Chennai resident and silver, Benedict Gnaniah, with his two home dogs, Leia and Mulan

Silver Years, Golden Companions

I wrote this as the cover story for the April ’18 issue of Harmony, a magazine for silver / senior citizens. Find the edited version of the story (the main story and a few sub / box stories) on their site here.

“They got us bonding together again.” When asked how his pet dogs have been beneficial to him and his family, that is Benny’s spontaneous response. Benny, or properly, Benedict Gnaniah elaborates. “We are a strong-headed family. Comes from reading so much.” There are shelves upon shelves of classics and other literary works in each member’s room of the duplex house in Chennai. “Each has their opinions, and is expressive about them. As a result, there are often fireworks and tensions among us. The dogs changed all that.” The dogs under discussion are Mulan and Leia, both indies adopted from the street, and both – as testimony to the family’s stated literary inclinations – named after strong mythical / fictional women characters.

Benny, himself a youthful 59, continues. “Before the dogs came into our lives, conversations at the table wouldn’t be about finance or politics, but harder things like ‘When are you planning to get married,’ ‘What happened to that interview you went for,’ ‘How are we going to pay for that,’ causing everyone to super-stress out.” After first Mulan, and then Leia came in, the conversations started emanating from the canines. ‘Oh, she did this today…’ ‘She doesn’t look good to me…’ ‘Man, they are becoming a handful…’ As a result, talks and tensions between the family members began smoothening. The dogs, quite simply, got them warmed up again as a family.

Pets can add a lot, physically and emotionally, to a silver’s life. Be it a more high-level purpose as in the case of Benny, or more everyday benefits such as companionship, compassion, care, security and the famed unconditional love. We listened in to several silvers and their pet experiences.

Have pet, will not fret

Pune resident, Shilpa Mahajani, 50, thinks back to the time when her family’s bungalow was undergoing renovation and didn’t have the front door for a period of six months. No intruder could dare come in, thanks to the two full-grown Dobermans they had. Since then, the male Dobe (Raja) passed away, the female (Rani) remains, and the door has been reinstated. Rani now roams the compound of the bungalow, each stride an intimidating one to any newcomer at the gate.

However, to their owners (or to use the more politically correct term, pet parents), the animals are an endless loop of love, especially when the parents return home. Deanne Menon, 59, of Mumbai finds it de-stressing to get back home after a hard day’s work: waiting for her with a brisk wag and buoyant body is Lakshmibai aka Lakshmi aka Laku, an indie adopted from the road as a pup about 14 years ago. Research corroborates that having a pet helps bring down cortisol (the stress hormone) levels and helps up serotonin (the happy hormone) levels. But our silvers already seem to know that.

Kanpur resident and silver citizen, Bhupinder Singh Bagga, with his home dog, Caddie

Bhupinder with his dog, Caddie

When Bhupinder Singh Bagga, 63, too gets back to his three-floored house in Kanpur after an event or function (he is retired, so he is otherwise at home), he is greeted by the house dog, Caddie, who in rapid turns, first runs around unable to contain her excitement, then comes up to him and licks his hand and face, and runs back… Run-lick-repeat. With this kind of welcome on return, Bagga wishes he didn’t have to leave home in the first place.

Bagga, however, holds that you don’t bring home an animal only for the love they give you, you can also do so for the love you can give them. You understand what he means when he shares how the doggies, both indies again, came to the Bagga household. Along with Caddie, who stays more at home, there is Buddy, who is more of a visitor. Bagga describes this situation Hindi-film style: Caddie hai Ghar ki Rani (Queen of Home), Buddy hai Sadkon ka Raja (King of Roads). The two canines came in courtesy his elder son, Kamaldeep, who is vegan and works for animal welfare. Thanks to junior’s love and care, Bagga Senior, and the entire household of six (excluding the canines), came to dote on the doggies too.

Another vegan activist, Malvika Kalra, 54, based in Jammu Tawi, puts it succinctly, “Dogs, or any kind of animal companions (the PC word for ‘pets’ according to animal welfare individuals), are about one simple thing: unconditional love.” When asked to express in one word or line what their pets, oops, animal companions mean to them, we had our silvers gushing as much as the animals on seeing their silver parents. (See box story: What your pet means to you.)

Nicole Rego, veterinarian of 14 years, attests to the joy pets can infuse in seniors. She has had quite a few silver clients coming to her Mumbai clinic over the years, and has witnessed at close quarters the amiable companionship the quadrupeds offer the bipeds. They also help you overcome the melancholy of an empty nest, very common in silvers, especially in these times of nucleur families, increased urbanization, and unending aspirations.

