Compassion and Empathy and Sticks and Stones

For people in a country that is supposed to be based on Gandhian principles of tolerance and pacifism and where people won’t eat meat because all animals are God’s creatures or whatever, most Indians I’ve observed sure seem to have a strange way of showing compassion for animals.

It looks like a special kind of hatred found only in people who may actually be too stupid to know better.

Maybe that’s cruel and exaggerated. After all, they decorate their godly cows so beautifully, right? And worship them at Pongal and paint them in fantastic colors. So how can I say that they’re hateful?

Well, I’ve got these nice neighbors—I mean that, they are actually nice—who somewhere along the line, decided to get themselves a dog. They got this cute tiny puppy, a puppy who was far too young to have been taken from his mother, closed him up in a dark corner (fine, let him get accustomed to the place), then seemed to gradually develop this fear of having anything to do with him. He grew a little and wanted to play, but everyone from the household—the grandmother, the parents, the children—decided to curb the playing by having a good collection of sticks in different parts of the yard so they could conveniently hit him if he came too close to them.

Then the mosquito bites came.

I woke up one Sunday morning at around a half-past five to this pitiful whimpering coming from the bottom of my stairs.

“Remu,” I thought, somewhat frustrated, “this is my day off. Even Sulu lets me sleep in on Sundays.”

Still, I decided to go down and see what was going on. The poor dog was covered in dozens of mosquitoes. Between whimpers, he was jerking his head around trying to bite mosquitoes as they lit upon him anywhere they could.

I unfastened his chain and let him up into our foyer. I took an old towel and made him a little bed. At least then the two of us could get some more sleep. Since then, he’s sort of been adopted into my house, although Sulu really isn’t too happy with Remu being around so often.

Every day, there’s a well established routine. Remu scrambles to sneak into the house while I try to open the door. Sulu tries to sneak out (he has a girlfriend he likes to try and see every evening) but gets startled each time he sees the little brown puppy head emerging from under my feet as I cautiously open my front door. Then the fun playtime begins. Sulu flops down, knowing without a doubt that he is much stronger and much more vicious than Remu—even though Remu is bigger. He waits until Remu comes by and he lunges at him, claws out and a nice spiked Mohawk down his back. The sad part is that even with this aggressive territorial behavior, Sulu is much nicer to Remu than Remu’s owners are, and he certainly pays more attention to Remu than they do.

But why would they get a pet if they really are going to be so afraid of it that they find it necessary to demonstrate their dominance by smacking it in the head with any stick they find lying around? “But he’s always trying to bite!” they complain. Well, actually, he is just trying to play. Besides, they got him when he was so young that if they half-cared for him he would be much better behaved than he is at the moment….

And then there are the Academy puppies…. And the children who should be aggressively swung around by their legs.

About one month ago, one of the dogs who hangs around at the Academy gave birth to five very cute little puppies—three black ones, one white one, and one brown one. She had dug a little hole near the volleyball court, just barely big enough for her to curl up in and surround her little puppies. At first, when my friend, Lies, and I went to visit them, the mom was so afraid of humans that she would abandon her puppies for fear that we were coming to throw rocks at her or hit her with sticks, because that seems to be the general treatment dealt by humans to the dogs here. During the first week though, she realized that we weren’t coming to torture her for our pleasure … that we would actually pet her and be nice to her if she wouldn’t run around, and now, when we go to see the puppies on our tea breaks, the mom usually comes to meet us halfway.

The puppies themselves have already learned that humans shouldn’t all be trusted. They’ve found a little hiding place to hide from the children who think it’s fun to pick them up by their tails or who threaten to pelt them with stones which as big as they are. But they also recognize the sound of Lies and I coming to visit, and one by one come out of hiding and clamor to come and play. Occasionally another faculty member comes along with us, and stand far back, as if in horror that we would play with the puppies, and jump back if a puppy comes too close to them.

Isolated experiences maybe?

I found a book one day at the library—More Human Than The Humans by Pyarelal Nayyar— when I was taking a break from editing student papers and browsing the stacks to see what was available. It’s a short book with some cute and sad stories. I planned on scanning it in so that I could repost the stories here, but haven’t found the time yet, but here are a couple of the passages in there that illustrate that I’m not the only one who thinks there is something strange about how Indians treat animals….

The author, writing about one of his dogs:

One day while crossing Rajpath from the opposite lawn, when called back, its chain got entangled with the rear bumper of a speeding car. The car continued on its course dragging the poor animal behind it at 40 miles per hour, the driver being either unaware of what had happened or, what is more likely, too callous to stop. But providence, which protects the unprotected, came to the rescue. The steel chain snapped, and piteously yelping, the animal staggered back to me, profusely bleeding.

The author, writing about how his daughter came to adopt another cat into the household:

There in the corridor that runs round Connaught Circus, she found a little kitten, surrounded by a bunch of urchins who were—as is often their wont—pelting it with mud and lumps of clay and kicking it in wanton sport. Its eyes, ears, mouth and nostrils were already covered with a thick layer of mud and it was likely that in a little while more it would have suffocated to death.

Maybe even more isolated experiences?

How about when Amy was complaining to a co-worker about my neighbors’ treatment of their puppy during Divali, when all of India sounds like it is a giant war-zone.

“Don’t they know,” she asked, “that it’s not good to explode firecrackers right next to the dog like that?”

“At least they’re only exploding them near the dog,” he said. “Sometimes in the villages the kids’ll tie the firecrackers to the tails of the dogs.”

Someone should stick a firecracker in their ear. Or their parents’ ears since they should have taught their children better.

I’ve always liked animals, but I’m not some sort of animal rights activist or anything. When they started killing stray dogs in Bangalore because there were too many stray dogs, some of which had killed some children, it’s upsetting but understandable that the dogs have to go. I’m just surprised that people seem so oblivious to this here. I’ve tried explaining it to myself in different ways—trying to make excuses for the behavior I see too often. And I know it’s pretty much hopeless to try and change people when being nice to animals might be the least of their concerns. And I know that not everyone likes animals, and that’s fine. And I know that I shouldn’t let this bother me as much as it does. And I know that I shouldn’t have written this in such a hostile tone.

But I also know that you don’t need to be intelligent to be compassionate.

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