people often cast away the dogs once they get sick or old. All this happens – the actress sighs some more – because people think they are superior to animals. “Very few people understand… And people will take time to change…” she trails off.

A board outside the spotted deer enclosure in a zoo proclaiming actress Sadaa's adoption of the spotted deer therein

We then get to the tricky twin topics of jallikattu and gauraksha, and are heart-warmingly surprised the actress, unlike most folk in the industry, doesn’t play it safe. In fact, she spoke against jallikattu on Jodi No. 1, on which she was a judge. Not surprisingly, her views were edited out of the show. During the filming too, contestants would come up to her and share their viewpoints supporting the bull-taming “sport”. Many, friends included, also posted on her timeline. She would simply remove the posts. To the contestants, she argued back: “You say it’s about taming and training the bull… You put chillies in their eyes and bums… Which animal is ‘trained’ to take that kind of pain??”

About gauraksha and the cow-slaughter ban, she is more expansive. She feels things were better before the ban; now, people opposed to it are even more against animals. See what happened in Kerala, she exasperates. She gets philosophical, “I can handle animals aaraam se (with ease)… I find humans tougher to face…”

Pragmatic, Positive

Given the power a celebrity can yield, hasn’t she ended up influencing people to be more animal-sensitive, we wonder as we prepare to wind up. She takes a pause and responds, “You know, I haven’t even been able to change my dad…” She says she has totally given up on preaching, believing that unless it comes from within, it’s very difficult.

However, she ends on a positive note, for all the folk who have made the change. For all veg/an folk and other animal lovers out there, she says, “You all are doing a great job.” It’s just amazing, she feels, that so many people have turned veggie for whatever reasons. She signs off with, “Try and become veg/an (whoever hasn’t) – keeping in mind that that animal has feelings too. And… stay blessed.” Well, you too, Sadaa. Forever.

Quick Takes

Your favourite veggie food dishes/eateries/cities, in India and abroad?

I’m not much of a foodie. To me, food is a basic necessity. I enjoy home food, and when I travel, I stick to what I get in the hotel.

Like most self-respecting veg/ans, do you cook? If so, what’s your favourite dish?

No, I don’t, due to the nature of my work. I have help for my food. But so much Indian food is veg/an anyway.

Any fellow animal lovers and veggie folk you admire?

Anyone who does it for the right reasons, that is, animal love. So, not really someone who does it for health reasons. But that can be ok too.

Actress Sadaa with her home cat, Sheru, in what she says is her "all-time favourite pic"Do you plan to have dogs too, or is it only cats for you, also because they are low-maintenance?

Because of my work, I travel a lot, that too with mom or dad. Dogs get attached to you, whereas cats can manage on their own after a while. I could think of having dogs only when there is someone trust-worthy in my absence.

Is there room for a special someone with so many other special beings (animals) around? If so, will he need to be an animal lover and veg/an too?

When I’m not shooting, animal work keeps me busy. In fact, today (the day of the interview), I have a vet appointment at 5 pm. Special someone? He’ll have to be veg, by religion or otherwise. If not an animal lover, at least he shouldn’t be an animal hater! If so, I know how to make him an animal lover for sure!

VegPlanet magazine's cover pic for this story, featuring Sadaa with Sheru This is the cover story for the second issue of VegPlanet, a quarterly premium lifestyle magazine for vegetarian, vegan and veg-curious folk. You can find out more about VegPlanet here: VegPlanet site

All pix taken from Sadaa’s social-media pages, not necessarily with her permission ;-), except this one alongside, which is from VegPlanet

You can follow Sadaa on Facebook @ActressSadha and on Instagram @Sadaa17.

An elderly Indian lady wearing a saree and reclining on a rocking chair

Fare Well

“Mom, once I go, I will miss your waddling walk… your dozing off during night prayers because you are so spent after a day’s work that starts at 5 am… your resting for half an hour in the afternoon with your glasses on for fear that if you sleep now you won’t be able to sleep on time at night…”

Farewells are so tough.

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“Son, once you go, I will miss your holding my hand while I walk so that I waddle – and wobble – less… your waking me up from my dozing off during my night prayers, and breathing a sigh of relief that I was just dozing and not de… your pressing my feet during my afternoon rest, which relaxes me as much as my rest…”

But trust moms to make farewells easier.