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.

Cover pic for this piece, including snapshots of the three books featured and the title text

Animals / Books | Wonderful as an Animal

Logo for VegPlanet magazineThis piece is for the launch issue of VegPlanet, the new quarterly premier lifestyle magazine for vegetarian, vegan and veg-curious folk. This appears in their Media Matters section.

Author Venita CoelhoAt The Hindu Lit for Life 2016 litfest, held about a year ago, I had bumped into Venita Coelho, both of whose animal fiction books I had just read then. Venita has been a scriptwriter for serials and films, before recently moving on to authoring and activism. I wished to find out one key thing from her: the motivation for writing these books. Her answer was simple: “Write for children. Adults’ minds are too set.”

Perhaps why much animal writing is aimed at children. So, in this round-up of last year’s best animal-friendly writing, we feature a couple of children’s books, including one by Venita herself. But for good measure, and perhaps to show that all is not lost with adults, we also include one aimed at grown-ups. Happy animal-friendly reading.

Front cover of the second animal-fiction book by Venita Coelho, Dead as a DodoThe second in Venita’s Animal Intelligence Agency (AIA) series, Dead as a Dodo traces the efforts of three AIA agents – Rana (boy), Bagha (tiger) and Kela (langur) – to save a dodo. A lone member of this extinct species has been miraculously discovered, but as expected, avaricious hunters are in pursuit too, for unscrupulous collectors worldwide. The three sleuths need to take the dodo to safety, so that history does not repeat itself. Like her first book, Tiger by the Tail, this too is racy, with several fantabulous adventures. No wonder it won the fest’s Young World – Goodbooks Award. So, are the three able to save the dodo? The ending is… clever as a fox.

Front cover of Stephen Alter's 'The Secret Sanctuary'Stephen Alter’s The Secret Sanctuary is more sublime. This too features a trio (all bipeds though), also out on an expedition, but only by chance. As they head out for school one morning, they lose their way in the forest en route, and are forced to spend the night therein. Before too much harm can come to them though, they encounter a naturalist, who helps them navigate through and also educates them in the ways of the jungle. What baffles the kids most is that while they spot and touch many a wild animal, the animal doesn’t see or sense them in response. The premise is simple: animals are meant to be away from humans – and from humans harming them. If only that were true in real life.

Front cover of Han Kang's 'The Vegetarian'As simple and smooth as the previous two books are, South Korean Han Kang’s Man Booker-winning The Vegetarian is as complex and intense. The protagonist, Kim Yeong-hye, decides to turn vegetarian (actually, vegan, as she gives up dairy and leather too), but the story, in three parts, is not from her viewpoint. Kang presumably wants to portray how others perceive veg(an) folk. So, Part 1 has the protagonist’s family not taking her decision well at all, her father even forcing meat down her throat at a get-together. Part 2 is esoteric: her brother-in-law yearns to paint floral-scapes on her bare body, the idea being that a plant-preferring’s person’s skin becomes very alluring. (This may not be so esoteric after all: there are several studies supporting this notion.) Part 3, told from her sister’s perspective, depicts her institutionalization in a mental health facility, as she is seen to take her vegetarianism “to an extreme”. (Now, how often do veggie folk hear that?) Due to its surrealism and structure, Vegetarian is not an entirely easy read, but serves its purpose well: showing how challenging it may be for folk who resolve to lead an animal-friendly life to live that life, especially when they have to do so around unsupportive others. For folk who’ve turned veg(an) in real life though, that’s easy: just think of the animals.

Cover pic for this piece, a sigh-face cartoon with the title dialogue text and sub-head

Vegan | Veggie and Vocal (Sub-story) | “You don’t look vegetarian…”

Logo for VegPlanet magazineThis piece is for VegPlanet, the new quarterly premier lifestyle magazine for vegetarian, vegan and veg-curious folk. This is the sub-story to (within) the cover story in the launch issue.

