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.

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Cover pic for this post, also the logo for the series, with a cartoon dog wagging its tale fervently with the name broken into two parts and written on each of his sides

Irfanimals | Wags in a Name | Here’s Wagging…

Irfanimals LogoChaining them. Caging them. Thrashing them. Training them (for the circus, where this practice still goes on, or training them beyond limits if at home). However, something equally “criminal” we can do with a dog is… giving them a commonplace name.

Pic of one of my street dog friends with some meme text of sorts

One of my many street dog friends, Johnny, who I’d love to rename, but who’s stuck with this name since he was a tot

I won’t go into home-dog territory (as I’m more of a street-dog lover), but I’ve lost count of the Tigers, Leos, Brunos and Caesars I’ve heard). Even among the streeties, the few that some folk deign to name, they show equally lazy thinking. Moti, Raja, Sheru, among the Hindi vernacular; Tommy, Rocky, Johnny, among those who know English; and down South, Lakshmi, Mani, and well, Mani. (Coming to this in just a bit.) Lakshmi (the Hindu goddess of wealth / prosperity) is such a popular name for street dogs in Chennai / Tamil Nadu that almost every second dog I come across that I haven’t named seems to be called so, including… the male ones. Arrey, at least check properly and then call him Lakshman, no? But no, a goddess has higher standing than a god’s brother, right? As for that double Mani thing, it’s a prime example of the height of laziness (and that’s why the double hyperbole). Two dogs who hang around together are both called Mani. How does which Mani know which Mani is being called? And with the equal number of men who seem to be called that, how mani, sorry, many men will also turn when I shout that name?

Well, I’m here to correct this anomaly. An ad guy, especially a branding aficionado, and a (street) dog lover, I’ve decided to put these two powers together to put together a primer of sorts on how to name a dog you come across (on the street, who you decide to become friendly with) or one you decide to bring home (if doing so, do bring one from the shelter; there’s too much cruelty in buying a breed dog, but more of that some other time).

Cover pic for this post, also the logo for the series, with a cartoon dog wagging its tale fervently with the name broken into two parts and written on each of his sidesSo, dog-loving ladies and gentlemen, I give you… Wags in a Name. A short sub-series within my animal series, Irfanimals, on how to name a dog, so that, as the name suggests, you’ll see their tail wagging. Another way of looking at it is, the name should sit well on the dog, just like their wagging tail. I’m so clever, no? That’s why I’m in advertising, I guess.

Anyway, wag, er, watch this space. Woof!

Composite graphic of a dog seeming romantic

Irfanimals: The Heart Is Still Young

Irfanimals Logo

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.

Composite graphic image of a street dog looking supremely frazzled with two blank speech blurbs around him

A (Street) Dog Says “Thanks”

Thank God I’m not eaten in this country.

Thank God I’m only

Abused, Chained, Lashed,

Pelted, Kicked, Thrashed,

Trampled upon, Driven over,

Tied my tail up with a firecracker,

Caught for sterilisation, but returned to a different locality,

Caught, but returned with canine teeth broken so that I die gradually,

Caught, but never returned,

Caught, and (especially in Kerala) culled.

Thank God I’m not eaten in this country.

Wait, is Nagaland included in this territory?

This is perhaps the snarkiest piece I’ve written on my blog. It takes a hit at several issues:

  • Beef/Meat-eating (ban and killing): There’s a raging debate in the country over eating beef, as the cow is regarded a sacred animal by the majority community, and the right-wing party at the Centre is trying to bring many of its ideological sentiments (such as vegetarianism and Sanskritization) to the fore. There has been a call for a beef/meat ban during certain religious periods in some cities/states. Recently, a youth of the minority community was also killed on the suspicion that he was consuming beef during this period. (It later turned out to be goat meat. Ya, that absolves everything – on both sides.)
  • Not killing ≠ Caring: Many people think that as long as they are not killing animals, they are not harming animals. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I sometimes think it’s better to kill (and eat) that poor animal rather than keep it alive but as your slave in various ways.
  • Culling: Recently, the Kerala government decided to mass-cull street dogs to protect citizens from bites – and was throughout criticised for this, by citizens and politicians alike – but went ahead regardless.
  • North-East Indian; Non-Indian: Finally, there is that eternal issue of how people from the North-East states of India (including Nagaland) are viewed by people from the rest of India as more Chinese (or sympathetic to the Chinese) than Indian, due to their proximity to that country and their physical features. In fact, the North-East (where dog meat is considered a delicacy in some parts) does not come under the radar of most people and governments alike when they talk about the country and has not developed at the same pace as the rest of the country. So, now, what hope do people from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep have?

