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.

Composite graphic of a dog seeming romantic

Irfanimals: The Heart Is Still Young

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There’s a saying in Hindi: Rassi jal gayi, par bal nahi gaya. Translation: The rope has burnt, but not lost its strength.

I get proof of this once every few mornings, when I stop by Zuzu, this weather-beaten street dog around this bank where I pause to tighten my laces before starting off on my morning walk. Zuzu is a mix of white and light brown, though the white is more like light grey due to the dust and his age. He looks like he’s seen many winters, and perhaps lost his tail in one of them – all he has now is a stump. Which he nevertheless wags like a swing when he spots me from his morning haze. Much like that rope, he may not have his tail, but wags the vestige nevertheless.

By the way, I’ve given him that name (like almost all my street dog friends). Because the first few days I came to know of him, I would always found him either fast asleep or looking quite dazed (after waking up from his haze). Even now, when I approach the bank steps, I find him often still in La-La-land, his tongue drooping through his mouth and canines. Zzzu-zzu.

But Zuzu loses much of that droopiness when we reconnaise and I variously pat, pet, tease him. And then, when I part for my walk, he parks himself on his behind, looking a mix of haplessness and hopefulness: perhaps the best part of his day is over (who would want to touch an old, dirty-looking, street dog?), but hey, it’s coming again in a few days.

Zuzu is not always the first street dog I meet and greet on my morning walk, though. Depending on which route I take and which of my street besties has woken up by then and not yet gone on their marking/foraging spree, there are at least two-three others. Zuzu of course senses their scents on my hand and then gets even more excited, his mind wagging as much as his tail. ‘Oh, there are others before me?’ ‘How many others?’ ‘Who are they?’ ‘Any one I know?’ ‘Is this guy an ichchadhaari dog?’ (A human able to take the form of a dog)

It’s only in the past few days that I’ve noticed Zuzu getting super-excited some days (rather than merely excited) on smelling my hand with its streetie scents. So super-excited that he first bounds around, jumping back and forth on his fore and hind paws, and then bounds away, unable to control that steroidish excitement. Should I change his name to… Kuku (cuckoo)?

And I got it today. As he rolled over, baring his belly to me, I spotted his teeny reddish weeny emerge out of its casing. Zuzu was horny. Neutered Zuzu was horny. (Have checked for the clipped ear.) And then it descended on me. I had been touching a young she-dog (Velli) just before approaching Zuzu all those times.

Time to make up my own saying. He may have lost the surge, but not the urge.

Close-up of eye of Moby Dick from the movie 'In the Heart of the Sea'

Irfanimals | In the Heart of Animals

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Call me Ignoramus.

I love reading. I love animals. But… I… haven’t… read… Moby Dick. (A moment of silence.)

[I do know its opening line though, as you can see – that’s an old chestnut in school and college quizzes.]

Coming back, so, what I miss in books, I watch in the screen version – to figure out in 2-3 hours what the book/story is about. That way, if I like it, I try and ensure I go back and read the book.

So, while ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ didn’t work for me as a movie – found it yet another movie about American chauvinism (“Our whale, and oil, are bigger than yours”) – I could answer the question my friend posed me: “Why doesn’t he (first mate, Owen Chase) kill him (Moby Dick)?”

Chris Hemsworth with a hand-harpoon in the movie 'In the Heart of the Sea'

As an animal lover and one who believes, unlike what many people say, animals aren’t “voiceless” (they do speak, but in a language we don’t understand; and there’s also that other thing called non-verbal language), the answer to my friend’s question is simple, and based on what Moby had been doing all along.

The “whale farmers” have been plundering these giants of the sea for their gain (“to light their lamps”), and Moby, being the big bull he is (his body carries a sea of scars), fights back. “Get off the seas, stop killing my brood.” And when it becomes a matter of vendetta (One Man vs One Whale), Moby rises up and looks eye to eye with the first mate for 30 screen-seconds. “How is my family here, which you’re killing without any remorse, any different from the one you have back home, all those leagues away? What’s it going to take to stop? Seriously?” The first mate gets it. The tri-harpoon remains static in his hand. Moby goes back into the depths and the distance.

At the end, when Herman Melville, the author of the book, has got the narration he wanted from the last survivor, the cabin boy on the ship, Thomas Nickerson, the latter tells him in parting, “Someone’s struck oil in the desert. Oil from the earth… Who would have thought?”