 You may read the cover story here: Cover story to this piece

“Don’t plants have life”, “Where do you get your proteins from”, “We will put chicken in your food, you won’t even know it”, and other things veggie millennials are tired of hearing…

“If we don’t eat animals, animals will take over this world.” – Altab, Kolkata

“If carnivores can kill their prey, then…” – Arundhati, Mumbai

Trust you me, I have converted many staunch vegetarians to non-vegetarians in my life…” – Deepan, Chennai / Bangalore

“Don’t you miss bacon?” (No, I don’t.) – Anne, Philippines

“But you’re an American… Why would you want to give up non-veg?” – Shevon, Mumbai

“So, what about fish?” – Erika, Mumbai

“How could you give it up? Is this forever??” – Kadambari, Chennai

“Plants have life and water is a fish’s home. A vegan should not have these both.” – Rahul, Mumbai

“God made these animals so that we can eat them…” – Lavanya, Chennai

This is epic: “You don’t look vegetarian…” – Vrushali, Mumbai

Brinda, Mumbai, has heard – and given back – a lot worse. Unfortunately, we had to exclude it for reasons of language. Her language, that is.

Cover pic for this piece, a collage of all the respondents with the piece title and sub-head

Vegan | Veggie and Vocal (Main Story)

Logo for VegPlanet magazineThis piece is for VegPlanet, the new quarterly premier lifestyle magazine for vegetarian, vegan and veg-curious folk. This is the cover story for the launch issue.

Veggie millennials wear their animal love inside and outside, and wish others could do so too. Irfan Syed spoke with several of these new-age free thinkers and doers, and found that while it’s never easy, they won’t – or can’t – have it any other way

Kolkata-based vegan activist Altab Hossain holding a poster on animal welfare during one of his outreach events

Altab during one of his outreach events

Altab Hossain, Kolkata-based interior decorator, animal activist and vegan, dreams of ‘animal liberation’ by 2030. That’s barely 14 years from now. Altab is presently 28. In 14 years, he’ll be 42, the same age as this writer presently. To this writer, a non-millennial, though vegan and animal-lover himself, that may seem more a pipe dream. But not to veggie millennials such as Altab, who believe that anything is attainable, as long as you want it from the heart. So much so that they even wear it on their sleeve. Altab is a relentless campaigner on social media as well as in the real world. He even has a poster on his furniture company’s office door, urging visitors to not hurt animals. Other veggie millennials wear it closer to the skin. A fairly viral FB post bears a pic of a girl’s wrist with the following text tattooed: ‘Until every cage is empty’. But that’s the millennial mindset for you: empathetic, exuberant, expectant.

Now, who exactly are millennials? As the name indicates, they are folk who came into adulthood in the new millennium, so those born between 1980 and 2000, the oldest being on the younger side of 40. Psychographically, they are folk with a ‘refreshing mindset’, free of ways of thinking and living that are too ‘set’ with their seniors. Especially when it comes to animal welfare – or liberation, as Altab would say – and living a life with compassion for all.

We spoke with several such millennials – vegetarian, vegan and veg-curious (non-vegetarian folk who are curious / interested in vegetarianism) – from India, abroad and in-between (Indians living abroad as well as foreigners married to Indians and now living in India), to understand what it means to lead an animal-compassionate life, why it’s important to them, and how they deal with reactions to such a considerate way of living.

For sentient beings… and for well-being

Straight off, why veggie? The answers might seem like the usual suspects in categorization – love for animals, care for the environment, health concerns, spiritual leanings – but when you listen in on individual responses, they scintillate. And perhaps even inspire.

