Ind-yah! Or, wouldn’t you rather be a free roamer?

Cows, cows, more cows and lots and lots of dogs. And rubbish on the streets. And people. And more men pissing on the side of the road than in Soho on a Saturday night. And car horns and noise, noise, noise. But on coming back to sleepy Perth the quiet and lack of humans and other animals is maddening.

There appear to be few rules that are followed in Delhi. Cows walk in the road into oncoming traffic, flouting the law and daring the cops to book them for being an illegal on the street. Drivers pre-empt green lights or ignore red ones. The markings on the road are simply suggestions. A three-lane road can hold much more than three cars. The crazy thing is that there seem to be so few accidents despite the roads taking more cars, rickshaws, bicycles and animals than they’re designed to. In Perth there are lots of rules and lots of road accidents, particularly with cyclists. We are so risk averse that we don’t know how to share space with other beings. Who knows what would happen if a herd of cows and pack of stray dogs were let loose? Road rage, that’s for sure. But in India, everyone works with it. A cow crosses a dual-lane main road at night and drivers slow to let her reach the other side without injury.

It is not just the awareness that other beings are in your space but that killing an animal is widely met with great misgiving. Other animals have their own lives and it is no trifle to take this from them. This is so different to Australia where other animals are generally regarded as ours to do with as we wish, and if they pose a ‘problem’ the first option laid on the table is to kill them. Is India what zoopolis looks like? Humans living among cows, pigs, donkeys, dogs, cats, monkeys, rats and crows, their populations all proportional to the human population. Coexistence.

Her first time seeing cows on the road Mrs Lomez was awestruck. How incredible for cows to truly be living among humans, even sharing the roads. Then at the Minding Animals conference, her reason for travelling to India, she heard what life is like for a cow grazing on garbage in the street: eating plastic that cannot be excreted until there’s 50 kilos or more accumulated in a stomach. The cow was a central figure of the conference and while westerners in particular may like to believe that the cow is held sacred, many Indian presenters revealed the reality is far grimmer and that ahimsa does not seem to apply beyond individual action. The striking thing about the cows of India is the size of their udders. Some cows Mrs Lomez really had to get a good look at to be sure they were cows and not bulls. This is so far away from the dairy cows of the West, whose udders are bulging out from under their stomachs and who are riddled with mastitis. In Australia you might also expect to occasionally see cows grazing on green grass (though where they eat the rest of the time is hidden from view). Not so for the cows of India, despite dairy advertisements depicting a romanticised rural idyll with friesian calves frolicking in green fields. The cows of India frolick on concrete or, at best, a patch of dirt.

In Jodhpur two cows led a calf into the market by the clock tower. The calf could not walk on its hind right leg; its foot looked broken. One of the cows mooed for assistance. She walked up and down the market crying for help for the calf. The calf buckled onto its knees and lay down in front of the tower. Everyone Mrs Lomez asked knew where the animal doctor was based though no one seemed concerned at the calf’s predicament. They headed over to visit Rekha at Spice Paradise for breakfast poha rice and chai. She told us the cow is sacred in India and someone would call the doctor for the calf. When we emerged half an hour later the calf was gone, who knows whether taken to treatment or to slaughter. All states in India, bar two, prohibit cow slaughter. But there reportedly is a large underground trade in cow flesh. For every one registered slaughterhouse there are five unregistered.

Rekha and Anil were the only vegetarian Indians that Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez met (outside of the conference) not to pour scorn on veganism. They said it was good karma and respected the strength of will and discipline to abstain from dairy products, even though Rekha’s cooking class was filled with dairy! They said because the cow is sacred we should use the products of her body. Mrs Lomez found the easiest way to explain veganism was as a belief in no harm. Their vegetarian hosts at various homestays found this difficult to understand. The difference in scale between the Australian and the Indian dairy industries may be wide at the moment, with smallholders making up the bulk of the sector in India. But there are many things going on unnoticed beneath the surface, veiled partly by the view of the sacred. At the conference Kelsi Nagy spoke of how native cow species are being eradicated as they are being bred with European species engineered to produce more milk. These hybrid cows aren’t adapted to the climate and only the first generation carries increased milk production, so the burgeoning dairy industry is actually creating ‘surplus’ cows deemed non-productive that are destined for slaughter (as all dairy cows everywhere in the world ultimately are).