Selma Pinto, a spry 63, lives by herself in Mysuru, along with four cats and one dog. Her children stay in Bengaluru, her husband having passed away a few years ago. Selma had even more pets earlier, but they died one by one. Apart from tending to the home animals (which actually doesn’t require so much attention, she insists), she also feeds crows and monkeys that come near her kitchen and kites that hover above her house. Empty nest? No, more like a full house, brimming with fuzzy bodies and fuzzier feelings.

Caring beyond petting

But animals, we know, have the energies, and demands, of a child. Walks and exercise, toilet training, food, doc visits, illness care… Facing some of those challenges themselves, are the silvers up to the task of tending to their four-legged companions?

Benny says, in fact, his dogs have taught him discipline. His life was quite chaotic earlier, but now, to walk, feed and care for his doggies, he needs to rise on time, take them for a walk on time, and be back from work on time. Leia, the younger one, can’t handle carbs, so he even has to make special food for her, which he does on Sundays and stores in the fridge for the week ahead. “The fridge belongs to the dogs,” he adds matter-of-factly.

Almost all seniors we spoke to said vet visits are scheduled and regular, with the vet either coming home or the animal being chaperoned to the clinic. Shilpa Mahajani provided sagely advice: “Go to a good vet. It might cost more, but the diagnosis (especially challenging for non-human beings) will be right the first time, costing you less – time, energy, effort – in the long run.”

Bombay / Mumbai resident and silver, Deanne Menon, with her home dog, Laku

Deanne with her dog, Laku

Most also shared that they have some form of help around. The Baggas’ family of six (senior Baggas, two sons and their wives) ensures at least one of them is at home to attend to Caddie. Buddy doesn’t require much tending to, for as Bagga already said, he is more of a street soul. Deanne Menon has her three adult sons walk Laku when she’s not free, although Laku doesn’t entirely relish these walks as they literally have her on a tight leash, Deanne adds, holding Laku in an even tighter embrace. Benny’s family of four is now spread across four different cities of the world (his wife works in Thiruvananthapuram and his children recently migrated to Canada, but to places 100 kilometres apart), but he manages with a maid during his day-time absence, and is also on the lookout for a watchman of sorts for when he needs to go out-station, something he hasn’t been able to do since the doggies arrived. A matter echoed by all silvers.

Once you bring home a companion animal, taking off on your own becomes a bit challenging. Selma hasn’t really gone on a vacation ever since the menagerie of animals took up residence at her place. She has at the most gone away for a day or two, that too to nearby Bengaluru. During her absence one time, she had appointed an acquaintance to check in on the dog.

This partly also comes from the separation anxiety animals face when their human parent goes away, at least in the initial days. They can get worried and irritable, triggering off their notorious rip-and-tear sessions. The Baggas and the Mahajanis have had their share of dogs nipping and pulling at their clothes on sensing they are heading out. Benny has had his older dog, Mulan, biting his shoes, perhaps finally revealing why dogs do so. They think that the shoe is causing the person to leave, rather than the other way around, and so attack the supposed villain. Ah, the innocence, or ingenuity, of animals. (See box story: Animal behavioural traits.)

The Mitras (Kishore, 63 and Madhavi, 53), earlier based only in Mumbai but now spending more time in their house on the outskirts of Pune, recount the time they left their beloved Sweety, a Lhasa-poodle mix, in Mumbai in the care of Ashoke’s mother, for a short holiday to Mahabaleshwar. The matriarch had insisted they do so, to allow for some level of detachment between the dog and the couple: too much love isn’t good, she seemed to say. Soon after they reached the hill-station and called home to check on everyone, Ashoke’s mother told them that Sweety hadn’t eaten anything since they left. The distraught couple asked Sweety to be put on speaker-phone (ah, the innocence and ingenuity of people), and were able to pacify her to some extent. The following afternoon, they took the first bus back home.

A limiting life? None of our silver pet parents feels so. The limitless love of the animal more than makes up for it. (See box story: If pets could talk.)