Anne with one of her nine doggie friends

Anne Camille Guevarra of Philippines holding one of her nine doggie friends

Anne Camille Guevarra, a pre-med student and aspiring writer based in Manila, Philippines, where “veganism is considered a taboo” (why, even veg dishes have tiny pieces of meat in them, she exasperates), one day clicked a link to what she thought would be yet another funny animal video. What she watched though proved to be life-changing. The video, now quite famous, shows a cow running from a slaughterhouse, determined not to be a menu item. Roused by his desire to live, witnesses and others who followed the story urged for him to be housed in a sanctuary, where he, now named Freddie, spends his time eating and ambling around with other cows, safe in the knowledge that they can finally lead a free life. That night, beef was on Anne’s family’s menu. Anne got thinking, ‘This is another cow that wanted to live.’ She stopped consuming meat that day on. Eggs, dairy and leather followed four days later. Anne has now been vegan for 1½ years.

Kamaldeep Singh of Kanpur with Ginger, a street puppy he met on a holiday in Manali

Kamaldeep with Ginger, a sweet little pup he met on a holiday

With Kamaldeep Singh, a practising CA in Kanpur, the realisation and change was more slow and experiential. Although “concern for animals was brewing within for some time”, it got a kick-start when he watched Hachiko, the heart-wrenching movie of a dog who keeps waiting for his human companion at the latter’s disembarking station long after he has died – nine years, to be precise. Like most others who’ve watched it, Kamaldeep was moved to tears by the end. He started volunteering at People for Animals (PFA) in his city. An occasional meat-eater until then, he gave it up soon after. Eggs, which had formed a massive part of his diet, exited next. One day, others brought in an injured cow at the centre. By experience, volunteers felt she wouldn’t survive for long. Then, someone informed of a calf roaming nearby. They brought in the calf too. Turns out, they were mother and child. Mom and calf cried on being re-united. But a few days later, the mother passed away. Seeing “the cruel effects of the dairy industry” at close quarters (the debilitated and weak animals seemed to have been abandoned by a dairy farmer), Kamaldeep resolved to turn vegan. He decided to do so on an apt date: October 2, birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, who held that ‘the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated’. Perhaps to continue the symbolism, Kamaldeep also responded to his email interview in green text.

While she may not have helped animals directly, Shevon Bhattacharya, an American science teacher married to an Indian and living in Mumbai, has worked with animals as a scientist. In her university days, she would use live rats for experiments, but slowly realized that just like dogs and cats, animals who everyone finds easy to love, rats too are sensitive beings. She turned vegetarian, no, not in India, but in the US of A itself. However, she is happier to be veg here due to the variety of options available. Plus, she’s lost a good deal of weight since ‘going green’. She was never too hot about meat, and giving it up has led her to adding more vegetables and fruits in her diet, which anyway is a good thing, she cheerfully adds.

Like Shevon, there are others who share that while being healthy wasn’t the main reason to go veggie, it’s a great ‘side effect’ to have. Rahul Gala, a procurement professional in Mumbai, too is great shape since turning vegan four years ago; among other things, he doesn’t have a bloated stomach anymore. Jaan Adam, born and brought up in Chennai but living in Australia after her marriage, and the lone veg-curious person we spoke with, relishes that thinking more vegetarian helps her get more greens and fruits – with their accompanying beneficial vitamins and minerals – into her family’s diet. She is keen that her kids have more of a plant diet even in the Western Australian country town where she currently lives, where it’s difficult to find veg food outside.

For Erika and Rica, though, the reason was primarily health. Erika Bhatia, Belgian by birth but living in Mumbai for the past three years with her pilot husband and a student pilot herself, has been vegetarian for 20 years, after she was diagnosed with celiac disease at the age of six. Celiac is a serious genetic autoimmune disorder where the intake of gluten leads to damage of the small intestine. It needed her to adopt a largely plant-based diet. However, even at four, she was grossed out one night when a piece of bone got stuck in her throat while having ham. Erika has been very healthy since turning veg, and as these things go, has proved to be quite an animal lover too: she is a proud doggie mom of 1½ year-old Lab, Piper.