Dog-gone…

[This was a piece I’d written for The Hindu’s Open Page (a page for readers’ writerly contributions in the leading daily in Chennai) a year ago. Dug it out and decided to include it here, with minor modifications.]

It was just two weeks since I had moved back to Chennai. I was returning from my weekly supplies’ shopping when two furry mini-masses from the adjacent house caught my dog-loving attention. I went up to the gate and the mini-masses bounded close to it in return. I could barely get my thumb through the fenced gate and they their nose and tongue – but there was an instant connection. I thus caught the two pups twice more, and both times, despite the fence between, there was tremendous bonding on both sides. Soon, they had grown big enough to not be fettered by the fence anymore and were now at large on the streets.

Now, I could also see them better. The bigger pup was a mix of brown and white. I named her Sandy – a mixture of brown sand and white sand. The smaller one was all black, and I wanted to go beyond the standard ‘Blackie’. But what? He had become very friendly with me almost at once, offering his paw the first time (the second surest sign that a dog trusts you), and the next time rolling over and offering his belly to rub (the surest sign that a dog trusts you). Thus, it struck me. ‘Rai’. Hindi for the mustard seed. That small, round, black seed used as an enjoyable spice – just like small, round, black, seed-of-a-dog and equally enjoyable Rai.

What started continued. Rai would bound to me when I returned from work and then immediately roll over for a rub. I would lift him, shake him up, cuddle him, let him lick me – the dog-lover works. Rai was growing, and our bond too. The little fellow would even sneak in through our locked gate and I would reluctantly pick him up and deposit him back outside.

One night, I ended up meeting another dog-lover when returning home. And promptly got him to meet my fellows. As ever, I picked up Rai and introduced him to the man. He informed me that Rai seemed most probably a Lab mix. I began dreaming at this… Rai would grow to be a lovely, big, friendly dog – as Labs are wont to be. I would nurture him and see him grow, and hopefully the licks and belly rubs would continue.

However, a few weeks back, I noticed Rai had become quieter. Was he jealous that I petted Sandy too and sometimes before him? (This was only because Sandy had recently injured her leg in a bike accident.) Was he growing up and therefore becoming less friendly?

And then he went missing. While this is more typical of cats, I reasoned to myself that perhaps dogs too do this at times. So, I didn’t think too much of it, and figured we’d be back to our normal ways when he came back.

But he didn’t. What did come was a call from the other dog-lover a few days back. “That black Indian mongrel died.” I didn’t realise who he was talking about. For I know my street-hearts (street sweethearts) more by their names than by their breed and fur colour. And then it hit me. So, Rai wasn’t jealous. He was unwell. He had had a vomiting bout, retreated into seclusion, and sigh, eventually passed away.

Having stayed away from my near and dear ones for long years, I have never been around when someone close passed away. But this one – “just” an animal – has wrenched me a bit. Rai was so small, so cute, so friendly. And I had nurtured thoughts of him, and our bond, growing big and strong. That is not to be now. All I have left of Rai are those few times I held him in my hands and rubbed his belly and his black eyes looked back at me in gooey delight.

They say, all dogs go to heaven. No doubt Rai is bounding around freely offering his paw and belly to some other dog-lover there. Hopefully, depending on my deeds and health, I’ll get there eventually. Until then, sweet black fellow, say hi to all the dogs there. Or woof, in your language.