Veganism does not follow from vegetarianism. It is vegetarians as much as omnivores, if not more so, that are holding up the dairy industry. When Mrs Lomez became vegetarian she ate so much dairy and eggs. A Brahmin in Khichan told her a paratha should be smothered in ghee, not eaten with pickle. Mrs Lomez has since realised that parathas are generally cooked with ghee in the dough so they are not vegan anyway (#veganmistakes). Thousands of Siberian cranes migrate to Khichan over the winter. Thanks to the efforts of one man in the village, they are protected from uninsulated electricity lines and pesticides. Now there is a resort and a little tourist industry built up around seeing the birds.

Siberian cranes in Khichan

Siberian cranes in Khichan

In Delhi and Rajasthan there are more animals living on the streets than in Mumbai. Consuming dairy products also seems to be more common in North India. In Mumbai, there are no cows on the street except on Saturdays when people from villages bring their cows in on trucks. They are milked and the fresh milk is paid for on the spot. The cows are tied up by the side of the road until it’s time to go back home. In Mumbai, you’ll see more pet dogs being taken for a walk than free roamers. And much less garbage in the streets. Well there is garbage but it is picked up by government trucks. In Dharavi the Sin-Lomezes saw recycling industries, no piece of plastic too small to be recycled, and aluminium being smeltered by hand. In Mumbai they saw their first garbage truck. In Delhi they saw a man cycling a wooden ‘ute’ with a load of garbage piled high. Garbage seems to be integral to the terms of coexistence. Chandrima Home’s talk at the conference was about dogs attacking cows in rural villages. The dog population increases during the tourist season because there is more waste for them to eat from. Perhaps the best thing that tourists can do for the animals of India is simply not travel there? In Lisa Warden’s talk about India’s free-roaming dogs, the audience described how tourists cultivate dependency in dogs by showing them affection and giving food. When the tourists leave, what happens to these dogs?

As a tourist it is very difficult to see what goes on beneath the surface. Mrs Lomez learned these things about India’s cows and dogs only because of the talks at the conference. How can you know what’s really going on if you visit only for a few weeks? People tell you what they think you want to hear. Rickshaw drivers will tell you that what you see with your own eyes does not exist! But her heart had been captured by India.

Listening to Will Kymlicka talk about citizenship for domesticated animals, Mrs Lomez’s thoughts turned to Pixie, an old girl in Dr Sin’s family who had recently been euthanised after an acute kidney infection. She loved being outside and going for walks. She recognised the word ‘walk’ so you had to spell it out if you wanted only another human to understand without the dog in the vicinity getting all excited. In her eyes was the desperation to get outside. She had a dog flap to walk out around the back and sides of the house at her volition but she could not go out into the world on her own, supposedly for her own safety, as for the safety of all dogs that are owned. Whenever Mrs Lomez passed Pixie apparently sleeping on her pillow in the hall she would raise her eyebrows to see if she would be taken outside. She was loved dearly and well looked after but she did not have one of the basic freedoms that humans prize as citizens: freedom of movement (refugees and stateless people do not have this freedom). If she had had her way she would have been outside at all hours bar meal times and sleeping at night. A non-human animal citizen cannot be owned and in order not to infringe her rights she cannot be allowed to live in, say, a high-density apartment block. Mrs Lomez and Dr Sin have since adopted a dog even though they live in such a dwelling. A dog living in a flat has more space than a dog living in a shelter. It does not meet the conditions of citizenship but until there are no more dogs bred to be pets, is it the better option?