Choosing with care

Mysuru resident and silver, Selma Pinto, holding her cat, Cola

Selma with her cat, Cola

So, should you head out to the nearest pet shop or breeder and bring home a furry bundle of joy? The good animal doctor, Nicole, weighs in again. Get a smaller animal; they are more manageable. Also, as much as dogs are exalted for being man’s best friends, they are not easy. (Just like a high-maintenance friend, perhaps?) If your heart is really set on a dog, bring home a small breed and not one like a Labrador. Labs, young and grown-up alike, are a handful. Where silvers have enough anxieties of losing balance in a bathroom, the last thing they want is to handle a 25-kilo, four-footed, adolescent animal jumping on them in unshackled excitement. Cats are especially good pets for silvers, Nicole espouses, being both low-maintenance and high-independence. Do we hear you purring already?

All silvers we spoke to seem to be already following these to-dos. The Mahajanis and Mitras both have small dog breeds, the former Min Pins (Miniature Pinschers), the latter Spritzes. Benny, Selma, Malvika and the Baggas have indie dogs, and they swear by them. They are better suited to Indian conditions, and since they come from the outside (street), they are hardy and more independent. At the habitats of the last three, the indie dogs come and go as they please. Remember the Baggas’ sadkon ka raja, Buddy?

Vegan activist Malvika in fact has her indie dog, Razia, in her husband’s office, rather than at home. Apart from giving the reason for this, she adds further caution to – and perhaps throws a wet blanket on – keeping an animal at home. Malvika would perhaps know well. She has had four home dogs at various times in her life, all eventually passing on. The last, a Lab named Ralph, developed problems walking thanks to doing so on a concrete floor all day, which isn’t the animal’s natural terrain, she learnt. More learnings. Due to consuming another animal’s milk (the standard cow milk that most people have, and pet parents give their pets), Ralph eventually developed diabetes, which came under some control after Malvika switched to soy milk. For the same reason, Ralph started shedding hair.

Jammu Tawi resident and silver, Malvika Kalra, with her adopted dog, Razia

Malvika with her adopted dog, Razia

If you really wish to have a pet, bring home one from a shelter, advocates Malvika, who also works for animal liberation. That way, you get to give a loving home to a homeless animal, avoid contributing to the animal breeding industry (which has too many unseen horrors to begin discussing here, she reins herself in), and of course, as she averred earlier, you get the unconditional love that perhaps only an animal can give you.

The Mitras go one step further. While they would be the first ones to recommend getting home a pet, having had all manner of species from birds to dogs at their various homes (Muscat, Mumbai, Pune) over the years, they urge you to keep in mind your situation in life. If you can’t devote all your time and effort, but still wish to experience the joy of an animal, you could visit an animal shelter off and on. Just a few hours, or even minutes, with an assortment of homeless and abandoned animals (shelters have the gamut: from dogs and cats to chicken, cows, horses and turkeys) bounding or ambling around you, can bring smiles to your face. And do wonders for those serotonin levels, may we add.

Bhupinder Bagga, who went Bollywood about the doggie situation at his home (Ghar ki rani…), does a repeat with this decision. Dog, cat, bird (although caged would be cruel), small, big, medium, it doesn’t make a difference… Aakhir pyaar sabhi ek jaise karte hain. (After all, they all love you the same way.) No doubt, Caddie would have licked him some more for that.

And when they turn silver

Now, to a question many silvers may not have considered, or perhaps don’t wish to. What if the animals you bring home to add joys and years to your sunset years end up heading into the sunset themselves? What of… silver pets?

Quite a few silvers we spoke to have had animals ailing and then passing away. Pet animals, after all, have shorter lives than humans. The silvers have seen more than a few flailing and failing pets, and it’s never easy, neither to witness their suffering nor to make the decision to put them down. Those who haven’t had an ailing pet so far said they would never euthanize their animal, as they love them too much, and also that this seems more like “a Western concept”. Those who have gone through the experience seemed more pragmatic.

Bombay / Mumbai and Pune couple, Madhavi and Ashoke Mitra, at the grave of their departed dog, Sweety, in Pune's Salisbury Park

Madhavi and Kishore Mitra laying flowers on Sweety’s grave, as a neighbourhood indie watches on

The Mitras lost their darling Sweety of 18 years to a host of complications: pyometra (a disease of the uterus), diabetes, arthritis, and finally kidney failure. When the vet told them Sweety had only about five days more, and seeing her misery at close quarters, they decided to make the tough call. However, they ensured their departed daughter (they even gave her their surname) had dignity in death, burying her in Pune’s upmarket Salisbury Park, which has a pet cemetery. As if all of dog-kind knew, the street dogs of the area communed around Sweety’s grave, commiserating with the couple. Whenever the Mitras go visiting their dearly departed girl, the doggies at once gather around. No doubt about it: man’s, and dog’s, best friend. (See box story: Clicking with pets, for how you can save the dear moments with your pet for posterity.)