A couple of years ago, Rica Donabelle Umayan, a fourth-year BS Psychology student in Taguig City, Metro Manila, Philippines, started restricting her diet, among other reasons, to lose weight. (In the past, she has also had an undiagnosed medical condition.) Over time, she saw that she was consuming only five foods: bread, apple, raisins, peanut butter and bananas. Her “boring” diet led her to research on more foods she could have and enjoy, leading her eventually to Dr Michael Greger’s Nutrition Facts site. Dr Greger is a renowned nutritionist and a zealous advocate of a plant-based diet. On the site, Rica came to know of the benefits of such a diet and the many foods she could enjoy therein. Vegan for 1½ years now, the best part, she feels, is how it led her to also caring about animals and the environment (thanks to all the reading and viewing she did). No, the really best part, she adds, is starting her own vegan dessert store, Ethical Munch, where she places PETA fliers for interested folk. Outside, she often wears T-shirts with animal compassion messages. Now, what did we say earlier about veggie millennials wearing their animal love on their sleeves?

For the animals, against the world

Deciding to go veggie is one thing, living that decision quite another. And no, the challenge, as one would suppose, is not the seeming lack of food options available; veggie folk are quite happy to survive on salad when nothing else is available, such as when they travel abroad. The first, and biggest, wall is reactions of people around them, from immediate family and relatives to friends and colleagues, and even to random ‘well-wishers’.

Vegetarian Lavanya Ratha with her infant son

Lavanya has to fend many annoying questions, around her son and herself

Shevon’s parents back in America were initially hurt by her decision to go veg, as she would no longer be eating what they cooked. Also, they weren’t sure what to serve her. Slowly though, like most of these stories seem to go, they came around and began preparing veg dishes for her. Things are better in India and with her in-laws. Although her husband and his family are all non-vegetarian, they haven’t forced her to go back to meat-eating. Lavanya Ratha, born and brought up in Mumbai but presently a Chennai resident, married the same way: her husband and in-laws like their meat. However, it’s not them she faces resistance from; it’s everyone else around. She’s had to face questions ranging from “Then, why did you marry a meat-eater?” (as if food preference is the only reason for love and marriage, she retorts) to “What will you feed your kid?” (she’s miffed that they’d think he’d automatically grow up liking meat just because his father does so). Tired of the constant volleys, her response is categorical: “Just like my religion, my loans and my problems, this is none of their business.”

Altab, of the animal-liberation-by-2030 goal, perhaps had it the hardest. His family isn’t just staunchly religious, but also relishes having meat twice a day. They also stay in a predominantly Muslim area of Kolkata. So, Altab was up against a trifecta. When he informed his family of his decision to go vegan, they first tried to dissuade him, citing reasons of religion and health. Finding his resolve steely, they refused to cook vegan food for him. As a result, he often had to sleep hungry. Family, friends, neighbours alike called him crazy, stupid, unreasonable. But Altab refused to budge. Slowly, seeing how determined he was, his family gave in and started making some vegan meals for him. In the meantime, Altab learned to cook for himself – like any self-respecting vegan, no doubt – and today makes a very mean vegan biryani. Well, maybe his liberation dream isn’t really that far away then.

Brinda Poojary of Mumbai holding aloft a poster for animal welfare during a march

Brinda during one of her animal marches

While it’s great joy to see your close ones accepting your decision and taking care to make veggie food specially for you, it’s even better when they decide to join you on the journey, at least to some extent. Mumbai-based learning specialist, Vrushali Tillu’s family, already vegetarian, has been taking further animal-friendly steps: they ensure that the products they purchase – food and grooming items – are free of animal ingredients and haven’t been tested on animals. Brinda Poojary, an embryologist pursuing her PhD in Mumbai, went less the gentle-persuasion way and more the tell-them-of-the-horrors route. She shared with her family harrowing truths of the dairy industry (gained from watching documentaries like Earthlings, Cowspiracy and Forks over Knives, and the outreach work she does); over time, they reduced and eventually gave up bringing home dairy items. Arundhati Lakkad, an instructional designer also in Mumbai, was thrilled when her dad let her keep the street dog she had rescued during the floods of 2006. (Named Chikki, she eventually passed away a couple of years ago.) However, Arundhati was even more joyous when her dad too decided to go vegetarian, thus making the entire Lakkad family 100% veg. Kind of like that green dot certification. Rahul though perhaps has the happiest ever after: his wife decided to turn vegan too.