And then, man stopped plundering the whales for oil, and started plundering the earth. No, wait, he continues going after the whales, now for many more reasons. We need another Moby Dick for this century.

Irficionado | Books’ Review | Venita Coelho’s AIA Series

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Author Venita CoelhoVenita Coelho began her writing career scripting serials for UTV, when that entity was still a production house and not a mega-channel. However, she moved out, out of serial-writing, as she herself says, “when the saas-bahu serials took over”. She wrote for one movie (the damp ‘We Are Family’, based on Hollywood’s ‘Stepmom’), before moving out of writing for the moving-images mediums. Presently, she writes books, out of Goa, where she moved out to from Bombay/Mumbai. She stays in Goa (but also spends some time in Bombay) with her family of people and her family of dogs and cats (five and two, respectively).

All that sounds like I’m writing her author bio for her next book’s jacket, and although I don’t mind doing so, that’s not the case. That is necessary to understand the kind of books she now writes and the style she pursues.

To continue the bio, Venita moved to activism after moving out of TV/movies (many, many people worldwide are following this path), and most recently is into animal activism (again not surprising, given the number of quadrupeds in her house).

All this comes brilliantly to the fore in her series of animal fiction brought out by Hachette. As she hasn’t given it a name herself, I’m calling it the AIA series, after the name of the agency in both the books so far – Animal Intelligence Agency.

AIA is a network of bipeds and quadrupeds across the world who fight to “Save the Animals, Save the World” (their motto). However, the two books so far centre around the ones in India…

The back cover of the books of Venita Coelho's Animal Intelligence Agency series, describing the agentsAgent 002 is Bagha, a Royal Bengal Tiger with a limp from a previous adventure, and who is typical of the male tiger: poised and not given to too much affection.

Agent 11.5 is a boy who gets his agent badge at 11.5 years of age. (So there.) Rana, named after a species of frog (see, this series is that animal-friendly) makes up for in the mind what he lacks in physique.

Bringing up the, um, rear is Agent 013, a langur named Kela. True to form, he is fidgety and a chatterbox. In the first book, he doesn’t have a number when he starts off on the rescue/adventure as it was revoked due to an earlier misadventure – the case of the exploding mangoes – but due to his efforts in the book, by the end, he gets back his badge.

Front cover of Venita Coelho's first animal-fiction book, Tiger by the Tail Book 1, ‘Tiger by the Tail’, is about the AIA’s efforts to investigate and rescue missing tigers. Tigers have gone missing from large parts of India and are, not surprisingly, landing up in China. Though perhaps not for the reasons you think (ornaments, medicines, aphrodisiacs); Venita takes the tigers’ tale to the max. (Will leave you to discover.) Along the way, and in China, they are aided by other agents and animals – a menagerie of dolphins, other langurs, a gigantic gorilla (are there other sorts, but wait till you read about this one), a giraffe, and a cussing rhino (who said plant-eating beings are calmer?). The humans are equally fun too, with Rana’s dada’s friend and a sloshed captain, who buys Rana’s tale that the 40+ tigers he’s just seen stepping into his ship is a drink-triggered hallucination.

Front cover of the second animal-fiction book by Venita Coelho, Dead as a DodoBook 2, ‘Dead as a Dodo’ (which I inadvertently read first as I couldn’t find the first earlier; this released this year, the first one last year), maxes book 1 in the wild department. Not content with saving tigers, Venita brings back the dodo from the dead, but being the only one of your species in this world has a price: collectors worldwide want him, though – tender mercies – alive. Along with Kela, the dodo provides the biggest laughs, as he’s a bit of a weepie, lamenting the fact that he’s all alone in this world – not content to being brought back from the dead.

Venita keeps the books very pacy and racy – perfect for her audience – but it left me a bit out of breath. (But as I just indicated, I’m not the audience.) The style is like Harry Potter meets Tintin, so now you know what I mean. The similarities to both permeate: Rana has lost both his parents to separate tragedies, he doesn’t recall their faces, he has animal companions on his adventures (Hedwig and Snowy, anyone?), the adventures are wild (Bagha jumping on trucks and Kela jumping on trains) and magical (a dolphin leads them to India after they switch off the GPS to avoid being detected by the Chinese as they make their way back with scores of tigers), and inter-species communication happens through a language called JungleSpeak (Parseltongue!).