And what if – and this is something silvers may have thought of even less – they pass on before their beloved pets? That’s how the Dobes, Raja and Rani, had come into the Mahajanis’ lives and household: when Shipa’s father-in-law, who had the dogs originally, passed away. Initially disturbed, yet knowing somehow that their silver parent wouldn’t be returning, Raja and Rani slowly began settling into the Mahajani household, as they sensed that it was an extension of their original parent’s family.

Nicole, who has had experience with this too, says that, just as for humans, it’s important to have a succession plan: who will adopt the animals if you are no longer there and whether you have set aside money for their upkeep.

Hopefully, though, as long as you take good care of yourself and your pet, there will be no need of that. And you and your golden companion will have a long and happy life, enjoying many golden sunsets together. Cheers to that. And woofs. And meows.

The box stories…

Golden mean: What your pet means to you

Bhupinder Singh Bagga: Bachchon se zyaada (More than my kids)

Benedict Gnaniah: Turbo engines! They are so full of energy – and fill me with energy too.

Malvika Kalra: Someone you can shower your love upon, and get unconditional love from

Shilpa Mahajani: Friends – as I have a small friends’ circle

Deanne Menon: My baby doll – I do gibberish talk with her

Madhavi Mitra: My kids

Selma Pinto: De-stressors…

So, that’s why: Animal behavioural traits

We heard from a silver pet parent why dogs chew shoes: they think the shoes are making you go away, and thus try to prevent them from doing so.

Here’s why they, especially the males, seem to run away ever so often, sometimes never to return. They make the break on sensing that… a female dog is in heat. And then, the two elope, we guess.

So, it’s better to have a female animal, then? Umm, not entirely. When your female pet is in heat, who do you think is going to come outside your house or after her during your daily walks? Lots and lots of male counterparts. So, rather than having her, and yourself, slayed (with affection, aggression or both), have her spayed.

Speech is golden: If pets could talk…

If your pet got the power of human speech for one minute, what do you think they will tell you?

Bhupinder Singh Bagga: Ah, I wish for that minute too! They would say, Itnaa pyaar kyun karte ho? (Why do you love us so?)

Benedict Gnaniah: Thanks for finding me…

Malvika Kalra: You are not our best friends… (A true vegan, animal liberation response, may we say)

Shilpa Mahajani: I love you…

Deanne Menon: I love you… (She literally has a conversation with me when I return from work, lifting her rump, doing “Ooooo, ooooo.”)

Madhavi Mitra: What was ailing me (Sweety)

Selma Pinto: I love you… (the cats and dogs), I am hungry (the crows, monkeys and kites)

Clicking with pets: Through the lens of a pet photographer

Pet photographer, Bhavesh Karia, with a dog on a shootPet photographer? Is that even a job? Does it earn enough? No, that’s not us, but his friendly neighbourhood “aunties” asking Bhavesh Karia, a pet photographer based in Mumbai, whose studio has the winsome name, Pawtraits. (Find out more about Pawtraits on Facebook here.) We will ask him just that first question, and ok, a few more.

So, what does a pet photographer do?

I shoot portraits (photos) of pets (or babies, as I call them), either with their parents or of the babies alone. I shoot indoors as well as outdoors, although indoors is obviously easier. Outside, the animals have too many distractions!

How long does a shoot take, and how do you get them to pose?

It takes about an hour to three. My set-up is minimal. Posing? I typically manage with a treat or a ball. I usually check with the parent beforehand to know what will work with the baby. I try to capture the eyes of the animal, as the eyes are the windows to the soul.

Do you get any silver clients?

Not yet, as this is still a growing field. But I want to pursue it. Also, many silvers haven’t really thought of it, but it’s a great way for them to capture their special moments with their precious babies for their lifetimes – the baby’s and the parent’s.

A portrait of Bhavesh's home dog, BellaSilvers with pets, what’s your take, especially as you have a lovely doggie yourself? (Bhavesh has a gorgeous brindle Boxer, aptly named Bella, meaning beautiful in Italian. As part of his showcase, he shares many sample photos on social media of Bella in all her brindle glory.)

Oh, yes, makes so much sense. I agree that silvers should mostly keep a low-energy animal. However, some are dog people, some are cat people. As for choosing the animal, you don’t choose the animal, they choose you…

Golden words, those.

 

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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.

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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