Making the veggie journey

The actual process, or duration, to go veggie was like the proverbial bump compared with the mountainous reactions of people around. Almost all millennials we spoke with did so in a time-frame of a few days to a few months. Altab took one month to go from veg to vegan. Anne did so in a week. Kadambari Narendran, a special children educator and volunteer at Blue Cross, Chennai, was only veg-curious when she attended a bootcamp a year or so ago. The sessions and discussions with animal activists and campaigners from across the country shook her to the core. In about six months, she turned vegetarian. Compare that with first the eight months this writer took to go veg and then 1¼ years to go vegan, and you get the millennial mindset right away.

Chennai- and Bengaluru-based Deepan Kannan regarded a South Indian veg food menu on a banner

Chennai- and Bengaluru-based Deepan loves his veg South Indian food

Vrushali, Arundhati and Deepan Kannan would all love to turn vegan, but their love for various items of milk keeps them from doing so. So, while Vrushali is able to resist the loveliest leather shoes that are apt for her tiniest feet (her words), she isn’t able to do the same with the lure of milk in her tea. Arundhati, who does much animal welfare work, including buying promotional materials from SPCA, loves her Bengali sweets and cheese too much to think of ever giving them up. Deepan, a management consultant from Chennai but presently based in Bengaluru, who “loves animals more than humans” and has been vegetarian for 15 years, also would love to take the next step and go vegan, but finds his joy for paneer a deterrent at present.

While it’s already heart-warming that they’ve come so far in their animal-love journey, if they need that final push, Kamaldeep has a nudge to offer. He says, “If you’re still dangling between your love for animals and that for animal products, you are yet to make the connection.” To which, Shevon counterpoints, feeling it’s best to do so when you are ready, rather than out of a sense of guilt or obligation. What they all do agree on is that there are enough options available these days – veg or vegan – and you won’t feel like you’re missing a thing. Anne and Brinda used to have mock meats, for the texture and feeling, but over time, didn’t feel any more need for it. And if you still feel you’re missing something, Anne shares a heart-felt thought: “Just think of the animal. And you’ll automatically not miss it anymore.” We couldn’t agree more.

Reaching out – with love and wisdom

Going veggie is just the beginning of the animal-welfare journey, feel our millennials. Brinda, who does a lot of outreach work such as organizing marches and hosting kiosks in public places along with conducting visits to animal sanctuaries, feels that if they don’t spread the message, instead keeping their beliefs to themselves, then they aren’t really helping the animals. Many others belong to her school of thought. Altab has tirelessly ensured many see the cruelty that animals go through on a daily basis and has helped several hard-core meat-eaters turn veggie themselves – even while he rues that he lost some close family and friends in the process. Animal freedom requires a lot of sacrifice, he both sighs and sounds out.

Many others frequently help animals in distress. Arundhati narrates fondly of the time she rescued a few owlets, which made her fall in love with these birds of the night. Vrushali warmly recalls her experience of giving a solemn shelter dog a bath during a visit to In Defence of Animals (IDA), Mumbai, the canine gurgling with joy.

Others do the “more regular” helping around. Lavanya secretly feeds the street animals around her home, as the other residents don’t like an open display of affection to these “filthy animals”. Shevon contributes to ASPCA back in America and to Youth in Defence of Animals (YODA) in Mumbai. Apart from that, she is a doggie mom to June and Pepper, with who she fervently enjoys Kukur Tihar, the second day of Diwali celebrated in some parts of North-East India and Nepal in honour of man’s best friend. Training specialist, Richa Godse’s home in Mumbai is a “nursing home for dogs”, where her equally animal-loving friends tend to injured, sick and sterilized animals.