The fattest and oldest dog they saw in India was at the homestay in Jodhpur. Saber was about seven years old and very much a domesticated dog. He had a big garden to run in but other than that, could only go out into the street on a leash. He was evidently very well looked after and very well fed. Not so the street dogs that lay by the roadside just in front of the homestay, who looked much younger, were more timid of humans, much skinnier and had sores on their skin. The average life expectancy of a sterilised street dog is just under four years. For unsterilised dogs, it is even shorter. In Colaba, near where they stayed in Mumbai, more than 90% of dogs have been sterilised and most of them can be seen on a leash.

Just about all the meals were cheap and excellent, bar a couple of wasted opportunities. Mrs Lomez revelled in the vegetarian delights available everywhere while Dr Sin ate vegetarian the whole two weeks bar two incidents involving chickens. Living in Birmingham had been an excellent preparation. Street food was vegetarian, cheap and tasty. Chole kulcha is a spicy lentil soup poured over broken up deep-fried potato patty. Samosas of course. Fresh channa masala, with green pepper and red onion. They ate the Best. Thali. Ever. on their last day, in Mumbai, at a place called Samrat not far from the hotel in Churchgate, recommended by their driver for the day. A little pricier than the 75 rupees (less than A$1.50) for a fantastic thali at Majestic Restaurant round the corner, this one was closer to $6 – in Perth you can get only a bottle of water for that price. Why was it so good? Well, I’m glad you asked! As an aperitif, Mrs Lomez had a jal jeera drink while Dr Sin had a lassi. As each dish is served as you eat, you can avoid dairy before it even gets onto your plate. They were given steel thali plates adorned with spiced bean crisps, two mini samosas and a tray of chutneys. Tamarind, coriander, onion and mango chutneys plus mango pickle, all made on the premises, plus a red onion salad. Then the waiters bring the curries, four in their hot serving trays, and spoon them into your bowls. You are given a couple of chapatis and a pappadum, and more curry if your bowl is empty. A mung bean masala, okra and cauliflower curry, sweet dahl, fry dahl and a tomatoey, aubergine sweet curry. The amazing thing about this thali was all the different flavours, with an overriding sweetness – this is Gujarati style. Then out comes fried breads (like mini bhaturas) and four types of rice: plain rice, rice mixed with dahl, a sweet spicy biryani, and another one Mrs Lomez has forgotten. There are names for the different types of rice but she does not know them.

Best. Thali. Ever.

Best. Thali. Ever.

(Re)Reading list:

Animal Machines, Ruth Harrison
The War Against Animals, Dinesh Wadiwel
Livestock’s Long Shadow, FAO
Green is the New Red, Will Potter
Animal Death, edited by Johnston and Probyn-Rapsey
‘Vegan killjoys at the table’, Richard Twine
Sheep, Kenzaburo Oe
Trash Animals, edited by Nagy and Johnson
‘Birth of the kennel’, Donna Haraway
Silence at Ramscliffe, Chris Chapman and James Crowden
‘Practising nature and culture’, ‘Disaster in agriculture: foot and mouth mobilities’, John Law
Merle’s Door, Ted Kerasote
Reading Zoos, Randy Malamud
The Outermost House, Henry Beston
‘Death as a social harm’, Lori Gruen
Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, Thom van Dooren
Elephants on the Edge, Bradshaw
Journey to the West, Wu Cheng’en
Wild Dog Dreaming, Deborah Bird Rose
Feminism and the Mastery of Nature & Environmental Culture, Val Plumwood
Suicide Food blog
Against Equality website
Animal Minds, Donald Griffin
Animal Studies Journal, Australian Animal Studies Group

For other accounts of the conference, see Siobhan O’Sullivan’s write-up on Knowing Animals Past and Present and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey’s on Human Animal Research Network. For tweets tweeted as it happened! look up #mac3.

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