She also sprinkles the narrative with interesting facts about the issue/s she’s addressing – done through two-page photos, sketches, doodles, notes – be it about the protection of non-human species and their habitats in ‘Tiger’ or about their extinction in ‘Dead’.

If you are an animal lover, you will read these. And then thank the entry of the saas-bahu serials on TV.

 

Tom Hanks looking at a spiked crab in a scene from Cast Away

Irfilosophy: Would You…?

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If you were stranded on an island where there’s nothing to eat and only a dog for company, what would you do? Would you kill and eat the dog? Or would you choose to die of hunger?

A few days back, during a violent vegan vs non-vegan war on FB (which of these ‘wars’ isn’t ‘violent’?), one of my non-vegan friends posed this old ethical dilemma. (This of course assumes you aren’t from China or North-East India and love dogs/animals.) My response, a not very unfamiliar one, was that I would not; maybe the dog would eventually help me find food, and also give me company. The same friend responded hoping that we never need to face this situation, for people are known to do the most unimaginable things in dire times. One of my other friends, also non-vegan, lauded me for my response, for being consistent all along; another vegan friend had committed a capitulation of sorts by admitting that if he were in a deserted desert with only an antelope, he would go ahead with the killing and eating. (Antelopes in deserts? On a lighter note, he should have thought through that one.)

I obviously felt good at my friend lauding me. And yes, it’s consistent with my beliefs. For the same reason, I wouldn’t go to the pyramids at Giza if camel transport were the only way to get there. Similarly, when watching ‘Everest’ and noticing yaks haul heavy-duty necessities to the base camp, I thanked myself for not wanting to be a mountaineer.

Yaks hauling necessities to the Everest base camp

And then, a few days back, I had this thought: I’m marooned during a flood, and some folk have come to rescue me… on a bullock-cart. Would I take that ride? Would animal-freedom-advocate and non-carnist me chuck my precious principles, take that person’s hand, and get into that cart? (Of course, there could be other questions like ‘Wouldn’t a boat, rather than a bullock-cart, come during a flood?’, ‘Do you know swimming?’, ‘Could you make a boat?’ But as I told you, this thought just came to me, the way random thoughts do, just like ‘If I don’t know swimming, could I learn swimming then and there?’ See, I told you. So, let’s stay with this, shall we?)

There are enough and more such examples… If I were Pi on the sea in ‘Life of Pi’. Would I kill and eat fish? (Pi does beat and dig into a large fish that lands into his boat. If so, would I have released it back into the water?) Would I kill the tiger… both to protect myself and for food? If I were washed away to the Arctic. How would I be a vegan Eskimo, avoiding spearing a seal? Would I live only on water and… ice?

I think I have an answer. I would… go ahead and take that ride, kill the tiger/fish, spear that seal. Not because of the standard answer of “It’s a case of survival”. But more like this…

B/W pic of Vicki Moore, animal rights activist, with two goats she rescued from a blood fiestaIn an episode of ‘Untamed and Uncut’, a series on Animal Planet about rescuing animals in peril or rescuing humans and animals from each other when both come into conflict, they featured the renowned US animal-rights activist, Vicki Moore. One of her campaigns took her to the Spanish province of Zamora, which had a festival where a group of young men throws a goat from a church tower to another group on the ground who would hopefully catch the frightened animal with a canvas sheet. The activist felt sorry for the goat and for filming him/her rather than trying to save him/her, and apologised with the thought, ‘I have to let you get hurt/die now, only because I can show this cruelty to the world later’. (Incidentally, the practice was banned in 2002 after protests by animal groups. Also, Vicki got gored by a bull during the Pamplona run of 1995. She survived, and continued her campaigns for several years before eventually passing away in February 2000.)

In short, it’s like this… I think I would go ahead and kill and eat and ride that animal NOW. So I could hopefully save more animals LATER. After all, only humans can talk to humans about animal cruelty. And many a time, even they can’t.

So, maybe that question should not be ‘Would you kill the dog?’, but ‘When would you kill him/her?’, and even ‘Why?’ Whatever your answer, one can only hope you are asking yourself these questions.

To find out more about Vicki Moore and her foundation, go here: VickiMooreFoundation.org

 To know what Irfilosophy is, click here: Irfilosophy: Here’s Presenting