US-born, India-married Shevon Bhattacharya celebrating Kukur Tihar with her doggie friends, June and Pepper

Shevon celebrating Kukur Tihar with her doggies, June and Pepper

In true millennial style, all campaign relentlessly on social media. Rica, for instance, regularly publishes blogs and vlogs. Social media, our digital-savvy millennials not surprisingly feel, is a great platform for spreading the word further and also for connecting with animal lovers worldwide. Many are part of veggie groups, from local ones to global communities. Most, perhaps wisely, believe in presenting their point of view and leaving it at that. Which is very important, Anne can’t seem to insist enough. She espouses that being aggressive and shouting, whether on social media or offline, will get you nowhere; then, “people just remember your shouting and not your message”. Deepan’s is another voice of reason, urging veggie enthusiasts to be conscious of the difference between animal love and animal-based politics, such as what seems to be happening in India presently. He cautions that animal rights in our country needs a nuanced dialogue, for vegetarianism has traditionally been tied to Brahminism, thereby acquiring religious tones. Go soft and slow, our millennials seem to be saying. Kamaldeep possibly puts it best: “I keep planting seeds. I know they will grow.” Trust our veggie millennials to use a nurturing, plant-based analogy.

There is a sub-story to this piece: One common thing veggie millennials are tired of hearing. Read the sub-story here: Sub-story to this piece

Poster for the short film, Vicky

Irfanimals | V for Vicky

Irfanimals Logo

My first post for AnimApp, an animal rescue and rehab app / organization based in Chennai. This one’s on the short film, Vicky, that’s been getting a lot of wows and bows ever since it went on online air. AnimApp carries the edited piece. Below’s my original one.

This piece on AnimApp

Freedom for animals. An idea that, perhaps understandably, animals seem to grasp, but not humans.

This is at the heart of Vicky, the short film by Kerala-based editor-turned-filmmaker, Manu Antony, that released on YouTube, appropriately enough, on August 15, and has been quietly winning hearts and views ever since.

While you can of course view the short below, here’s a synopsis. Vicky’s a young Golden Retriever in what seems a Kerala village. Vicky is gambolling around, though through the chain coiled around the wooden pillar at the entrance of the house, you get the feeling he is sometimes chained up. Vicky’s human companion calls for him as the film begins, he comes running, gladly receives his morning petting, and then the companion leaves. Vicky assumes this is to get his meal for the day – you see him dreaming of fish bones and chicken leg-pieces and then drooling in anticipation. However, his companion returns with a cage bearing a couple of lovebirds (or a lovebird couple?).

A lovebird in a cageVicky wonders at the presence of the new beings, but is soon happy to go back to his own actions (or inactions), whether scampering or lazing around. Suddenly, he hears a sound and runs in the direction, only to fall into a deep hole. He howls for someone to come rescue him, then not finding anyone doing so, begins getting morose. Fret not. The next scene, he is back home, though just a bit roughed up for the experience. Now, though, he begins looking at the caged birds in a new light. Would they too be feeling as frustrated in the cage as he felt in the hole? What follows will warm and win hearts.

Apart from Vicky and the lovebirds, the film at intervals shows other sentient beings in their habitats, all free, and freely doing their thing – whether ants scurrying across, or dragonflies flitting around. The only restrained being shown is a tethered buffalo, but this country is presently at a sensitive space when it comes to bovine rights, so maybe we’ll discuss that some other time.

Nelson Mandela's famous quote on freedom

The film ends on a couple of sombre notes. The first is a quote by Nelson Mandela: ‘There is no such thing as part freedom.’ We couldn’t agree more. Then, you have graphics of various animals having lost their freedom of various sorts – whether that of habitat (through the razing of forests), of space (through being confined in cages in zoos and circuses), or of lives (through poaching, culling, or as food).

For bringing up all these issues, and in a soft (rather than militant) manner, Vicky tickies all the right boxes.

Cover pic for this post, with a pic of Indian orphanage kids in the top right, of mixed-breed pups in the bottom right, and text on the left

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.